Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform meaningfully all our lives – bell hooks.

feminism is for everybody. bell hooks said it simply, but for some reason, the idea still confronts and offends many. And yet, we need feminism now as much as we ever have. At drinks with a bunch of strong, independent, creative and intelligent female friends recently, the conversation turned to sexism in daily life. Out of six women, all had experienced sexism – and in a myriad of forms. Sly comments from male coworkers and managers; engendered expectations of partners and family members; unwelcome wolf whistles, groping and commentary regarding our appearances; drink spiking; unequal pay… the list goes on. As Julia Gillard’s speech addressing misogyny in Australian politics and society and Tracey Spicer’s open letter to the press have recently made public, sexism is alive and well in Australian society.

As a high school teacher, I used to lead an activity with students that we titled ‘A Perfect World’. In the activity, I would read aloud to the class a statement from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice  which explains that the group is in charge of creating the rules for A Perfect World, a world in which everyone is equal. However, once the group has created their rules, they will all immediately drop dead, only to be reborn into the new society in a random form – black/ white/ man/ woman/ able-bodied/ handicapped/ homosexual/ heterosexual – their reincarnation would be completely random. And so, they had to devise rules that would make them equal, no matter what form they were reborn in. During this process, we would research the human rights violations of marginalised groups, and the most common characteristic for marginalisation was always sheer femaleness.

Being born a girl means that you are more likely to be illiterate, to contract AIDS, to endure violence, to drop out of school, to be forced into marriage and to have body image issues. Being born a girl means that you have only a 3% chance of becoming a powerful leader or CEO, and it is highly unlikely that you will ever be paid equally to or promoted as swiftly as your male counterparts. Rather than signifying the innate power and vitality of womanhood, pregnancy and child rearing will be seen as a taxpayer burden and career stopper. If you start a family or are a girl in a family, you will spend hours upon hours per week in the unofficial work of housekeeping, parenting and cleaning. Essentially, be born a girl and you are born unequal.

As is explored in the soon-to-premiere Australian documentary I am a Girl, being born a girl means that you are more likely to be subjected to violence, disease, poverty and disadvantage than any other group on the planet. The inequality of girls is an internationally recognised statistic, and on October 11th 2012, the UN celebrated the inaugural International Day of the Girl to draw global attention to human rights violations experienced by girls the world over . This was one day before the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl and blogger Malala Yousafzai, and one fortnight after the rape and murder of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher. Two extremely different cases, but both bound by and rooted deeply in a fear of women.

This fear of women is not new. In 1851, Sojourner Truth an emancipated African-American slave, attempted to address the fear in her famous speech ‘Aint I a Woman?’ , stating:

‘You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble’

What would happen if women and girls were afforded equality the world over? What does a patriarchal society have to fear in this instance? There is a misguided assumption that in ‘giving’ rights to one group, rights are taken away from another. As Truth so poignantly pointed out, there should be no fear that women will ‘take too much’, in fact there should be no fear at all.

In Australia,we are comparatively lucky that other freedoms are recognised and protected for all citizens, mitigating the limitations imposed upon girls and women globally. But sexism is a sly and slithering feature of our society, one that changes form and shape, making it difficult to define within the familiar context of our own worlds. What is the difference between a cultural value and sexism? Between a joke and sexism? Between a religious belief and sexism? The experiences of my friends and I pale in comparison to those endured by women and girls forced into marriage, slavery, prostitution and labour, but attempting to scale sexism and misogyny merely achieves separation and misdirects attention from the true issue.

And so as has happened for centuries, the stories of women and girls accumulate to generate new statistics. Individual narratives of pain and hurt, hope and abuse become a collective experience of sexism, misogyny and inequality. Layered with the complexities of race, class, sexuality and geography – all of those defining and interrelated prisms through which we understand and experience the world – women and girls continue to battle daily, to various degrees, with a patriarchal society.

It has been said that the most effective theories work themselves out of existence, but until then as bell hooks so clearly and simply said, surely feminism is for everybody. Because if not, what is the alternative? Certainly not the Perfect World imagined by my students as they walked in the shoes of the most marginalised.

J x