WIND IN OUR FACES AND FIRECRACKERS UP OUR BUTTS: On being a woman in a patriarchal world
(Keynote speech given at the closing dinner of All About Women, Sydney Opera House, March 2017)
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
I want to start by acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.
I come from a country whose isolation preserved ancient traditions, reflected for example in the meaning of our names. My son's name is he who travels by sea, my mother's name is she who comes to the rescue and my name, Thordis, is another word for Thunder Goddess, which literally means she who makes some noise.
Not too long ago, I did just that, but not in the way I intended. I was about to give a speech at a wedding, but managed to trip over an extension cord, throw my wine in this golden bubble that elegantly arched across the stage where it hit the priest, and all the while I'm helplessly fumbling for a curtain to take my fall. The curtain, however, had not prepared for this, and as a result, ended up in a heap on top of me. What helped me process this humiliation were the words from a dear friend of mine, whose grandmother was born in the early nineteen hundreds and a badass shero like you wouldn't believe. She used to say: "Honey, don't be afraid to fall on your face. At least it's a forward movement."
Speaking of movement, in order to accept the honour of being with you today, I travelled across the entire globe, from the Nordic region. It was worth every travelled mile to find myself in the country that bred trailblazing women like Julia Gillard and Germaine Greer, in the company of the likes of Clementine Ford and Marcia Langton, not to mention hearing the stories that were generously offered here today, of women's creative genius, women's contribution to solving the biggest challenges of our times, such as climate change and war, but also the particular challenges that women face, the violence we're subjected to, our lack of representation in the media, the hostility with which our opinions are often received, the intersectional oppression experienced by women who are not privileged, white, able-bodied, or cisgender. And how incredibly important it is that we have platforms like this to tell our stories, inspire each other and remind us of our mutual goal of being free and full participants in society.
As an Icelandic woman, I come from the country that year after year tops the Gender
Equality Index as the best place in the world to be a woman. And we have some fabulous stories to fuel us, like that of Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, who became the first democratically elected female head of state in the world on the very same night I was born. Not only was she a woman, she was a working-class, single mother and she once told me: "Þórdís, my strongest suit is that I’m not a man and I've never tried to act like one.” As a breast cancer survivor, a journalist once found it in him to ask madam Vigdis if having only one breast would be a hinder for her as President, and she gave him a long look before replying: "Well no, as it's not my intention to breastfeed the nation."
Iceland was also first to have an openly lesbian Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurðardóttir – who helped us make ends meet in the Reykjavik Women's Shelter, where I worked with international trafficking victims as young as five years old. When asked why the Nordic countries were leading the way on women's equality, she replied by saying that it's because we recognize "women as equal citizens rather than commodities for sale."
And yet, as world champions of women's rights, we have a gender pay gap that translates into women working the entire month of December for free each year, we have a 70% dismissal rate of rape cases, we have a supreme court that's 90% male and a staggering 42% of women who are sexually or physically abused in their lifetime. In a world where that's the best country to be a woman, we need to make our voices heard. In a world where a man, whose privileges know no boundaries, brags about sexually violating women and is subsequently elevated to the highest office in the Western World, women's stories need to be heard, more than ever, along with the demand that responsibility is taken whenever our rights are violated. From my native Iceland across the globe to the Australian ground we stand on, we need all the nasty women we can get to m a k e s o m e n o i s e.
In a world where our right to free and safe reproductive health care is constantly under attack, evidenced recently in Poland, where women poured out onto the streets by the millions and made such a living hell that congress scrapped a bill to outlaw their right to abortion. They made noise.
Meanwhile women in the UK are protesting the tampon tax, that forces women and girls pay extra for the fact that their bodies perform functions that sustain life. The intricate workings of the female body not only fascinate male politicians who find themselves obliged to confine it with legislation, it can also be a mystery to ourselves before we're old enough to know how it all works. My friend's four year old daughter was getting dressed with her mother one morning when she caught a glimpse of her tampon string. This prompted the question: Mommy, what are you doing with a firecracker up your butt?
The same woman that received this valid question actually works to get tampons and sanitary napkins to women and girls who are displaced due to war and conflict. Because no, not even then do our bodies stop performing the miraculous functions that sustain life.
I've long been fascinated by the story of your fellow countryman Cliff Young, the Australian potato farmer who at the age of 61 beat top-notch professional athletes in an 875 km ultramarathon. When he crossed the finishing line, he had no idea that he was the first runner to do so, nor that he'd won a prize of 10.000 dollars. He had to pop his fake teeth into place before he could give a statement, as he'd removed them during the marathon because of the pesky way they rattled in his mouth while he ran.
Being a woman in a patriarchal world means we often times have to run faster, work harder and meet higher standards – all the while knowing that if we make mistakes, they're judged harder than our male counterparts. Women who are greatly outnumbered in corporate boardrooms and government positions have confided in me that they're terrified of making mistakes because they'll not be judged as individuals, but as representatives of their gender, and that their actions will reflect on all women. What keeps them going is the hope that if they emerge as unlikely winners in a race where they started well behind the starting point, it will inspire and strengthen other women.
With his fake teeth in place, the marathon winner Cliff Young was ready to announce that he split the 10,000 dollar prize between the five runners who were still on their way to the finishing line. "They worked just as hard as I did, and they're still out there doing it" he said. Similarly, I want to urge those of us who are here, at the prestigious Sydney Opera House, to ensure that the voices of women, who are still out there running the marathon, are heard. That their noise echoes throughout these halls as well as other places of influence and power. Because no matter how inspiring, we should not measure how far we've come by the success of those who're in the front line, like the trailblazing women I've been quoting to you, but by the toil of those who are out there fighting their most basic of rights. It's not enough that some women have the right to an education, it's not enough that some of us get to enjoy our childhood while others are married off into domestic slavery, it's not enough that some of us are represented in the media and public life, it's not enough that some of us have the right to sexual and reproductive health services, or the right to a life free from institutionalised oppression and mutilation – all of us need to have that. Confinement isn't always defined by the four walls of a home, or by the borders of a country, or even the words in a constitution, confinement can be defined by silence or the narrowness of minds that leaves for example our transgender and our disabled sisters having their participation in public life confined by their most basic of needs due to a lack of safe and accessible restrooms. As women, we need to be aware that we are never freer than the least free among us.
During this marathon, there will be times when we're running with the wind in our faces, we'll shed blood, sweat and tears on the way, and we're going to make mistakes. We're going to have bad days where we feel like our teeth are rattling in our mouths and we've got firecrackers up our butt and we might even fall flat on our faces. But never forget that even that fall contributed to a glorious, forward movement.
And a whole lot of noise.