Saturday, 7 March 2015

Happy International Women's Day

A couple of days ago I was invited to speak to 132 year 11 English students at Brigidine College in the Sydney suburb of Randwick.  In honour of the 2015 International Women's Day, the English department was devoting the day to feminism.  And bravo to them. There were workshops on a host of subjects and the teacher coordinating the event was wearing a t-shirt adorned with a logo of a past IWD.  The topic of my talk was on feminism's second wave in Australia and as a participant I was to speak of my experience of it.  The script of the talk is below, but before I plough into it there's one observation about IWD I feel compelled to make.  IWD luncheons are de rigueur now, held by local councils, conservative party auxiliaries and all manner of groups who I'm sure would be amazed to learn that the idea was concocted over 100 years ago by a group of radical women German socialists.  It's mainstream now, but there are pluses and minuses to this.  So many of the issues raised 100 years ago and again in the 1970s are accepted as legitimate goals for all women today.  But what has changed has been the means of achieving them.  There are few marches in the streets these days, but maybe the time has come for more of them.  With so many of our gains having been whittled back over the last couple of decades, with a substantially lowered workforce participation rate, and a pay gap between men and women approximating those of last century, there's a ferment bubbling again.  I hope my few words did something to inspire this new generation of young women, who are facing challenges that in the 1970s we could scarcely have imagined.  I felt a bit like a relic dragged out for the occasion, grey-haired and somewhat bent from years of writing, but still with some of the old fire  in me, and the intelligent questions the students asked after I'd finished did much to stoke it again.

In Australia it began in 1970, though ‘women’s lib’ as it was termed them, was well underway in the US around two years earlier.  But the fact is the momentum was building up for years.  The English edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental The Second Sex came out in 1953.  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared ten years later, in 1963.   Then, in 1970, came Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics,  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and a much more influential book within the movement though less widely known, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.  These later books were culturally oriented and somewhat utopian in their prescriptions, but what characterised them all was a raw, explosive anger.

So, 1970.  What was it like here in Australia? 

Well, it was a very different world then.  Imagine yourselves without PCs, or computer printers, without iPads or tablets, without mobile phones.  Colour TV was a couple of years away.  There were no ATMs or credit cards.  No CDs, let alone DVDs or BlueRay or streaming.  No digital cameras, let alone smart phones.  Above all, no internet and no social media.  But we managed brilliantly without them.  Our tools were telephone trees, typewriters, gestetner and roneo machines, and photocopiers, and there was a lot of screenprinting then.

But back to that anger.  Why were we so incensed?  Well, again, things were different.

Except in a very limited sense, as sex objects and homemakers, we women were invisible.  You never saw a woman driving a bus, let alone piloting a plane.  You never saw or heard a woman reading the news, let alone commenting on it.  There was not a single woman in the house of representatives.  In both the Liberal party and the ALP women were relegated to their  auxiliaries, which were responsible for fundraising and had very little policy clout.  It was almost impossible for a women to be preselected for a safe seat.  There were hardly any women CEOs or even managers; they made up only 3% of senior executives, public or private.

Only recently had married women been given permanency in teaching or in the public service.  There were separate newspaper ads for women’s jobs and men’s jobs.  Needless to say, only a very brave or naïve woman would apply for a designated man’s job, and no man I can think of would have applied for a woman’s one.  Jobs, like the ads, were rigidly gender specific.

A woman was unable to get a loan without a male guarantor, usually her husband or father.  A woman couldn’t even go into a pub without a male to accompany her.  There were taxes on contraceptives and the advertising of them in the ACT was illegal.  Abortion, although no longer unlawful due to recent case law decisions, was expensive and often life-threatening.

Then there was women’s unemployment.  In the postwar period the most important goal for governments of any stripe was full employment, and that meant only 1-2% of the workforce was meant to be unemployed.  Unemployment figures of 5% and above were considered catastrophic.  (The figure today of 6.4% is misleading and would be much higher if unemployment was measured as it was then.One reason why the figure was so low in 1970 is that women were discouraged workers, that is they didn’t bother to register with the commonwealth employment service because they knew that jobs for them were few and there was practically no child care and if their partners were in work they were ineligible for assistance.  But research done at the time found  that women’s hidden unemployment rate was around 12%.  If these women had bothered to register the official rate would have been much higher than that much vaunted 1-2%.

For women who did have jobs the rate of pay was substantially lower than that for men doing the same work or work of equal value.  Today it’s still 18.8% lower; not much different from what it was in 1970 though at times it was as low as 25%.  It was assumed that women were never breadwinners; this was the rationale for pay inequity, and it was inscribed in industrial law.

But the sixties and seventies were decades of tremendous social movements and the political protests that accompanied them – civil rights, anti-war, last but not least the women’s movement, or feminism, or women’s liberation as we called it then.  And to go back to the unemployment issue, it was the juxtaposition of a new generation of recently educated women, many highly educated, who found it difficult to get jobs commensurate with their qualifications, that was the trigger for it.  Think of it, all these educated women with time on their hands – it was a recipe for trouble.  But it was also a lot of fun.

My own experience was typical and yet atypical.  When I arrived in Australia in 1958 from Los Angeles, a bride of 19, I was shocked by what I found here, the extent of what we later called sexism, though we didn’t have the name for it then. By 1970 there was one: ‘male chauvinism’.  ‘Male chauvinist pigs’ was what we called the worst of the men.  That’s a term that's gone out of style, but what it attempts to describe surely hasn’t.  This is something I’ll return to.  But for now, this is what happened to me.  In 1970, when I was 32, I got my first paid job here, after bearing four children and eventually graduating from Sydney University.  It was as a publisher’s rep and Canberra, where I was living then, was my field.  I went around the schools flogging the company’s textbooks but the more interesting part of the job was going around universities and research schools on the hunt for manuscripts.  One day, on mission to hurry up some late ones that the company had contracted for, I met two lowly women academics, one a research assistant, the other a departmental tutor, and they invited me to a meeting.  All very hush-hush it was.   When I got there I found some 30 or more other women, all fired up with enthusiasm and, like the books we’d been poring over, brimming with anger.   

Still, this wasn’t bitter anger.  This was inspiring.  It felt like what it was - a revolution.  It’s almost impossible to convey my excitement listening to all these women articulating thoughts that had been brewing in my brain for years.  There wasn’t time to even introduce ourselves, there was so much to say, and it was months before I began to piece together faces with names.

What did we want?  Child care, equal pay, equal employment opportunity, equal educational opportunity, women’s refuges, measures to combat sex discrimination, in workplaces, schools, clubs and pubs.  We wanted to participate fully as citizens, and it was the beginning, a truly exciting one, but we knew there was a long haul ahead.  Most of us realised that for all the reforms we might achieve, the most impenetrable barriers were those embedded in our psyches, male and female.  In other words these barriers weren’t only legal or social – they were cultural.

All this was taking place during a time of great social tumult, as I’ve said.  In Australia this was expressed electorally.  Between 1970 and 1972, the women’s movement grew.  But 1972 was an election year and that was when the Women’s Electoral Lobby, a Women’s Liberation offshoot, was born.  WEL was determined to get the issues we’d been talking about and demonstrating for, holding public forums and staging street theatre and enduring either the scorn or the patronising of our male contemporaries, onto the party political agenda.  WEL devised a questionnaire and distributed it to all the candidates and followed this up with lobbying them in person.  As a result, a few of them (remember, scarcely any were women) had their consciousnesses raised, but for most it was a painful business.

On 2 December 1972 the Whitlam Labor government was elected, after 23 years of conservative rule.  In April the following year, Whitlam appointed the world’s first prime ministerial women’s adviser to his personal staff.  A year and a bit later I was appointed head of a small unit in his department to assist this adviser, Elizabeth Reid, with her voluminous correspondence and with policy development.  It was a huge job for both of us and, again, it was a beginning.  Feminism was no longer just a protest movement but was now involved in government policy.  And so it still is, though sadly in much diluted form, today.

Although it’s no strange thing to see women in politics now, or as CEOs of banks, or as heads of government departments, we still have reason to feel angry, even cheated somehow.  We’ve had women premiers and governors, even a woman prime minister.  Yet for all our progress – and from my vantage point it’s been quite amazing – it’s safe to say that the bedrock of sexism remains. We've seen it in the trashing of our first women prime minister.  But before I end and leave time for questions,  I'll raise one more concerning example. 

Both the government and the opposition have recently adopted policies to deal with what's been called the ‘scourge’ of domestic violence.  Here we have the most violent expression of that culture we identified back in the 1970s, call it misogyny, male chauvinism or sexism.  To my mind, what encompasses them all is patriarchy.  In 2015 so far, two Australian women a week have been killed by their current or former partners; last year the count was half that number.  And these outright murders are only the most shocking part of it.  Domestic violence is a far greater threat than terrorism but has had far less attention and receives a fraction of government resources.  In fact, there has been a huge reduction in funding for frontline services for women and children escaping violent homes.  In 1970 we argued that the ‘personal is political’ and nowhere is this better borne out than in so many men’s brutality to women and children.  In spite of our new visibility, or maybe in fact because of it, this menace goes unchecked.

And over to you now:  Why do you do you think this is so?


  1. Thanks for sharing this talk Sara. It's an excellent recap of how things have gone. I was still a teen in 1970 but old enough to be aware of "women's lib". I read The female eunuch in 1972, I think. A lot has been achieved. BUT the horrific increase in domestic murders this year is something I too have noticed. As you say, behind it is another whole story of domestic violence. I was horrified enough when I read last year that the rate of women murdered domestically in Australia was about 1 a week and then gobsmacked to read that by early March this year there had already been 14 (I think). I'm still reeling.

    I have no idea why it is, except that the increasing visibility may be a factor. It's become clear to me that while a lot of change has occurred, it's still on the surface of culture. The idea of human equality is clearly not deeply entrenched in our value system. The one positive I see is that young women seem to be starting to rise again after a couple of decades of too much apathy, of thinking it had all been achieved, despite evidence to the contrary. They are starting to see we are a long way off yet. THAT is probably a signifcant legacy of Gillard's time as PM. It brought the hate right out into the open - it was hard for women to close their eyes after that.

  2. Yes, you're so right, WG. It was so blatant it was hard to ignore, how Gillard was treated. As are the horrific domestic violence figures. It was gratifying nonetheless to see the bright faces at Brigidine, and field their intelligent questions. The dismaying thing is that the feminist passion flares up and dies down and flares up again - a pattern of women's history. Perhaps because the veneer of equality is easily stripped away in times of stress combined with raised expectations.

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