Senator Pat Giles
In accepting the invitation to speak at this, the Inaugural Memorial Lecture to celebrate the life of Pamela Denoon my first response was typical of my generation “What an awesome responsibility! Can I do it justice?”.
The confidence of Pam’s friends and some mature consideration has helped to restore my equilibrium and placed this occasion in its historical perspective. My own faith in our sisters and the process they have initiated assures me that I can base this lecture on my experience and my interpretation of the wider world of other women’s experience, safe in the knowledge that gaps and limitations and tentative conclusions are inevitable but themselves will give impetus to a better understanding of the needs and aspirations of women and the dynamics of their lives.
If all this sounds as if you are in for a rather inconclusive evening, you are probably right. I even have a tentative sub-title – “If Hitch-hiking is out of the question, is the galaxy out of reach?”.
I am assuming that economic and emotional independence and access to a range of genuinely achievable goals is as close to paradise as most of us aspire, but there is no quick and easy way for most women. Given the breadth and depth of commitment acquired by Pamela when she became aware, as a young woman, of the twin oppressions of sexism and racism and dedicated her mind, her heart and her courage to the battle against these social evils, perhaps the expansiveness of my sub-title is not inappropriate.
Pamela was a practical woman too, aiming for the stars but dealing with the immediately exigencies as they arose.
The lives of western women have changed remarkably over the past century. Reliable indicators of state of health, literacy, wealth, etcetera have only been recently kept but we can make some educated guesses from census data about earlier patterns of child-bearing and mortality. There was a dramatic decline in overall marital fertility between 1860 and 1900 in Australia, affected by such factors as later aged marriage; separation of partners, as a result of gold rushes, etcetera; periodic deficits of marriageable males; particularly in Victoria, the economic slump of the 1890s and a comparatively high literacy rate and employment of women (this is by comparison with what European information is available). Compulsory education deprived households of the labour of children, specifically, the care of younger siblings, and information on fertility control was spreading as contraceptive technologies saw some innovations.
In her excellent book “No Rising Generations”, Pat Quiggan assembles the available data with a good eye for social effects upon women’s fertility; “elastic” is how it would be summarised in this day and age. She observes in passing that the Catholics in the late 19th Century had not yet discovered that coitus interruptus was illegal but makes no judgement on its likely effect on family size.
In 1911 the average issue of fifty-five year old Australian women had fallen by nearly two to 5.16 from the 6.94 to women who had started bearing children up to twenty-five years earlier.
The nature of the record suggests that still-births and neonatal deaths may not always have been recorded by we’re told that in 1895 to 1899 infant mortality rates averaged 117 per thousand live births, ranging from 98 in Tasmania to 163 in Western Australia. Maternal deaths in 1900 averaged 55 per ten-thousand live births, the rate ranging from 33.8 in Queensland to 72.1 in New South Wales. Women habitually set their affairs in order when approaching parturition, with very good justification.
In both sets of data we can only guess at those included by feel fairly certain about those whose vital statistics were omitted.
My grandmother and her generation faced a lifetime of caring for children. As children themselves and adolescents, they shared with their mothers the care of siblings. Ten of her own children survived babyhood, the youngest being born when she was in her late forties, and this was typical. Child-rearing, including caring for the orphaned or abandoned children of friends or relatives, was a lifetime task and in an era when many women themselves failed to survive their own sixtieth birthdays it meant that they had done little else than care for children since the themselves were children.
Precluded from the formal workforce, many, of course, supplemented their household incomes in ways which were common until the 1950s and which were never recorded in any national accounts. These included taking in boarders, or cleaning, washing, ironing or sewing for more affluent households. My grandmother’s neighbours included a woman who kept the books for her husband’s dairy; another who cut the lucerne grown by her husband to sell to the women of the locality who kept hens and sold the eggs; and a family of women doing most of the work in what was a highly technological hatchery for those days. A trained nurse came into our house to nurse my grandmother for the last weeks of her life. Contrast this existence, home and neighbourhood-based and child-centred, circumscribed by a paucity of choices, with the women marrying fifty years later, who are now perhaps on the verge of considering retiring.
Typically, in and out of the workforce for much of her adult life, our fifties woman rarely had formal education pas the age of fourteen. Her lack of mobility, and the demands of her family, again narrowed her job options. She learned the job in a day or a week “working next to Nellie” and usually had no control over her working conditions. She was rarely paid more than a minimum wage and had little chance of promotion or access to superannuation. At best, her job security was tenuous. She was blamed for youth unemployment while doing the work that youth could not, or would not do. Her job, in many cases, was the industrialised, commercialised or public version of the work that her mother did at home, or informally.
Even by the early seventies, 80% of working women had no formal qualifications: those with post-secondary education – nurses, teachers, librarians, social workers, constituted only 11% of the female workforce: and only 3% of employed women possessed tertiary qualifications, other than those post-secondary qualifications I have just mentioned. That’s less than twenty years ago!
What was lacking? What conceptual, economic and legislative changes have occurred to produce a state of affairs where women now expect a life-long attachment to the labour market with brief interruptions for child-bearing and rearing, rather than their mothers’ occasional forays into the workforce only to retreat in response to family exigencies, the vagaries of the job market or their own sheer weariness?
In the realm of ideas, the second wave of feminism coincided with a time of dramatic political change in Australia encouraging us to look at our foremothers with new eyes. How could it be that such courage and talent had been locked away?
Equality of opportunity was not just a figment of our fevered imaginations. We discovered our common strengths and weaknesses and pooled our collective wisdom. Not all of this was without pain but the new language of confidence and assertiveness built new structures upon the solid foundations laid by groups such as the League of Women Voters, the National Council of Women, even the CWA. Make no mistake, the seventies wave did not start from scratch. We did find ways to describe old oppressions. The term sexism was considered by some to be an excruciating neologism, but it is now being used quite freely by such conservative organisations as the United Nations, even though the French still haven’t found an equivalent term.
Later, in 1974, sexual harassment was labelled for the first time. I’ll never forget a discussion with my dear friend and mentor, Irene Greenwood, who was well into her eighties when she confessed to me that as a young women, starting her first job, at the age of 19 in 1919, she had been warned by a senior member of staff never be in a room alone, with a closed door, with either of two men, and, “My dear”, she told me in shocked tones “one of the was the Minister!”.
Back then, to the early 1970s when we avidly read the books of Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone and Robin Morgan. Periodicals such as Scarlet Women; refractory Girl; Mable; Ms; Sybil; Off Our Backs; Blue Stocking; blossomed, if only briefly in some cases.
In 1972 incidentally “The Second Sex”, by Simone de Beauvoir, was locked away in the stack in the public library in Perth, whether to protect the book or the public, I never knew! Educational opportunities for girls, nevertheless, were beginning to expand. In 1970 only 17% of secondary students completed five years of high school and about a third of them were girls, a high proportion of those being at private schools. In 1988 over 50% of the 54% of those completing secondary schooling are girls.
In 1973, Elizabeth Reid’s appointment became an early manifestation of the newly found commitment to enhancement of the status of women by the Australian Labor Party. The first was the very prominent Whitlam decision, immediately after the 197s Election, to re-open and support the equal wage case. The next few years brought unbelievable activity to begin to satisfy a wide range of newly articulated needs: refugees, women’s health centres, support for trade union women, children’s services, a report on the education of women and girls, and many other initiatives. In celebration of International Women’s Year we established structures, which in one form and another, have survived and served us well.
Elizabeth was succeeded by Sarah Douse and Kath Tapperall who kept the flame alive against all odds including the demotion of the portfolio of Women’s Affairs to join museums and shipwrecks as a responsibility of one of the most junior Ministers in the Fraser government.
This period, including mid-decade celebrations, was remarkable for a developing working relationship between non-governmental women’s organisations. The Race Discrimination Legislation of 1975 was intended by the Whitlam Government to test the use of our Foreign Affairs powers and to pave the way for Sex Discrimination Legislation. In the event, the test was the Koowarta Case which didn’t occur until 1982 – but Australian women, of most political persuasions, were lobbying during the later seventies for National Sex Discrimination Legislation. By then South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria had acquired equal opportunity Acts, put procedures in place, and appointed Commissioners for Equal Opportunity.
Beryl Beaurepaire, Convenor of the Fraser government National Women’s Advisory Council, convened a large and widely representative meeting in Melbourne in 1979, which called almost unanimously for federal Sex Discrimination Legislation.
The government’s response was somewhat tepid and no action was taken. It was a private member’s bill, introduced by Susan Ryan into the Senate, late in 1981, that saw Sex Discrimination Legislation first proposed in Canberra. It languished, of course, as most private member’s bills do, but once Labor obtained office the government bill was a priority. By then, Pamela was in a position as WEL organiser to take a leading role in mobilising the now impatient women’s movement and other progressive forces to ensure the Bill’s successful passage and it was a job that she undertook with great enthusiasm and great effectiveness.
During the parliamentary debates the word ‘feminist’ was being used as a term of abuse, so I utilised my contribution to try and inject a little moderation and accuracy into the debate, quoting from Rebecca West, “I don’t know what people mean when they call me a feminist but I do know that’s what they call me when I do anything that differentiates me from a doormat”.
Women Who Want to be Women or “women who want to be wettexes”, as Janine Haines suggested, managed to outrage some of those they were hoping to persuade by bringing to Canberra a cake iced to read “To the men in the house from the women at home”. One genius deplored the legislation on the grounds that it would be immoral for women, and men, to work together as truck drivers or even worse to be engaged together in digging a deep hole.
Such gems surfaced again when the Affirmative Action Bill was held up for weeks in the Senate and again for the Equal Employment Opportunity legislation, which of course referred to the Public Service and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bill, and I wouldn’t like to guarantee that even now the righteous indignation could not be regenerated under some pretext.
Other quite extraordinary changes have occurred, however. The press response to the “Women in Politics” Conference at the ANU in 1975 was typical of the day, so patronising and trivialising that we marched on the Canberra Times to insist on the right of reply. Anything to do with sex and women in those days received headlines but for the rest, it was silence or scorn. We still have our problems but straight honest thoughtful media treatment of issues of concern to women is not now a rarity.
Perhaps even more of a revolution is the fact that community child care has lost its negative reputation and is now highly regarded and keenly in demand. It’s not long since we felt compelled to justify its positive effect on children with reams of data proving that the drop-outs and delinquents of tomorrow were not likely to have been the toddlers in child care today, and that families could actually operate with more economic and psychological stability if child care was readily available.
In 1979, during the hearing of the Maternity Leave Application in Western Australia, the employers in opposing our case produced a director of a child care centre who declared that she would not employ a worker who would place her own child in care. The battle is not over, of course, but today we actually have economists imputing value in dollar terms to community child care. What an alarming thought. Have we become macro-economically desirable? It’s a small price to pay for one of the most liberating of social reforms.
Pamela was at the heart of such campaigns, sharing the triumphs as each barricade was toppled and relishing the next challenge as it arose.
What challenges do we face, those of us who have been, or are about to be, deeply affected by the socio-economic changes that we have experienced during the past few decades?
We’re told by the qualitative researchers that women generally are convinced of their right to equal status, to be people in their own right, to lives of their own. Men, not surprisingly, are said to be less convinced of the inevitability of all this, having too frequently, a great capacity for denial of unwelcome truths.
There is emphasis, not new, on the stress and exhaustion of the double days work. Our own time use survey in Australia confirms that men assume little of the burden of child rearing or housework even when women’s paid hours of work approximate their own. The woman who, on the one hand, sees herself as a person in her own right, presumably when out of the house, is guilt-ridden and confused at home, according to the experts, and in too many cases, they’re correct. The truly symmetrical family is a rarity, and a woman finding fulfilment outside of the home threatens the status quo.
Those who opted out of, or postponed, child bearing are said also to be bundles of neuroses. Some are said to be disillusioned that their work, even if responsible and well paid, is not satisfying all their needs. It’s probably not much comfort to realise that though women’s lives and aspirations, and some social mores have markedly changed, there are rigid institutions that are lagging badly and which in many cases will need more, much more time and encouragement in order to adapt. Take, for example, the Public Service, the Army, the Church and the Union Movement.
Expecting constant high levels of satisfaction in a job or expecting it to fulfil one’s emotional needs is as naïve as making those demands of a marriage or of one’s children. Many jobs contain little satisfaction and women who believe that a wage is far preferable to dependence upon a benefit or on a spouse, learn to treat their routine jobs as means to a living and find their pleasure and relaxation elsewhere.
There is at present, however, a great industrial reform in progress. It’s known as “award restructuring” and here comes the call to all those who have a little time or energy to spare. Your union or association will be delighted to have your informed opinions about the ways in which your job can be restructured in order to reduce classifications, expand skills, broadband categories and develop career structures where none have existed.
The combination of this restructuring, and affirmative action, could well be the means of hastening income equity for Australian women. Lack of access to equal work has been the main impediment to pay equity. Our system of wage determination puts Australia at the top of the OECD tables of ratios of women to men’s full-time non-managerial earnings. Unequal rates are not a problem, unequal job distribution most certainly is. I am optimistic enough to believe that another decade should see a marked improvement in pay equity, but even the growing number of women who are prominent in the industrial relations field cannot move the remaining mountains without rank and file activism.
One of the industrial miracles of the past decades has been that nurses have discovered their political and industrial rights and responsibilities.
Women who have adopted the strong workforce attachment of which I spoke earlier have a multitude of problems. No one should underestimate the difficulties of being a sole supporting parent. One income, especially in view of housing costs, may not be sufficient to keep you at the level of consumption to which you have become accustomed. Without a ready, willing and able support crew, loneliness and isolation can overwhelm all that joy and satisfaction that comes from offspring all of one’s own.
We cannot relax for one minute, in assuring decision makers that child care and other support services for families of whatever composition are a crucial element of a philosophy which gives high priority to social justice.
Working women, with or without children, can face other difficulties in the course of their careers. In too many work places there are still severe sanctions for the woman who steps out of line and makes a complaint or expresses an unpopular point of view. Opinionated men who don’t suffer fools gladly are tolerated, even recognised as leaders and rewarded. But women like this are frequently ostracised and even frozen out. They are not an insignificant group. Networks of support are the only answer, and fortunately such networks are developing and becoming more influential. But they, of course, are another claim on the time, energy and generosity of busy women.
Any Australian woman who proposes an active and fruitful life is going to have to work on it.
I am firmly convinced that we are not designed to survive past our child-bearing years. If proof of this were required consider the dismal engineering of the female pelvic floor only explicable if one is intended to drop on to all fours whenever one feels a sneeze coming on. Fortunately, the obstetric and gynaecological care now available to young women is of a standard which will enhance the probability that they will enjoy fit and active old age without the surgical intervention on which many of us have been forced to rely. There is a tendency to take many advancements in women’s physical well-being, like fertility control including abortion, for granted in the 1980s, given that there is still enormous room for improvement in contraceptive methods and that safe early accessible termination is in most states a privilege only as long as the authorities allow, always vulnerable to the anti-women lobby and its antics.
Female poverty is yielding more slowly than we would prefer, to measures designed to develop independence, and though emphasis on family values by various governments and parties is a worry, in many cases the effect is to allocate funding to services which are meant to appear neutral but which actually target women’s needs quite effectively.
We do have women in authority, able to act as gatekeepers and mentors, and in positions to advise and influence when programs are being designed.
Its some time since I have heard discussion about public/private, or personal/political dichotomy – perhaps because in Australia we have taken the view that what’s good for women is good for society and have managed to persuade a significant sector of decision-makers that this is the case.
Recalling Pamela’s commitment to peace, disarmament and development one is reminded that such issues which ten years ago were marginal to women’s movements, and unambiguously public, are now explicitly linked with our understanding of the causes and effects of conflict generally and domestic violence in particular.
In the light of a wide range of changes of which I can only give these few examples, can we feel comfortable that these advances cannot be reversed? I’m reminded of Ian Turner’s ratchet theory of social change. I also note that the Liberal Party in Western Australia, during the recent election campaign, thought it appropriate to mass mail a letter from the wife of their Leader. It was a very odd message which came to be known as the “iced Milo document” but the Conservatives have at least discovered the value of the women’s vote, if not how to attract it.
It seems probably that with the ratchet principle of social progress operating and continued strong economic growth, immediate prospects for Australian women are encouraging. Structural change has greatly enhanced employment opportunities, incomes will improve as will the range of jobs to which women have access, even if the type of work that they do has indicated little change, according to the data.
One is aware of the fact though, that there are far more positions truly open to women than was the case even ten years ago. One has only to look at the Department of the Senate to see women in positions where it would have been unthinkable to find them not so long ago.
Postponed motherhood, fewer babies and an increase in “never marrieds” are predictable. Even a depression is unlikely to dramatically reverse these trends which on the whole have enhanced the status of Australian women. There is no room for complacency as long as poverty and oppression exist in our own country, or anywhere in the world.
We are now in a position to more adequately understand the ways in which we can influence decisions, about overseas aid, for example. The activities of the United Nations decade for women have sensitized our women’s organisations and revitalised some of the older non-governmental organisations. One the one hand, those exposed to such experience are easily overwhelmed b the sheer awfulness of the treatment of women in some societies. Others are galvanised into activity by their new knowledge. Inevitably, one comes to an appreciation of the magnitude of the task undertaken by the United Nations and of how crucial small steps can signal a significant change. Implicit in all this, is a challenge to our ethnocentricity and the obligation to examine to just what we mean by the rights that we claim. Are these universal? More importantly, are we conscious of whether our convictions leave room for recognition of, and respect for, our Aboriginal women’s opinions or those from women of non-English speaking backgrounds?
This is my final point, impelled by a current issue which disturbs many of us and to which I can find no easy answer, genetic engineering and invitro-fertilisation. We’ve claimed the rights of women to determine whether, and how, to control their own fertility. We don’t need to acknowledge any right to bear one’s own child. We can suggest that there is no such right, if it is at a social cost which diverts funds away from more pressing medical purposes, a value judgement, which we are entitled to make. Alternatively, we can remind ourselves of two crucial factors – we live in a pluralist society, for which we have great hope, and we gain great strength from our diversity. Feminists must be optimists.
Our other fundamental source of strength is our trust in each other, as women whose similarities are of much more importance than our differences and whose judgement we should trust, unless we have proof to the contrary.
Pam’s life and the manner of her leaving is an inspiring example of wholehearted confidence in the sisterhood. Her find contribution to the movement is aptly commemorated, and I sincerely trust, that her rare and wonderfully supportive family feel the satisfaction and sense of continuity that such a memorial should engender.