Feminism at the Crossroads

As International Women’s day progressively dawned around the world, Melbourne’s newest pretentiously quirky art installation began to make headlines. Ten ‘female’ traffic signals – that is, pedestrian figures dressed in skirts – were installed as part of a gender equality campaign to combat ‘unconscious bias’. The 12-month trial, which aims for a full 50/50 roll out, was organised by the Victorian lobby group ‘Committee for Melbourne’ – a non-profit organisation consisting of more than 120 Melbourne businesses and community groups. However, with such an authoritative name, misinformed criticism was directed straight at the Victorian Government.

The first point of contention was about the price tag. It reportedly cost an average of $8400 for a mere six lights to be changed, which was paid for by the Committee for Melbourne and Camlex Electrical. Those of us who return to more economically conservative family dinner tables on long weekends can breathe a sigh of relief – this automatically discounts the ‘waste of taxpayer dollars’ exclamation we are all so familiar with. But there is no doubt that this is a waste of money. The internet, and my conscience, were quick to point out how desperately women’s domestic violence refuges, homeless women’s assistance, and specialised health initiatives, need this kind of funding. It was only last year that Melbourne was crying out for a federal funding match for women’s safety initiatives, after the state Government slashed 30 percent of funding for community legal centres over a period of three years. I am not saying that we should outright not bother with more artistic endeavours, but with the Productivity Commission finding that every $1 spent on practical initiatives, such as these centers, saves the community $18, there’s obviously a better return – socially, emotionally and financially – which comes with wiser spending.

The greatest loss from the project, however, came in the form of energy, resources and respectability in this new age of feminism. Feminism is caught at a crossroad – allies and proponents must appreciate the progress that comes from the small victories, and work towards the goal of equality one small step at a time. But feminists must also strategically and carefully select the biases and battles they want to pursue. Collectives advocating gender equality don’t have the liberty to stand at the aforementioned crossroad and make a stink about the type of green light they are given.

The danger of a venture like this one – especially given it was timed to coincide with 8 March – is that it provokes laughter and criticism for being ‘petty’ in the face of real representative equality issues. Changing the perceived gender of traffic lights on International Women’s Day occupied Australia’s public discussion, case in point, but it also took up time and space in the media on an important day for women-specific publicity. In turn, the lights and their presence in the media galvanised any and all opposition to the larger goals of feminism. The backlash worked against the best interests of the feminist movement generally, the intentions of the Committee for Melbourne, and the ability for society to address and emphasise more pressing issues in women’s representation – such as the scarcity of women in corporate leadership. New York City, for example, also made some cosmetic changes to its streetscape, but their art installation – a new statue of a resolute young woman facing the famous charging bull of Wall Street – sent the right message.

Victorian Minister for Women Fiona Richardson supported the new lights, saying it would make public spaces more inclusive of women. But what women are these? Those who dress in skirts? Never once in my life have I stood at an intersection and questioned the gender of the LED light across from me. When the news arose, I meandered to the nearest crossing to reflect – the ‘man’ symbol isn’t inherently masculine at all, it’s just a figure. #notallwomen wear dresses, just like #notallmen wear pants, and heck, not all people adhere to a binary where in which there are only two options for gender, dress and symbolism. Putting a dress on the ‘universal man’ symbol is not the solution. In fact, it only serves to reinforce stereotypical ideas about women, men and the gender binary. Instead of introducing ‘women’ figures to crossing lights, and thus reinforcing the concept of binary gender that advocates have worked tirelessly to progress, perhaps the resources and effort would be better spent educating children to perceive the figure, as many do, as a ‘green person’. Perhaps we should be teaching children from a young age that binary gender is an inadequate and outdated categorisation for human beings.
Only weeks ago I stood in a sea of women protesting out the front of the US Capitol in Washington DC. There, was a mass of people who were so passionate and present that the streetlights were turned off and the streets shut down. My experiences that day showed me the light regarding exactly how much women still have to fight for, and how necessary it is that we do it together.

Yes, feminism is about freedom, choice and expression – but it is also bigger than each of us. It is about choosing our battles, and overlooking those which are derisive. I don’t think a single person in that protest, or their sisters the world over, would have truly given a second thought about those traffic lights. So women, spread the light of feminism, don’t be feminism lite.