The 1995 Pamela Denoon Lecture presented by Eva Cox
Tonight we continue the work Pamela committed herself to. When I suggested, and later introduced, the first Pamela Denoon Lecture, I did it because the best way of honouring her was for her friends to keep working for feminism. Doing it publicly – discussing ideas and possibilities – is part of the process of making women’s voices heard.
Today is a smorgasbord … a range of ideas and issues which need to be tackled. I use a domestic food analogy deliberately, because this is women’s territory. I want to use the metaphor of smorgasbord because I learned in Copenhagen that the term is about every[one] taking only what they need so that all can share.
Thus starts my homily. How do we see ourselves and society? Are we individual units or self contained families, interested only in our own comfort and gratification? This is the message we have had rammed down our throats for the last decade plus. It is the basis of the dominant economic paradigms and for much of our social policy.
Do you believe that humanity started as individuals who then agreed to a social contract to create society? Or do you believe we started as a mob, herd or tribe, who learned that we were interdependent? Slowly from the mob came individual “Man” who may have forgotten they were still linked and needed to belong.
Starting with the second gets us a new perspective on human beings. If we are linked and our links are intrinsic, we need social and economic policies which emphasise our interconnectedness. So if we try this model of human nature we look at our responsibilities for each other, as well as our rights.
I think we all have a need to belong. This creates problems as this can mean ingroups and outgroups unless we recognise our common humanity. Then we end with some feral tribalism: racism, soccer hooligans, Bosnia, fundamentalisms and all other group processes which demand absolute loyalty and commitments to group solidarity rather than individual rights to be different and dissent.
So we need some new political and social theories which mix concepts of connectedness with the freedom to differ and make changes. We should not reject the old, but look at what worked and did not work, and what created social glue, at the same time as allowing for more progressive changes.
I was taken with an essay by Lisa Appignanesi – Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité: PC and the French – which looked at why the French had less pressure to splinter into subgroups than, say, the UK and USA. Despite inventing much of the theory that created the basis for intellectualising difference, she believes that France retains a very clear sense of citizenship responsibilities, and continued acceptance of the power of the state. The state is powerful, secular and upholds basic rights of liberty, fraternity and equality … “but in the birthplace of deconstruction the central narrative of the just state remains only slightly chipped”.
France is a country with its public sector relatively intact, with no mood of “staggering breakdown”. People feel they can and do elect governments which represent them. The French feel they still have a stake in running the nation – unlike in the UK and USA. In these, the 80s saw a breakdown in the concepts of civil society and the public sphere. With Government unconcerned about its citizens, a disaffection set in, with social breakdown of national political life, so this allowed for politics of difference/identity. These generated new rules to control a world spinning out of control. So a direct result of the Reagan years was political correctness, mirroring almost a twisted moral majority.
Mitterand gave a sense of inclusion which Reagan and Thatcher denied. She [Appignanesi] speculates that the move to the right in France may fire the same if the centre fails to hold, with its enlightenment values and the concept of a providential state.
The World of Man
We need women’s input. The world of individuality is a clear product of western European thought – of looking at the world through the eyes of commerce and man’s role in trade, politics and governance. All these became linked into the early days of the Industrial Revolution, creating the public life of men, which left at home all the connectedness. Therefore, the developing industrial revolution in the last two centuries managed to ignore those aspects of life left to women. Production moved into the factories from the homes but services were mostly left behind.
So now we see the consequences. A very macho form of finance capitalism which is totally convinced that man is greedy and self-interested, and therefore wealth makes the world go round. The only counterarguments of any substance came from socialism and communism, and these were destroyed by the downfall of a particularly noxious form of masculinised, despotic, bureaucratic Marxism.
So we need a new political framework, and one which has major input from women. We need to develop this, taking into account many other ways of looking at the world as connected, from the Aboriginal views in our own country to those of many of our Asian neighbours and those of European countries with less individualistic cultures, such as the Scandinavian ones. We need a form of social and political theory which recognises both the group and the individual. I recognise that there have been some benefits for all from the encouragement of change and dissent. Women will not benefit from societies which enforce traditional roles, nor will those who do not fit in and those who want to argue for change. So we need to take the best of both and make something quite new.
Rights and Obligations
This brings up my next point, which is that we have to look at what we claimed as part of our birthright as women. The language of the Women’s Movement has been about rights. These are often interpreted as the rights of any woman to do whatever she wants. This is often seen as a parallel of presumed male rights and echoes the concepts of individual satisfaction.
I hear younger women claiming that they understand feminism in terms of their right to do what they want. I have heard some say this gives them an unfettered right to be supported by their husband because they choose this, of women claiming the right to be supported by the Government because they choose to stay at home, and the right to avoid the boring or difficult because we choose to.
No one has unfettered rights. The other side of this debate is too often overlooked: the responsibilities we hold as a consequence of rights. Because women often saw themselves as having only responsibilities and no rights, it is hard to say “We now need to take up new ones”. But we do!
I hear many women complaining that they do not like the way the world works, but they do not see that they have the responsibility for doing something about it. Responsibilities are not necessarily pleasant. In fact they many involve doing the boring and also the risky. There are too few women who accept that we must take into our own hands responsibilities for earning our living, for taking on leadership roles, for sticking our necks out, for taking risks of rejection and pushing out new ideas, often to audiences who choose not to listen.
The World is Masculine
(I use the term masculinity, not male. It makes men feel less targeted, and you do not get into stupid arguments like “I do the washing up” or “I have never hit a woman”.)
Suggesting that women take on responsibilities is not offering an easy choice. I am constantly made aware of how masculine the worlds of power and influence still are. Women moving in tend to have to absorb the protective colouring of accepted masculine behaviour for females or of accepted feminine behaviour. This means women have a much more limited set of scripts we can follow. These are essentially designed to fit within masculine views of what is acceptable feminine behaviour. We often find therefore that women are bound by feminine stereotypes and sometimes we are guilty of promoting these.
Every time we claim that women are more caring managers, we fall into the stereotype traps. We can say that women are more likely to be trained in personal skills and socialised into them. But this does not mean that putting a woman in a senior position means that she will be more warm and caring. Women can be all sorts of managers and some are not people oriented. By creating a stereotype that they should be, we ensure that these are moved on and equivalent males survive.
Our expectations of how people in authority should act are at odds with our expectations of how women should behave. So if a woman acts in a way a person in authority should behave then she is perceived as unfeminine … Hard instead of soft, assertive rather than hesitant, too bossy, too opinionated.
I have been a victim of this as have many other senior women who have lost jobs because they have been seen as poor people managers. This is the ultimate sin for women, and allows men to move out women who try to make changes. I have heard this repeated about women whose sins, if any, hardly warranted their moving sideways or out.
Another point to be made here is that women are often harder on each other than men are. We judge other women more harshly for their faults than we would judge men in similar modes. We expect them to be saints and then reject them for feet of clay. Ask yourself if you have ever been more critical of a powerful woman than of men.
Mind our Language
This has been one of the areas most contested, and one where Australia has established itself as a leader in looking at the issues raised by use of male terms as universals. There is a wide acceptance in most public institutions that language should be inclusive rather than expecting outgroups to suffer invisibility under another heading.
The processes of being seen as and treated as Other has serious consequences for our own sense of self and power. I remember the pleasure I found in reading an essay by Carole Pateman (Equity in the City? – Pat Troy) in which she used the pronoun “she” as universal. There was a sense in which the essay became much more personally interesting. Of course intellectually I know that mankind includes me, and laws written as “he” do not mean I can disobey them. However, I prefer not to have to be subsumed as an invisible Other.
So we need to look at the way we use language and allow others to use it. There are big debates on political correctness, and many vocal groups – mainly white able heterosexual males – who object to what they see as control on their language. Under the term “political correctness”, many powerful groups attempt to control the often puny efforts of outgroups to protest their negative language status. The regular not-funny commentaries by the many male media persons, and their occasional females in search of male status, consist of taking the mickey out of the process. They seek out and invent the most absurd examples of language use and condemn all attempts on this basis. They recycle endlessly the occasional error of judgement or over-the-top comments of named feminists.
This is classic political sabotage tactics, and can be most effective when you have many outlets to imprint the “joke” into popular culture. For instance, a set of draft guidelines for dating behaviour in the USA college of Antioch have now been bruited world wide as a typical example of feminist extremism.
I am not claiming that feminism and feminists should be above criticism, nor would I want to support some of the more prescriptive and puritanical tendencies of some feminists. However, we do need to be aware of the way that outgroups become targets and scapegoats, and therefore undermined.
There is constant use of the tag “I am not a feminist but…” followed by “I like men … I wear lipstick, I shave my legs, I wear skirts, I think men have it tough too” and so on. These show the enemy have had considerable success in stereotyping and demonising feminists and feminism so many who actually fit in the broad spectrum prefer to deny it.
So Now to Issues
As I get older I become more hard line, so some of the points here will not be ones you agree with. We have supported policies under the heading of choices which are being used against us. I want to illustrate with two below.
Unpaid Work, Women at Home, and Childcare
We have now measured and costed unpaid work. This was an interesting sideline on the debate about the roles of men and women, but it has been given too much credibility. It is used as an argument for paying women to stay home.
I do not personally believe that women should have an unfettered right to stay at home with their children. In fact, I believe that this is against the rights of their children. Today’s children need contact with other adults and children, so some form of group care is probably essential for those over two, and desirable for those over 12 months. Time away from mother for at least short periods is important for those under 12 months, so some modicum of part-time work is probably a good thing from six months on. So I am against any form of payment which rewards women for choosing to stay home. I would not object to funding which is neutral for workforce choice, but I do believe that funding to reduce childcare fees must exist, as this is a public contribution to something that benefits children.
At the moment the bias is towards women at home. This is because the total amount spent by the Commonwealth on supporting families with one paid worker is more than three times as much as is spent on supporting families with two paid workers. Figures compiled by the Women’s Economic Think Tank (WETTANK) show clearly that mothers in paid work receive relatively low total subsidies (less than $800M) compared with mothers at home ($2,400M).
Many families with two earners receive no subsidies, as they use no paid child care (42%). Others receive only less than 30% of their costs. There is no general subsidy for working mothers, so the total amount spent on them is relatively small – probably not much over half a billion.
If we provided $5000 per year for every family with children 0-11, it would cost $9 billion per year. That is less than $100 a week and the costs would be more than double what we pay out already in a variety of payments.
The present tax and social security payments are actually biased against two earner families. What they do is provide high effective marginal tax rates for low income earners which make staying at home financially more attractive. This is not a free choice.
There is also a question of appropriate allocation of public funds. There is an increasing body of research which demonstrates that children in quality care may well fare better than those reared solely at home. So this questions the logic of expending scarce public funds to support women at home.
An additional issue this raises is the increased costs to the public which arise when women who have relatively few workforce skills are induced by targeted payments to stay at home. This reduces their ability to find work as children grow older and puts more strain on welfare payments as families continue to rely on low income subsidies.
$2.4B goes to families with children where one person is in paid work, and the other person has little or no separate income.
If there is no evidence that children are better off with a mother at home, and women at home only do marginally more housework than women in part-time paid work, why should we applaud their decisions? They do not do substantially more voluntary work, except in churches, so this is no justification for public support. If they want to spend time full-time at home after the first six months or year, they can fund it!
This is assuming that there are not special needs or circumstances. We need to move from the assumption that there is anything normal or natural about our current model of one or two children and one adult. We also need to question whether attempts to increase men’s involvement in housework is a useful direction. We should be looking at ways of reducing housework and remember that we may do too much.
The Media and Public Opinion
These issues have both been thoroughly canvassed in the media recently. We had Penelope Leach last year getting banner headlines on childcare being bad for children, and this illustrates the problems. The received traditional views will always win out. We can spend 20 years carefully documenting the way that childcare benefits children, but the media and public swings back to received wisdom or what the computer deems the default position.
When Gail Ochiltree put out a book last May, not long after Penelope Leach, she received a very small coverage for her conclusions that children needed care as they were too isolated with just mother. A few weeks ago Adele Horin had a big article in the Herald criticising the quality of staffing in centres, particularly the ratios. She had pages in the Sydney Morning Herald because her story supported the idea that maybe it was damaging children.
Just over half the women we interviewed in a recent sample survey on attitudes on women expressed a belief that children were better off if their mothers were not in paid work. The percentages varied with age, with 71% of women over 55 agreeing, and 29% of those under 25. Still, 55% of those married with children agreed, but only 41% of sole parents. So there are obviously many factors in the response.
However, when this item came to the attention of some of my colleagues on Life Matters, their immediate assumption was that this meant women wanted to stay at home. This became the basis of questions they used on the survey, not to me, but to the Minister in NSW and a panel. So the discussion meandered around women’s right to stay home, rather than the possible need to allay unnecessary guilt.
Around the same time as all this was happening, I was locked in debate with some mainly male journalists, arguing the Child Care Cash Rebate. Apart from defending this on the basis that it was a small contribution to often very high child care costs, I was also trying to turn their attention to other more inequitable payments. These included the residual Dependent Spouse Rebate and the superannuation tax advantages. It was very hard! I realised there was a hierarchy in the minds of men journos and policy makers which goes:
- tax breaks are entitlements, regardless of income;
- cash payments are welfare, regardless of purpose.
This actually is gender bias, as tax breaks advantage high income earners (mostly men) and payments are better for poor people (mostly women), so trying to target non-means-tested payments to women is a no-no. Margot Kingston and I managed to make this point neatly because of using the term “sheilas” and having it picked up widely, but the point was hard to make and we may still lose it.
The other factor about this discussion was the passion and mileage of coverage. Here was a pissant little payment with relatively few savings – at best $40M – but covered as though it were $4B. There they all were, the defenders of equity, ignoring the gross problems and attacking this minor different payment.
The Danger of Victims
In a time of tight funds, groups often used victim tactics to gain resources. Under reduced spending regimes, the encouragement is to make groups compete for public and political sympathy. So victims competed for the tax dollars. It worked: we got funding for women’s services, health centres and girls’ education. Now men have discovered the trick, and wanna be victims too! We have the inglorious sight of the competing statistics! Men are getting lots of space. And many women are expending energy protecting programs too. I suggest we deal with this by pointing out that now men have recognised their problems with the structures they made, maybe we can finally do something about changing the whole system, rather than bandaiding the edges. We need to deflect the argument, because in a head-to-head contest they win, because they have the power and the sympathy vote.
So what underpins this all? I am becoming increasingly aware of how entrenched some basic masculine set attitudes are. And we as feminists have taken some of this on. We need to seriously question some of the basic assumptions and seriously decide on what is bunkum and what is useful.
We need to get serious about taking on leadership positions so we can make changes, many changes. We need critical mass, the support of other women, the ability to take and give criticism, deal with conflict, and with not being loved by all. We need to take risks, but also to make working at that level more human and less macho so we can model the changes we want.
If we won’t do it, or can’t, we run the serious risk of watching the civilisation we know fall apart. The present directions will not do, and the centre will not hold. In a free market, women are chained. We need the centre to hold so we can mediate power and maintain equity.
Reproduced on the with the author’s permission
Originally published in Inkwel 1995/2-3
Eva Cox further explored the themes raised in this lecture in the 1995 Boyer lectures