A Republic for Women?
Professor Marilyn Lake, LaTrobe University
Canberra, 9 March 1999
Introduction: an occasion for reflection
I am deeply honoured to be invited to present the annual Pamela Denoon lecture, which provides a valuable occasion to reflect on the progress of feminism in Australia, the achievements of the movement in which Pamela Denoon played such a distinguished part, and also to reflect on the limits of our feminist achievement: in other words on what remains to be done. I bring to this task the perspective of a historian who has just completed a book about feminism in Australia over the long haul, an account of more than 100 years of feminist activism in this country. The movement of the last thirty years or so, with which many here tonight identify, is but one chapter (in fact, in my book, three chapters) in a much longer saga.
My own involvement with the organised women’s movement dates from 1972 when, as a twenty three year old, I attended the first meetings in Hobart of both Women’s Liberation and WEL, a double identification – with revolution and reform – which was, I think, quite common. I state with confidence that I attended these meetings, not because I remember either of them (I would be a hopeless oral history subject), but because there were reports and photographs of both in our illustrious local paper, the Saturday Evening Mercury (alongside ‘apple recipes from around the world’ – this was Tasmania).
One of the most interesting aspects of the newspaper reports was the differently coded representations of Women’s Liberation and WEL. The photograph of the meeting of the Hobart Women’s Action Group in May was headed This Is War, Men! with the further caption Women’s Lib. prepares for battle. Three months later, in August, the formation of a Hobart branch of WEL (with some of the same women) – at ‘a city hotel’- was heralded rather more warmly with a photograph captioned 13 Sleeping Beauties…Wake Up! The reported explained his choice of image:
The feminists are stirring from a sleep that goes back to 1902. For 70 years, women have had the right to vote in a federal election, but they have woken up to the fact that they have little to show for it. The Sleeping Beauties – alias Women’s Electoral Lobby – has been formed to enlighten the male-dominated political parties by pressure tactics…They have formed the first pressure group in Australian political history, which does not represent a minority.
The first? The first feminist ‘pressure group’? In one fell swoop, in one sentence, the rich and crowded history of Australian feminism was obliterated. How did he think women’s hospitals were established or mothers’ custody rights or child endowment or equal pay? But we who attended those meetings were hardly better informed. Neither at school nor at University had we learnt about women’s political history. Why weren’t we told? The invisibility of women as political and historical subjects was but one expression of our more general invisiblity in national culture. A republic fit for women would take women seriously as political subjects, in accounts of the past, in negotiating the present, as well as planning the future.
But before I leave Tasmanian feminism in 1972, when the ‘sleeping beauties’ ‘prepared for battle’, I want to share with you one other noteworthy piece of information. WEL in Hobart, it was reported, espoused a broader agenda than women’s rights:
There is pressure for family planning, social benefits, education, Aboriginal rights, recycling of waste and environmental pollution.
Where did the later idea come from that feminism was only interested in advancing the careers of white, middle class careerists? As in all political history, the real story would seem to be rather more complex.
A republic for women?
One step towards this is to insist on appropriate recognition in the Preamble. But for women to become fully independent and self-determining citizens of the new republic, several other fundamental social and political changes must follow.
First, girls and women need to acquire confidence in their ability to defend themselves for is not a capacity for self-defence a prerequisite for self-government?
Is there not a relationship between women’s exclusion from combat in the armed services and our sense of defencelessness on the streets and in our homes? Just as the nation might feel vulnerable to attack from foreign aggressors, so women feel vulnerable to attack in their communities and homes. The prevalence of men’s violence is debilitating for many women, who order the movements of their day, their choice of transport, the timing of their outings, their decisions to attend night-time seminars or meetings, in the light of this fear.
In a republic of equals, women would not only be eligible for combat in defence of their country, but also feel capable of defending themselves at home. Few women I know will walk in National Parks by themselves, while my teenage daughter has told me of how she and her friends have learnt the desirability of male protectors when walking along public roads. The challenge is to establish the conditions in which women can take our rightful place in the world as active subjects, enabled by bodies that empower, rather than disqualify, us for public life.
To this end self-defence classes in schools should be mandatory for girls as part of their training for citizenship. There they would learn self-confidence as well as skills. At the same time boys might be trained in home management and schooled in the art of conversation, taught the skills of communication, so that when trouble brewed, they might rush to the phone, rather than take to the bottle or the knife or the gun. While girls could stride self-confidently into the night, boys would be ringing their friends, asking ‘What do you think she meant when she said that?’ and ‘Do you know what she said then?’
Women and girls need to learn to defend themselves, because as often as not, as Aboriginal people found, one’s so-called protectors are as often as not one’s persecutors. As the great American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was moved to observe:
As a matter of fact, the thing a woman is most afraid to meet on a dark street is her natural protector.
Second, women cannot participate as active citizens of the republic while they remain in their condition as slaves to the nation.
In the 1940s, the writer Miles Franklin fulminated that Australian women were ‘a nation of charwomen…The idea is that we must all grovel together on the kitchen floor.’ In the 1990s, we combine charring with a whole swag of other occupations: in offices, banks, Universities, factories, restaurants, hospitals… But we have entered those occupations on men’s terms, which include maintaining responsibility for the household.
Women’s excessive working hours are an outrage and a national disgrace. While more and more women have been drawn into the paid labour market, and the changing nature of the economy – the shift to human services, leisure and information industries – increasingly favours women workers, we continue nevertheless to do about 70 per cent of the unpaid work in the home. Endless surveys show that paid working hours are getting longer, while the tasks of cleaning a house, feeding children, putting out the washing and shopping for presents have remained, despite the recent nonsense spoken by Germaine Greer, as demanding as ever. These are time consuming activities. Most women’s waking hours are consumed in labour of one sort or another.
On all sides, studies confirm the lengthening working week. For example, in February this year, a survey conducted by Morgan and Banks showed 74 per cent of Australians work an extra 5-10 hours in a week, compared to two years ago. In the finance sector, a study showed that between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, there had been a 38 per cent increase in men working between 50 and 59 hours and a 19 per cent rise in men working more than 60 hours. And the longer men remain at the office, the more likely it is that women are left holding the baby at home. Men’s absenteeism on the home front continues to turn women into a servant class.
Women are overworked and underpaid. Women in paid work still earn around 65 per cent of what men earn, one reason being the greater likelihood of their being found in accommodating part-time work and in occupations and positions that don’t demand too much of them – in hours, or commitment, or travel. The cost of women’s multiple responsibilities is evident in their weekly pay packet: the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show men on $714.50 and women on $468.30 per week. How can women participate in the republic as equals when they are short of time and money? To move towards greater equality bewteen men and women, at least three things are necessary:
- a much greater government investment in child care and aged care (women need a welfare state);
- a much greater participation by men in unpaid household labour; and
- the mandatory limitation of working hours.
I shall address the last points first.
On the need for men to shoulder a greater load of domestic work. Clearly this will not happen without suitable encouragement (conscription even) and I remain attracted to German feminist Frigga Haug’s suggestion that affirmative action strategies for women need to be matched, indeed more than matched, by the equivalent for men. (After all, women hardly needed to be persuaded of the joys of economic independence.) She suggests that when men present for interview or promotion they be asked to supply evidence of their socially useful unpaid labour, in their homes or communities. In discussing quota politics for women, she observes:
A realistic quota politics therefore needs not only rules and prescriptions as to how women are granted positions in male-occupied domains; it needs also a strategy of how the positions that women occupied until now are to be filled on a social scale. On the one hand, a simultaneous demand could be made for quotas for men in social reproduction, in a broad sense of the term – eg making jobs for men dependent on their spending time in the reproductive sphere, in welfare or ecological activities.
Such a policy Haug envisages as part of a general redistribution of labour which would also challenge the value given to production for production’s sake.
In Lindsay Tanner’s recent thoughtful, well informed and well written book, Open Australia (it is the sort of book which gives politicians a good name), he also addresses the question of a redistribution of labour, but here his analysis and understanding are deeply disappointing, I think. His only consideration is whether the limitation of working hours would reduce unemployment – and he concludes it wouldn’t, without, it seems to me, much evidence. He suggests that, in any case, people would simply work longer overtime.
But this simply misses the point, it seems to me, which is that both the law and social pressure should be brought to bear against excessive working hours. Excessive working hours should be stigmatised, made a source of social shame, with those caught in the office at 7 o’clock, morning or evening, presented with the equivalent of a white feather. Just as companies which fail to take affirmative action seriously are shamed by naming (are they still?) so might those who demand or give too many hours to their job.
The other disappoinment in Tanner’s treatment of working hours is his utter disregard for the gender dimension of the issue. Despite his best feminist intentions, his book is informed by a masculinist impatience with nostalgia, sentiment and insecurity : there is a suggestion that we should take our global future like a man, and keep at bay the feminine penchant for protection. But his muscular advocacy of the brave new world of unlimited working hours also prevents Tanner from seeing the gender dimensions of the hours issue, from seeing that women, in taking on double and triple shifts, are being worked to death. How can men look after their children or their parents if they are working sixty hours a week? In most cases women are forced to do it for them.
Not surprisingly, as Ken Dempsey’s book Inequalities in Marriage shows, men’s participation in domestic work and the care of children has not changed significantly over the last twenty years. He reports a survey from the mid-1990s which showed that women who were employed full time and had a partner and dependents spent on average over twice as many hours per week (36 hours) on housework as did men similarly placed (14 hours). Clearly, then, women and men should be campaigning for a 35 hour week.
Third, women’s capacity for independence and self-determination depends on the well-being of the welfare state.
Talk of a welfare state has become distinctly unfashionable of late. In these days of do-it-yourself-everything (including feminism), the idea that the state should provide the services necessary to enable its citizens to live productive, healthy and creative lives seems an anachronism, but it is not without significance, I think, that one of the terms used to denigrate the welfare state is to call it a ‘nanny’ state. It is also not without significance that it was feminist activists early in the century who promoted the concept of a ‘welfare’ state, because it was women who bore responsibility for human welfare, who had to look after the sick, the aged, the frail, the children.
Post-suffrage feminists in Australia focused all their energies on ushering in a woman-friendly Commonwealth, a state in which the vulnerable, but especially women and children, would be cared for and women would be paid a living wage for doing that vital work. They were successful in establishing a vast network of maternal and infant welfare centres – a mass public health program for women, setting up women’s hospitals, and in having women appointed to a wide range of offices in the state: as police, gaol matrons, hospital matrons, magistrates and JPs, factory inspectors, medical inspectors, and as welfare workers in department stores.
They also campaigned for a state scheme of motherhood endowment, to provide mothers with an income and thus independence from their husbands. This was conceptualised as a mother’s right – in feminist discourse mothers were, like workers, rights-bearing political subjects, not figures in need of help and protection.
It was working class women in the labour movement who led this campaign, which was taken up enthusiastically by non-party feminists such as Ada Bromham in Western Australia and Jessie Street in New South Wales. It was working class activists who knew at first hand the injurious consequences for mothers of excessive workloads and for them paid work – in a factory or charring – hardly constituted emancipation. Lilian Locke-Burns coined the slogan ‘One Woman One Job’ to protest against working women’s excessive workload, against a woman being forced ‘to combine half a dozen occupations to the serious detriment of herself and of the children she is rearing.’
An income from the state was necessary, said Lilian Locke-Burns, because:
…we also have to recognise that, if a woman desires and chooses motherhood, she should be as economically free, as little dependent upon others, as the well-paid woman who has climbed to the top of the ladder in the scholastic, commercial, literary or any other arena of her own choosing.
Labor women and non-party feminists took their case to a Royal Commission in 1927, appointed to investigate the feasibility of family endowment, but it was considered too ‘revolutionary’ to be entertained for one moment. In proposing to replace the men’s higher family wage with equal pay and motherhood endowment, paid directly to mothers, they threatened the power of men, as workers and as husbands. The threat of women’s independence was evident in this exchange between Irene Maud Longman and a pursed-lipped Royal Commissioner:
Your theory is that the State should pay the wife for services rendered to the State?
Yes, we say that her services to the State are as great as those of the men, and therefore, that those services should be paid for as an independent economic unit.
Women could live apart from their husbands?…That is an alteration of the existing conditions.
Yes, it is revolutionary, and that is what we wish.
Feminists were unsuccessful in their campaign in the 1920s, the Royal Commissioners declaring that motherhood endowment would introduce ‘a powerful solvent into family life as we know it’. By replacing the contract between husband and wife with a contract between mothers and the state, ‘apart from the husband and father’, motherhood endowment would dissolve the ‘organic unity’ of the family. Not until the 1970s, with the introduction of the Supporting Mother’s Benefit by the Whitlam government, did state money enable mothers to live apart from husbands, as envisaged by the horrified Royal Commissioner in 1927.
From the 1960s, however, feminists increasingly favoured government subsidised child care over an income from the state as paving the way for mothers’ independence. By that time, it had become abundantly clear that the labour market was the main game, which sooner or later women would need to join, and the longer time spent out of it, the more handicapped they would be. So child care was identified as a vital pre-condition for women’s independence and equality between the sexes. And it still is. The recent cutbacks in federal government funding of child care constitute the biggest threat to the independence of women and equality between the sexes in several decades. A republic for women would reverse these changes.
Liberal party apologists recommend in child care, as in all else, that we switch from public to private provision, that we exchange a nanny state for a nanny agency, but for numerous reasons this is a recommendation to be deplored. Only the very wealthy can afford their own private nannies; collectively we can all afford child care properly subsidised by the state.
Because of the massive cuts to government funding of child care under the Howard regime, the cost of putting a child in a public child care centre are now estimated to be around $8000 per year. In April last year, the government announced that operating subsidies were to be withdrawn from before- and after-school care, even though 40 per cent of women not in the workforce, but who want to be, cite lack of child care as their main obstacle. Clearly, we must fight for continuing and improved funding of child and aged care services as being of crucial importance to women’s independence and self-determination.
Fourth, the inauguration of a republic promises an extension of self-government, yet women are dramatically underrepresented in our houses of parliament.
Currently, around 75 per cent of members of the federal parliament are men. (The underrepresentation in the professoriat and the judiciary is even more dramatic). A republic fit for women would see women participating in government proportionate to their numbers in the electorate: and it would retain the present system of proportional representation in the Senate, which was introduced in 1948, after concerted campaigns by leading feminist organisations, such as the Women’s Non-Party Association in South Australia, the United Associations in New South Wales, the Victorian Women’s Citizens’ Movement and the Australian Federation of Women Voters, who circulated candidates at election time through the 1930s and 1940s asking them to support this reform in the interests of feminist non-party candidates.
In 1932 Britomarte James, president of the Victorian Women’s Citizens’ Movement, put the view that in providing for the representation of minorities, proportional representation would make possible the proper representation of women. And in 1933, the United Associations sent questionnaires to all federal political candidates asking whether they would support the introduction of proportional representation for the Senate. The fact that the proportion of women in the Senate is now significantly higher than that in the lower house would seem to bear out their argument.
In a woman-friendly republic, women would cease to be political outsiders and it is of the utmost importance that women take their turn as president. To that end, we should ensure that either the list of nominees for the position of president be always composed of equal numbers of men and women, or simply require that the presidency alternate between men and women. If the monarchy can produce a woman head of state for nearly half a century, then a republic, which allegedly enshrines equality, should be able to do at least as much.
To provide for the self-government of women, a republic must enable women to be proportionally represented in the professions and public life. But just as important, to my mind, is the representation of the voice of feminism as a politics committed to the equality and independence of women. As more women become subsumed by the major parties on the one hand, or totally occupied in ‘doing it for themselves’ on the other, there is a renewed need for fresh feminist thinking and an independent and forceful feminist movement. In 1935, Linda Littlejohn, broadcaster and journalist, described by the Melbourne Herald as ‘Australia’s leading feminist’ (who has heard of her today?) was interviewed prior to taking up her position as president of the Geneva-based body, Equal Rights International, and she had this to say:
Feminism was a cult so deep that one lost oneself in it, and it was a power which pushed the true feminist along.
In other words feminists were empowered by feminism.
Pamela Denoon was a true feminist, empowered by feminism, to help shape important changes in Australian society in the 1980s. It is to be hoped that women continue to feel so empowered that they will embrace the independence and engage in the act of self-determination that both feminism and republicanism represent.