Study gets in the way of a feminist life: or does it?

Today I was offered a great gig by a work colleague, as vocal coach for a week-long workshop up North. I couldn’t take it, as it falls right smack in the middle of my Melbourne trip and my Greece trip. I am now sad and gloomy. There are a few reasons I am sad and gloomy. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time…

I was a single parent of 2 boys for umpty years. I had no degree or fixed income and had to rely on a few teaching gigs and performing gigs to support my boys. I was the sole bread winner and a part-pensioner. Forget the ex – he was no good for nuffink, including child support. I was treated like a pariah because of my single parent status and my potential income stream was always going to be low because I was an artist-musician. I was a bit down-trodden, a bit angry, made some poor boyfriend choices, but by gosh at least I was supporting my family AND still a musician/singer. This alone made me proud and a little bit righteous.

On the plus side: I was a brilliant budgeter and my boys never went hungry. We just didn’t have much. Then I decided enough was enough and I finished my degree, went and did a Grad Dip Ed and became a teacher. My rationale: at least I got the holidays with my kids. It wasn’t a glamorous life but it was productive and I mostly quite liked teaching. I started to make inroads in singing again, and loved my emerging career as part-time opera chorister. I was earning a living, working, teaching: a portfolio musician (read: full time music teacher).

Anyhoo. Life goes on and I meet a lovely man, we fall in love, I get married and make the heartbreaking choice to leave my nearly grown-up boys, my career, and move to northern climes. Nuffink wrong with all that, either. Except I miss my boys.

But! Here I am, new city, new state. No job, no income source other than my husband’s income and all of a sudden I’m feeling strangely like I have no power any more. It’s not so much a power thing, it’s a “feeling productive and meaningful through work” kind of thing. I feel like I am not being a true feminist sistah by having my own income stream. So. I start a business. It’s going nicely. Word of mouth helps. I do a teensy-tiny bit of singing before throwing in the towel because I don’t like the poor treatment I get from the local opera company. And I start to study for my PhD.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m loving my research study – it’s uncovering years of cobwebby brain I never knew I had. But, at the end of my stipend and the end of that income stream I am once again feeling like I am just dabbling in the deep and meaningful existence that is my feminist life.

My mum, who was never able to work full time as she was raising five girls, was (is) a gentle feminist. She confounds stereotypes by doing good things with her hands: gardening, woodworking, furniture restoration. She has a degree (she had to do it all over again as her diploma in physiotherapy was not recognised by the time she reentered the workforce). She nearly finished a graduate diploma in gerontology. She was never sweet, girly looking. Not to me, anyway. My mum has blunt hands made rough by her work. She never wears makeup. She has short hair. And she made darn sure her daughters went to a feminist school. We never wore pink – well, I wanted to but I looked sickly if I did. I tore the heads off dolls, climbed roofs, had mud baths and made mud pies. I wore trousers as soon as I could. My mum, who grew up in the deep shadows of the stay-at-home mum of the fifties and the bright you-can-do-anything-you-want sunlight feminism of the seventies, ensured that at least her daughters were given every opportunity to succeed.

Unfortunately, I think I let her down. I stupidly, foolishly became a teenage mum, which set my early adult life on a particular path. Why all this rumination? Because I read a great article by Elizabeth Farrelly which you can read here: and I thought: what choices have I made that have contributed to a feminist life? Am I happy with the way I am living my life? Am I strong, independent, self-motivated and purposeful? Do I have ambition? Am I, as Farrelly asks, heroic, mindful and muscular? Am I a true feminist, or am I a closet something-else?

And as I sit here in the house that I have decorated, that I have painted myself, that I have lavished time and care on and that is my nest and retreat from the world, I think: who really pays for it all? My husband. It is his income stream that pays the mortgage. Don’t get me wrong, I earn a decent enough income that we can travel OS, pay all the bills and enjoy a good standard of living. I do all the budgeting. My income pays credit cards and bills, household maintenance and expenses. But really, without his income, we would not have this house. Without his tenured, high falutin’ position as a university prof, we would be renting. Because my income would not generate a bank loan. My SEX would not generate a bank loan, let’s face it. They took one look at his income and mine, and they decided that we could afford our house because of HIM. Well, that alone makes me sad and gloomy, realising that men are still the preferred sex for bank loans and jobs.

And I’m a little bit angry today because an older woman jokingly commented last week that I could “live off my husband”. Which I realised that I kinda sorta do. Why does this make me angry? Because she’s right. I thought I was a feminist. I shouldn’t live off my husband: I should be forging new and exciting paths for other women to follow. I have the “choice” to live off my husband, but it doesn’t mean I want to. It’s just that: I think I lack ambition. You know, the ambition I see in people like my husband, who’s a workaholic. Or in some of my work colleagues, including my supervisors, who are women with breathtaking ambition, intelligence, power and perseverance. Do I really want to be the best singer/academic/teacher I can be, as I was exhorted to be by my school motto: age quod agis? (Whatever you do, do well.)

And I think, perhaps I just want to potter about. Doing girly things like scrap-booking (I really like stationery), or cooking (cupcake, anyone?) or planning the house extension (maybe I should have been an interior designer). I can’t be bothered doing singing practice these days, I don’t write songs anymore, I do very little creative work. I am writing this blog rather than doing much needed finishing work on my PhD, I am DITHERING. I am not breaking any glass ceilings. I am not ruthlessly ambitious. I want my days off. And I want a bit more money, but once the stipend is up I’m not sure what I will be able to do to get it. I don’t feel very feminist. And it bothers me.

So, I am sad and gloomy because I 1/ can’t take this great job offer; 2/ will have no money or income stream in about 2 weeks; 3/ live off my husband’s income rather than generate my own; 4/ am not ambitious, muscular, strong and feminist in the way that I think I OUGHT to be; 5/ am worried that women are being streamed into boring highly gendered activities because of a tide of influence from media and peer pressure; 6/ aren’t doing anything creative; 7/ haven’t done any PhD work today.

So, does study get in the way of a feminist life? Nooo. Not really. I get in the way of me.


One thought on “Study gets in the way of a feminist life: or does it?

  1. I love this entry in your blog, Jess. I have a high faluting career mother who ended her career as the CEO of DOCS in NSW on her own terms and is now doing the Company Director’s course in her “retirement”. She earnt bucket loads and is one of those women who have drive and ambition. And I am afraid every time I access my drive and ambition (which I do have) I think, hmmm, maybe I could just noodle around the house (that my husband pays for) and garden and paint instead. So because I feel I cannot do that, I work longer and longer hours in my business (my little independence) that brings holidays, pays off credit cards, etc etc (sound familiar) and resist the temptation to give up singing, teaching everything and just nest a while in my long longed for home. I read articles about career women and think “I missed that boat” because although I didn’t have my kids when I was a teenager, I was engaged at 20, married at 22 (turning down an opportunity to audition for the course of my dreams (was asked to audition …) at that time because my then fiancé wouldn’t leave Sydney – the centre of the universe – ha) and had my first but at 23 … and I wanted to bring her up, not in daycare which I remembered from being little and HATED. So, I spend time being riddled with guilt at my ambition / lack of ambition / work ethic / slob ethic / desire to nest while. Which is really a waste of time. Do I perform? Don’t I perform? (I manage to keep the voice in shape by sending recordings to families of songs I think I do well – at least they applaud, by email). I watch you doing your PHD and marvel. xxx

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