Relations between the sexes seem a lot more toxic now than I would have imagined when I was young. During the sixties, the decade of my birth, the roles of men and women seemed to consist of distinct and persistent patterns that quickly evolved with the availability of the contraceptive pill and broader social movements. A convincing case for sexual equality was prosecuted throughout the seventies and as a teenager it pretty much seemed to me that the traditional male role of dominating nature had become redundant; bridges were easy, the Ford Falcon GTHO Phase 3 was the epitome in car production, and the world had enough bombs to destroy the earth several times over. Man (sic) had reached the moon, and the next step to Mars seemed to involve solving social problems more than technical ones. What was once considered a man’s traditional work had been done. So I entered the workforce quite prepared for a working life where gender roles would evolve significantly and where work was to become more socially and less technically focussed. A grand narrative had been established, and Deborah Wardley’s victory against a silly Reg Ansett that allowed her to pilot a plane seemed a first step in a long trajectory of social progress. Yet relations between the sexes seem more toxic now than then.
At the political level there have been mixed and sometimes troubling results. The highly admired Joan Kirner was education Minister and then State premier during the first years of my teaching career and her reforms to the VCE put Victoria in a very good place educationally. At the time it seemed inevitable that Joan would be the first of many women premiers for Victoria, but over 20 years and 6 premiers later there has been no further progress. Similarly for Western Australia, where there has been no progress since a concerted hatchet job was conducted against a very competent and intelligent Carmen Lawrence. The current political environment continues to be toxic; women are welcomed as loyal deputies but shunned when they manifest any will to power. There is the case of Julie Bishop, did she or didn’t she participate in a power play, while Truss’s subversion on Macfarlane is regarded as part of good sport. Anthony Albanese continues to be regarded as good bloke having lost his leadership challenge, but had a woman contested and similarly lost it’s not hard to imagine that she might be characterised as spurned and brooding. How are women to be effectively socialised into leadership in such a toxic environment, and what effect does this role modelling have on relations between the sexes at work in general, school and daily life. My view is that history has not yet fully recognised the achievements of Julia Gillard, and the inevitability of Australia having more women prime ministers in the near future is not so certain.
So here we are, things have moved significantly since the death of Barthes (1980) and Foucault (1984) yet things also seem more toxic. While the critiques of Barthes, Foucault and Derrida may still have relevance, the social conditions that they described no longer exist. Women still encounter unfair structural and systemic hurdles to their expressions of identity and power, but these hurdles are no longer as universal and uniform as they once were. While women still encounter systemic disadvantages, there’s now also a sufficient critical mass of competent and powerful women to change the dynamic. We now need to develop frameworks and approaches that remove toxicity from these swirling and evolving power relations.
Many men are angry but the reason for anger varies. Some men are dangerously angry because they grieve a loss of control over women; lock them up. Some are angry because they can no longer use nature as their playground; educate them. Others are angry because objective instrumental reasoning is dead; these can be indulged a little and exposed as they’re no longer relevant. Yet others are angry because they consider humans behaving poorly towards each other and towards their environment; engage them for their energy. I draw my inspiration for anger and energy from the likes of Henry Rollins.
New theoretical positions need to be developed for the contemporary world. Foucault, Barthes and Derrida probably no longer cover it. Greer has inspired many but her contribution in calling out Julia Gillard for her ‘big arse’ has been less than useful and only contributes to toxicity. From an educators perspective the work of Butler, Nodding and Gilligan continue to be informative. My view is that there is further potential in integrating an ‘ethics of care’ within a grander narrative of justice. Gilligan and Kohlberg did work on this some time ago but it could be revisited. Then there is Judy Wajcam’s work on technology and techno-feminism that challenges views towards technology.
Never mind the bickering, there’s work to be done.