Photo by Chris Palethorpe 

Photo by Chris Palethorpe 

As is often the case when the weather goes a little too Melbourne-esque, I’ve spent the last few nights cocooned, relishing in hygge and watching Netflix. On a recommendation, I watched The Ascent of Woman – a four part documentary of the female experience of history, focusing on some strong ladies who, even within the most deeply patriarchal and regressive societies, managed to not only excel, but to change the future for the next generations of women.

The documentary starts with exploring the society of people living in Çatalhöyük, Turkey, around 7500B.C. They were an egalitarian society, in which all people enjoyed equal respect, responsibilities, rights, and labour. However, as civilizations developed in Çatalhöyük and elsewhere, more sophisticated farming and agriculture led to the accumulation of wealth, and inevitably conflict over land and riches. Since warfare depended on male strength, men quickly became celebrated leaders and decision makers. And so it began that women everywhere came to be considered the weaker sex, in need of protection and control.

From then on, women’s rights vastly diminished all over the world. Common elements are seen throughout all societies, with restrictions on women’s movements, their visibility in public life, their clothing, their education, their participation in commerce and leadership, and their reproductive health. Religion crafted new justifications and superstitions as it spread through cultures and among peoples. These belief systems were wielded to rationalise calamitous assault, structured violence, and subjugation of women.

In a relatively short period of time, women went from being completely equal to having little or no rights at all. They were degraded to the meagre status of property (the father’s, and then married off to be the husband’s), and were thus unable to own property themselves. They had no right to divorce and minimal education. In Japan, China, and Greece, most women were almost entirely confined to the home and lived a life of servitude. Restrictions on movement and clothing, and especially enforcing the rule that women should cover their bodies and heads when leaving the home, were immensely common over the past centuries since 500 B.C.

The same is true in Australia. It is worth remembering that it was only 115 years ago that (white) women could vote in the Commonwealth of Australia – and Aboriginal women and men weren’t formally given the right to vote until 1962. Such a short time ago, women were still expected to be the sole homemakers and look after their husband and children. They had little opportunity for education or careers. They had no birth control, and therefore little control over their futures. They had no right to obtain credit or own property, which was solely in the hands of their fathers and husbands. In abusive relationships, wives had no right to divorce and no money of their own to be able to escape.

Given how recently the situation was so different for women, and that this is the current reality for many women around the world, I’m conscious of not taking the freedoms I have for granted. I also know that rights, even core rights like democracy, are fragile, and can change at any time. It has never been a better time to be a woman in Australia. I have freedom of movement (although it’s not always safe), I don’t question whether I can own property, there are systems in place that reduce my vulnerability and increase my independence, and I have a right to reproductive health care and education. These freedoms, however, are fresh and fragile; especially in our current environment beset by pushback against liberal ideals. Our collective movement towards gender equality has inevitably come up against a fear of loss of privilege.  

Current rhetoric on reproductive rights, criticism of women in power for everything except how they perform at work, sexist language that is still for the most part completely hidden under the monotony of everyday vocabulary – these things are so common that they rarely elicit shock or a second thought. Rhetoric can presage a degrading of basic rights, many of which we are still yet to receive: equal pay for equal work, equal representation in leadership at work and government, the right to live free from violence and fear, equality in household duties, and affordable childcare, just to name a few.

What the women before us did was fight to create a new normal – one that, on most days, we don’t think twice about. But we cannot afford to become complacent; we are far from reaching equality, and rights can be taken away at a faster rate than they are given. Irresponsible law making, for one, can quickly unravel that which we work so hard to gain. Progress on these issues is not guaranteed. It must be driven by collective work and spirit, and we must never tire, never apologise and never stop working for our rights.