"Is feminism a dirty word?" It's not the way I'd ask the question, but that's how it was put to us to debate. The organisers of the University of Sydney's Women's Week obviously wanted some controversy.
Why else would they have asked such a mixed group of women? On stage were senator Meg Lees (the ex-Australian Democrats leader, now head of the Australian Progressive Alliance party), Cindy Pan (a trained general practitioner and media commentator on health and sexual matters), Miranda Devine (a columnist previously employed by News Limited, publisher of The Australian, and now with Fairfax) and me.
Of the bunch, it was of course Devine who was supposed to cause trouble. The opinion writer can't open her mouth without putting her elegant boot into feminism. Divorce, declining birthrate, girlie men, butch women, the poor performance of boys in schools, 13-year-old girls in risque dress, gay marriage, lack of public interest in straight marriage, lack of support for the troops in Iraq - you name it, feminists are to blame.
If feminism didn't exist she'd have to invent it to have something to write about.
When I'm feeling down in the mouth about the relevance of what I teach, I only have to read her column to realise that feminism really is at the root of every public, personal and political matter facing Australians today. She sure knows how to make a gal feel important.
The event started with a bang when Devine was roundly heckled. As a well-brought-up academic, I felt it wasn't a particularly proud moment. But I had to smile at one of the loudly shouted slogans: Miranda Devine Right-Wing Slime.
It's catchy and apart from slime (not necessarily a bad thing), it's absolutely true. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more self-satisfied and unquestioning right-winger. One of the many critical blog sites devoted to Devine suggests that the right-wing media girls in this country really believe what they spout, whereas the blokes such as P. P. McGuinness know that being further right than Genghis Khan is just lucrative.
Back to the debate. When the heckling couple of students were told to shut up it became anodyne. We kinda all thought that feminism could be still kinda relevant, depending on your kind of feminism. Devine came out as a feminist of a rather exclusive kind - a movement of her own.
We then moved on to the crisis of masculinity while Pan and I played with her baby son.
I woke up enough to get tetchy at Devine's sweeping statement that feminist theory wasn't interested in what the moderator called the big issues, including fundamentalism and the environment.
"Oh come on, Miranda, when was the last time you actually read any feminist theory?" I quickly pointed out that I was paid to read and I didn't expect her to do so, but could she please refrain from talking about what she didn't know.
We all parted amicably as I apologised for the rude behaviour. I also pointed out, in somewhat simpering tones, that it was hard on my students - the hundreds of young things trying their best to grapple with gender issues and accompanying theories - to go home excited by what they'd learned only to have their parents use Devine's columns as proof that it was all garbage.
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