Feminism’s breakthroughs have hit a barrier

Australia prior to feminism was a very different place. Women fought to have their voices heard while imagining a different Australia, where all girls had the opportunity to complete secondary education, where women who had missed out on education had a second chance; where there was equal pay and a rate for the job and universal access to safe contraception and abortion.

We dreamt of child care being available and affordable; where divorce laws which trapped women in abusive marriages would be changed.  We loved the slogan ‘A woman’s place is in the House and in the Senate.’  I grew up in that Australia of the 1950s, when words like career and leadership were not part of a polite girl’s vocabulary.  A leader was a male hero directing from the front, military‐style, the antithesis of a well‐raised girl, who learned to wait to be asked to dance and not be bold or pushy.  Risk taking was something reserved and encouraged for boys.  Teaching was considered a suitable occupation before marriage and motherhood but marriage was the main game. Like many of my peers I could not see why one would exclude the other.

These issues and dreams became an agenda for change and contributed to the creation of the Women’s Electoral Lobby which forced political parties to add women’s affairs to the political agenda.

WEL created a methodology for change based on research, public pressure, media relationships, telephone trees (it was a pre internet world) high level well written submissions and applications to pretty well everything, demonstrations and marches. The energies and skills of hundreds of women were channelled into it.  WEL was the GET UP of its time.

For activists it was a heady time and the achievements were breathtaking – the luxury cosmetics tax was removed from oral contraceptives, family planning clinics were established, termination of pregnancy was placed on the Medical Benefits Schedule, if not off the Crimes Act of most states.  We won equal pay in court but our great success was the advance of educational opportunity.  Women and girls outperform their male peers in educational achievement.  By the end of the eighties many people thought we had achieved all that was needed for women to be leading responsible citizens.

However the early assumptions that the glittering prizes would be ours if we followed conventional male pathways have not proved correct. Leadership cultures have been slow to respond to the aspirations and styles of female leadership or even to trying it.

We have celebrated our first woman prime minister, foreign minister, governor-general, governors, premiers and heads of key interest groups but discussions about targets and quotas, women executives, women on boards, work–life balance and affordability of child care feel like reruns of old conversations. Rather like shopping for clothes and all you see are things you have worn before.

The daughters of the revolution have inherited new dilemmas and many see themselves as we did: in a documentary without a script. I ponder this as I see smart, savvy young women opting for the mummy track despite maternity leave and unable to comprehend the reality and consequences of women’s increased longevity.

 I wonder why they opt for full-time wifedom when the odds for enduring marriages are not good, especially in unequal relationships with one income. I am surprised at the ‘new’ decision to change your name and take the name of the man you married in your thirties after you have established your own ‘brand’.

 How did the F-word become so scary, despite gender being back on centre stage and women holding important public positions? I often hear the chorus ‘I am not a feminist, but’ – followed by a litany of concerns that sound like gender issues but are not identified that way. That feminism still makes sense comes as a shock to those who for the first thirty years of their lives have been one of the boys, or at least not hampered by being female. It is the shock of noticing that your voice is not heard, or discovering you are paid less than your male peers.

 Women now experience the most powerful social and institutional discrimination during their twenties and early thirties, after they have left the educational system and begun pursuing their dreams – and ambitions. This obstacle occurs at precisely the age when women are likely to marry and have children. At this point they must decide whether to try to hold on to their ambitions, downsize them or abandon them altogether. 

 We had fun while we changed our Australia and our legacy is strong but there is still much to do. We did not anticipate at this stage there would be one woman in Cabinet that domestic violence and rape are accepted as almost intractable, that the equal pay gap would be in the order of 17% and pregnancy discrimination would affect more than 1 in 5 women.

 It is time to find reframe some of these issues in order retain our hard won victories.

Time for change again.


Feminism’s breakthroughs have hit a barrier, Canberra Times, 21 March 2014    (click to view PDF)

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