The fruits of FEMINISM

It’s the flavor of the month – if not the year, or the decade. But how far has feminism really brought us and how much more social change do influential Australian women want? Karen Kissane reports.

PERHAPS Thelma and Louise, Hollywood’s glam refugees from patriarchy, drove over that cliff too soon. Men still run the world but, 10 years after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act, they’re running a very different one: one with increasing numbers of women and strict rules about how they must be accommodated. And the Earth has yet to stop moving under our collective feet.

Twenty years after the street marches for equal pay and abortion, after the first cautious venturing into feminist waters by Malcolm Fraser and the high-dive by Gough Whitlam that followed, the unthinkable has become not only achievable but uncontroversial. The principles of equal opportunity in the workforce, once vilified as destroying the family, burdening commerce and laying men open to victimisation by false claims, are now widely accepted in the business world. Women’s jobs are held for them while they have babies, they have equal pay and they have the right to work without enduring humiliation, as the former NSW Police Minister recently discovered when he was forced to resign after reported allegations of sexual harassment against him.

Women have surged into the workforce and their issues have soared to near the top of the Federal Government’s agenda. At a time when the “women’s movement” – if there ever was such a collective creature – is being portrayed as divided, and is under attack from critics including some younger women, women’s policy and legislative change are barrelling along at a head-spinning rate. This week alone, the Australian Law Reform Commission has released the second stage of its report into justice for women in the legal system, the Prime Minister has announced moves to strengthen sex discrimination laws, and family leave to care for sick relatives is being debated – not in terms of whether or why, but when and how.

This week, too, Melbourne is hosting the International Feminist Book Fair. In October, Adelaide will host an international conference on Women, Power and Politics to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage in South Australia. A recent Sydney forum was organised to discuss women and the republic. When the committee that drew up Australia’s Constitution was formed, women were not included.

Australia had no founding mothers first time around, and influential women are determined that in the debate about the republic and constitutional change, women must help to shape the new nation in which they would live.

Has Australian feminism, as it nears the millenium, reached a point of critical mass, where the process of change it has triggered has become unstoppable? Is it developing a momentum of its own, ensuring that there will be no turning back? Today’s gains seem more solid than those of the women who ran Australia’s farms and industries during World WarII, only to lose their independence and return to hearth and home when a post-war society deemed it time. But how vulnerable would the wins for today’s women be to changes in policy, or a change of government? To what degree have feminist goals become common ground between the major parties? And to what degree do the divided visions of Australian women themselves threaten the momentum? There were no divisions among the 12 women interviewed for this story in terms of what they saw as the main issues for next century’s agenda: the need to improve women’s economic status, to ease their burden of family responsibilities and to move them into decision- making positions in society.

But, although there is still a long way to go before any claim of equality for women can be made, the gains of the past decade are significant.

Snapshots of change: More than 53 per cent of women are now in the workforce, up from 45 per cent in 1984. More than 82 per cent of girls now complete year 12 and 53 per cent of higher education students are now women. Of the 230,000 jobs created in the past year, 122,000 of them have gone to women. About one-third of Australia’s small and medium-sized business enterprises are owned by women, and another 28 per cent are owned jointly by women and men.

The number of Commonwealth-funded childcare places has gone from 46,000 in 1983 to 220,300 at the end of 1993, and the costs of childcare have been recognised as a legitimate expense with the introduction of the child-care rebate.

The decade has seen the first woman appointed to lead a national political party (Janine Haines, the Democrats, 1986) and the first woman premiers (Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner). The proportion of women in Australian parliaments is still meagre (14.5 per cent) but that is a doubling of the figure in the ’80s. Such indicators are being watched so closely by so many that the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Office of the Status of Women will later this year produce the first annual `Australian Women’s Year Book’.

In terms of women’s roles, there will be no going back, says Quentin Bryce, the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner. Community attitudes in Australia have changed too much, and they are supported by changes internationally: “This has all been happening as part of the more general human rights movement, which grew out of the Holocaust of World War II. Worldwide, there is a growing recognition of the dignity and worth of a human being, and that includes women … Sisterhood is global.”
But Dr Anne Summers, journalist and former adviser to Labor Governments on women’s affairs, sees the gains as more fragile.

“Feminism has reached a critical mass in the sense that a huge number of people are involved … and I think any government would have to address women’s issues, these days. Whether it would be done in a feminist-friendly fashion remains to be seen. I don’t think we have heard Alexander Downer speak on these subjects; certainly, if John Hewson were still in charge, I don’t think that would be the case.

He’s definitely not supportive of existing policies and is trying to wind back the clock.”
Would women’s rights fare well under a Liberal Government? Policies cannot be directly compared yet because the Opposition is redrawing.

But the prominence of women’s issues “is a worldwide trend,” says Judi Moylan, shadow minister assisting the Opposition Leader on women’s affairs. “I don’t think that it’s linked all that much to which political party is in power. (British Prime Minister) Major had a policy, `Towards 2000′, to elevate women to higher positions in the public service. A lot of ground-breaking work has been done by conservative governments; it was Fraser who began to fund child care, and who signed the UN Convention on Elimination of Discrimination.”
Mrs Moylan says the Labor Government has focused on “negative things to do with women”: “There’s been a heavy emphasis on women as victims, whether it’s through sexual exploitation or job opportunities. Whereas I think women have begun to realise they have a lot going for them, and one of their great strengths is political clout.”
THAT clout has made the federal ALP more sensitive to women’s issues ever since research in 1977 showed it owed its failure to win and hold office to the gender gap, according to a former Labor Minister, Susan Ryan, who conducted the research. Its list of initiatives over the past decade is long and seemingly impressive: equal opportunity programs in girls’ education and the public service, community awareness campaigns about violence against women, working women’s centres, the Affirmative
Action Act, a parliamentary inquiry into the status of women, two wide-ranging “national agendas for women”, a commitment that all government boards and bodies will have equal representation by 2000, and the ratifying of the ILO convention on work
and family needs, among others.

But despite all this effort, women are little or no better off where it counts most: in the money stakes. Only one in a hundred earns $50,000 or more. Women’s average weekly earnings are still only 66.6 per cent of men’s (10 years ago, the figure was 66.5). It’s not just women’s greater share of part-time work that has frozen their pay progress; women who work full-time earn 79.8 per cent of male full- timers, only a slight increase on the 77.6 per cent of a decade ago. A smaller percentage of women were employed as managers and administrators in May this year (6.3 per cent) than in 1987 (6.6 per cent). Overall, 76 per cent of managers are men and 24 per cent are women.

Australia still has one of the most sex-segregated workforces in the world and the issues that concern women – violence, income security, child care, family assistance and valuing of women’s paid and unpaid work – are the same ones espoused by suffragists at the beginning of the century and will still need to be dealt with at the beginning of the next. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Could gains be undermined by divisions between women themselves? Many refuse to tag themselves feminist, even when they espouse the principles, and media debates often highlight the differences that exist even between those who are happy to use the name and openly work for change. But, although there might be argument over the best way to achieve a goal, the goals themselves are never in doubt. Professor Robyn Rowland, director of the Australian Women’s Research Centre at Deakin University, says: “There’s this enormous common ground.

There’s a whole lot of unanimity about the importance of issues such as child care and the need for flexibility in family and work arrangements.”
Although the big three issues underlay the concerns of the women interviewed here, they each tackled different aspects of the problems.

Margaret Fitzherbert, state president of the Young Liberals, says, “Universal childcare is crucial.” She argues public education campaigns should be mounted to change the perception that housework is women’s work and encourage men to share the load.

Julie Kun, women’s convenor of the Young Labor Left in Victoria, agrees that the need now is for “in-depth socialisation” to change views that women are the natural carers: “Legislation alone won’t make people see that caring is the work of everyone in society.”
Susan Ryan says enterprise bargaining must be watched to ensure it does not disadvantage women, and the pressure must be kept on big businesses to improve their employment practices: “There’s still no female chief executive of a major company, like BHP or Coles Myer.”
Irina Dunn, a board member with the National Foundation for Australian Women and organiser of the Women and the Republic forum, says women must ensure that the republic debate is not hijacked by men, and that parliaments should be made more woman-friendly with shorter sitting hours and on-site childcare centres.

Sue Tongue, deputy president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, says that its consultations with women have found that, “they want to be valued, whether they they are housewives or workers outside the home. They want to feel that the legal system is theirs too. And they want their daughters to have equal opportunities with their sons”.

Sandra Yates, who chairs the Australian Council for Women, says its consultations have found that most women fear street violence and resent how it limits the way they must live. They want their unpaid work valued. And they want to see more women in Parliament, big business and other powerful institutions.

Successive Governments have not yet solved all the problems of womankind, but their commitment to inquiry and consultation has at least resulted in a solution to the mystery posed by a befuddled Freud: “What do women want?” The way to find out, of course, is to ask them.

First published in The Age.