Gender equality: are schools leading girls down the wrong path ?

First published by Women’s Agenda, 8 December 2015

At this time of year school communities across the country are assembling to hand out prizes and hear end of year speeches from departing school captains and leaders. They will also be welcoming the newly elected students who will take on leadership roles from the first day of school next year.

Six years ago, on my son’s first day of kindergarten, two of his school’s year six leaders took my uncharacteristically terrified five-year-old by the hand. They reassured his close-to-tears mother that his hysterics were a “normal” reaction to the first day of school, all the while smoothing his way to class. The girl student leader in particular (I won’t say her name to avoid unasked-for identification, but let’s just say it was the word for ‘a tumultuous weather event’) knocked me over with her preternaturally calm and self-possessed manner.

Last week, as my son and more than a dozen year five students rose to speak in front of their school to make a pitch to become school leaders next year, many recalled those first encounters with school leaders as their inspiration to put up their hands this year. Equal numbers of boys and girls stood up in front of hundreds of fellow students, equally confident. And, in a system that guarantees gender parity each year, there were separate ballot papers for the boy and girl candidates.

This kind of recognition of school leaders from both the male and female student body is, of course, a great thing. Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald reported the no holds barred end of year speech given by Ravenswood school captain Sarah Haynes, who criticised her school for being “more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated,” – more proof, if it was ever needed, that girls can be brave, honest, smart and forthright as any boy (whatever the complex story behind her words).

A quick glance at the selection procedures for school captains and leaders in NSW comprehensive public schools will show you that most aim to select equal numbers of male and female students for leadership positions. But this official approach to equity only highlights the huge disparity between what we’re teaching children at school – where a gender utopia of sorts is in place – and what happens once children leave school. Of the 18 heads of government and opposition parties in Australia today, you’ll find just one female: Annastacia Palaszczuk. We can’t hold schools to account for what goes on as children become teens and then young adults who graduate from school – this slow and steady chopping away of girl’s belief that they can be leaders as they age. But lately, I’ve been wondering if we’re letting girls down by not talking to them more honestly, and earlier, about how the world will shape their lives in a thousand different ways to the boy next to them.

Public schools routinely celebrate NAIDOC week, they ask students to wear orange shirts to celebrate cultural diversity, and they set assignments where student’s study the plight of refugees. And so they should. But when it comes to gender discrimination, there is a comparatively deafening silence.

The best possible way to interpret this silence is that there is a well-meaning, but naively positive, emphasis on a “you go” girl rhetoric. One designed to boost girls’ confidence and belief that they can do anything. This message of personal empowerment might be the right kind of personal psychology in a neo-liberal world, but it’s not a truly honest description of the world girls are entering into. So I’m thrilled to hear that Fitzroy High, in inner city Melbourne, has developed what is said to be the country’s first accredited subject in the Australian curriculum to look at gender inequality.

Fitzroy High School’s Feminist Collective, along with teacher Briony O’Keeffe, have developed classes that explore the term “patriarchy”, and examine statistics on the gender wage gap, violence against women, and female representation in sport. Of course, it had to be Fitzroy High: the school where a rookie school teacher called Helen Garner was booted out the classroom for discussing sex with students back in the 1970s.

Predictably, the new curriculum has faced opposition in the playground and from the usual frothing online commentators. Male students have apparently said they should form a “men’s rights collective” to protect themselves against the feminists, The Age reported. And some have expressed fears the course might addle women’s brains and turn them into either victims or man haters: Ms O’Keeffe said some people had assumed the resources provided would promote misandry, or distort other forms of discrimination, the ABC reported.

Discussion about sexism always seems to attract a high level of vitriol and fear, which shows how deeply held some people’s notions of gender are, and how insecure any questioning of gender can make people feel. Perhaps the closest parallel is any discussion of gay marriage, which continues to be plagued by an insistence that we have to consider the feelings of, and impact on, the world’s straight population.

Along with her comments reassuring readers that her resource “would address how boys and men also suffered some effects of sexism through stereotyping and the perpetuation of gender norms”, Ms O’Keeffe was careful to say the course will look at how race and sexuality intersect with gender. That’s great, awesome really. But it’s also just reminder of how naturalised sexism is: how women need to be always inclusive and accommodating, always looking out for any possibility they might be causing offence. No doubt there’s a module there. I’m sure Sarah Haynes (and a girl named after a ‘tumultuous weather event’) could help them out with that.

House Husbands: less mad men, more dad men

First published by Daily Review, 24 September 2015

Another Monday night, another hour thrashing out the issues de jour: gay marriage, IVF, the privatisation of public assets*, all delivered with cleverly scripted lines. No, I’m not referring to Q&A: I’ve tried watching that program lately, but I usually end up passing out on the couch, thankful I’m not poor flu-afflicted Simon Sheikh, slamming my head down on the panel mid-show with no one but Sophie Mirabella as my first responder. No, I refer, of course, to the much better use of a televisual hour: the delightful House Husbands.

For those who haven’t been watching, here’s a quick cheat sheet. House Husband’s fourth season kicked off last month with two parallel storylines, both involving triangles of two men and a woman. In one story, a widowed, disgraced former football star is raising three children alone. As the season opened, he discovered his daughter might be the product of a liaison his late wife had with his former manager (really, it’s not as tragically hilarious as it sounds).

In the second storyline, a gay couple discuss plans to have a biological child (they are already raising two non-biological children). But things get off to a bad start when one of the pair secretly arranges to donate his sperm to the single lesbian who runs the school tuck shop, a woman on the wrong side of 40 who wants to satisfy her own biological yearnings.

So far, so soap opera. But what’s so interesting here is the almost casual way the show is turning inside out arguments about nature, nurture and what makes a family. The heterosexual father, previously so sure of his children’s provenance, realises everything he thought about his family might not be true (not that he loves his daughter any less). The gay couple, once they move past their inept first attempts at child bearing, decide to go down the IVF route with tuck shop lady and a surrogate. They are choosing to have children in a more deliberate and thoughtful fashion than many straight couples can claim to (and by involving a lab and a battery of medical tests every step of the way, they will, not incidentally, have more certainty about any eventual child’s biological origins than many straight families).

While gay dad no. 1 has been a natural parent from the very start – he’s the one parent on the show who intuitively understands the learning difficulties of one of the show’s children – the football star, meanwhile, comes to fatherhood via a rockier path: through a history of drugs, strippers, separation and, finally, his wife’s death. Functional and dysfunctional families have nothing to do with sexuality or biology, the show implicitly seems to say. In fact, it’s making such a cogent argument for gay families surely it’s only a matter of time before the NSW education minister declares a fatwa on Channel 9 and production company Playmaker.

We’re used to our soap operas dealing with matters of life and death. But male characters’ relationships to life and death are usually carried out at one step removed from their personal lives: in their roles as doctors, policemen and emergency workers. There’s a tradition of family dramas featuring widowed fathers (My Three Sons, The Nanny, Diff’rent Strokes): fathers thrust into nurturing roles normally reserved for mothers. But a show like House Husbands, where men have intensely ticking biological clocks, where they are at the centre of all the life stories, and where they are the emotional and social lynchpins of their communities – running the P&C, patching up the small broken hearts and bruised skin – is a new thing entirely. While the mothers of House Husbands aren’t exactly peripheral, they’re not exactly central either.

The show didn’t start off so promisingly. Season one seemed to be playing the idea of dad at home mostly for laughs and eye rolling, look-at-what-goes-wrong-when-dads-are-left-in-charge-moments: in early episodes children left in care of fathers went missing, or ended up behind the wheels of a runaway bus. The show’s working mums bore the other end of the cliché: too busy to notice her daughter is being bullied/falling badly behind at school/her husband is about to have an affair with their child’s teacher.

But as the show has aged, the clichés have given way to some complexities. By the fourth season the four friends have had tiffs and reconciliations, they’ve bought and sold a pub together, they’ve helped each other through separation, death and court appearances. These guys are close. They don’t just lend their tools to each other, they lend each other their partners’ uteruses (and what makes that more sweet is that it’s the most old school dad, Lewis, who gives his blessing for his wife to be a surrogate for the gay dads).

Sure, it’s still mainly a white middle class world, where the families live in bungalows a bit nicer than ours, with public school-going children who look a little bit better groomed than yours or mine. But such criticisms are picky in a show that is funny (Lewis mansplaining breastfeeding to his middle daughter’s mothers’ group) and cathartic for the working mother (who can watch Mark supplicating himself to his horrible boss for paternity leave). And it’s poignant: when disgraced footballer struggles with a shared custody order, his mates wait with him in a day-long vigil outside the house where his daughter is on an access visit. Lovely. Just lovely.

In a year that has been dominated by weekly news of the after effects of the most murderous consequences of male violence, a show where men are the central life forces, where gender roles are upturned, feels exactly like what we need. It’s become the fashion lately to point to male disadvantage to explain male violence – the evidence is, at best, inconclusive, and it doesn’t explain why privileged men are perpetrators, while disadvantaged women, by and large, are not. You don’t need to be Andrea Dworkin to realise that it’s persistently rigid and unequal gender roles, the unequal power relationships between men and women, not men and men, that are at the heart of the problem. And as much as you might want to airily dismiss the power of a TV show to transform culture – and you might be justified – there’s also something undeniably compelling about the opposite idea: that you can’t be what you can’t see – even if that does sound more than just a little bit naff (and yes, of course it’s been used before, by a White House campaign to encourage little girls to become leaders – I checked).

House Husbands lets us see a fantasy about new men that also feels more than a little bit true. And on a Monday night, after another day of the work-life juggle, watching Firass Dirani run a team of kids through an exercise training session while Gyton Grantley hands out home made meals to mums, House Husbands functions as a kind of cultural crack for stressed out mothers.

After Karl Stefanovic’s recent year-long feminist performance art piece – wearing the same blue suit every day to see if anyone noticed (it seems no one did) – Channel 9 is almost starting to look like the go to institution for some of the most incisive cultural commentary going around. Who would have thought it? The world has turned upside down.

*I refer, of course, to the privatisation of a school canteen.

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Ricki and The Flash covers a mother of a problem

First published by Women’s Agenda and Daily Review, 27 August 2015

Our belief in the mother-child bond is so elemental, so taken-for-granted, it’s hard to imagine a more monstrous female figure, culturally speaking, than the mother who walks away from her children. So how does Hollywood make a film about a mother who has not only abandoned her brood, but is a woman well into her 60s – a demographic that leads a Hollywood film about as often as Cory Bernardi leads the Sydney Mardi Gras.

Director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob) seems to have figured out the only possible way to make it work is to call in Meryl Streep – an actor of such greatness and inherent likability that she can pump warm blood into even the most unattractive character (see her titular editor in The Devil Wears Prada).

Here Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, a musician who in her youth might have been the next Chrissy Hynde or Bonnie Raitt, but is now fronting her band The Flash in a residency at a forgettable LA pub. She left her husband and children years ago, and as she introduces her band, including her guitarist boyfriend (Rick Springfield, playing Peter Pan as a rocker), it’s clear they have become her substitute family.

Ricki can’t parent in part because she’s an eternal child – she still dresses like it’s Saturday night in 1986, and she’s always broke – but also because she’s still chasing the success she tasted briefly years ago. She’s got that streak of bloody single-mindedness you see in some of the older contestants on The Voice. She’s the mother who wasn’t satisfied with Woolf’s room of one’s own: she wanted a life of her own.

In narrative terms, the early loss of a mother has dramatic consequences for children – it’s the spark that sets off classic plots. For daughters in particular the loss of a mother is followed by privations and romantic hurdles (Cinderella and Snow White) fear of commitment to the right man (Anne Elliot in Persuasion), or dangerous attractions to dark men (Cathy in Wuthering Heights).

Here, the plot gets moving when Ricki is on a break from her checkout shift at a grocery store, eyes still bloodshot from the gig the night before, and her ex-husband calls to say her daughter (played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer) is in trouble: her husband left her for another woman and she can barely get out of bed.

Ricki flies to her ex’s stately compound – it’s in a gated community, with security to keep the evil outside at bay, but inside the family is struggling with their internal demons. Ricki’s daughter Julie all is unwashed hair and pure rage, and her family want to blame her. “You’re the reason she’s crazy,” someone spits.

Pete, her businessman ex, is beautifully played by Kevin Kline, and it’s a pairing that’s believable, in an opposites attract kind of way. Last time we saw them together was Sophie’s Choice, where Streep played a mother whose miserable fate was to choose between her two children. Here, her choice is between her children and following her dream.

“I couldn’t have two dreams!” she protests to Pete. “I thought we were your dream!” he replies, as sad and wounded as the day she left. He still loves her – it’s all over his face – in the inexplicable way we can continue to love those who cause us no end of pain.

At the family home Streep is like an alien who’s just landed on another planet – alone she slides her fingers over the gleaming surfaces, she can’t quite believe the plentiful fridge, the opulent bathroom. You can feel her being simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the retentive order and bounty of it all.

Pete’s second, younger wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) returns full of benevolent superiority: “That dressing gown looks great on you. You should keep it.” While Ricki is all id, leaking guilt at not being the perfect breakfast cereal ad mother, Maureen is all superego, full of just repressed rage at all the thankless years she’s spent filling Ricki’s shoes. They’re the embodiment of the dilemma that women aren’t supposed to have it all: they must choose family or career, they can do one or the other well, but not both.

The monster question hangs over the movie, and it’s a relief when Ricki tackles the double standards head on towards the middle of the film, in her version of the misogyny speech. Men like Mick Jagger can leave families and go out and have sex with whomever they please and still have respect and love because “you’re the man,” she lashes her stunned audience between songs. “But if you’re a woman, god forbid, you’re the monster.”

The script (by Diablo Cody of Juno fame) attempts to complicate the story by making Streep’s character a troop-loving republican, one son gay and the other a bleeding heart liberal. It feels like a clunkily imposed detail, but then you realise it stops the film descending into simple opposites of good and bad, progressive and conservative. And her sons’ hurt and anger highlight how deep our expectations of the “good” mother are, no matter what our politics.

For a while the movie seems to get stuck in a loop of airport, taxi and pub scenes that eventually start to blur – ok, we get that the stage is where Ricki comes alive, her real home (Streep sings and plays guitar here very well – and all the numbers are perfectly fine if you’re a Springsteen and Petty fan, less so if you’re not). The evolution in Ricki’s character, when it comes, occurs in sudden bursts, and at times seems depressingly equated with learning to behave like a good woman. After she returns from part-rapprochement with her family we see her back at the supermarket, where her young black male manager nods approvingly at her sudden willingness to smile and be nice to customers. To do that emotional labour that’s expected of women.

After meandering for a while, the end seems to come in a rush (warning: spoilers ahead – though no plot twists come as any great surprise). The story that starts with one child’s divorce ends with Ricki attending another child’s wedding. Penniless, her gift to her son is her music. A moment that guests fear will end in a train crash ends with catharsis, as the monster is well and truly slayed and Ricki and her band of band of misfit minstrels take to the stage to mend everyone’s hearts. As Ricki sings Springsteen you can glimpse the mother who once must have surely sung lullabies to her children, sending them to sleep feeling soothed and safe.

Ricki has learnt how to love a little, and her family have learnt how to let go and live a little. The mother wounds and the mother heals. She’s the problem and the solution. The wholeness of the person, the film seems to say, depends on wholeness of the family. It’s a heavy load for mothers to bear.

Ending with a wedding suggests hope that the next generation might do things differently. And as the groom and bride take to the floor to dance to Ricki’s impromptu song, the bridesmaids and groomsmen join them in what looks like a more free-form version of the wedding dance moves they planned earlier. But the women are still on one side, men on the other; they look like they’re mostly working over an old script, but they’re moving forward, ever-so-slightly.

Read the story on Women’s Agenda or Daily Review.

In a hippie heartland, trying to sway the intractable anti-vaxxers

First published by Crikey, 13 July 2015

Mullumbimby, a hippie heartland since the 1970s, is one of those places where all the contradictions of rural life bump up against each other in the most incongruous of ways. To get there you pass through Queensland’s sugar cane belt from the north, or the dairy and cattle farms of the NSW coast from the south. But once you land on the main street, it’s all sugar-free, vegan “raw bliss balls”, a town where the old bank building has been turned over to an organic grocer and juice bar selling acai smoothies, a folk singer busking out the front.

Peruse the noticeboards and you can enrol in a Tigress yoga workshop, or organise an inspection of a demountable yurt (“$35,000 ono”). Or you could, like me, go straight to the conflict zone and meet with the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters (NRVS) – a voluntary group of locals, many of them doctors and other health professionals, who are trying to turn around the area’s reputation as having the lowest immunisation rates in the country.

“Fifty percent of kids here under five are not vaccinated,” says Dr Rachel Heap, over a chai tea in one of the inner city-meets-hippy cafes on the town’s main street. Heap, an intensive care specialist, has seen more vaccine-preventable diseases on the NSW north coast than anywhere else in 10 years working in regional and remote areas, including Alice Springs. In recent months she’s seen whooping cough, chicken pox and at least three cases of epiglottitis – a potentially life-threatening infection that can cause your windpipe to swell, blocking off your airway. “It used to be a nightmare 20 years ago. Thank god the vaccine came in and it vanished [elsewhere].”

For doctors such as Heap the horror scenario is a bus coming through town from Byron Bay, carrying a backpacker just in from Bali, where measles is endemic. “That bus is infectious for two hours after that backpacker leaves. It’s a chink in the armour.”

She says about half of the region’s non-vaccinated children are registered as conscientious objectors – a category Social Services Minister Scott Morrison announced back in April would be scrapped from January 1 next year. Under the No Jab, No Play, No Pay policy, non-immunising families who can now register as conscientious objectors, thereby allowing them to bypass immunisation rules for collecting childcare subsidies and the family tax benefit Part A, stand to lose thousands of dollars (exemptions will still apply to children who can’t be immunised for medical reasons).

The policy – and the scrapping of the exemption for “religious” objectors a few days later – was widely reported. But far less attention was paid to the item in the May budget, just a few weeks later, which claimed the measure would recoup savings of half a billion ($508.3 million) over five years. It begged the question – is the policy designed to promote potentially life-saving vaccinations, or is it merely a cost saving attempt?

If the policy is beginning to turn around anti-immunisers in Mullumbimby – who range from the clearly-misguided-but-you-can-almost-understand-them crowd who believe bare feet, vitamin C and healthy air affords all the disease protection a child needs, to those who spend their days in the internet hinterland sharing their theories about big pharma attempts to exert mind control over the world’s population – then surely it’s working everywhere, I reasoned?

“Pharmacists and immunisation providers up here reported that there was a big increase in vaccination uptake around the time of the announcement,” says Heap. Immunisation nurse Debbie Procter, who has just come back from a baby expo in Brisbane, chimes in to say nursing colleagues were talking about a “big uptake” in immunisation (although the policy starts next year, full immunisation can’t be done in one doctor’s visit – the catch up process take time).

But it’s hard, they say, to pinpoint a single cause. Around the same time as the No Jab policy was announced, the widely-reported death of Perth baby Riley John Hughes led to a spike in whooping cough awareness, and funding also became available for third trimester booster shots for pertussis (whooping cough). “It was a perfect storm of three things that came together,” Heap says.

Through the NRVS I’m put in touch with Dr Sue Page, a north coast GP who tells me “more people are coming in and getting more information, and more people are getting catch-up vaccinations. The biggest impact [of the policy] is it’s opening up the dialogue.” Page has spent the best part of three decades in the region trying to counter anti-vaccine groups – groups that have advertised alongside doctors in the yellow pages, and who’ve relentlessly promoted links between vaccination and autism, cot death and arthritis.

Now, the “money factor” seems to be kicking in, she says. Often couples will be divided on the issue, and the one who has “felt most strongly about the issues has held sway”. The money has “given the other person another argument, it’s changing the dynamic between parents,” says Page, who has tried everything – mobile clinics, creating a shopping centre immunisation mascot, an echidna called “Spike”, hand-delivering information packs to journalists.

The anti-immunisation mindset is clearly a problem, she says, but so is the disorganised or disenfranchised mindset: one of the biggest non-vaccinating groups are families with more than three children, where one of the adults has a chronic illness. And here’s where, the more you talk to experts, the more the problem starts to look like one of those lenticular books, where the picture keeps changing depending on the angle you’re looking from.

Back in Sydney I talk to Dr Julie Leask, a public health researcher at the University of Sydney and an expert in immunisation behaviour. She’s no apologist for anti-immunisers, but she has a number of reservations about the No Jab policy. Not the least of which is that while nation-wide immunisation rates are at around 92%, the conscientious objectors represent less than 2% of non-immunised children aged 6 and under (as of December last year, 39,523 children were on the register).

Of the remaining 6% of families who are neither immunised nor recorded as conscientious objectors, about 2% are up-to-date, but their immunisation hasn’t been registered – perhaps “the doctor has simply not put the right forms in”, Leask says. The remaining 4% are those families who face various “barriers” – economic or social barriers, or they’ve been given incorrect medical advice, and so on.

That larger group of non-immunised children currently aren’t receiving the relevant benefits – and the new policy will do nothing to affect them, says Leask. At best, it has the potential to “publicise” the financial benefits people could receive if they fully immunise; but she thinks any positive effect of the policy has to be weighed up against the downsides, including the potential to “radicalise anti-immunisers”.

Registering as a conscientious objector requires parents to have a conversation with a doctor who must sign a form to say immunisation has been discussed. Doing away with a conscientious objector status “removes the opportunity for that conversation”, she fears. It could see some families go off the grid, medically speaking (and rumours of pop-up childcare centres for non-immunised children are already circulating).

At the moment, conscientious objectors only have to visit the doctor once. “It would be fairer to have vaccine objectors have to submit a form at the 1-, 2- and 5-year-old milestones, not just once,” she has written. Leask also wonders, too, if it’s fair to introduce what “amounts to a form of mandatory vaccination for lower income families” without an accompanying “no-fault vaccine injury compensation system”. And there is no comparable welfare benefit that requires a particular health behaviour, she notes.

Failing to understand anti-immunisers will only produce “anger-based policy not evidence-based policies,” Leask says. In the meantime, no-one seems to be able to say for sure what’s working: the data showing whether vaccination rates are indeed up will take a while to come in, say health department officials I contact. Calls to Scott Morrison’s office – to ask how many conscientious objectors were expected to immunise as a result of the new policy – were not returned.

It’s easy to find yourself nodding in furious agreement whomever you speak to (on the pro-immunisation side) in this debate – whether it’s those who talk about the responsibilities that come with rights, or the intensive care doctor Heap, who has nursed a baby struggling to breathe, who is concerned for a friend with cancer who’s vulnerable to a child with measles, and who quotes the $10,000 per day it costs to maintain an intensive care bed.

Communication and accurate information are the touchstones of this issue. Yet guardedness is everywhere, and the line between scepticism and suspicion is blurry. People want to know where you’re coming from. Before meeting with the NRVS, I had to confirm they wouldn’t be sitting with a group of anti-vaccinators: “In Mullumbimby that just has the potential to turn nasty very quickly,” a spokeswoman writes to me before I arrive. Someone else warns me that if I speak to anti-vaccination parents, the Murdoch press will jump on me for “false balance”.

I finish my chai tea and farewell Heap and her NRVS colleagues, but I’m still curious about what goes on in the anti-vaccination mind. At the rainbow-signed Mullumbimby Herbals, a homeopathy “dispensary”, I ask if they help people who want alternatives to vaccination. The clearly flustered assistant heads to the back of the shop, returning with the manager. “We don’t comment on that,” the lady manager says, still smarting from a recent visit from Channel 7 who “misquoted us”.  Pressed, she just says: “We support choice”.

As I drive out of Mullumbimby I detour to the town’s “museum”. The old post office building is locked up, but it’s surrounded by a paddock of outdoor exhibits, displayed like some sort of rural sculpture by the river: an old dray, a rusty plough, an outdoor dunny. It’s as if history starts and ends with white settlement. Mullumbimby might be a place where it’s possible to believe in almost anything, but it’s also more than possible to forget almost everything here too. To forget that – and there’s no subtle way of putting this – it was once home to a Bundjalung people, before diseases such as smallpox, measles and whooping cough did their deadly work.

And the vaccination rates of the Indigenous community now? Up at the 90 per cent levels and above, they are sky high, says Heap. Some groups, it seems, can’t afford to forget.

The worst thing about the PPL backflip is that voters love it

First published by Women’s Agenda and Crikey, 27-28 May 2015

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey announced an end to two sets of maternity leave payments for “double dipping” mothers, it almost seemed wise to stay quiet. Abbott and his ministers appeared to be doing a good job of burying their new policy themselves. There was their seemingly ill-advised language (mothers were “frauds” and “rorting” the system), the hypocrisy (Liberal ministers were forced to admit their wives had “double dipped”) and political backflips (Abbott had made his maternity leave scheme of six months at replacement wages his signature policy at the 2013 election).

Yet a new Essential Report poll, out on Tuesday, shows that a majority of voters are actually applauding the decision. This was the question posed:

Working women currently receive taxpayer-funded paid parental leave (PPL) of $641 a week (the minimum wage) for up to 18 weeks. In the Federal Budget, the Government has proposed women who can access employer-sponsored PPL schemes will lose all or part of their taxpayer-funded PPL. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal?”

A whopping 56% of those polled agreed that those women should “lose all or part of their taxpayer-funded PPL”. And the numbers didn’t split clearly along party lines either: while 73% of Liberal voters approve of the change, so did 47% of Labor voters and 37% of Greens voters. Men were marginally more likely to approve of the cutback than women (60% to 52%) and older voters were more likely to support the policy than younger voters (59% of 35- to 54-year-olds compared to 42% of 18- to 34-year-olds).

As the Essential Report’s Peter Lewis told me, the result shouldn’t be that surprising: “the ‘double-dipping’ metaphor was a perfect pitch to voter-land”. Given how well received the decision to cut PPL entitlements has been, it’s worth unpacking just what might be going on here — and taking a look at how feminists might want to repackage maternity leave policies to a seemingly unsympathetic electorate.

The most charitable interpretation of the poll result is that it’s an expression of a desire for equality, the idea “that no one is on a better wicket than me,” as Lewis says. To win the policy debate, feminists need to better sell the message that parental leave doesn’t have to be a win-lose scenario: just because someone else gets a better deal, that doesn’t mean I have to lose out. As any unionist will tell you, someone else’s better deal just sets a higher benchmark, one that makes it easier for me to point to when I’m bargaining for myself.

The Abbott government is playing a classic game of divide and conquer: set up a fake argument between groups that are already receiving little and watch them fight among themselves — thereby diverting their attention away from looking at who has the real power. We need to keep taking the debate away from their preferred playing field.

We also need to communicate better the message that, as the explanatory memorandum to the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 said, it’s a scheme that was designed to “complement” other entitlements. Though it’s in some ways a complicated message to get across, the two PPL schemes — the government and employer-funded schemes — satisfy two competing, but arguably equally valid ideas about PPL: one is that it’s a payment to help all families and parents with new babies take time off work, with all babies being treated equally (hence the government-funded scheme of a flat payment, at 18 weeks at the minimum wage) and secondly, that it’s a workplace entitlement just like any other, like annual leave, sick leave, carers’ leave and long-service leave.

The second issue I think we have to confront is the way that, despite the name, “paid parental leave” — and despite the fact that the government scheme is also available to men, if they happen to be the primary carer — feminists have oversold the idea of PPL as a mother’s entitlement. It’s true that there’s an unarguable case that, in the first few months after a baby’s birth, time off work for mothers should be the first priority — after all, it’s mothers who need time to physically recover from birth, and who are encouraged to breastfeed babies wherever possible for the first few months of their lives. But after that, who cares for a new baby should be up for grabs.

But in arguing the case for maternity leave, and continually talking about parental leave as if it were only, or at least mostly, a mother’s right — including a push by the ACTU to extend the current 12 months off work to two years — feminists have not only let fathers off the hook and taken on the vast bulk childcare duties as if it were a badge of honour, we’ve lost an opportunity to get “buy-in” from the other gender. If a portion of paid parental leave were reserved for fathers, and fathers only (on a “use-it-or-lose-it” basis) some of the envy and heat would be taken out of the equation: let’s see how many men take up paid leave to look after a messy, crying baby and still want to call it a “rort”.

The third key thing feminists need to confront when faced with a poll like Essential is that voters seem resistant to the idea that motherhood and money go together: it’s as if there’s a real aversion to the idea that commerce enters the baby picture at all. Deep down, I think many people would prefer to imagine that, like breastfeeding, mothers and babies should be natural, free and all about maternal love and self-sacrifice.

As Tony Abbott said last Mother’s Day, the day he announced the backflip, mothers are apparently people who “always put themselves last”. But of course, babies cost. And while crossbench Senator and libertarian David Leyonhjelm may prefer to think of children as merely personal choices, paid for from the pockets of families who choose to have them, feminists have got to do a much better job of communicating that they are also little economic units that go to your coffee shop for babycinos, who will go to the university where you teach, or work at the business you own, or the nursing home where you end up in your final years. They might be one of the causes of climate change (particularly when they are young and churn through clothes and nappies at a great rate), but they are also the generation who might just find the solution to climate change.

We might live in families, and we live in an era that worships the individual. A policy like this one, as Essential’s Peter Lewis says, “is playing to people as consumers of government, not citizens”. But there is no getting around the fact that we still live in a society.

Goodbye Christine Milne, and another female leader

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2015

As the government prepares to announce its plans to reform childcare subsidies for working families, it was interesting to see how the issue of children appeared to be impacting on one of the parties it will be negotiating with to get its changes through the Senate. When Christine Milne announced she was standing down as Greens leader, she said: “I am soon to be a grandmother.”

Adam Bandt, meanwhile, tweeted his support for Milne’s replacement, Dr Richard Di Natale, citing his own impending fatherhood as a reason why he was happy not to be handed the leadership baton: “Congrats Richard & new team! V happy to hand over Deputy to focus on new baby (due in few wks!)” he wrote.

Children and high flying careers often don’t mix well, and in parliament, they are particularly difficult for women. In her recent book The Wife Drought, Fairfax columnist Annabel Crabb cited a study by Andrew Leigh, a Labor MP and an economist, which unearthed the statistic that in the current parliament, male MPs and senators could boast, on average, 2.1 children each, while their female counterparts averaged 1.2 each.

The 44-year-old Dr Richard Di Natale, a father-of-two, and his female deputy, single mother-of-one, Larissa Waters, fit the pattern perfectly. The Greens have also, unusually, chosen a second deputy (Scott Ludlam, father of none) – but otherwise the pattern of male party leader-female deputy fits the trend that we’re starting to see across the country. In federal politics there’s Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop on the Liberal side, and Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek on the Labor side. In NSW we have the combos of Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian (Liberal) and Luke Foley and Linda Burney for Labor.

While becoming deputy is now almost commonplace for women, leadership is still a rarity, and with Milne gone, the country is now looking like a clean sweep of men at the top. In fact, since the resignation of the Northern Territory’s Delia Lawrie as opposition leader last month, just one of the 18 heads of government and opposition leaders in federal, state and territory governments across the country is a woman: at the recent COAG meeting, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stood out like an exchange student from the girls’ school doing a special elective subject at the boys’ school across the road.

It wasn’t so long ago that we seemed to be living through some sort of feminist version of Camelot: joining Julia Gillard as PM was a female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, and Nicola Roxon as the nation’s chief legal officer. In NSW briefly in 2011, women could add to that list a female premier (Kristina Keneally), deputy (Carmel Tebbutt) and a female governor (Marie Bashir).

Now 40-something men are in power across the country: the federal opposition leader Bill Shorten is 47, in NSW the leader and opposition leaders are 47-year-old Mike Baird and 44-year-old Luke Foley. In Victoria, the leader is Daniel Andrews (42) and the opposition leader is Matthew Guy (41).

One of the things that is happening here is that, as parents delay having children, the peak years of leading in politics is clashing with the peak years of child-rearing. As the federal government tries to get its measures to improve the way families can balance work and home life, it will be negotiating with independents, many of whom are men from conservative and christian backgrounds, including Family First’s Bob Day, and former DLP member John Madigan. Let’s hope that new second-time mum (and Labor Opposition leader in the Senate) Penny Wong, can work with the new Greens team, Di Natale and Waters, and the government to knock out a package that will help families like their own.

Read the the story online at the SMH.

Is Cinderella a good role model for your daughter? Probably not. Are you?

First published by Women’s Agenda, 10 April 2015

Is Cinderella like a harmless dose of royalty – a mix of completely politically incorrect, a little bit charming, but also utterly bonkers? Should feminist mothers keep their daughters away these school holidays? Kath Kenny took her daughter, Miss almost-5, and her daughter’s friend, Master 6, and reported back.

Early on in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella our heroine is orphaned and left to fend for herself in a household ruled by her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her wicked stepsisters. It’s as if Cinderella (Lily James) has been thrown into a particularly sadistic reality TV show with the two most self-absorbed Kardashian sisters and their monstrously ambitious mother.

It would be enough to catapult anyone into clinical depression. But save for the occasional breakout of tears, Cinderella is all lightness and acceptance, repeating her dying mother’s final words: “have courage and show kindness”. She’s like the Dalai Lama after a resilience course. Given Cinderella’s abject circumstances, it’s tempting to wonder if the whole Prince Charming story is all wish fulfilment on Cinderella’s part, a fantasy story within a fantasy story: as the voiceover says, Cinderella “saw the world not as it is, but as it could be”.

Under such perverse conditions, it’s no surprise Cinderella turns to magic: it starts with her first encounter with the Prince, when she experiences the magic of beginning to fall in love, of meeting someone who can make you feel completely transformed. But Cinderella is also a story about the magic of a fairy godmother who comes to the rescue, who can transform pumpkins into gold carriages, and a commoner into the belle of the ball.

Of course, there are enough ideological traps and holes in the story to fill a thousand gender studies dissertations. As an oppressed minority, Cinderella takes the path of least resistance. If a benchmark for any would-be feminist is Rebecca West’s test – “expressing sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat” – then clearly Cinderella doesn’t seem to be a member of the club (though maybe she deserves special consideration, given the Stockholm syndrome she seems to suffering from).

Cinderella’s relationship with her Prince, too, is carried out in the most gendered of ways. He’s the active pursuer (they first meet when he is out hunting), and when she runs away from the ball and becomes elusive it only makes her more attractive to him. Later he becomes the creepy stalker guy, searching every house in the kingdom demanding women everywhere try on his glass slipper.

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To be fair though, the square-jawed, dazzlingly blue-eyed Prince doesn’t escape sex symbol status: it’s a film of equal opportunity objectification. Initially Cinderella is madly attracted to his good looks (but confusingly, and weirdly, he looks like a younger version of her late father, in his boy band days). And it’s also the Prince who really loses his head, who is so in love he can’t concentrate enough to rule a kingdom. Cinderella, meanwhile, is prepared to see the romance for what it is: something to “enjoy while it lasts,” as Helena Bonham Carter’s fairy godmother advises.

While far from being a model feminist fairytale, I can’t completely side with those who’ve come out swinging to say they won’t take their daughters either. Any outright ban on the movie just reminds me of the parents at my first child’s child care centre who insisted the carers discourage the girls from playing in the home corner: I could see what they were getting at, but wouldn’t their children be more influenced by what was going on in their real homes, I wondered? If mummy and daddy are both cooking and washing dishes and wiping up soggy Weetbix from the floor, isn’t that what really matters, in the end?

Surely children are also smart enough to figure out that movies and books aren’t necessarily instruction manuals on how to live our lives (and reading fairytales doesn’t automatically lead them to think bears can actually talk, or that giants live in the sky at the end of beanstalk). Similarly, adult fans of Breaking Bad aren’t all going to turn into psychotic meth lab overloads if they receive a cancer diagnosis. As Mr 6 noted when we walked out of Cinderella: “It’s not very realistic.”

On the other hand, to argue that cultural products have no effects flies in the face of the entire advertising industry. As Peggy Orenstein wrote in a New York Times feature back in 2006, when the latest wave of princess mania was well underway, it was largely the result of Disney’s merchandising arm making a deliberate, and concerted, effort to empty parents’ pockets of billions of dollars by fanning a worldwide craze for princess products. Even the colour – Pantone pink No. 241 corona – was decided in advance.

Marketing aside though, I think the real problem is with the persistence of stories based on anachronistic ideas of the “marriage plot”. When women couldn’t own property, or inherit titles, or earn money at work, myths and stories about marrying well, and in particular about “marrying up”, to someone older, richer and more powerful, were stories about survival.

Although women can now work and own property and live happily ever after without a man, the myth of finding a prince charming remains remarkably persistent. Modern fairytales for adults – from Sex and The City to Girls – are fundamentally about the conflict women experience in an era where we want to be equal, where we are ambitious, but where we are still stuck, to a greater or lesser extent, by old-fashioned notions about women as nurturing and selfless, and men as protectors and providers – and rescuers.

An under-discussed part of Sex and the City was how the four heroines worked out this conflict. For Samantha it meant treating men as sex objects, and reversing the gender roles and finding younger toys boys. For Miranda it meant coming to the realisation that Steve wasn’t ambitious like she was, and then working out a way to find it sexy that he was more the nurturing, stay-at-home father type. For Carrie, it meant coming to terms with the fact that Mr Big was never going provide her with the happily-ever-after marriage she fantasised about, and that she might have to buy her own slippers (or Manolo Blahniks) for ever after.

If you do take your daughter to see Cinderella these school holidays, don’t look for any feminist edification. Enjoy it for what it is: a bit of sparkle and froth, and about as realistic as the Fairy Godmother’s claim that Cinderella’s glass shoes will be “really comfortable”. As we sat eating lunch after the film, my young charges nominated Cinderella’s parents as their favourite characters. It was a heartening – and daunting – reminder that they aren’t looking to Cinderella or Prince Charming for role models. They’re looking at us.

Read this article on Women’s Agenda.

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