Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Happy (belated) International Women's Day!

In a cab in Sydney on March 6 I listened to a radio commentator ask a variant of the Tiresome Question: "Does feminism still have any relevance now women are free to do what they want?"

That week, two issues were in the Aussie news. The first, which had been simmering for a while, was PM Kevin Rudd's blue-ribbon panel to brainstorm ideas for the next decade. One thousand of the best and brightest Australians were selected, to be led in discussion by ten prominent public figures.

Exactly one of those figures was a woman. And, of the thousand best and brightest, only 10% were women. (That figure made me speculate: was the selection committee perhaps thinking of gays and lesbians? I recall a recent brouhaha over the Canadian Blog awards...)

Aussies make noise when they're unhappy, and there has been quite a spate of comment in the press about this "blokefest."

The second matter concerned a revolting creature known as the Butcher of Bega--a sadistic gynecologist who, over a two-decade period, assaulted and sexually mutilated hundreds of women under his care. It took fourteen years to have his licence to practice suspended, and he continued to practise for another seven years without one.

The best piece I could find about both of these news items, complete with vintage Australian saltiness, is this one. It begins:

They insist we live in an egalitarian meritocracy, not - as so much of the evidence suggests - a diehard cockocracy. Apparently the outrageous discrepancies in earnings and the paltry scattering of women at the pointy end of the labour force plane are simply the innocuous results of merit-based decisions.

Those of us travelling back in cattle class, however, know the world is simply not the same place for women as it is for men.

Here at home an Ontario study reveals that men who go to doctors with chronic knee pain are twice as likely as women to be recommended for a knee replacement. That's one news story, on one day.

Is feminism relevant, you ask? Good grief.

There is a peculiar kind of ability that all humans seem to have, namely, to hold staggeringly contradictory information and ideas in their heads at the same time and notice nothing odd. There have been all kinds of fancy names for it--false consciousness and cognitive dissonance spring to mind--but it seems to me that "mental blindness" does the trick quite adequately. And, as H.G. Wells convincingly argued, in the country of the blind the one-eyed person isn't a king (or queen), but a target.

He rebelled only after he had tried persuasion.

He tried at first on several occasions to tell them of sight. "Look you here, you people," he said. "There are things you do not understand in me."

Once or twice one or two of them attended to him; they sat with faces downcast and ears turned intelligently towards him, and he did his best to tell them what it was to see. Among his hearers was a girl, with eyelids less red and sunken than the others, so that one could almost fancy she was hiding eyes, whom especially he hoped to persuade. He spoke of the beauties of sight, of watching the mountains, of the sky and the sunrise, and they heard him with amused incredulity that presently became condemnatory.

His rebellion is not successful:

He expected dire punishments, but these blind people were capable of toleration. They regarded his rebellion as but one more proof of his general idiocy and inferiority, and after they had whipped him they appointed him to do the simplest and heaviest work they had for anyone to do, and he, seeing no other way of living, did submissively what he was told.

Sound familiar? And so some go on, extolling peace as we all hunker down for a permanent state of war (because no war against terrorism can ever be won: yellow alert is the best we can hope for). They deny that racism exists, other than anti-Semitism, which is apparently everywhere. They claim that the Montreal Massacre had nothing to do with sexism in society.

And they say that feminism is not relevant today.

So my overdue message of celebration is directed to the sighted few in our country of the blind. Keep observing, keep thinking, and keep talking. Some will continue to believe, as the inhabitants of Wells' community did, that the world is just an enormous cavern. Nothing we can say will shake them, and they will do their utmost to shut us up when we differ. But others, one at a time, will come to see the stars overhead. Thank you, sisters, for pointing so many of them out.

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