It seems like feminist activism is firing up again in Melbourne.
I think there were a lot of different influences on me when I was growing up that led me here.
My mum was my first role model of a woman actively fighting for change in her community. There was a battle going on when I was little to stop the local primary school from being turned into a housing estate. Mum was organising with a neighbourhood group to insist that local government preserve that space for the community by turning it into a park. In the end there was a 50/50 split, so that was a quite a good win.
She was also very active in mother’s advocacy and education. She had a really bad experience with her first childbirth with doctors trying to control everything. That was the experience of most women in those days she tells me.
That had a strong influence on me, hearing those stories from her. My grandma would also tell me stories about when she was growing up. She did really well at school and had aspirations to go to university, but was told she could be a housewife or a receptionist.
I remember hearing these stories from a young age and thinking how unfair it was. She also had to get written permission from the police department to go back to work because she was a policeman’s wife. It’s terrible, but at the same time I think at least it was recognised that her unpaid labour in the home was supporting to the police force. These days people don’t like to admit that sort of thing, even though it’s still the case with women doing most of work in the home. The exploitation has become more insidious.
So through my mum and grandma I learnt that not too long ago women were under the control of fathers, husbands and male-dominated institutions. As I grew up I started to realize how many problems there still were with the way women were situated in society.
As I grew older I learnt that many women I loved, both friends and family, had experienced sexual abuse or assault. In one of my first jobs my boss would hit on me and touch me inappropriately. He was in his late forties and I was only eighteen.
I had the same sort of experience in many jobs. I was treated very poorly and so were my most of my female friends in their part-time jobs. I realized there was a culture of male dominance that I had been mostly sheltered from when I was growing up.
All these things pushed me to want to do something. My involvement in feminist activism started with a feminist reading group a couple of years ago. It was my brother and his girlfriend who started it. They were a bit older than me so meeting their friends and hearing their perspectives taught me a lot.
That evolved into organising the Feminist Futures Conference in 2011. There had been a similar one in Sydney the year before and we decided this was the kind of thing we needed in Melbourne.
We really wanted to see feminism become a social movement that more people could relate to because women’s liberation was still so relevant.
We saw so many areas where things still needed to change. We knew of groups in Melbourne working for many different feminist goals, but we thought there wasn’t so much of a sense of a united feminist movement. We wanted greater recognition of how interlinked our struggles were and how much there was to be gained from working together.
I had arranged to go on exchange to Spain, so I had to leave just before the conference was held. It had been a year organizing so I was sad to miss out, but I heard it was successful. People seemed to come away feeling positive and there were heaps of different connections made.
My experience in Spain led me to a whole different realm of political awareness. Early on I began looking for feminist political groups to get involved in. It was just before the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, so I found there was a big march happening.
I thought I would go along and suss out the different groups there. When I turned up, I was astonished at how many people were there, and from so many different parts of society. There were drag queens, business people, a women’s Brazilian drumming group – heaps of different people getting involved. This demonstration was much bigger than anything I would expect to see in Melbourne.
I started talking to some people from one of the activist groups there and ended up getting involved with them. They were active in a range of different causes, but there was a strong feminist presence. They did a lot of work around partner and family violence – education programs for young people, conferences, rallies.
At the time I began going to their events the ‘Arab Spring’ was a major focus for many young radicals in Spain. North Africa is very close to Spain. Morocco was actually just a couple of hours on boat from where I was living. We had activists from Egypt, Libya and Morocco come and talk to us about what was going on.
There was a strong feeling that people needed to take to the streets and radicalise. On May 15 there was a protest organised by a group called ‘Real Democracy Now’ that put out a list of ten demands, from the right to housing to the reduction of military spending.
People had a lot to protest about. Youth unemployment rates were around 40% then and there was a lot of government corruption. There was a shared sense of outrage that the government had responded to the global financial crisis with massive cuts to public services while bailing out the big banks.
I was involved in that movement for the next few months until I came back to Australia. It was a shock to come back and see everything was just going on as it had been.
In Spain it felt like the world I knew had changed. It was so different from what I expected and what I thought was possible. The protest camps established in cities across Spain were essentially communes, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in them.
There was no system of money. People were just working for the community. People worked in the kitchen, childcare, first aid, the library, media centre - and it all just worked.
I thought, ‘How is this happening?’ It seemed very inclusive and women were in many leadership roles. In all the assemblies there was someone doing sign language; if someone needed a chair or something to eat or drink or anything it seemed there was someone there to notice and get it done. People would just pull together and get it done.
It was inspiring. I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder if this sort of thing could ever happen in Australia.’ In Spain, some of the activists I spoke to told me they believed most Spanish people were apathetic and apolitical. None of them expected what happened.
So, after a couple of months I had been back here, Occupy Wall Street started. Soon it was in the media and everyone knew about it. Not many people here realise that some of the founders of Occupy Wall Street had been in Spain and went home and told others about the way things were organised.
After Occupy Wall Street grabbed the attention of the global media, similar protests began springing up everywhere. October 15 became the focus as a global day of action when many cities would establish their own ongoing demonstrations.
It was interesting because Occupy Melbourne began as a Facebook group created by a couple of people who had never been involved in political activism. They just saw what was going on around the world and wanted to get it happening in Melbourne.
These days it’s as simple as making a Facebook event, putting a time and date, and people just show up. Whoever is there has to work together.
It was an amazing experience. It still is, although it’s quite different now from how it was in the early days.
I have felt since the end of last year that there is a really strong need for a feminist movement within Occupy Melbourne. Even though Occupy is supposed to be a radical movement for a just society, there are a lot of people who still don’t see gender inequality as one of the main forms of injustice that we need to deal with.
They don’t see how central male dominance is to the economic structures they are trying to overthrow. I would like that to change. I would like people to start being more aware of the way their own behaviour is contributing to this system of inequality.
Many women at Occupy Melbourne experienced sexism, just like in any other big group of people from different backgrounds. So pretty soon a women’s group formed. They started up a Facebook page and had their own meetings and things. Even though I thought that was a great idea, I was quite keen to have something that would enable men to engage in a feminist space and have that experience.
I thought that women coming together was the first step, but the second step is reaching out to get our ideas across and doing whatever we can to make the changes that need to happen.
There were women at Occupy Melbourne who influenced me and encouraged me to initiate an OM feminist collective. Some of them were involved in the facilitation group with me and were having trouble with some of the male activists in that group and in the General Assemblies. We were fed up with certain men dominating decision-making processes and being unable to communicate fairly or constructively.
It felt as if these men only understood the idea of sexism as discrimination – which is something I’ve noticed outside of Occupy Melbourne as well. They say, ‘I treat men and women in the same way. I know I’m abrasive and confrontational, but I don’t discriminate between men and women, so I’m not sexist.’
What they don’t see is that their behaviour has been shaped by the way they have been raised to feel that what they have to say is more important than other people, and that they don’t have to consider how another person is feeling and responding to them.
Whereas, a lot of the time that is something that is drilled into girls from an early age – that you need to listen to others; that you need to be respectful of other people’s feelings. There is a lot more social backlash against women who behave in the way these men do.
So I started the Occupy Melbourne Feminist Collective, not knowing exactly who would be involved. Initially I planned two main activities for the collective. First was the discussion group, where new people could get involved without any prior experience of feminism.
Another part would be a creative action group where we could organise campaigns and other things. But that was really hard to get off the ground. I held a few meetings but couldn’t get anyone to commit to such a big project.
So it was just a discussion group for a while. But now we have a small group organising that, which has been great.
Over the weeks I’ve been doing the feminist discussion group and organising International Women’s Day, suddenly all these new people and projects have been popping up.
There’s a new feminist philosophy reading group starting up and a new activist group to campaign against the damage many commercial industries are doing to women’s body image, health and self-worth.
It seems like feminist activism is starting up again in Melbourne.