Shooting down the gender thugs

6 October 2011

Van Badham

female soldier

Van Badham

Sometimes my crazy female emotions, or hormones, or intuition, or shoes, or ovaries, or whatever, prompt the most gosh-darnedest sentiments in me.

Just today, for example, I found myself imagining that perhaps I should have more control over my identity as a woman than a couple of middle-aged men who write for newspapers.

Thank god, then, that Prof Clive Hamilton and The Australian’s Greg Sheridan have teamed up to set my pretty little head straight with their combined expertise.

Yes, that’s right – the tree-hugging, progressive poster-boy Prof and The Australian’s favourite cuddly Catholic apologist-for-dictatorship have stepped across the left/right divide for reasons of super-dooper importance to our country in these cash-strapped, climate-changed times:

They want to keep Australian women out of combat roles in the military.

Last week the  Government announced the long-overdue removal of the gendered prohibition against women soldiers serving in front-line positions. It was met with enthusiastic gratitude by women who actually serve in the military.

The previously discriminatory policy contravened the Australian military’s obligations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 Article 23 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Hamilton and Sheridan, however, were one voice of self-righteous horror at the event.

In an article for Fairfax, Hamilton’s rhetoric was emotional. Ending military discrimination was “a victory only for the campaign to obliterate difference”, and a “great betrayal of the women’s movement” on a par – no less! – with women “driving like hoons”. For shame!

Sheridan in The Australian did it once more, with feeling. The ADF’s decision to have all tasks assessed for physical requirements and assign personnel on physical capability might be standard occupational health and safety practice in every workplace in Australia, but Sheridan’s opprobrium ascended the poetic. The change was “lunacy… The stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my life…”, even “a punctuation mark in the larger grammar of madness.”

It’s heart-warming to see a rare moment of consensus amongst prominent identities of the Australian left and right on an issue of social policy.

It’s devastating that it seems to be a consensus belief in same-old, same-old misogynistic baloney – from dull, middle-class male Australian media commentators, left and right, once more telling women what they are, what they can be and what they should want.

Perhaps because he conforms to a particular stereotype so completely, Clive Hamilton’s article attempts to foist stereotyping upon three billion women across a diverse and complex world.

To him, we women are, homogeneously, compassionate and caring; we’re “pacifiers” who exercise a “subtle, civilising power” over the “violent tendencies of men”.

Yep, I know – I’m doing it right now.

Written with the anti-war earnestness of a camp-side rendition of Kum-ba-yah and dripping with the kind of  “why can’t we all be nice to one another?” idealism unfashionable even at undergraduate level, Hamilton’s chief objection to women in combat roles in the military seems to be that it threatens his sugar-and-spice notions of what little girls are made of.

The prospect that his fantasy female creatures “motivated more by care than duty” may transform into “women soldiers returning with their faces blown off” is just pseudo-leftist cake-decorating around a long stale cake of patriarchal assumptions.

For one, the myth of female delicacy. Conveniently ignoring the abject realities of menstruation and childbirth, this has variously employed over history to keep women out of universities, away from unclothed table legs and in a separate room of any Australian bloody pub until the mid 1970s.

Two words for you, Clive: volunteer army. There hasn’t been a draft in this country since the National Service Termination Act 1973 and any woman facing the risks and realities of front-line combat has not been forced to be there. Your desire to protect women from the implications of our own vocational callings, aptitudes and personalities is patronising and unnecessary, thank you.

No wonder you are “terrified of being accused of sexism” – you are writing sexist things and the accusation is thoroughly fair.

As much as Hamilton’s concern may be about the “uniquely female”, Sheridan’s piece is heartfelt for the boys. Every boorish stereotype associated with Australian masculinity is employed to defend Sheridan’s idealised male army of “common identity” with its “deep traditions of comradely bonding” – from the word “bloke” to an off-topic, impassioned avowal of both his love of rugby league and special, masculine feelings towards injured half-back Brett Kimmorley.

According to Sheridan, our army relies not on strategy, tactics or the most advanced technological arsenal in world history for its strength, but “very strong blokes” lifting things that “very few women can”.

That women – or (gasp!) men – who can’t lift things won’t be enfranchised the responsibility to do so under the new policy is of no consequence to Sheridan, who in a long career of syllogistic self-justification has not once yet let facts spoil a moment of prejudicial spewing. He declares “warriors are men” as if his own arrogant conviction in committing the words to paper are enough to make it so.

He similarly claims, without evidence, there are “inevitable romantic liaisons” when women enter mixed gender units, and that a “law of nature” as yet undiscovered by science forces a situation in which “male soldiers will try to protect female soldiers” in a combat situation.

That rather a lot of male soldiers throughout history have risked their own safety to protect other male soldiers, that this is the basis of tactical defence, troop cohesion and the very notion of “mateship” is, again, to Sheridan, of no concern.

The problem with generalisations at the Hamilton-Sheridan end of the scale of operatic pomposity is that they only require a single contradicting fact to utterly collapse.

Neither “women” or “men” are homogeneous groupings, a fixed set of behaviours or in essence anything other than one of two principle variations on a spectrum of random biological bits, all with unique and variable talents, aptitudes and dispositions.

Hamilton’s claims that violent tendencies and the killing instinct are the sole preserve of men could be disclaimed by anyone who saw my face or heard my unrestrained and colourful invective when first I read his essentialist, sexist knobbery in the paper.

As for Sheridan, I suggest he wander into a defence force bar, approach the largest group of male combat soldiers he can find, point a finger and holler “Everyone knows you put ho’s before bro’s!” and see how well that goes down with the assembled before he utters such nonsense again.

In their attempts to restrict women to their narrow ideal paradigms, Hamilton and Sheridan are equally guilty of purporting myths and stereotypes about dominant masculinity that burden and oppress their fellow men.

Repeated attestations that “real” men have “violent tendencies” or an “instinct to kill” enforce a coercive cultural cruelty on the male of the species, publicly bullied by the like of Greg Sheridan to participate in dangerous behaviour or risk criticism of their masculinity.

If there’s a single ideological reason for allowing women to have front-line military responsibilities, it’s that their inevitable achievements will expose the arguments of Hamilton and Sheridan as nothing more than old-fashioned gender-thuggery.

The purely visual change to what represents our notion of “warrior” or “defender” just may force a reconsideration of how damaging and dangerous untrue social constructions of “male” or “female” qualities and behaviours are to everyone.

There are some militarily-skilled women in this country who are willing to risk disfigurement or death in defence of their people and their homeland and this is something Clive Hamilton and Greg Sheridan should be bloody thankful for, not slagging off.

They are grown men with multiple university degrees who’ve been given the social privilege of a public platform and have no excuse to be pig-ignorant, nor any reasonable grounds for their apparent need to own and control the definition of “women” and “men”.

Their shared, hysterical comments towards feminists are revelatory in this regard – to Hamilton feminism is “a rotting corpse” while to Sheridan “the wilder shores of feminism” that demand full social equality “have never been inhabited by normal people”.

It’s remarks like these that reveal what the real problem is for calcified old misogynists about women in military combat roles.

If women who refuse to conform to the stereotypes they wish to force on us are frightening, the prospect of us trained, skilled and wielding a gun must genuinely terrify.

Van Badham is a writer and dramaturg. Follow her on Twitter @vanbadham

All images © Australian Broadcasting Corporation