Women’s movement in Australia

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Women’s movement in Australia



Today women are faced with what seems to be a contradiction. The first women’s liberation leaflet in Australia was distributed at a demonstration against the Vietnam war in 1969. In October that year Zelda D’Aprano and two other women chained themselves to the entrance to the Arbitration Court in Melbourne. For the first time that Court found in favour of equal pay for identical work. And in 1972 the Court ruled in favour of one pay rate for workers under an award to prevent employers continuing their evasion of equal pay by classifying jobs women did as different from men’s.

Yet thirty-two years later Australian women working full time still earn on average 85% of male earnings. And when all women are compared with all men the percentage is still only 66% because 70% of women work part time. And the gap is increasing again. In the year May 1999 to May 2000 male earnings for full time ordinary time increased 5.1% but women’s only by 4%.

We have a plethora of anti-discrimination laws and equal employment opportunity (EEO) is enshrined in legislation. Yet women remain concentrated in the low paid often part time jobs with few career prospects. In the late nineties in the Department of Education Employment and Training 50% of employees were women. In the two lowest levels they made up 75% but only 12% of management. A review of staff at Griffith University in Brisbane revealed the same inequalities. In 1999 women were 52% of all staff 35% of academic staff and 62% of general staff. Yet women were over-represented in the lower classifications in both the academic and general areas. Women made up 86% of general staff level one 73% in level three but only 45% of level ten and 29% above level ten. They made up 55% of academic level A positions 38% of level B 33% of level C 20% of level D and only 14% of level E. When faculties were compared the gender differences were striking. Women academics made up 94% of staff in the school of Nursing but only 9% in Engineering 23% in Science 29% in International Business and Politics. And this is a university that claims its Affirmative Action program is working!

Thirty years after the sexual liberation movement burst onto the scene media commentators such as Bettina Arndt regularly campaign against the right for single women to have children single women are denied IVF in some states older women who choose to use IVF are vilified. Lesbian women are still marginalised portrayals of sex in popular culture remain male centred and ignorant of women’s sexual pleasures. And the Catholic Church continues to discriminate against lesbians and gay men with impunity. Internationally abortion rights remain tenuous with a new campaign to defend women’s rights against the Bush administration in the US and in other countries it remains illegal. Women are still openly treated as if they’re sex objects in advertising in popular culture and in a massively expanding sex industry.

Women’s right to work is widely accepted today – for instance there has been no concerted campaign against married women’s right to work during a decade and a half of mass unemployment. But it isn’t that simple. The Howard government slashed funding to community childcare centres virtually making work for many low-income women an impossible option as child care can eat up such a large percentage of their income it is not worth it.

So was the women’s liberation movement worth the time and energy? In spite of it all the answer should be a resounding «yes!». It was worth every minute spent protesting marching writing leaflets attending meetings and raising hell. In the sixties pregnant women were simply expected to leave work with no access to maternity leave or pay. Contraception was primitive and unreliable and illegal backyard abortions were a nightmare waiting to happen making sex a source of anxiety and guilt. In 1961 women were only 25% of the workforce. Only 17% of married women between the ages of 25 and 34 and 21% of married women 35 to 44 were in the paid workforce. In 1966 the participation rate in the paid workforce by women was 36% compared with 84% of men. By 1994 women were 43% of the workforce and 53% of women aged 16–54 were in paid work compared with 73% of men. However the dramatic change was for married women with 63% of married women aged 25–34 in paid work and 71% aged 35 to 44. As late as the early sixties women were not able to serve on juries could not get a bank loan in their own right and there was no supporting parent’s benefit for women (or men for that matter) if a partnership broke up until 1974. Divorce was a long drawn out expensive affair and there were no refuges where women could escape a violent relationship until the 1980s.

So on the one hand we have won significant gains on the other women remain oppressed. Like all social movements it took militant bold and determined political actions to force reforms from the system. Without the movement women’s rights would be even fewer.

Even though we can win reforms while capitalism continues to exist there will continue to be women’s oppression. Capitalism is a dynamic changing society and is able to absorb all manner of protests. Many of the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement fitted with the needs of the developed world fairly easily as employers and governments drew in millions of women to cope with labour shortages caused by the massive boom. However the fundamentals of the system did not change. Social relations still rested on exploitation and oppression. The driving force of society remained competition for profits for the minority who make up the capitalist class rather than human need. So while women’s increased participation in the paid workforce was actually encouraged it had to be on the terms of capitalism. Employers and governments are not interested in ensuring women work in an environment that fits with their need to breast feed their child or of families struggling to find the time for long hours on the job and still carry the responsibilities in the home. On the other hand women’s oppression plays a vital role in maintaining the system and the power of those who rule. So this minority have a very real material interest in the perpetuation of sexism. That is why ultimately we will need a revolution to completely overthrow capitalism and build a new society in order to end women’s oppression. In a society based on collective and democratic control of all wealth so that human need can be the basis for social decisions it would be possible to organise work and the socialisation and care of children on the basis of people’s needs. There would not be any social group who could benefit from women’s oppression. Then women’s liberation will be possible.

These are the themes of this pamphlet.

Why are women oppressed?

Frederick Engels friend and collaborator of Karl Marx showed that women have been oppressed ever since the beginning of class society. Using copious notes Marx had made throughout his lifetime trying to understand why women were oppressed in his path-breaking book The Family Private Property and the State published in the 1880s Engels gave the first materialist explanation of women’s oppression. He argued that with the rise of classes the ruling class found it necessary to control for the first time in human history women’s sexuality in order to determine their heirs for the inheritance of property. The need to control women of the upper classes led ultimately to ideas and laws which to be effective had to apply to all women and so established the oppression of one half of humanity. So sexism and the kind of discrimination against women we see everywhere today is deeply embedded in social and cultural traditions which stretch back many centuries before capitalism. However for the sake of brevity this pamphlet will only look at how women’s oppression is perpetuated under capitalism.

One of the main institutions of capitalism is the nuclear family – two heterosexual people living with their children. In some cultures the extended family continues but it plays a similar role as the nuclear family in perpetuating the gender stereotypes which are central to women’s oppression. The stereotypes of man the protector the provider and woman the caring loving wife and mother dependent on the man and devoted to her children underpin the treatment of women as sex objects the idea that women are by nature more passive and nurturing than men and provide a rationale for lower wages and fewer job opportunities. From these stereotypes follows the oppression of lesbians and gay men but also the sexual oppression of heterosexual women. The emphasis on monogamy and women’s role as child bearers lays the basis for the denial of women’s sexual needs and the idea that women are mere sex objects for men’s pleasure.

The family promises a haven from the pressures of work a refuge where love is the driving force rather than competition and exploitation. Unfortunately the reality is nothing like the promise. Because the family is not separate from and insulated from society. Men tend to earn more have more job opportunities and their role in the paid workforce is valued more highly than work done in the home. Therefore the relationship on which the family is based is from the very start unequal. For the vast majority of families the gender roles are impossible to escape. Even if they would like the man to take time off from paid work to play more of a role doing child care and housework most families cannot afford to sacrifice the wage of the higher earner. In spite of the fact that more women work outside the home and that they are now 54% of university students in a country like Australia the gender stereotypes are being reinforced not broken down. Even the conservative Institute of Family Affairs has commented that with women concentrated in part time work and men increasingly working longer hours even with the best of intentions individual families find it virtually impossible to challenge the stereotype of the woman taking major responsibility for children.

This very real inequality in the family caused by inequalities in the workplace is backed up by the derogatory way women are treated in advertising popular film and literature. Men are encouraged to see women as at best passive objects of their desires at worst not worthy of any respect or control over their bodies. They are also encouraged to see their «masculinity» as strong aggressive domineering stoic dismissive of sensitivity. Combine all of this with the tendency for capitalism to turn everything into a commodity sex is something for sale ie. prostitution and so is something that can be taken by the strong from the weak. So instead of a haven of love and rest the family is actually one of the most violent places for women to be. Most sexual violence against women is by men they know in the family.

The reality of the workplace backs up the inequalities and violence in the family. Women’s low pay makes it difficult to leave a loveless home making them dependent and emphasising men’s authority in the family. The concentration of women in the lowest paid jobs means a lack of women who exercise authority reinforcing men’s sexist attitudes and reinforcing women’s lack of confidence in their own worth. This affects every area of our lives from the most public to the most intimate. Women who are public figures are subjected to endless discussion by the media of their dress sense and their appearance. Women who are aggressive and confident are ridiculed or treated as threatening and domineering for the same behaviour that is praised as «ambition» or «strength of character» in men. In personal relationships most women find it difficult to assert their own desires. Research into women’s sexual activity found that a majority of women in heterosexual relationships rarely experience orgasm not because they are «frigid» as the myth makers would have us believe but because they cannot bring themselves to tell their lovers what they enjoy and need. The reason women gave for denying their own pleasure is very revealing. Most instinctively knew that the man assumed his role to be the initiator in all things sexual. To take away his control would be to undermine his confidence and threaten the whole basis of their relationship.

The inequalities between women and men while based in the social situation of how capitalism organises work are reflected in the way women and men are socialised from birth. Studies have found that mothers smile more at their male children when they’re active such as using building blocks moving around but smile more at their daughters when they are quiet and passive. Parents tend to interrupt their daughters more readily than their sons in conversation. Other studies show that adults respond in radically different ways to a child in the same circumstances depending on whether they think they are male or female. The gender stereotypes so central to women’s oppression are so much part of the way we are socialised from the earliest age discriminatory behaviour towards women goes largely unnoticed. Research into the way people communicate revealed that men initiate most topics of discussion interrupt others vastly more than women and generally dominate social situations. These learned responses begin with our earliest communications with other human beings and are often treated as if they are purely psychological or even accepted as representative of women and men’s different «natures». But they cannot be understood outside the social circumstances that produce the inequalities between women and men.

These studies while important in understanding how our socialisation into the stereotypes works and how women and men come to view themselves and others in gendered ways do not explain why women’s oppression cannot be rooted out under capitalism. One way to understand why is to look at who benefits from this state of affairs.

Who gains from women’s oppression?

Some feminists agree with Marxists that women’s oppression is centred in the family. However we disagree about who benefits from the family. Heidi Hartmann still widely read in universities popularised the idea that the family was the result of co-operation between ruling class and working class men to force women to service men in the family:

It seems self‑evident that men are the beneficiaries of women’s oppression – that’s why it’s such a popular idea. The unequal relationships between women and men in the family the discrimination against women in the workforce plus prostitution and sexism in general mean that men can buy sex can coerce their wives lord it over the family abrogate their responsibilities to their children and yet be praised for their masculinity.

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