Women and power, and a hint of frustration

Karen Kissane – Adelaide.

They were there not just to celebrate history but to make it, and the message from the first two days of their gathering was loud and clear: No more Ms Nice Guy.

More than 900 delegates had gathered in Adelaide for an international conference on Women, Power and Politics, opened by the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, at the weekend. They welcomed his gender-sensitive speech, with its assurances that “We need women as full participants in decision-making simply because we need to make the right decisions.”
He said Australia was a pioneer in women’s rights. “It is surprising, really, that among the facts of Australian history, this one is less known than Ned Kelly, who was a horse-thief, and Phar Lap, who was a horse.”
The delegates laughed as Mary Beasley, chief executive officer of South Australia’s Department for Industrial Affairs, told of the way journals 100 years ago had described the typical female activist.

“Neglecting her hair, and allowing her stockings to fall into holes, she wears her hat with a sort of reckless abandon and takes no more pride in complexion pastes and remedies for wrinkles, warts and outstanding freckles; she becomes an ache and an
aggravation, a thorn planted in the side of man.”
And they relished the sardonic delivery of the British MP and former actor Glenda Jackson, who gave the keynote address on women in government.

“Margaret Thatcher,” she announced with vigor, “was like a poultice. She brought to the surface of the English national character this great boil of greed, selfishness and avarice.”
But, in what was meant to be a celebration of the centenary of South Australia becoming the first democracy to allow women to stand for Parliament, the mood was not so much triumph as frustration. Perhaps it is partly because the looming millennium, a natural time in which to take stock, provides a figurative deadline, a symbolic yardstick for progress.

Perhaps it is just that change has taken too long.

Women speakers and delegates from business, politics, academe and the bureaucracy talked of being fed up with waiting for evolution to work; encouraging and educating male-dominated management had not been enough to move women into senior decision-making jobs in large numbers.

Some want to wait no longer. They argue for compulsory quotas for women in Parliament and in business now. Others suggest one more try with targeted, measurable goals to be achieved in the short term, say, over the next five years. But if that fails, many of them, too, favor the last resort of Government-imposed quotas.

Ms Beasley said society was on the brink of the next stage of significant change. “Just as the suffragists of the 1890s were poised on the crest of a great wave that would take women into the next century with new rights and freedoms, so, too, are we in the 1990s poised on the crest of radical changes. Imagine this huge wave curling up to its full height, full of women in bright colors, poised to sweep over that endless sea of grey suits that is our current Parliament.”
The debate is not merely academic. This conference, which is attended by many state and federal MPs, will help set the agenda for women’s issues in this country for the next decade. The resolutions it makes will be sent to State and Federal Governments and other decision- making bodies whose policies affect women, which will then be lobbied to implement them.


Decisions made by the conference will help to set the agenda for women’s issues in Australia for the next decade. Each session of the conference proposes resolutions that will be taken to a plenary session tomorrow for debate and voting. Measures adopted tomorrow will be passed on to governments and other policy-making bodies.

Proposals so far include: That all political parties implement strategies or rules to ensure at least 50 per cent representation of women in legislative assemblies within the next decade.

That the pursuit of pay equity be a priority for unions, government and employer groups.

That parliaments establish creches and woman-friendly sitting hours, that political parties have “equality officers” funded by the state, and that quota legislation be introduced if equality targets are not met within a certain time.

That the Council of Australian Governments provide resources for women to develop a national vocational employment and training action plan for women, setting goals to be realised by the year 2001.

That the conference recommend to the UN Conference on Women that government representatives should include more women and that rape in war be designated unequivocally a punishable war crime.

That there be public debate and scrutiny of the Australian defence budget, and that Australia’s defence and foreign affairs goals be increasingly framed in terms of international peacekeeping.

First published in The Age.