Liz Allen is a demographer and social researcher and author of The Future of Us: Democracy gets a makeover
What does feminism mean to you?
Growing up I felt invisible. The world didn’t see me – I was poor and a girl – and it hurt. With invisibility comes a silence, like your voice is never heard. Feminism, for me, is about fairness and equality – the right to be recognised and reflected fully in society as a human with a voice, aspirations and agency. The guiding principle of feminism in my life has been full participation in society, regardless of gender, as a birthright for all. Being born a girl in my family was seen as a failure, a deficit. It was engrained in me through implicit and explicit social conditioning that girls were there for men, not people in their own right.
From a really young age I was proudly defiant, interpreted by authority as obnoxiously oppositional. My defiance against unfairness and inequality was a driving force growing up, which fuelled my day-to-day existence. In my life, feminism has often meant having to take a stand, and fight for basic rights to things like education, employment, and civic engagement against societal perceptions borne of systemic prejudice. Feminism was like a smouldering fireball in the pit of my stomach, when I was little. That defiance has grown to a more refined form of feminism for me now – I’ve moved from mere survival to thriving. Feminism for me now is about ensuring equal and equitable social engagement and representation for all through advocating for and supporting women and gender diverse people to achieve their goals, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?
Two main moments stand out in my life as shaping my perspective on feminism. Both relate to power imbalances and the efforts of men to assert superiority. These moments were at the time crushing, but now fuel my resolve for equality.
I learned to be physically tough as a kid, to blend in with the boys. Blending in with the boys was better than not being seen at all. Looking back on my life, I internalised gender inequality and discrimination, believing that somehow I was the problem – the problematic, defiant, load-mouthed girl who couldn’t just accept things the way they were. This took its toll on me, but back then I didn’t have the insight or vocabulary to articulate it.
Sporting and academic achievements were how girls could be seen and their efforts recognised when I grew up, on par with boys. In school I worked hard academically and in sporting endeavours. I excelled at short-distance running – there was something freeing about the way the world hushed in the speed. I was also pretty good at story writing and public speaking.
I was around 12 and looking forward to an athletics competition. The day came and just before I was about to run an older boy approached me and make crude comments about my body and breasts. I became so self-conscious that I didn’t race that day, and haven’t since. This boy took something I loved and turned it into some kind of sexual, gratuitous entertainment for him. I look back now and I wish I had run. No one should ever be made to feel like that. I work tirelessly to ensure that women are never put in such a position to have their autonomy and agency taken from them.
Towards the end of primary school I won a regional public speaking competition. After I was presented with the prize, a male teacher came up to me and took credit for me and my work and asserted some weird ownership over me and my hard work. I was belittled, and that turned to anger and a resolution that I wouldn’t ever allow a man to steal my success. This moment has led me to empower others with the strength and glory of their hard work. Recognition is vital, and it costs nothing for us to extend recognition.
How do you think applying feminist theoretical approaches to demography could contribute to the field and to planning, particularly in Australia?
The discipline and study of demography has a problem with women and gender diversity. The problems are evident in the way we count phenomena, for example birth rates or ask about children ever born; only women are asked while men are missing from the equation. What we count matters, and counting demographic phenomena through a gendered lens means we make such things exclusively women’s issues. Another way demography has a gender problem is that for far too long demography has been done by men, with few women recognised for their contributions and efforts in the discipline. This is evident in the number of women in senior roles; it’s improving but not fast enough. The lived experiences of women and gender diverse people are crucial to a more complete approach to the study of demography in helping us understand the world around us.
Adopting a more inclusive approach to the way we consider demographic factors and by whom those contributions are made to the discipline will necessarily have wider impacts for the general population.
What do you think has been recently significant in the contributions or effects of feminism in the practice of demography?
There are some amazing scholars in demography who make outstanding contributions to our everyday lives in Australia. Demography is about people: who we are and how our we live our lives, and so can tell us much about how the society we live in can be improved to enhance our lives. What matters is the questions we’re asking – the research questions we’re exploring. Women have become vital to the way governments expect budgetary bottom lines can be improved, and demographers have responded by ensuring that the experiences of women in society are known and that women aren’t further disadvantaged by policy approaches.
More women and gender-diverse people are contributing to the field of demography, breaking down outdated approaches and challenging the way we conceive women and their place in society. It’s a work in progress, but I’m confident we’ll see real change in my life time.
Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?
There are too few voices of women, gender-diverse and queer people in research and among social commentary generally. What’s worse is that many of the familiar commentators come from pretty well-to-do backgrounds. These two major representative issues mean we’re not hearing the full story of us, and the storytellers of us shape the narrative.
Growing up I was discouraged from pursuing education. My mother would tell me I wasn’t up to achieving my education goals. Experiencing disadvantage, I was further led to believe that what I had to say didn’t matter – my voice and what I had to say wasn’t considered of value or of enough importance because it didn’t come with a socioeconomic pedigree. This has resulted in me seeking out the voices of women, gender-diverse and queer scholars, writers and commentators from all aspects of society to push the narrow limits of our thinking. I enjoy hearing from and reading the contributions from First Nations peoples, migrants and those we commonly don’t amplify the voices of. I especially enjoy the work of Karlie Noon, Shakira Hussein, Sophie Lewis, Brendan Churchill, and Elanor Huntington.