Trailblazing sacrifices: the politics of discrimination suits

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
May 24, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

In a recent episode of The Good Wife, a woman described harassment from a male colleague which involved having her shoulders squeezed in a staffroom. He claimed to just be a “tactile guy”; she alleged unwanted attention.

A couple of years ago in this very space, I wrote about a Calvin Klein billboard. I interpreted the image as one of rough-n-tumble group sex; other commentators viewed it as gang rape.

In 2010, Kristy Fraser-Kirk attempted to sue David Jones for $37 million to compensate for the alleged sexual misconduct of her boss. Some championed Fraser-Kirk as proverbially fighting the good fight, others were quick to allege an overreaction.

Sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are notoriously complicated topics, often considered intensely subjective and inevitably judged harshly in the fickle court of public opinion.

My immediate reaction to the suggestions of the South Australian Opposition Leader about women needing to just do their jobs rather than seek discrimination recourse was to rant and rail. Her comments, unquestionably, were narrow-minded and victim-blaming and ever further evidence of all those times when women can be just as horrible to other women as men can be.

But the case isn’t so simple. Or at least, I hope it’s not. Just as the too-often-idiotic Jason Akermanis didn’t adequately explain his point that gay AFL players should stay in the closet, I suspect Isobel Redmond didn’t adequately explain hers either.

Both points were awful – without question – and both maintain an ugly, conservation status quo and further the oppression of the already oppressed, but there’s a little more going on too.

Both Redmond and Akermanis presented cautionary tales about the downsides of action. That there are consequences for putting your hand up; for identifying yourself. As a homosexual. As a victim. As aggrieved.

Think Anita Hill, think Kristy Kirk-Fraser, think Kirsty Fletcher. To dare speak the unspeakable in a cynical culture that instantly suspects gold-digging, that assumes vindictiveness, and which quite clearly isn’t quite comfortable with equal rights, means that women jeopardise their reputations, their career prospects and their mental health by vocalising subpar treatment.

The Redmond comment suggests two options for the woman discriminated against. There’s the feminist firebrand option: daring to complain and daring to become a sacrificial lamb for the cause because of the principle.

The flipside is being the liberal “playing-the-patriarchal-game” feminist where teeth are clenched and shit is swallowed because a cost-benefit analysis determines that the principle is simply not worth the trouble.

I’ve recently finished writing a book on menstruation. During my research I came across a book called Ladies on the Lot, which is about – of all topics – women working in car sales. An anecdote included involved women sales agents adopting sexist behaviour to fit in with male colleagues: laughing for example, and agreeing with men that women who complain are “on the rag” or “not getting enough”.

A woman in such a scenario may be acting politically egregiously, she may be betraying her sisterhood, she may even be providing a thoroughly loathsome lesson for young women about their rights.

But yet not everyone wants to be the firebrand. Not every woman wants the burden of being a role model, of being an example. Some women will actually choose to just be quiet because it’s the path of least resistance. Choice, of course, being the operative word here.

No, Redmond unquestionably should not be discouraging women to take advantage of their hard fought for legal rights to fight discrimination. But it would be incredibly naive to think that doing so comes without consequence.

© Lauren Rosewarne