Thursday 6 March
Recipes for Revolt
Part 1: What made the women’s movement move?
Presented by: Marian Sawer AO
Marian Sawer will draw on her forthcoming history of Women’s Electoral Lobby to explore what happened in the 1970s when women rebelled and ‘a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down’ were no longer enough.
Part 2: iFeminism – Gen X, Gen Y & the Women’s Movement
Presented by: Roslyn Dundas
In an age of MySpace and Facebook, Paris Hilton and Pink, Roslyn Dundas looks at what the future holds for feminism.
|About the Presenters
Marian Sawer AO is an internationally acclaimed expert on women, politics and policy. Her most recent books include; ‘Women’s movements: Flourishing or in abeyance?’ and ‘Out from the gilded cage: A history of Women’s Electoral Lobby’. Marian is Adjunct Professor at the ANU’s School of Social Sciences and Leader of the Democratic Audit of Australia.
Roslyn Dundas was the youngest woman ever elected to a Parliament in Australia, has been an active community campaigner in the ACT and plays a leading role in Women’s Electoral Lobby in the ACT. Roslyn currently works for the ACT Human Rights Commission as an adviser to the Commissioner for Children and Young People.
Recipes for Revolt: What Made the Women’s Movement Move?
By Marian Sawer AO, internationally acclaimed expert on women, politics and policy
Sisters and friends
It is a great pleasure to deliver tonight the 20th Pamela Denoon Lecture, together with my colleague Ros Dundas. I join in the acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people.
I have a long association with the Lecture, including cutting up the cheese and cabanossi for the supper. My thanks to Gillian Davies, Bec Brewer and other members of the Committee for all their hard work.
When Pat O’Shane gave the Lecture in 1990, I mentioned in my Introduction that Pamela Denoon and I had been friends and worked together on Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) projects, both when she was National Co-ordinator in 1982-84 and afterwards. When Pamela was in the federal Office of Local Government and I was in the Department of Foreign Affairs we used to meet in the foyer of the Administrative Building, that massive and rather Stalinist building in the Parliamentary Triangle (now the John Gorton Building) where things went on upstairs that one wasn’t allowed to know about unless one had a high enough security clearance. Pamela and I were fine-tuning WEL press releases on the issues of the day such as affirmative action. We were moles in a good cause, trying not to attract attention by laughing too much. I always associate Pamela with laughter and good humour, the qualities that sustain activists even through dark days.
In this lecture I shall be talking not only about the justifiable anger that fuelled women’s revolt in the early 1970s, but also about the joy in the struggle and the optimism that the world could be changed for the better. So I shall discuss both rage and joy, as seen in these images and as so many of you have experienced.
But to start with what made women angry. It was summed up well by Sydney WEL activist Di Graham. Women were angry because society had overlooked and wasted their skills and talents, marooned them in the suburbs, expected them to spend the most productive part of their lives in housework and then discounted their views as simply those of ‘housewives’.
Some women had already become angry within the student and anti-war movements. These supposedly radical movements had reproduced the old expectations that men would take the microphone and women would make the tea. Revolt against these expectations spread from Chicago and New York and arrived in Australia by the end of 1969. Previously unlabelled discontents were being named and specified.
Other women became angry when they read Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch. This book had an enormous impact when Greer toured around Australia to promote the paperback edition. Greer was very sexy (not only no bra but no underpants) and this ensured attention from the predominantly male media. But for women the recipe for revolt was there and the power of its rhetoric was entrancing: ‘The surest guide to the correctness of the path that women take is joy in the struggle. Revolution is the festival of the oppressed’. This was contagious stuff.
Joyce Nicholson felt a burden roll off her back when she read Greer—women didn’t have to enjoy being wives and mothers. Suddenly dissatisfaction was no longer a sign of personal inadequacy but a legitimate protest against sexism and patriarchy. Nicholson joined WEL in Melbourne and met hundreds of other women who had experienced the same doubts, worries and guilt as she had over dissatisfaction with full-time domesticity: ‘After all those years of feeling I was swimming against the stream, I found the strength of sisterhood, of women swimming beside me towards the goal of achieving more equality for women’.
In Sydney another early WEL member also spoke about the revelation that dissatisfaction was not something to feel guilty about: ‘I’d always believed all those myths…I hadn’t ever heard any mother express anything but the most momentary exasperation about her motherly role…one would have seen oneself as admitting total failure, to say that one couldn’t stand staying home with the children. There was no other public acknowledgment of women’.
But despite the pressures on girls to become secretaries or nurses, as a prelude to becoming wives and mothers, by the 1970s women had begun to enter higher education in significant numbers. This did not prepare them for their experiences on graduating, of finding that many jobs were simply not open to them, that married women were not wanted or that they would be paid less than the men who graduated alongside them with lesser degrees.
This was the era of pages of classified advertisements divided into jobs for men and boys and those for women and girls—the more interesting, responsible and well-paid jobs were almost all for men, as were apprenticeships except for hairdressing. The Uniting Church had no qualms in asking for a man to be its conference centre manager or the Liberal Party for a man to be its research officer.
[image of SMH job advertisements]
In public sector employment women were largely confined to typing pools and process work. Joan Bielski of WEL in Sydney was told by an Electricity Commission personnel officer that they did not offer apprenticeships to girls because electricians might have to lift large motors. When she pursued the matter he replied that he liked women to remain feminine. In a wonderful understatement Bielski comments: ‘The conversation ended on a somewhat acrimonious note’.
The conditions in which migrant women worked in factories were particularly appalling, and they received little help from trade unions. As a survey of the needs of migrant women, led by Eva Cox of WEL-Sydney, said: ‘We can not talk our rights’. WEL-Victoria printed 10 000 copies of a multilingual flyer for distribution in factories in 1972.
[WEL-Victoria multilingual flyer ]
Even though public service marriage bars were being dismantled, discrimination against married women remained rife. As a Brisbane WEL member wrote:
Even the most permissive of the permissive society do not hold the married state in such contempt as to suggest that entering into matrimony is a serious misdemeanour warranting the deprivation of one’s livelihood, as apparently held by banks, assurance offices, city councils and hospitals, at least when the guilty party is a woman.
Marjorie Luck described how a guest speaker at her local mother’s club at Taroona in Tasmania shocked her into joining WEL in 1972: ‘Women who sell men’s shoes get paid less than men who sell men’s shoes. Women who sell women’s shoes get paid even less’.
It wasn’t only employment issues making women angry. The advertising of contraceptives was illegal, family planning advice was difficult to come by and there was a sales tax on the pill as high as for mink coats. When WEL surveyed women in Victoria on their experiences of contraception over half had difficulty obtaining advice from doctors and one respondent who had had two children in less than two years said: ‘fear of pregnancy dominated my life for the first ten years of my marriage’. WEL members learned how to screen-print posters saying ‘WEL demands safe, cheap contraception and the right to advertise it’.
[Victoria Green and Margot Snyder screen-printing contraception posters designed by Carol Ambrus, 1972]
Once there were children another issue was lack of childcare, whether daycare, occasional care or after-school care. Depression over being marooned in the suburbs was treated dismissively by doctors, who too often prescribed tranquillisers. As WEL member Diana Wyndham said so memorably: ‘My doctor gives me pills to put him out of my misery’.
The economic dependency of women, who were likely to be one husband away from welfare, was linked to poverty both during the vicissitudes of life and in old age. The general discrimination against women by financial institutions was given added poignancy when a bank refused credit to a widow for her husband’s funeral without a male guarantor. Unmarried mothers were generally forced into relinquishing their babies for adoption by being told they would never be able to support them.
No wonder the pent-up rage spilled out at the first WEL meetings. In Coffs Harbour, for example, a founding member said: ‘The intensity of the anger staggered me. Every story told of discrimination and repressive sexist attitudes’.
The anger fuelled enormous commitment to change, with meetings often going into the early hours of the morning. While in 1972 the forthcoming federal election absorbed much energy, other actions were also undertaken, for example the WEL picket at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne to ensure two women were able to sit the exams for the administrative division of the public service for the first time. Thanks to the presence of television crews the women were admitted and passed the exam but failed the medical—on the grounds they were female.
WEL groups sprang up across the country as women were mobilised to survey candidates for the 1972 federal election. The interviews with candidates were a revelation as women found out how little politicians knew about issues of importance to them, such as childcare. A not untypical reaction was: ‘What does this peanut think he’s doing standing for parliament?’. The survey received enormous media coverage, with journalists being impressed by the social science credentials of those who put it together, like Carmen Lawrence, and by the fact that the results were to be ‘put through a computer’ at Melbourne University.
[Carmen Lawrence, working on the questionnaire]
[Liberal politician Andrew Peacock being interviewed by Helen Glezer, 1972]
The survey was followed by candidate meetings where women, who were now the expert examiners, grilled hapless candidates before audiences of several hundred. No wonder political parties quickly produced commitments to placate these relentless women. Within the first week of the new Whitlam Government the equal pay case was reopened, the sales tax was removed from the contraceptive pill and funding was provided for family planning.
Soon the ILO Convention on discrimination in employment was ratified, paid maternity leave introduced into the public service, funding found for childcare and supporting mothers’ benefit and soon for the new women’s services such as women’s refuges, rape crisis centres and women’s health centres. The abolition of tertiary education fees meant the opportunity for ‘second-chance’ education for many women who, regardless of their particular talents, were originally trained to be secretaries or nurses because these were appropriate female occupations.
You will note that in this story of rage little has been said about the absence of women from parliaments and public decision-making. In 1972 there were no women in the House of Representatives, no women in any Cabinet in Australia and no women on three quarters of federal advisory bodies. Even 20 years later, in 1992, the face of government still looked like this, at least in Tasmania.
[All-male Tasmanian Cabinet being sworn in, February 1992]In North Queensland, too, things were slow to change. At a meet the candidates forum in Townsville in 1974 the candidates were not only dazzled by the chair, Dale Spender, wearing diaphanous green, but confused by a WEL member heavily pregnant with twins who was asking them their views on decriminalisation of abortion. Afterwards the Member for Townsville said in parliament: ‘We should consider the ordinary women…who do the jobs women are supposed to do and are good wives and mothers. They do not run along to public meetings’.
However, contrary to what you may have read in political science text books, WEL was not founded to put women into parliament but, rather, to get issues of concern to women, the issues that caused the rage, onto the political agenda. Here are WEL women conspiring in Tasmania, the politics of the sitting room.
[First state-wide meeting of WEL-Tasmania 1974]
Seeing the results of their collective action, the new policies produced by a responsive federal government and at the State level by the reforming governments of Don Dunstan and Neville Wran, had an exhilarating effect on the women involved. For the first time they felt they had the power to change things, to have an impact on society, rather than having to accept the way things were for women: ‘we thought we could do anything’. As Wendy McCarthy put it: ‘It was like you grew two inches taller because suddenly you felt so powerful’.
The biggest impact was on women who had been suffering the low self-esteem associated with the status of ‘housewife’. They were inspired by finding other women who felt the same as they did and finding how quickly they could bring about political change. As Iraq-born Elsa Atkin recalled, when guilt feelings surfaced about letting housework standards drop, there was one woman who would constantly remind them that no woman she knew of had, as part of her epitaph, ‘she kept a clean house’.
Those who had been secretaries, too, found it a revelation to have their contributions taken seriously at meetings; to be listened to rather than put down. This generation ‘joined WEL, saw other women in action, learned to write submissions, interviewed politicians, debated issues in public forums and then, fired up, went out into the world. They went back to school, to university, became councillors, journalists, researchers’. Barbara Coddington, a former secretary and housewife who plunged into WEL work in Sydney, found how important the law was to everything women were trying to achieve. So she went to university and became a lawyer. With her new sense of self-worth she was ‘nobody’s handmaiden anymore’.
It was not only the new confidence that was important, so were the emotional satisfactions of sisterhood, of solidarity and support from other women. For those women, who had felt they were alone in their fight against inequality and the putting down of women, suddenly there was a large crowd of sisters. As Joan Bielski said: ‘Through the fifties and sixties my friends and associates regarded me as a nut for my feminism…A pleasure for me now is the knowledge there are hundreds of women thinking as I do’. For others, who had failed to conform to social expectations, there was now affirmation of their attitudes. As Edwina Doe said of her independent life as a market researcher: ‘All my life I had wondered why I was out of step with other people and now I realised it was because I was a feminist and I was not alone’. Now such women could happily gather round a collating table to paste-up the WEL Newsletter, with one bringing a cake and proudly saying: ‘I bought it myself’.
The technologies of revolt were primitive—at least from the perspective of today. Not only were women pasting up the newsletter but learning how to make stencils, how to use the Gestetner duplicating machine, how to do screen-printing and how to organise telephone trees. In 1975 WEL members in Canberra were flat out screen-printing posters, T-shirts and car stickers saying ‘A woman’s place is in the Senate’ to support Susan Ryan’s campaign. According to Meredith Ardlie: ‘at the end of the day you couldn’t find any arms or legs or faces or clothing or hands or hair that weren’t covered in this terrible ink-dye stuff, and to add insult to injury, we were so committed, we bought all the ‘smudgy’ ones with blurred writing that hadn’t worked out and took them home with us.’
[Kirsty McEwen and Meredith Hinchcliffe resting after earlier screen-printing
Junior WEL with Gestetner duplicator in background, ashtray on table
Pamela Denoon, Ian Macphee, Susan Ryan celebrating the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act]
When what is often called the second wave of the women’s movement appeared in Australia, little was known of its predecessors. For example, an article in a 1974 collection of WEL papers, From the Gilded Cage, confidently began: ‘The women’s movement in Australia is now a full two-years old’. There was blissful ignorance of continuous activism since the 19th century. There was somewhat more knowledge in Western Australia, where in 1972 Irene Greenwood of the Australian Federation of Women Voters was instructing young feminists on how to set out chairs for a meeting: ‘In a circle, dears’, she said, ‘not in rows. Feminists don’t sit in rows to talk, they sit facing each other’.
Hopefully endeavours such as the Pamela Denoon Lecture will ensure that future generations of women will be inspired to believe that there is such a thing as sisterhood and it can be powerful. I will leave with you with this image from 1996 and Ros will now take up the theme of Generation X, Generation Y and the women’s movement.
iFeminism – Gen X, Gen Y & the Women’s Movement
By Roslyn Dundas, the youngest woman ever elected to a Parliament in Australia, an active community campaigner in the ACT and plays a leading role in Women’s Electoral Lobby – ACT
Thank you for the invitation to be here, I am deeply honoured to be part of this year’s Pamela Denoon Lecture. I did not have the privilege to know Pamela, but I know her work and am grateful to her and other long-time WEL women for the incredible work they undertook and still undertake. I, too, add my thanks to the Committee for their work in running these events and maintaining Pamela’s memory.
Unlike Marian I am not an academic, currently I am a public servant, so I have to make the little disclaimer that this lecture does not necessarily reflect the views of my employer. I also note the irony of Marian talking about the past and I’m talking about the future – yet I don’t have a powerpoint.
I have been asked to talk about the future, from a young woman’s perspective and surprisingly enough I believe I am the youngest woman ever to deliver a Pamela Denoon Lecture. And it is quite fitting to look at the future with a new insight into the origin and history of WEL. Yet I have been quite apprehensive about this lecture; I think Marian got off easy, 20-20 hindsight is a lot more accurate than a crystal ball.
To look at the future I think we need to look at feminism today – the feminism of Gen X. Gen X is usually classified as those born 1965 to 1980ish (the dates on these things are rather flexible and depending on who you believe I personally could be Gen X, Gen Y or the altogether different MTV Generation). As I see it Generation X feminists are the women whose mothers stood on the barricades and really turned the tide for women’s engagement in the broader world. They worked hard, so the next generation could have it all.
But these young women also caught Girl Power. When the Spice Girls bounced on to the scene and Buffy started slaying the vampires in the mid 1990s, Generation X were aged 15 to 25. For many Gen X feminism was captured in the phrase – ‘girl power’ or as the Spice Girls put it – “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want…” I remember speaking at the Women’s Constitutional Convention in 2002 telling many of you that Barbie wasn’t evil (while she has some body image and racial issues Barbie was an astronaut, and a rockstar, vet, elite athlete, president and still got to go on family holidays – a role-model that showed us endless choices). I also noted that girl power – while a mass-marketed approach to female self-determination and self-worth – was overall a positive influence on young women. And I know many didn’t necessarily agree with me. Susan Hopkins in her 2002 book Girl Heroes noted that “girl was no longer just an age and gender category – it’s an attitude.” But as she goes on to say, “what girl power has delivered is a kind of superficial, artful simulation of feminism. Politics here is only another image to be manipulated in the service of celebrity and media power.”
I had a friend, the daughter of a leading feminist – I remember talking to her as I was exploring the concept of what feminism meant to me, of how we were going to use our feminism and take over the world… her response to feminism was a little less optimistic. Her mother told her she could have it all, could do it all. But the world had not changed sufficiently to meet her, or her mother’s, expectations. She felt let down, lied to – set up for failure if you will. We have heard this argument repeated again and again, that feminism failed women… even this year an article at OnLineOpinion was criticising the ‘feminist movement’ for failing to support women… remember the recent clamour over feminism resulting in careers being prioritised over children. Just this week a report from Victoria noted “while younger women said they were told to be whatever they wanted, many described juggling work and children as hectic and stressful.”
But a positive pop song, and some strong leading women in the mass media (yes with a number of issues – Xena in her leather, Buffy and the underlying theme of sex equals death and a pop gum approach to equality but strong none the less) and a whole lot more women in the workforce, put women very squarely in the picture – you might not have agreed with what they were doing or wearing, but they were there. They showed us that attitude is everything, and allowed us to easily identify that our place in the world, as women, is an unquestionable right. They took the jobs and recognition that our foremothers fought so hard for and solidified it. Gen X benefited from that work, there was no fight for us to attend university, enter the workforce or contribute through unpaid work as mothers –while we might still debate the details on these things, the underlying ‘rightness’ of them is left in little doubt.
And this leads us to our younger sisters… Generation Y, are those who are around 15 to 25 at the moment so at the ripe old age of nearly 30 I also feel both young and old… certainly younger than WEL, but being nearly 30 means that the young women starting University this year have been through an educational and life experience that is comparatively very different to mine. Today’s 18 year old was born in 1990, in their lifetime there has always been McDonalds in Russia, Nelson Mandela has always been free, the Hubble has always been up there, Seinfeld has come and gone, the Sex Discrimination Act has always been law, the ACT has always had self-government. It was in 1989 Rosemary Follet became our Chief Minister, the first female head of Government in Australia, and Joan Kirner became deputy Premier of Victoria. Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland in 1990.
Today’s younger women have always known women leaders, CDs, the Internet and mobile phones – these are not new phenomenon for them, it is part of the fabric of their world. But people aged 18 to 24 years today have the highest prevalence of mental health problems of any age group . In the younger age group of 7 to 16 the rate of obesity has increased from just 11% in 1985 to 25% in 2004 . Despite our advances there is still considerable concern about the welfare of young people.
So how does feminism fit in?
Apparently we are still having a debate about feminism full stop: “I’m not a feminist but”, “feminism is dead because we don’t need it anymore”, “why don’t we have a Minister for Men” etcetra etcetra. I know you would have heard many examples. How do these debates impact on young women today – when they see female political candidates lambasted in ways that men never are, what does that mean to them?
Rebecca Hunter, author of The World According to Y puts it thus:
“Young men and women have internalised feminism to such an extent that many of them question its relevance as a social movement.”
Where as my friend was disillusioned by a world not ready for her, Hunter is claiming that it maybe the world is a little bit more ready now. However, I’m not about to hang up my feminist badge just yet. The NATSEM Income and Wealth Report of July 2007 tells us that “Women are still earning around 15 per cent less on average, in the same occupation and working the same number of hours, as men. For Gen Y this varies from a difference of $34 a week for professionals to $135 per week average shortfall for women in the clerical, sales and services industries.” The Report goes on “Single Gen Y men have on average 30 percent, or $25 thousand, more in assets than single Gen Y women.” And most media today talk about young women as though we should just give up on them as completely different species set on a path of self-destruction: binge drinking, drug taking, public brawls…
Fay Wheldon so unhelpfully states that she is embarrassed for the feminists, clinging on to the dream of a proud, equal, serious society, where justice ruled and lasses didn’t throw away their hard-won equality in the pubs and clubs, puking up their resentments on the shoes of paramedics helping them out of the gutter.”
I think Pink put it a little more helpfully in her song ‘Stupid Girls’:
What happened to the dreams of a girl president
She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent
They travel in packs of two or three
With their itsy bitsy doggies and their teeny-weeny tees
Where, oh where, have the smart people gone?
Oh where, oh where could they be?
Young women today are not the first to drink or try drugs. Premier Anna Bligh was publicly declaring her dalliances with the wacky weed just this week. Young women today aren’t the first to scandalize their elders with raunchy behaviour.
However, young women today have a significantly different understanding of their place in the world compared to their 70s sisters and a range of different media and tools at their disposal.
When I got to university I learnt about this thing called feminism and I learnt about this thing called patriarchy. I had my spark moment, where I could put a name to the oppression and wrongness I could sense in the world, and I had a great moment where I was able to join with others, men and women, to work to overcome this oppression and wrongness. As Marion discussed many of our elder sisters had this moment reading Germanine Greer for the first time.
What we need to support women, young and old, to have the spark moment… And if feminism is having its relevancy questioned we need to get that spark out there – not just in university, not just in books. So when Pink asks ‘where have the smart people gone?’ we can answer “we are here – you are here”.
We cannot be afraid of FaceBook, MySpace, Instant Messaging and the mobile phone. But we also need to recognize that these can be isolating forms of communication. Your FaceBook friends are people you already know, and the people on MySpace are generally anonymous.
We, as older feminists, must take our knowledge and experience and find real and creative ways to share it. Feminism didn’t just happen all on its own, and we can’t expect it to keep going all on its own. We need to give what we can, when we can… we have different things to give at different times and that’s okay. We need to be welcoming.
The future of feminism is what we will make it.
So what of the future? I for one know that I will wake-up tomorrow still out-raged:
- that cunt is the worst possible word imaginable, yet you can say dick and cock much as you like and not get censured;
- that my newspaper will have pages and pages of men’s sport – as it did today, as it did yesterday – with only a token mention of female athletes;
- that a female minister is criticised for not being up to the job after adding to her brood, yet no-one questions male political leaders based on the size of their families;
- that there are federal government restrictions on the use of our international aid funds so they can’t be used to provide access to reproductive choice through safe abortions in those countries we support. Also we can’t provide information, education, communication and post care related to the unsafe abortions that then take place;
- that Australia is one of only two OECD countries without a global paid maternity scheme;
- that same sex couples are still considered legally different to non-same sex couples; and
- that the average life span of young indigenous person born today is 16 years less than that of a non-indigenous baby.
I will take my outrage and work with you to turn it into joy. We will take the tools we have at hand: organisations like the Women’s Electoral Lobby; our sisters of all ages; and the internet – and we will use them.
We will continue to work to make sure that we do reach that reality where the world rises to the challenge of feminism and embraces us all.