Fighting for the Right to be Equally Mediocre

A feminist is a person who believes the world should be gender-blind. Feminists believe that women – 51 per cent of the population – should be distributed throughout all levels of society in proportion to their numbers.

In short, feminists fight for a world in which women, to quote Eddie Murphy, get half.

There’s no doubt that Western women have come a long way, but even an Australian girl born today can not claim a birthright of equality. The statistics are saddening.

Women comprise close to half the Australian workforce, half the professionals and 63 per cent of university graduates. But they are just 3 per cent of ASX chief executives and 2.5 per cent of ASX chairmanships. Women occupy just 30 per cent of seats in Parliament and earn 83 cents on a man’s dollar, a figure that’s declined in recent years.

The literary world also has work to do. A study by Vida found that men were more likely to review books than women, and that for every four books reviewed by leading literary magazines – such as the London Review of Books, Granta, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books – three were written by men.

This fact may be at least partly explained by a preceding one, which is that women are less likely than men to be published in the first place. According to a small British survey, publication rates for big houses varied between 37 per cent women for Random House to 21 per cent at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Penguin’s Riverhead imprint was a lone standout, with a division of 45 to 55 female to male authors. And, no, the independents didn’t do any better.

That women are still some way from full equality raises a question for Australian novelists – such as me – who call themselves feminists. This question was called into sharp relief by a lucrative literary prize. Named for the prominent feminist (pictured), the Barbara Jefferis Award offers $35,000 for the best novel written by an Australian author ‘'that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society’‘.

I read heaps as a child and was very influenced by what I read. But I don’t recall being more affected by ‘'positively depicted’‘ female characters than villainous ones or disempowered ones. Like all the women I discovered through books, I learnt from their carelessness, their ignorance, their fear, their courage, their powerlessness and their cruelty.

This fact may explain the source of my allegiance to a feminism that’s aim is not just to give women the chance to shine but also to be mediocre. To my mind women shouldn’t need to prove they’re better than men to deserve their fair share of life’s opportunities – that they’re human and it’s only fair, should be enough.

Yes, female characters must populate the world of fiction. Their triumphs and struggles, their attributes and their flaws must be seen.

But just like their real-life counterparts, fictional females don’t need to be good or virtuous or admirable to be entitled to half of the space in stories our culture tells about itself to itself. All they need is to be visible.

The presence of fictional girls and women, affecting the hearts and minds of young and old alike with all the qualities that make them fully human, is the most empowering gift of all.

Publication history

Fighting for the Right to be Equally Mediocre  Sunday Sun-Herald