Today is International Women’s Day and my guest is Lulu Respall-Turner. The rest of the month has a slightly different theme, but today I’ve asked Lulu to talk about how she became a feminist. I’ve known Lulu for nearly two decades. We were part of a small team that founded Women’s History Month for Australia. She’s done an incredible amount of work (mostly unseen) for women in need and it’s an honour to host her today.
An Awakening – A Feminist Journey
Part 1: I Am Woman
When I left an abusive marriage decades ago, I wasn’t aware that my ‘abandonment of the marital abode ‘ (in the terms cited in the Civil Code of my country of origin) marked the beginning of my feminist journey.
I didn’t count myself as a feminist then. Indeed, I didn’t know what it meant – I remember reading bits of news from the UK and USA of women marching, burning bras, picketing men-only pubs and clubs. These reports mystified me. What was it all about?
It wasn’t the actual act of separation from my former partner that I regard, in hindsight, as a feminist act. Leaving an unhappy marriage is not necessarily feminist, without considering the circumstances that led to it,.What counts is how it leads to a woman’s realisation of self, and the accompanying awareness of a distinct identity and place in society.
My ex-partner was prone to drunken violence. Looking back, and with what I now know of psychological disorders, he might have had untreated post-traumatic disorder that led to violent behaviour. However, at the time, few people, not even those among the medical profession in my home country, knew of or understood PTSD.
I sought counselling. My partner, of course, didn’t think there was anything wrong with him – the problem was me. He expected me to conform to the ways of his family. One of those I consulted was an old Catholic priest, a kindly man, but his advice was like a death sentence: : “You just have to bear the suffering, my dear, never mind, you will get your reward in heaven”.
I resisted that advice after much soul-searching; I decided to leave when I realised that staying could end with premature death (never mind the heavenly reward), either from mental illness and suicide, or from any future DV episode. I was not fearful for the children staying with their father because he was never violent towards the kids, and his parents and sisters were living in the same premises.
Even though I felt free at last from fear and violence, I was still beset by guilt, shame and self-doubt, especially about leaving my children. Family and friends, even though they knew of the violence, thought it was wicked of me to leave. I should have just stayed, ‘for the sake of the children’.
One day I chanced upon Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I read it through and could not believe how closely it seemed to resonate with my life, my innermost longings and thoughts. It was a godsend, an eye-opener. The high, almost ecstatic, sense of enlightenment I felt was like the day when, as a very young child, I discovered I could read and comprehend the words in my kindy primer. The Second Sex made me understand why my life had gone awry, why my marriage failed, even why the violence. Simply put, my ex-partner and I weren’t ‘made for each other’.I wasn’t ready, not mentally nor emotionally equipped, to accept the patriarchal dominance that was the norm prevailing, which my ex-partner expected . Indeed, it was my father’s dominating, controlling hold over me that drove me into marriage, thinking that as a married woman, I would at least be leading my own life as an adult – from frying pan to the fire, as it turned out. As de Beauvoir put it:
The truth is that just as – biologically – males and females are never victims of one another but both victims of the species, so man and wife together undergo the oppression of an institution they did not create. If it is asserted that men oppress women, the husband is indignant; he feels that he is the one who is oppressed – and he is; but the fact is that it is the masculine code, it is the society developed by the males and in their interest, that has established woman’s situation in a form that is at present a source of torment for both sexes.
However, the notion of a long-institutionalised ‘masculine code’ cannot be taken as an excuse for violent and abusive behaviour. Each of us, after all, should be able to still use reasonable judgment to guide our actions.
I am about to reread The Second Sex, now more than three decades since my eyes fell upon the book. No doubt there will be some of de Beauvoir’s original ideas on women and female relationships that I would now disagree with, but I daresay some of her major points will still hold. But what I know is that at the time I first read her work, during those early weeks when I left my marriage, her words gave me much comfort and encouragement. She taught me that the patriarchal order of things, which I had accepted as ‘the way things are’ is not the natural order. This now famous quote particularly struck a powerful note with me: One is not born, rather one becomes, a woman. Women accepted patriarchy as normal for too long, to the detriment of their own personal and social development as a human being.
I stopped feeling guilty, no longer felt ashamed. I wasn’t wicked: I was simply resisting and fighting back against oppression. Having removed these negative feelings, I was on my way to remaking my identity and my life.
This episode – reading de Beauvoir – is only the first of my encounter with feminist thought. My interest and understanding of feminism continued developing. Like life itself, ideas of and about feminism are constantly changing. The concept of patriarchy as a theory of male oppression over women may be outmoded, but it is not dead, because it is still practised in many societies. But it is not the only explanation for gender inequality and oppresssion. Much more needs to be explored in the economic, political and cultural structures of society to correct the imbalance between men and women in all aspects of their lives.
Postscript: I have remarried, happily now for many years, to a man who has encouraged my feminist development and pursuits. I eventually gained custody of my children. I can say that these words by de Beauvoir now applies to my present situation
On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself–on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.
Note: This piece is an account of my own experience. In referring to Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of male-female relations of power and oppression, I do not deny that men also can be victims of oppression or violence, with women as perpetrators. But statistics overall do point to the majority of victims of DV to be female.