Feminism's greatest failing: "we've been too nice"

Sally is a One Young World Ambassador from Australia who is passionate about unlocking the untapped resource of female talent in our communities, workforces, boardrooms and governments.

This was American feminist Gloria Steinem’s parting advice to a packed Melbourne Town Hall on 16 May as part of her current Australia and New Zealand book tour “My life on the road.”

When asked by local high school students what was feminism’s greatest failing, Gloria calmly looked at the audience and said “I think we’ve been too nice.” 

After spending an hour listening to Gloria, this really hit home for me. Despite her calmness, humour and optimism, there was a palpable sense of frustration in the room. Hearing Gloria talk about violence against women all over the world, about the connections between racism and sexism in the US and Australia, about the atrocities of female circumcision, about patriarchy controlling the means of reproduction—and in doing so, women’s bodies—one couldn’t help but feel frustrated. 

Gloria said the oppression of women around the world—from preferences for baby boys in many Asian countries to women being victims of war crimes—has actually led to there being less women in the world today than men. To a room full of nodding heads, she shared that when women’s brains are valued as much as their wombs, women will no longer become less valuable with age.

Despite the progress led by pioneers such as Gloria, I couldn’t help but leave feeling a bit angry by the injustice that continues, and worried that I’ll be taking my own children to a packed Melbourne Town Hall in my 60s to yet again hear another brilliant feminist tell us to keep fighting the good fight.

So I’m harnessing Gloria’s advice, time to be a bit less nice, a bit less likeable and have a bit more fire in my belly. 

Over the past decade, the case for gender equality is increasingly framed by evidence, statistics, buzzwords, business cases—as if the fact that women having less opportunities than men is not enough, in and of itself. Do we really need any other reasons?

We sometimes forget the human side, the very basic notion that everyone on this planet deserves an equal shot at living a happy and safe life, with equal opportunities to succeed. We sometimes don’t harness the fiery sense of justice from the suffragettes and the 70s feminist movement for fear of being labeled or offending the status quo or not being “nice”.

As Gloria reminded us all at this event, maybe that’s exactly what we need. Time to be a bit less nice.