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Reflections on the plight of women in Australia

By Ian Robinson - posted Friday, 1 July 2011

I went to an all-boys secondary school where I excelled at sport, writing poetry and making a nuisance of myself. During that time, and for a number of years after, it never occurred to me that women in Australia or anywhere, were in a plight. Women and girls were mysterious creatures who seemed to have all the power: We boys wanted them desperately and they had the power of saying "Yes" or "No." In those days it was just "Yes" or "No" to going out and maybe to kissing.

My first close sexual encounter was narrowly escaping being raped by the school's Divinity master. I was a virgin until I was twenty-one. Then for the next few years I continued frenziedly and mindlessly trying to induce those elusive girls/women to sleep with me. It was a kind of late onset adolescence. But it always seemed that women had the power.

This all changed in the late 60s and early 70s. It changed for women because the onset of sexual liberation and the arrival of the contraceptive pill, meant they could no longer plausibly say "No." And once they stopped saying "No" they realised that this was the only power they'd ever had, and that men had been lording it over them in every other respect for millennia.


The majority of women quickly realised that what people like Mary Wolstonecraft and Vida Goldstein had been saying over the years was right: they were indeed in a plight. It changed for me at roughly the same time, as a number of critical experiences made me aware of the plight that women found themselves in.

When I went to New York in 1971 one of my hosts, Ellie, was a member of a high powered, New York feminist conscious raising group and while I was there, her partner Bobby and I (together with other significant males of the group members), were invited to attend one of their meetings for "dialogue."

This was one of the scariest encounters in my life. But although many initially unpalatable home truths were hammered home forcefully, we got out with our balls intact and the self-examination that the experience provoked was life changing and made me a feminist too.

If there was room for improvement in female-male relations in the US, I soon realised when I got back here that the plight of women in Australia was even worse. This was not just my view. When Ellie and Bobby visited me in Australia they were appalled and thought that Australian women were one of the most oppressed groups in the world, on a par with blacks in the US.

This was confirmed a few years later when a visiting UK feminist told me that women in Europe couldn't understand why Australian feminists seemed so angry, until they came here and saw with their own eyes, how much they had to be angry about.

Looking back on the last forty years, has anything changed? Have women in Australia extricated themselves from their plight?


Obviously there have been some gains. We now have a female Governor General and a female Prime Minister. Overt sexism is frowned upon in the public arena. But gross in equalities still persist in most areas of society, especially as measured by access to power and money, and the few exceptions do not amount to a rebuttal.

It seems to me that the endemic misogyny of Australian male culture has not been banished but has simply gone underground. Recent events in the military and in football demonstrate how fragile any respect women have gained remains.

One of the areas that the latent Australian male fear and hatred of women is most evident in is the realm of pornography. In olden days a glimpse of nakedness was looked on as the pinnacle of porn. Even such bondage was legitimised by classical mythology – Andromeda in chains, always with her pudenda twisted around to face the male gaze – a favourite subject of Victorian painters.

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About the Author

Ian Robinson is a freelance writer and editor based in Kyneton, Victoria. He has an Honours Degree in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne and was subsequently a tutor there in Political Philosophy.He later taught Philosophy of Education at Coburg Teachers College then worked for many years in the curriculum and teacher development areas of the Victorian Ministry of Education.Ian was Buckley in the cabaret group "Buckley, Hope and Nun", and has acted in and directed plays at La Mama and elsewhere. He has a long list of educational and general publications. He is Immediate Past President of the Rationalist Society of Australia and a former editor of their journal, the Australian Rationalist.

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