How bluestockings can change the world

Writing in last weekend’s Australian, Bettina Arndt who is best known as a sex therapist, expressed concern that many of the women who comprise around 60% of Australian university graduates are emerging from their studies as “fully fledged social justice warriors.” She is particularly worried that it is mostly women who are taking arts courses, particularly gender studies, which is indoctrinating them with left wing views. “The result is successive generations of left-wing female graduates…it shows up in AES data on issue after issue: asylum-seekers; government spending on indigenous affairs; stiffer criminal penalties; positive discrimination for women” She also cites an audit of history teaching at Australian universities for the Institute of Public Affairs, which uncovered a “narrow ideological perspective that focuses almost exclusively on class, race and gender, with hardly a word on democracy, liberalism, capitalism — the essential tenets of Western civilisation.”

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Bettina Arndt. Photo: Sky News

Although I have never studied either political science or economics, I do not see why highly educated women with a passion for social justice is cause for concern. Arndt’s suggestion for university courses to cover the ‘tenets of Western civilisation’ such as liberalism and capitalism shows far less concern for the good of society.

Additionally, what is even more concerning is the fact that Arndt does not believe a recent report from the Human Rights Commission investigating the incidence of rape and sexual assault on campus: one of the main impediments to women’s education today. They may enrol in any course, but the vile culture of bullying and harassment may discourage them from continuing, and then their talents may be stifled.
I don’t want to make generalisations, but many women throughout history have used their talents and education for good. Educated women have frequently gone on to achieve great things for society, particularly with regards to the rights of women and children, even before they won the right to vote.
Women’s participation in the voting process, political participation and leadership in both the corporate and community sectors is vital for advocacy of women’s rights. When women participate in decision making processes, the status of women and children improves. As 18th century bluestocking Mary Wollstonecraft said, women do not want to have power over men, but over themselves.

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John Opie – Portrait of Mary  Wollstonecraft, circa 1790-1. Tate Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the same women who fought for suffrage in order to improve the status and living conditions of women and children, later campaigned against conscription during wartime, and even against the war itself. Bella Guerin, the first woman to graduate from an Australian university, when she graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1883, later became very active in the suffrage movement as well as a vocal opponent of conscription during World War I. Fellow suffragist Vida Goldstein credited women’s suffrage in Australia as being the catalyst for further social reforms initiated by women: decline in infant mortality, the introduction of pure food laws, raising the age of consent, pensions for invalids, early closing hours for pubs and technical education for girls.

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Portrait Photograph of Bella Guerin, circa 1910. University of Melbourne Archives via Wikimedia Commons

Humanities courses at university can teach people many valuable skills, which may be adopted by those who have not gone to university – critical thinking, analysing sources instead of believing everything you read, correct referencing, encouragement of wide reading on both sides of an issue, and a general inclination to interrogate data instead of swallowing it. People with these skills are more likely to become responsible and well-informed voters and citizens.

Social justice has become a bit of a derogatory phrase in some circles, but when considering issues affecting our society, our first response should be one of compassion – who is being disadvantaged, who is being marginalised, who is being oppressed in this particular situation and what can I do about it? Do we recognise systemic injustice and institutionalised oppression as well as individual incidents? Are we working to change the system and make it fairer? Are we listening to marginalised voices or only the ones with money and power? This is particularly important in developing countries, where women are disproportionately affected by climate change, severe weather events, systemic poverty, trafficking and exploitation. If you make it a partisan, us-vs-them issue, and condemn the other side, then you are not helping, you are just arguing.

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