My life was women. From a very young age, with very few exceptions – the main one being my excellent father – women were all I knew of the world. It was my mum, my three older sisters, an endless supply of aunts, my grandmothers – both grandfathers having passed away before I was born, and even a great-grandmother. Dad worked a lot and Mum stayed home with the girls. I never had a brother. We did have a male dog but his balls were unceremoniously chopped off one day, so.
I didn’t know that being a girl was considered second-rate, even in the 80’s and 90’s in Australia. That being a girl was considered alright, but. That my parents would get looks of pity every time they had yet another girl.
Are you going to try for a boy then?
Will you just keep going until you get one?
As though my sisters and I were unsatisfactory toys pulled out of an arcade claw game, and they had been aiming for something better.
I didn’t see any of this. It passed me happily by.
My first babysitters were female – my grandma Aud or my great Aunt Lola. We’d eat ham and pickle sandwiches and drink lemonade from glasses with orange flowers stamped on them. The bubbles would pop softly in the heat. We would watch Mornings with Kerri-Anne – I had no idea what it had taken for her to succeed in an industry where even the queen of daytime TV herself didn’t get paid the same amount as men doing the same job.
My mother went back to work once I was old enough to go to day-care, then I went on to primary school. My teachers were mostly female – a male anomaly in year 6 but my school Principal was a woman. I was friends with boys; I didn’t view them as some strange ‘other’. I only knew that to me it was more fun making mud pies, skateboarding and hitting each other with our school bags than it was to act like a lady. My oldest sister bit all the heads off any dolls that made it into the house; the bottom of her closet a strange cemetery of tiny plastic limbs and synthetic hair. She also taught me how to write my name and how to spell before I was 6. My second oldest sister would teach me Maths and the importance of standing up for others, and my third oldest sister would make me go with her down storm drains and up trees from dawn till dusk, when we would return home covered in ant bites and dirt. We read books, and if we were ever bored, Mum made us write a story for her. I have a whole folder of my stories, carefully kept for all these years – my favourite is one about a group of spiders who hid in some people’s shoes, then bit them and turned into those people. No unicorns and princesses here; not for me.
We went to Mass once a week and I would ask why there were no women priests.
Because women can’t be priests. My eyes widened. But it was probably just a one-off, right?
Lunchtimes at primary school were filled with playing Zoombinis on the computers in the library or games of handball on the quadrangle. My friend Joey came up to me once when I was just about to serve and pulled me aside, his face serious.
I think you’re ready to play with the boys.
You’re good enough. You should play with us instead.
When I did play with them and beat them all I was told to go back with the girls where I belonged. Same as when I was the only girl in a swimming race in year 2. I beat them all in the 25 metre freestyle. Dad had come to watch and I’d never been more proud. There were a few crying boys, upset at being beaten by a girl, but I didn’t feel bad. I was just better than they were.
At the age of 12, I was told I needed to start shaving my legs.
Because you have to start acting like a lady.
But I’m not a lady, I’m 12.
When I did take that step I was praised by the girls around me and I felt better about myself. Felt like I fit in. That boys would see me as a girl rather than their friend, and that was what I wanted, right?
My high school was all girls. My sisters had all been there before me, done that; they were school captain, vice captain, prefect, dux of subjects – the list goes on. They are now a teacher, a doctor and a medical student. They are fierce, they’re the smartest people I know. They’re my stars.
My mother duxed her school. She told me once that her father was completely shocked that she won scholarships to attend university.
Why would you want to go to uni? You’re just going to get married soon.
Because I want to, Dad. I want to learn about the world and get a job and contribute.
My grandmothers hadn’t finished school. I was gobsmacked when I learned that.
Why not? I asked.
Most women didn’t, was the answer.
Because we knew all we’d need to know by then. A woman’s place is in the home. You don’t need a fancy degree to know how to cook and sew and clean and raise children.
People ask me why I haven’t changed my last name since I’ve been married. This always puzzles me. Why would I? It’s not my name. I have no connection to it. It’s my husband’s name. He’s welcome to keep it.
But what about when you have kids?
Well, IF I have kids, that decision will be between my husband and me. If they end up with his last name, they might ask me why my name is different to theirs, and if they do I’ll tell them. Because my name is mine. Because being a woman doesn’t mean you have to accept things the way they’ve always been. If you want to change your name, that’s great. If you don’t want to, that’s great too.
My life now is women. It’s nurses on the ward, but usually not doctors. It’s hospital administration, to a certain level; it’s my manager, but not her manager. Why not? Oh I don’t know, lack of ambition, family commitments, too emotional, you know. They hold themselves back really, don’t they?
I read articles about a girl being raped in Croatia by three Australian men who pay her just over $30000 in a rape settlement. They have their one year sentence reduced to five years good behaviour. They buy their freedom, then make jokes on their instagram about joining the mile-high club with the flight attendant on their way back home. I read about Brock Turner, and other college campus rapists who get let off easily, and see how vilified their victims become.
I speak to my sisters of other colours, creeds, abilities – they face things I have never had to experience, thousands of tiny aggressions, again and again and again, and are told they must be twice as good to get half as much.
I see online vitriol sent to feminist pages. I see stomach-churning messages that guys send to my friends if they turn them down for a date. I get yelled at when I walk to the shops. I get into taxis and listen to the driver go on and on about how young women these days don’t act like ladies and they disgust him.
I’m 20, listening to my best friend tell me about a guy who keeps turning up to her place of work, asking her to join in a threesome, all the while insisting his attention is a compliment, while her male manager laughs it off. I’m 18, sitting at a bus stop, and a drunk man sits next to me, and I’m torn between wanting to move to keep myself safe but not wanting to seem rude. Then he turns to me, and starts saying disgusting things. Things that involve what he wants to do to me, how much I’d like it and I can’t move. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, and my face is heating up and my heart is a drum telling me to get out of there and I’m sick and feeling dirty and as though it’s my fault, then my feet can finally move and I start to get up and he pins me down and I start to scream and out of nowhere a security guard is there. I am crying and I run across the bridge, calling my mother to come and get me and the pain and anger in her voice when she hears what happened to me is palpable, and I am scared and sad and feel so wrong inside, like I’m polluted.
What can we do about these things? We’re just girls. And society tells us that it’s okay to be a girl, but.
We can be there for each other. We can be each other’s strongest allies. When we have daughters or meet people with daughters, we don’t smile sadly at them. We beam and congratulate them on their little bundle. And then, you wrap that little bundle up in our hope for their future. We will raise our daughters to believe in themselves. That they are never, ever, to think that they are worth less or worthless because they are a girl. That they are powerful and fierce and that they never, ever have to just shut up and take it, or smile, sweetheart, or that they have to get back in the kitchen. That they don’t have to laugh if they don’t think a joke is funny. That they are funny, despite what people say about female comedians. That they are wise. That they can be pilots or doctors or lawyers or nurses or teachers or firefighters or astronauts or mothers or soldiers or philosophers. You can even tell them what my parents told me. That if you want to be a writer, you should be a writer.
That you are important.
That you can change the world.
That anyone who says or thinks otherwise can suck it.