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AUSTRALIAN FEMINISM 2004: GAINS, LOSSES, COUNTERVAILING FORCES, SOME FAILURES AND SOBERING THOUGHTS
JOAN BIELSKI
the exemption of religious and political organisations, has Anniversaries such as that celebrated at the Australian been crucial to women asserting their right to equality in and International Feminisms Conference in Sydney, th education, employment and in women gaining access to December 2004, in honour of the 30 anniversary of the the supply of goods and services such as bank loans feminist journal HECATE, are times to look back, to on equal terms with men. assess and to look forward. My article is an overview of some of the gains, Education and training were seen as essential to the countervailing forces, and the losses and failures that womens liberation Australian women have experienced since the 1970s. Feminist educators, their demands validated by the federal Many of the issues mentioned will be familiar and are and state reports on discrimination in education, began well documented elsewhere. Some are personal the process of reforming the content and structure of observations. education and training for girls with an emphasis on The renewal of the feminist movement was mathematics and technical training and girls taking a lifeinspired and informed by the explosion of feminist writing long view of their education to be financially viable in all in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It documented of the possible phases of their lives work, marriage, womens history and their socio-economic condition. It motherhood, divorce, being single or a single parent, provided women with language with which to analyse widowhood and old age. their lives and the information and the statistics with which These reforms resulted in a large increase in the to argue their case and work for change. numbers of women qualifying in the professions, with While argument raged about whether women 50% of women in the workforce having degrees, girls should aim for revolution or reform, new womens staying at school longer and women entering a broader organisations with a reform agenda sprang up, led by range of training and occupations. articulate, passionate, energetic women, some of whom later went into the political parties, Parliament, public Womens employment was another area of administration and unions where they were able to put in feminist activity place many of the legal, social and economic changes Barriers against married women working were removed needed to foster equality for women. and equal pay was won in some feminised public sector State and Federal Governments began the process occupations, such as teaching, in the 1960s. Equal pay of reform. They established units and departments to for equal work was won legally but not actually for all carry out this work. Women with a feminist perspective, women workers in 1973 when the who became known as femocrats, Commonwealth Government, at the entered government service to With hindsight, the behest of womens organisations, implement these reforms. supported equal pay in a wage case State and Federal Antiwomens movement before the Arbitration Commission. The Discrimination legislation followed, underestimated the minimum wage for men was extended demonstrating real commitment to women and to honouring Australias strength of the dominant to women and became law in 1973, following the Womens Electoral Lobby obligations under the UN Convention culture and the (WEL)s intervention in a National Wage Against All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This countervailing forces Case, with the late Edna Ryan as its spokesperson. Womens access to well legislation, whilst somewhat marred by 6
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paid jobs over a wider range of occupations was the countervailing forces, and showed a nave faith in supported by equal opportunity legislation, especially in the state, the political system and legislation to deliver public sector employment. More community based childthem justice. care became available but it is still inadequate and limited The major countervailing force is a growing by affordability. political, social and economic conservatism, hostile to The number of women in our parliaments began womens claims to equality, which is being articulated to rise, especially after 1992 when womens organisations by politicians, churchmen and church-driven political began demanding greater representation. The numbers organisations, the press and academic pundits, increased from 10% in 1993 to 26.9% in 2003. (ABS conservative womens organisations all using code words April 2003). like family values. This conservatism seeks to reinforce The numbers of women also rose marginally in the concept of the wife and mother as the only worthy other decision-making positions, such as public role for women. A tired and fragmented feminist administration, the diplomatic service, the judiciary, the movement is ill equipped to meet this challenge. arts, the professions, the universities, in business, on Our opponents have been very successful in boards and as CEOs; this was especially painting feminism as a whining, man so in banking and financial services, hating, marriage and motherhood averse We have failed to unions and NGOs and in agricultural movement and in propagating the idea engage significantly organisations. Many younger women, that feminism is unfashionable and with high-level qualifications, came to pass. This tactic appears to have been with Indigenous earn very high incomes in business, with young womenwith low wage especially successfulof feminism is especially in the finance sector. women. The vilification women workerssex often given credibility by the work of a Women began to experience few female journalists - women who workers better sexual and mental health enjoy the benefits of feminism but are Better access to contraception and fertility control its opponents. became available. Abortion was decriminalised first by Attempts are being made to drive a wedge test cases, then by the legislation in SA, the ACT, WA between married women workers and married women and Tasmania. electing to stay at home, between feminists and other Womens health centres were established, women. Examples are policies, like baby payments going challenging attitudes and practices in the health care to all new mothers, promoted by both the major political establishment. Contraception and family planning parties instead of well constructed paid maternity leave organisations became feminist dominated and abortion for women in the paid work force in accordance with clinics, run by feminists, were opened. established ILO standards and as available in most Western countries (except the USA). Some changes in power in male /female relationships also occurred Governments now feel safe in reducing their Non fault divorce law reform, with women getting equal commitments to women access to family assets on divorce, the establishment of Evidence of this is the Federal Governments closure of womens refuges providing emergency accommodation, the Federal Womens Bureau, the repeated reductions together with better access and re-entry to education in the budget of the Office for the Status of Women and training and better employment opportunities gave (OSW) and finally its abolition and replacement by a more women the courage to leave intolerable marriages. Womens Unit in the Department of Family and Community acceptance of divorce, acceptance of de Community Affairs the latter surely an action of malice facto relationships, single parenthood and same sex aforethought. relationships gradually increased. Similarly, the State Governments of NSW and WA State and Territories rape laws were reformed have also reduced their commitments to women. The making a womans sexual history irrelevant and defining process is to first reduce the budgets, as for the NSW of what was NOT consent. (Scutt 1980) Department for Women, then close it down as occurred Feminists were exhilarated by the vision of in June 2004, replacing it with a smaller, less well Australian feminism as part of a worldwide movement resourced Office for Women in the Premier s working for the advancement of women. Women were Department. going to change the world for women. Our dreams are far from being realised. Patriarchy Other countervailing factors: is alive and well. With hindsight, the womens movement Advocacy and change organisations, such as WEL, underestimated the strength of the dominant culture and which are not aligned to a specific disadvantaged group
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or a womens service and not aligned to any political responsibility has not yet been fully realised. Women fullparty, are denigrated as unrepresentative, middle class time workers, on average, still earn less than men, with elites, not to be taken seriously; the legitimacy of their the gap between men and womens average weekly claims is denied or ridiculed as political correctness, or earnings increasing. Since May 1996 the gap has dubbed middle class welfare and self serving by increased by 32%, from approx. $230 to $300 per week. representatives of both major political parties and (ABS 2004). reactionary public opinion makers. The gradual subversion of the progressive income DIY feminism, which celebrates individualism, tax system and increases in the family benefits system permits women to call themselves feminists, to welcome in favour of the single income, male bread-winner, wifeand enjoy its legacy but excuses them from any at-home family discriminates on the basis of marital status commitment of time, effort or money to the movement. against both full-time and part-time, low-income working The Angry Mens Movement around divorced non women and men. The increasing privatisation and custodial fathers, aided by long term critics of feminism, prohibitive cost of child-care - estimated up to $350 pw pushes for laws restricting womens - further reduces womens income from rights in child custody disputes. There have been gains, work. Not least of the countervailing The national superannuation but many are in danger system indirectly discriminates against forces is the relentless anti-abortion lobby women in that there is no provision to of being reversed or eroded by the social and compensate women workers for earning In education less on average over their working life political conservatism Girls gains are seen as a loss or a than men, and for their broken work disadvantage for boys. More girls than history for child rearing. gaining power in our boys are not completing high school or Women consequently have less society. undertaking post school training, thus access to income and wealth over their starting out on what may become a life long disadvantage. lifetime than men and are more likely than men to be These girls experience over 19% part time work and dependant on partners or the state and to be impoverished 10.2% unemployment while boys experience approx. in old age. Yet the one concession to womens lower 13% part time work and 9.1% unemployment.(Sydney economic status, their one privilege - the right to the old Morning Herald 28/9/04). age pension at 60 - was taken away in the name of The imposition of higher HECS and TAFE fees, equality long before women could be seen as being near which apply equally to men and women, indirectly economically equal to men. discriminate against women because of womens lesser Despite the changes in the last 30 years, women earning capacity, even after equal education and training. are still mainly clustered in feminised and less well paid As well, there is no recognition that child bearing usually occupations - the Australian workforce is still reputed to reduces income and opportunity and that the repayments be the most sex-segregated among Western economies. kick in early in womens working life, just when women are most likely to have children. There are many threats to womens physical and mental health, feelings of self worth, fertility Nor have womens workforce outcomes all been control and sexual freedom. satisfactory These include Women workers have been directly and detrimentally affected by the destruction of the centralised wage fixing the ongoing campaigns by social, economic and system, by the restructuring of the workforce, the political conservatives, some religious leaders and increasing casualisation of the labour market with its job some ethnic groups that aim to restrict womens insecurity, the increasing emphasis on short term contracts sexual freedom, to regulate their access to sexual and part time work and longer hours of work for full health facilities and abortion, arguing from spurious time employees. statistics and religious fervour and the rejection of My view is that the acceptance of part time and the secular state; casual work by both policy makers and many women, as the means for women to meet their financial needs the reductions in Federal government funding to and their family commitments, means, in effect, the family planning and sex education organisations; acceptance of job insecurity, poor prospects of future advancement and womens second class status in the the clinical control of abortion with the workforce. emphasis on invasive methods in lieu of methods Pay equity for work of equal training, skill and such as the drug RU486;

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an unforgiving, unreconstructed work place in effect means that many women elect not to have children or to delay child bearing until their careers and their economic wellbeing are established, the latter often associated with psychological and physical risks and artificial insemination and the medicalisation of pregnancy; violence against women and rape, as well as fear of violence and the fear of rape, attack womens feelings of self worth. 87% of all the 408,100 violence cases reported annually are violence against women, the costs of which have been calculated at $8.1bn per annum in hospitalisation, justice and prison administration. (Australian. 23-24/10/2004); the extremes and all pervasiveness of the fashion and cosmetics industries, including cosmetic surgery and the emphasis on excessive thinness, which, by implication, undermine all who do not conform; the sexualising of sub-teen and teenage girls in fashion, cosmetics, entertainment and in advertising, suggest to girls that being sexually attractive is the path to female success;

the growth and excesses of the pornography industry and its demeaning of both women and men. The movement we have had did involve some major failures We have failed to change the culture of our major institutions and to convince society that equality between women and men is both just and efficient. We have failed to develop strategies to counter the widespread uncritical acceptance and propagation by all sides of the political divide and the market economy, the overriding role of big business, of individualism, the fetish for small government, the decline of the welfare state and its replacement with the privatisation, or part privatisation, of infrastructure. We have failed to recruit sufficient numbers of the recipients of the feminist legacy, especially young women, to ensure the continuance of a collective strong feminist movement. We have failed to gain the financial support of the new large class of prosperous middle class women for the womens movement and womens services. We have failed to engage significantly with Indigenous women, to maintain dialogue and to work collaboratively with them and also with low wage women workers, despite the gains in womens wages brought

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Social Alternatives Vol. 24 No. 2, Second Quarter, 2005

about by feminist advocacy in the 1970s. We have failed to consult with or listen to sex workers and be guided by them about their preferred law reforms. We have failed to make a significant difference for women in poor countries, especially in not adequately pressing our Government to remove restrictions on aid programmes designed to give women access to fertility control and education. We have failed to develop a critique of the cosmetic, fashion, advertising and pornography industries for fear of being seen as supporting censorship or as wowsers. We have failed to develop popular feminist publications; this is a serious hindrance to the communication of feminist insights and feminist news. Feminist writers and academics tend to talk to one another and have difficulty in sharing their ideas with a full spectrum of women and in providing the inspiration previously given by the earlier generations of women writers and academics. Several major societal factors inhibit womens push for equality Most men, some quite consciously and deliberately, fail to accept equal responsibility for housework, contraception, child-care and in maintaining peace in the household. Thus women still carry a disproportionate domestic load, which inhibits their participation in the workforce, public life or leisure activities. With some notable exceptions women MPs have not been advocates for women, even though over half of their constituents are female. In late 2004, some 17 Coalition MPs and Senators, including 13 women, were loud and (so far) effective in defence of womens right to abortion. They gave women a voice at the centre of power on a critical issue and demonstrated why women are needed in political life. Until women are adequately represented in our political institutions and the political class shows more goodwill backed by guaranteed permanent structural and societal changes, feminists will have to continue to work for womens rights and their claim to equal treatment in all areas of public and private life. There have been gains, but many are in danger of being reversed or eroded by the social and political conservatism gaining power in our society. This is both a danger and a challenge to feminism. Our utilitarian society appears unmoved by our calls for equality and justice. Perhaps some answers lie with economists, with cost-benefit analyses required for such matters as domestic violence at $8.1bn per annum (Access Economics); 10

mens anger management at $59m (Access Economics); the bias in Federal and State budgets which provide lavish subsidies for such male obsessions as professional sport and war and subsidies to ailing industries (here read business welfare); employing second class or less competent men instead of first class women in government, business and all avenues of national life; the cost of denying women employment conditions compatible with their life pattern against the cost of refusing women the right to explore their full potential through education and employment; the right to equal participation in the social, political and economic life of the country. The long and honourable history of feminism tells us this is not the end. We must again look to the feminist writers and academics, to courageous and articulate feminist polemicists and to journals like HECATE to provide women with the language and the insights to inspire the now large group of educated and liberated women to join the struggle for womens equality. We must also look to the new communications technology to spread the good news. Perhaps then we can again look forward to a renewed, informed, inclusive, activist Australian feminist movement, part of a world wide movement of women changing the world for women. References ABS. April 2003. ABS. 2004. Average Weekly Earnings, May Quarter 2004. Cat 6302.0. The Australian. 23-4/10/04. Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy. Scutt, J. 1980. Ed. Rape Law Reform. Australian Institute of Criminology. Sydney Morning Herald. 28/9/04. How Young People are Faring. Dusseldorp Skills Forum 2004. Bio Joan Bielski, a pioneer second wave feminist and NSW femocrat, was awarded the Order of Australia AM, for her services to women and girls education and, in June 2004, the Order of Australia AO for her work in promoting womens participation in Australian political life. Contact: bielski@bigpond.com

Social Alternatives Vol. 24 No.2, Second Quarter, 2005