On the same day that new global research showed young women in country after country were becoming more politically progressive, 47 million people pawed over confected online images of the world’s most successful young woman in offensive, explicit poses.
It’s a fair bet that none of the tens of thousands of women and girls, who are counting down the sleeps until they see Taylor Swift in concert in Australia, used the 19 hours it took X (Twitter) to take down the deepfake porn, to open the app and witness the humiliation of their idol shared by hundreds of thousands.
These Swifties are not billionaires or mega stars, but most of them already know what her humiliation felt like. Research shows about half the adult women attending Taylor Swift’s sell-out concerts will have been sexually assaulted, and we can predict with distressing certainty that far too many of the girls will have already experienced a violation.
If politics is personal, is it any wonder that young women are looking for more progressive, meaningful solutions in a world that professes equality and opportunity, but reflexively belittles and undermines them?
Their older cousins might have been distracted by the me-me-me world of influencers and reality TV, but these young women are signalling they want action, and change – and that means taking politics seriously.
Within days of the political data being released, panicked columnists were hand-wringing about falling birth rates and the survival of the species – if men and women disagreed about politics, how would they reproduce?
Thanks to birth control and education women around the world are having fewer children, a trend that is undeniable even in poorer countries. A natural decline in population has been predicted for decades, and on a global scale it is what the climate-stressed world demands, but the divergence touched a nerve. One commentator even warned that unless addressed, bears would reclaim New York City.
Misogyny is a resilient beast with much to protect, ready to shape shift as its survival demands.
Women have been taking a more progressive view on politics all century. It is a growing trend that is repeated in Australia.
This is something to celebrate and encourage. Instead, the commentary has focussed on the more reactionary views of some young men – which threaten to embolden authoritarians. The pattern is unmistakeable but local specifics vary and matter. South Korea is an economic poster child, but the country with the biggest political gap between young men and women. It is also one of the most misogynist nations on the planet, ranking 105 out of 146 according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index , and has a gender pay gap of more than a third.
Young South Korean women have responded with their bodies; the birth-rate is now well below replacement level. The popular local feminist movement 4B’s manifesto says no to heterosexual relationships and children. These women are not in the majority, but they have rattled the powers that be, and in the 2022 election an anti-feminist message pushed the winning party into power.
In Poland, progressive young women had the opposite effect. They voted against the old regime and helped elect a more moderate mainstream government.
As almost half the world goes to the polls this year, we will learn whether this generation of better educated, more aware and powerful young women are able to tip the results against authoritarian populists elsewhere as well. As Donald Trump regularly demonstrates, belittling women is a marker of this world view.
Australia, in its occasional role as an early marker of global trends, embraced this movement early. In the 2022 election professional women in the teal independents remade the traditionally conservative inner suburban heartland of the Liberal party in their image. The Labor party pre-selected record numbers of women and acknowledged their power to change the agenda.
This was in no small measure the result of the grand lessons of courage and refusal to be shamed, embodied by Grace Tame, Chanel Contos and Brittany Higgins. Their advocacy changed the political terrain – taking men and women on an empowering journey, changing laws, curricula and expectations.
They have since been battered by the business-as-usual brutality of the Australian political/legal/media machine.
The tall poppy syndrome found new targets, successful Aboriginal men and forceful young women. Latter day versions of the Women Who Want to be Women, who worked hard to stall equal opportunity laws in the 1980s, have these young women in their sights. The effective exile of two brilliant young women in a decade – Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Brittany Higgins – is a mark of their enduring, if diminishing, power.
Undoubtedly some young men, and their fathers and grandfathers, feel threatened by the power shift, but they stand to gain as well – this is not a zero-sum game.
Chanel Contos explained in the book Consent Laid Bare she does not blame men as individuals. She seeks to understand and embrace the power of empathy and possibility of change. “I truly believe that most boys and men … are not necessarily evil people but are the direct result of our sexist entitled world,” she writes. “My theory of change in Australia … is to make it so that empathy towards women becomes a trait that boys and men possess in a greater degree.”
By focussing on the political gap between young women and men, the beacon of hope is obscured. In Australia the data shows that young men are also more progressive than they were two decades ago.