To the feminists of yesteryear, Sydney University today would probably appear the realisation of all that they aspired to and fought for. More than half the undergraduate student population is female. The president of the Students’ Representative Council is the latest of seven women to have held the position in the last ten years, having come first in the all-female field of candidates in last year’s election. Affirmative action policies and women’s officers are common, even normal, among the University’s student organisations, clubs, and societies. Thus far, the University of Sydney sisterhood has marched up to and beyond virtually every milestone it has set itself. And, to the feminists of yesteryear, it would appear that, in 2014, the sisterhood has emerged victorious.
To a certain extent, this is true. But it is also true that those women who are inclined to suggest that the great feminist battles have been won are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, cisgender, educated, and able-bodied: the exact demographic profile of the majority of female students attending the University of Sydney today. And, while these women are entitled to celebrate the achievements of their predecessors, they must also give due recognition to the voices of women who exist at various intersections of oppression. They must not forget that women of colour, queer women, poor women, and women with disabilities and mental illnesses continue to fight against converging tides of discrimination on a daily basis.
Unjustifiably, women who have spoken out about ongoing structural inequalities within the feminist movement have often been ignored or silenced, told that they are betraying a movement that only aims to do them good. But these women should not be expected to feel safe in the arms of a supposed global sisterhood. They should not be required to sit still and avoid rocking a boat that isn’t travelling in the direction they want and need. They are entitled to demand that, rather than marching myopically towards the next milestone down the road, privileged feminists take a step back for the women who have been left by the wayside.
Feminist critic Flavia Dzodan said, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”. This International Women’s Day, we need to recognise that strength in feminism does not require sameness. We need to recognise that women’s power lies in their diverse unity.