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Feminism is not the exclusive preserve of the left

Trisha Jha | The Guardian | 14 April 2014

Penny Wong is correct: feminism is not the exclusive preserve of the left. This is something those on the left who embrace feminism and those who reject it on the right should understand. Classical liberals fought the earliest battles for gender equality (though not exclusively): the right to vote, to own property, and to own oneself in a marriage.

This kind of oppression of women has largely been overcome in the west, but social norms still discriminate against women. It's a battle that everyone with feminist values, not just those who are comfortable with the feminist label, needs to fight.

I identify as a feminist not only because I believe in gender equality, but also because I believe in the fundamental liberal principles of individual rights, equality before the law, autonomy and self-ownership.

Central to this is that sexism and misogyny are inherently collectivist – they reduce the diversity of our societies into two amorphous groups, where men are a certain way and women are another. Sexism robs people of their individuality.

Sexist stereotypes can only effectively be dealt with through free speech, free thought and exchange, and civil activism. These acts are not merely compatible with liberalism – they are a necessary condition for any society that is free in its culture as well as in its laws and institutions. That is why I participated in the Women's Collective at university, presented at feminist conferences, got involved with campaigns, marched in Reclaim the Night rallies, and organised and attended SlutWalk marches. My approach to feminism is encapsulated by this appropriation of John Stuart Mill: Over herself, the individual is sovereign.

Unfortunately, aspects of government policy are disenfranchising women economically. The ability to participate in work is the best safeguard against poverty, especially that which can accompany divorce and domestic or sexual violence. The design of our family payments system can create a perverse incentive in the form of a "low income" or "low participation" trap for women with young children, which child care costs only exacerbate. We know that women often bear the brunt of the inequities that arise, and liberal principles can play a role in amending them.

Until all women can enjoy the rights and social freedoms of a truly liberal society, there is still work for feminists of all stripes to do.

Trisha Jha is a policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.