Australian feminism

Feminism is more advanced in Australia than in Britain

Julia GillardThe Australian prime minister . Further, 78% of respondents thought her reaction was right.

This did not surprise me, although it seems to have surprised many in Britain. I was brought up in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, after my parents emigrated from the UK when I was four. Australia at that time viewed itself predominantly through the lens of the outside world, particularly England. It was beholden to the myth of the "Ocker" Aussie – crass, uneducated and, crucially in this debate, irredeemably sexist. Blokes were blokes, sheilas were sheilas, and Australia was to be mocked for it, made to be the butt of any number of comedy sketches. The truth was different, of course, but the myth pervasive.

So, when I moved back to the UK from Australia seven years ago, I expected to find a country more sophisticated and more advanced in gender politics than the one I'd left. What I found, to a degree that completely surprised me, is a country far more culturally, endemically and institutionally sexist than Australia. In its basic form, there is not so much an unspoken belief that there are particular women's roles and men's roles, but a fully articulated one. Much more so than Australia, deviations from traditional gender roles are commented on, debated, argued against and mocked. Thinking women allow for and in some cases encourage such attitudes – reclamation quickly becomes complicity.

I believe the class system plays a huge part in this. In the UK there remains a fundamental tendency to accept preordained limiting conditions on the freedom of any individual, with gender being just another limiting condition. Genesis as destiny is accepted here with a naturalness that still shocks me. Australia, for all its faults, remains closer than the UK to a meritocracy, while Britain, for all its attempts, remains tied to the roles set by class and gender.

In Australia, perhaps because of the mode of its establishment – a European colony transported halfway across the world – women have had to be strong, and men have needed them to be so. So, while it would be disingenuous to argue that there is equality there, or that Abbott is our only misogynist, there is certainly a greater expectation and acceptance of women being able to act in a forthright and engaged way. Women's suffrage in 1901 is a shining example of this.

What has surprised me the most is that the sort of women in Britain who, in Australia, comfortably describe themselves as feminists, are either reluctant to do so or have rejected the term outright. One could argue that this is simply a rejection of the label, but for me it is symptomatic of a greater malaise. The endless hand-wringing that goes on about the term "feminist" reveals a discomfort with the implications of feminism that I find disquieting.

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