Vogue Australia


Jessica Rudd celebrates all that pioneering feminists did for her but wishes they understood her generation better.


Recently I crossed paths with a fellow feminist. Both thinking, literature-loving Australian women, we were bound to hit it off, I thought, the only cleft between us a generation or two.


We met for coffee – mine with milk, hers with cigarettes – and exchanged the usual pleasantries. By the second coffee, however, civilised natter had become a polite fight. It took me by surprise. Don’t get me wrong; I thrive on a good argument, but it became clear that we weren’t debating an idea or a concept, that this was a clash between two types of women: hers and mine.

She was the battle-weary warrior. She told war stories of chaining herself to bars before being thrown behind them for her trouble. Of picket lines, brutality and the sisterhood. She had fought a fierce frontline battle for the rights we now enjoy, and the energy this took was as visible in the stern look on her face as it was in the tough pelt of her leather jacket. All at once, the differences between us were starker than the matt red paint on my lips.


I am woman, hear me smile. I like to paint my nails and shave my legs, and I wear a bra because God gave me a decent pair and I want them to stay up. I like wearing shoes, preferably toe-numbingly tall ones, and dread the day my podiatrist tells me that enough is enough. I take great pride in cooking, and hunger for the sated smiles of dinner guests.


When a man opens the door for me, I thank him for his kindness. I cry at soppy movies and snuggle into my husband. Yes, I’m married. I want to share my life. We are four years in and it’s pretty great. So great, in fact, that we would like to start a family sometime.


I have a gaggle of gorgeous friends, too. When we get together, my friends and I like to go out for a few vinos and a good gossip. We talk politics over pedicures and debate books at brunch.


I write for a living. It makes me happy to make my readers happy. Before I got this dream job, I worked as a lawyer, on a political campaign and in PR. Each job taught me something new about who I am. So far I know I’m an advocate, my drug of choice is the adrenaline of purpose, and I’m a storyteller. But I’m borderline 28, so who knows where that will lead me next?


The point is that I have choices. And I didn’t get them by chance. They are my inheritance from the pioneering warriors of generations past. There is so much to thank them for. I watch Joan and Peggy cop the grubby office come-ons daily on Mad Men but it’s as alien to me as Battlestar Galactica. When I say no, it means fuck off or you’ll go to prison.


I delight in the privacy of a polling booth and don’t give two hoots how my husband, dad or brothers vote.I felt no pressure to marry other than the persistent drumbeat of my heart and the certainty of my head. I kept my maiden name and it was unremarkable. I’ve opened bank accounts, borrowed money and invested it unchaperoned. I can walk into a bar and order a drink as easily as I can take the bar exam. I could be a barrister, truck driver, solo sailor, CEO, chef or president and get paid as much as – if not more than – the next guy.


If I choose to study law but decide that the profession is not for me, that’s as okay for me as it would be for my brothers. If I choose to get married and move overseas for my husband’s work, write books about politics and shoe porn, take time off work to have kids, that’s okay, too. Nobody forces me; these are my choices.


But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had disappointed her, with all my lighthearted talk of chick lit, fashion and nuptials. Perhaps she didn’t think I took myself seriously, that I was a frivolous, ungrateful recipient of the rights she’d won me. That I had put them in my glory box between dusty yearbooks and an heirloom tea set.


I can understand why she doesn’t understand me. Femininity is my trademark and she has spent her adult life trying to dispel its mystique, to dissolve stereotypes and pave the way for equality. We are feminists of different eras – there’s a schism in our ism.


Writing commercial women’s fiction about politics is, to my mind, as serious a business as it gets. Why can’t a discussion of democracy and all its woes thrive in the context of wardrobe malfunctions and dating dramas as much as it does in the sexual escapades and sporting prowess of commercial men’s fiction?


The fact is, if we want more women to get involved in politics and to have strong voices in the public policy process, we have to make it relevant and accessible. Not all mothers of three with a teething toddler on one hip, dinner on the stove, a stain on her best suit and an unfinished PowerPoint presentation on her USB stick are going to go to bed the night before a massive meeting and find solace between the pages of Alastair Campbell’s The Blair Years, as terrific as it is.


My generation sees equal opportunity as the norm because of the work hers did, but I don’t want to lose my gender in her ongoing agenda. Why mimic maleness? I wear make-up because I like to, not because men expect me to. That’s the same reason why I covet the stylings of Messers Louboutin, Dolce and Gabbana. It’s why I put thought into form-fitting garments that flatter my figure. If the way I present myself makes a man’s blood rush from neurons to nether regions, that’s his problem. I don’t complain when a welltailored suit and a flash of cologne get me hot under the collar and clouds my focus.


Veterans, please know that when we wear our sex on our sleeve it is not because we are ungrateful, it’s because we revel every day in the spoils of your victory. In choosing to be and do whoever and whatever we want, we honour you. Thanks to you, when a little girl puts on a pink dress it doesn’t diminish her.


When I was a teenager I stuck a green and purple sticker on my schoolbag. “Girls can do anything,” it said. As it faded, so did its message. It’s right. We can do anything, but as the years have filed by I’ve come to terms with the greater nuance: I don’t think we can or should do everything.


I learnt that from my mum. Mum is my role model. First, she gives the world’s most empathic and emphatic hugs. Second, she does what she loves to do, helping longterm unemployed people find work. Third, she has turned that passion into a sizeable business employing more than 1,500 people in nine countries. Finally, she has exquisite taste in shoes, most of which I can fit into.


In 1995, Dad was in the middle of his first election campaign and Mum’s six-year-old business had begun to soar. They figured they could make it work without outside support.


One morning, when Dad had an early campaign commitment, Mum was getting ready for a board meeting due to start in the CBD at nine. She was chairing it. Nick and I, nine and 11 respectively, were getting into our school uniforms, thrilled to get tuckshop money for once.


Marcus, two, was another story. He did not want to get out of his pyjamas. He refused to get into his high chair. He did not want his Weet-Bix and then, when he changed his mind, he complained it had gone soggy. He would not let Mum dress him for childcare. He would not let her buckle him into his car seat. The only thing he was going to do was scream his lungs out.


Mum arrived at the board meeting frazzled. That night over a wine or two she and Dad decided they needed to reach out for support. There was a lesson in it for all of us, not in capability, but capacity. We can do it all, but we can’t do it all at once. The rights we now enjoy weren’t supposed to be burdensome. Bundled, they are the gift of liberation. I might not need all of them at the same instant, but they are there for me if I do.


Of course, the battle continues. Women are still under-represented on boards and in parliament. Equal pay rights may be enshrined in law but it doesn’t always mean that in practice. Australia has only recently introduced its first paid parental leave scheme, which is an excellent first step with a long trek ahead. And that’s just here.


If we look elsewhere, our battle seems trivial. There are girls being denied access to education because they are girls. There are girls being mutilated and married off against their will to older men. There are girls and women being traded as sex slaves, with no proprietary rights over their own bodies. There are women who are denied economic independence. They can’t even go to a bank, let alone borrow from it without permission from a responsible man. When they are sick, their husbands can forbid them from being examined by a doctor if he is male and outside the family.


It’s this, the basic, fundamental human rights of women everywhere that should be our priority. This should be what we debate over a latte or an espresso and a cigarette. The rest of it – the choice to wear heels or flats, the choice to marry or remain single – is inconsequential until everyone has as many choices as we do.

Until then, let’s just help a sister out.