A- A A+

Feminist 'us first, you later' mentality doesn't work

Neve Mahoney |  06 March 2017


International Women's Day was founded in women's rights movements across Europe, demanding better labour conditions as well as calls for suffrage. So though it is primarily about celebrating the achievements of women, it is rooted in feminist protest and activism.

Second wave feminist protestIn the spirit of the 2017 theme #BeBoldForChange, I think we should change it up a little. While it is important to look back on the achievements of feminism, we should also look back to learn how to be better for the future.

The IWD colours of purple, white and green reference the colours of the suffragettes. While the women's suffrage date usually quoted for Australia is 1902, that excludes Aboriginal women, who did not have complete suffrage until 1962.

Previously, in most states, Aboriginal men had the vote (and in South Australia, Aboriginal women did too), but this was only because it hadn't been explicitly denied to them. So while the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 granted white women the vote, it also targeted Aboriginal and other people of colour not already on the electoral roll.

Effectively, through the advocacy of white feminism, there was a gain for white women, while the rights of women of colour were left behind.

Later, in 1975, as International Women's Day was recognised by the UN, mainstream second wave feminism tried to distance itself from the LGBTI community. In a NOW meeting in 1969, Betty Friedan had coined the term 'the lavender menace' to describe how lesbians were distracting from the feminist cause, lavender being a colour associated with the LGBTI rights movement.

Two of the big names of second wave feminism, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, focused on cisgender women's rights at the expense of trans women, with Steinem warning that 'feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism'.

At its foundation, feminism was for the rights of straight white women. And this still effects mainstream feminism today. Domestic and family violence is a prominent cultural and feminist issue which is statistically more likely to effect Indigenous than white women. Yet in these conversations Indigenous women's voices are frequently unrepresented.


"The fight for women's rights in the past has highlighted the achievements of middle class white women, while also erasing the contributions of minority women."


Similarly, in Australia, the gender pay gap is still a significant issue and receives quite a bit of media coverage. But unlike America, there has never been much focus in Australian feminist media about how the intersection of race and gender impacts upon wages.

Even when there are deliberate attempts to be inclusive in principle, like in the Women's Marches in America, feminists can misstep. Pink knitted hats were made to protest Donald Trump's infamous statement about sexual assault, but these protesters were accused by trans activists for equating womanhood to having a vagina. And while Steinem has apologised for her earlier transphobic views, Greer is on the record as recently as 2015 saying that transgender women aren't 'real' women. She later apologised for saying that on the ABC, but then followed up by repeating the exact same sentiment.

We need to acknowledge how the past shapes our activism, unless we want to keep making the same mistakes. People versed in feminist theory know that the 'us first, you later' mentality doesn't work. Feminism works best when it forefronts the voices that need to be heard, is inclusive, and works from the ground up. Often we need to acknowledge that our viewpoint isn't always going to be needed in every feminist conversation. Women should try to be our own fiercest advocates, but at the same time, we must be critical of our feminism and ourselves. No feminist or feminism is perfect. I know personally that even when I try, I still get it wrong. But we still need to try.

International Women's Day should acknowledge the achievements of feminism that have passed, but also its shortcomings. The fact is that the fight for women's rights in the past has highlighted the achievements of middle class white women, while also erasing the contributions of minority women. So this IWD, let's celebrate the feminists who should have more spotlight and listen to a diverse range of voices. Let's be bold and commit to a feminism that is intersectional, even when it's hard and messy.


Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Wednesday 8 March is International Women's Day.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Neve, thank you for this article on International Women's Day. From what you say, I can see that when the hierarchical tendency in us ranks the concerns of others as less authentic than ours, it holds us back from receiving the gift of solidarity from others.

Alex Nelson 08 March 2017

Neve is correct that often IWD has been used to celebrate the achievements of middle class women without much reference to other women. A study of the history of IWD shows that the day was founded by ordinary working class women on the political left The earliest IWD occurred on February 28, 1909, in New York. It was organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of a1908 strike of garment workers for improved working conditions. In August 1910, at an International Women's Conference before the meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, it was agreed to establish an annual International Woman's Day to promote equal rights including suffrage for women. On March 19 1911, IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In 1917, a strike of garment workers and demonstrations marking IWD in St Petersburg on the last Thursday in February ( which is March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) helped to initiate the February Revolution. Under the slogan "Bread and Peace", their demands were the end of World War I, an end to food shortages, and the end of tsarism. Four days later, the Tsar abdicated and the provisional government gave women the vote! This had more ramifications for women than allowing a woman to be secretary of the local golf club!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 08 March 2017

Some earlier women feminists - a few before the word was invented - Elizabeth Fry the prison reformer; Florence Nightingale; Emily Pankhurst and Gloria Steinem are the giants whose shoulders the later feminists stand on. It is easy to retrospectively criticise them; harder to be a genuine original like them. Group-think is the enemy of real reform: it holds people back celebrating victories of long ago where the task is to move sensibly forward. I am not surprised transsexuality is so hard for many to get their heads around , because, in traditional Anglophone culture, there has never been a real place for them as there has been in traditional Polynesian and some other cultures where they inhabit a special space.

Edward Fido 09 March 2017

I disagree with the premise of this article. That those who identify as transgender may need a voice is one question; whether it should be tied into the voice for the liberation of women is another. I support Germaine Greer’s view. There are two sexes, there are men and women. There are of course men who think or assert that they are women, but in doing so they undermine or subvert the cause of women. Misogyny targets women, not men who think they are women. People should revisit the struggles of real women, even in such a thing we take for granted (but should not) which is the vote and political franchise of women, gained by people like Henrietta Dugdale, Louise Lawson and Vida Goldstein, and get things into perspective.

smk 09 March 2017

Thank you for this insightful article. The fact that the feminist movement did not represent ALL women was something I did not realize. I am now more enlightened, thanks to you. Cheers!

Amy Daniel 10 March 2017

Similar articles

Don't pick the scab of meaning from our national holidays

Andrew Hamilton | 24 January 2017

Beach at Gerroa, NSWThe enjoyment of the holidays did not soften the mayhem and malice of the public world and the people whose lives and happiness are so destroyed by them. It held in mind the images of death and diminishment, but set them on a canvas of thanksgiving for the ways in which kindness and humanity are embodied in people's lives, for the strength and delicacy of relationships that we take for granted, and for the gift of a beach holiday that is an impossible dream for so many Australians.

The problem of privilege in Australia Day billboard furore

Tseen Khoo | 24 January 2017

Girls in hijabs waving Australian flagsThe removal of an Australia Day billboard featuring two girls in hijabs prompted a swell of support against Islamophobia. Alongside this was a backlash from those who read the action as forcing Muslim Australians to be complicit in the oppression of Indigenous peoples. My unease came from seeing intra-community tension manifest as dismissal and denigration of those who were considered not 'woke' enough to the politics and embedded racism surrounding invocations of Australian identity.

Freedom of conscience and same-sex marriage

Jack Maxwell | 23 January 2017

Rainbow coloured rosesTwo issues can be dealt with shortly. First, ministers of religion must be free to solemnise marriages in accordance with their beliefs. Second, there is no basis for extending a similar concession to marriage celebrants. The case of commercial service providers is more complex. Many argue that caterers, florists, reception centres and so on should be free to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings, on the basis of their religious beliefs. The case for the commercial exemption is unconvincing.

Why I don't support changing the date of Amnesia Day

Celeste Liddle | 23 January 2017

Survival Day protesters 2012For many years I felt that by changing the date we might come to a more inclusive national celebration. However the past few years of Indigenous activism have left me cynical. The things we were fighting for decades ago are very similar to the things we're still fighting for. Australia has not acknowledged and rectified its history; rather it seems content to reinforce its amnesia. It's therefore unlikely I will be able to stop protesting this celebration, regardless of the day it's held upon.

Pope Francis and the age of automation

Michael McVeigh | 20 January 2017

Pope Francis blesses iPhone photoMany have called for the automated Centrelink debt collection system to be scrapped, but the government is standing by it. One of the reasons for this may be that the system is doing just what it's designed to do - trying to force people away from welfare reliance by making it more onerous. Pope Francis argues that far from a 'neutral' tool, technology creates a framework which conditions people and limits their possible options along lines dictated by the most economically and politically powerful.