Nearly 13 years after she publicly denounced modern feminism, ABC journalist Virginia Haussegger sits across from me in a buzzing Canberra café. Her now-infamous op-ed, published in The Australian in 2002, was titled – by an editor – ‘The sins of our feminist mothers’. It was simultaneously a lament to her own childlessness and a decrial of the tired hallmark of third wave feminism: “Women can have it all”. She had built a career on the promise of that catchphrase, only to reach 37 and find herself unable to have children and utterly devastated. Women, she argued, could not have it all.
“That fucking article!” she huffs when I raise it early in our conversation. “It still comes back to me all these years later. I didn’t realise that it would open this Pandora’s box.”
The Pandora’s box was a national conversation, a riot of reactions that spread from coast to coast. Prominent (and not so prominent) commentators accused her of putting a stake through the heart of the sisterhood, being anti-feminist, or just being a downright whinger. She received thousands of words worth of hate mail and vitriol. Others supported her, commiserated with her – many women sent her stories of their own career-driven childlessness. Emboldened by the reaction, Haussegger stoked the fire with a book, published in 2005 and titled ‘Wonder Woman: the myth of having it all’.
I tell her I found the book destabilising and frightening. She’s pleased. “That’s kind of the point. Young women need to think about this stuff, and be honest about it. Mothers and daughters need to talk about these things. Your generation faces really subtle, insidious gender inequities and we need to talk about them.”
Haussegger seems like someone who regularly attracts controversy, yet is largely unconcerned by it. Our conversation traverses her journalistic career as she cheekily and proudly recounts tales of principled stands, job-threatening arguments (“Can you believe I had to apologise to him in a fucking major newspaper?!”) and petty squabbles. I wonder out loud if her propensity towards being outspoken and stubborn
has helped or hindered her.
“It has gotten me into trouble, definitely. But I wear it, if I believe in what I am saying. Some people – many politicians – I know have the power to be heard and the responsibility to speak out about things that matter, and they refuse to. I find it absolutely disgraceful, to be honest. It’s really disappointing.”
Living and working as a journalist in Canberra has woven Haussegger into the city’s complex political tapestry. These days, she is both a seasoned political observer and insider, counting former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former leader of the Australian Democrats Natasha Stott Despoja amongst her friends. But she doesn’t openly relish her insight and connections; rather, she speaks of politics wearily, as though she has seen too much. She says that the recent federal election only served to crystallise this disillusionment with politicians.
“After all that incessant coverage, that robotic shit, I felt so grubby and depressed. We were all inundated with such utter nonsense.”
It’s the day after O’Farrell’s Grangegate, and so, inevitably, a broader conversation about politics turns into a reflection on the fallen NSW Premier. There’s a pause while Haussegger considers her words.
“Kristina Keneally said the other day on The Drum that she thinks all politicians get into politics with the right motivations, and, you know, I think that’s true,” she says.
“I’ve seen enough of it and gotten close to enough of them to know that that is true. But once they’re there and their power is tested and challenged – that’s where they run into trouble if they don’t have a strong sense of themselves. And too often they start to value the power more than the reason they got into politics in the first place. ”
No-one could accuse Haussegger of possessing a weak sense of self. In a public debate at the Australian National University in 2009, Haussegger argued against the burqa and the niqab, opening her speech by declaring, “I abhor the burqa.” She has since written and spoken on the subject extensively, reiterating her position openly.
I posit to her that she, as a white, privileged feminist from the Global North, is practising a form of cultural imperialism in condemning the burqa. Her condemnation, I suggest, is predicated on the assumption that, globally, women constitute a homogenous entity. Does she really think that the sisterhood is legitimate?
“No, I don’t think all women want the same things. But I think we should. I personally know many women in Afghanistan who would take a very different position to me. They are happy with the status quo of living in a patriarchal system, because deep down they think that is the world as it should be. I will always argue against that.”
Though admitting it is dangerous to generalise, Haussegger hypothesises that women are better at coming together than men. “There is something that resonates in women and pulls us together to support each other …I do think that men have a tendency to be more adversarial,” she says. “And I just find women more interesting, I really do. I love my husband and I have loved many men in my life, but women are better at finding similarities rather than seeking out differences.”
She speaks clearly and confidently, and our eye contact is unbroken. I realise she is completely unlike the politicians she criticises; there is no noncommittal pretence here. Virginia Haussegger certainly hasn’t lost sight of who she is and what she believes.
It has been nearly 13 years since her opinion piece galvanised a fiery national debate, and nearly 10 since her book perpetuated and extended that debate even further. I want to know if she is proud of herself and of what those two texts helped achieve. For a moment, she seems puzzled by the mention of pride.
“I think…I think it was a conversation we as a nation had to have, and yes, I am glad that I helped start it. It is such an incredible privilege to be a journalist and to be able to start conversations like this,” she says.
“But journalism is tough; it’s volatile. I think I am proudest of the fact that I have stuck it out.”