Inside Story

So what are feminists to do?

We not only need more women in positions of power, we also need to examine again what that power is about, argues Sara Dowse in her 2014 Emily’s List Oration

Sara Dowse 14 August 2014 4555 words

Elizabeth Reid, Gough Whitlam’s adviser on matters relating to women, shown here with prime minister Whitlam and International Women’s Year national committee member James Oswin. Malcolm Lindsay/ National Library of Australia nla.pic-vn3510683

I consider myself basically a storyteller, so I’d like to begin with a scene from 1975, the United Nations’ International Women’s Year, in Mexico City, the venue for its official conference and nongovernmental tribune. Picture me. I’m thirty-seven years old, less than half my age now, my hair is black, and only two-and-a-half years before I was rallying in Canberra’s streets with my Women’s Liberation sisters. Now I’m a member of Australia’s official delegation, and am walking in a group along the red carpet to the entrance of the Maria Isabel Hilton in the fashionable Zona Rosa.

All along the length of the red carpet are indigenous Mexican women squatted amid their colourful piles of produce and handicrafts. But we are implored not to stop and buy anything, because, in the words of one of us, “that would only prop up the system that exploits them.” So I don’t stop, and proceed with my colleagues along the red carpet to the sumptuous lobby and my luxurious room at the Maria Isabel Hilton. But I do feel guilty about it, and feel there is something wrong about that very logical response. Because logical as it is, it isn’t going to help those women whose livelihoods depend on selling their goods to tourists.

A simple scene. An epiphany, a metaphor, if you like, for the global dilemma of patriarchal capitalism, gross inequality and poverty. That, sad to say, is my strongest memory of that momentous event, the conference that ushered in what was meant to be a new dawn for women. And I have to say that on my return from Mexico, talking to the many women back in Australia who were eager to hear about the worldwide feminist revolution we were embarked on, I was a real downer. Unlike many of my sisters, I couldn’t express enthusiasm. I didn’t think the gathering was wonderful. Because of those women sitting patient and unrewarded beside the red carpet to the doors of the Maria Isabel Hilton, I felt shame, and was overcome by the immensity of our task.

The 1970s could be characterised as a decade when feminists (though we didn’t, to begin with, call ourselves that) crept into just about every institution you can think of, with the express intention of turning it inside out. The Labor Party, it should be said, wasn’t exempt from this. In fact, I joined the party in the 1970s with other feminists to support Susan Ryan in her unsuccessful bid to be selected for the ACT’s second seat and, later, her successful preselection for the Senate; and I worked hard to get other women to join, to the same ends. All these moves were met with much suspicion – we were routinely compared with Santamaria’s Groupers.

At the time I was a single mother, a low‐ranked journalist in the Australian Information Service, though I was soon to be promoted to head a newly created unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This was the Women’s Affairs Section, the bureaucratic backup, if you like, for Gough Whitlam’s women’s adviser Elizabeth Reid – the first such adviser in the world. To give you an idea of the need for it, the minute Reid joined Whitlam’s staff, she was flooded with correspondence, receiving more than any government minister other than Whitlam himself. My first brief was to clear the massive backlog. Reid was a ministerial officer, but my appointment represented the feminist entry into the bureaucracy itself – a much more powerful institution than it is now after the aggrandisement of the Prime Minister’s Office under Howard and Rudd, and Abbott today. Not to mention the cuts to the public service.

I used to joke that I was Reid’s Sir Humphrey and I’m still drawn to the analogy, but in crucial respects it’s unfair. Unlike Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey’s minister, who was more than a bit of a klutz, my Elizabeth Reid was full of insight and vision. She understood that lifting women’s status in a society like ours required more than legislative reform and specific government services, necessary though these were. But she believed above all that what was required was a radical change in attitude, within society and inside women ourselves. There have been stupendous changes since then, no doubt, but looking back from the privileged position of hindsight we can see how essential that objective still is. It is not enough to have women in positions of influence or power, even a woman prime minister, if the bedrock of sexism remains.

My entry into the bureaucracy coincided with certain tremendously significant events, not the least of which was the return to office of a Labor government after twenty-three years in the wilderness. I was riding too on the crest of the wave of reform, triggered by the civil rights and anti‐Vietnam war movements in the United States and, of course, our own protest movements. My appointment also, on a smaller scale, coincided with changes afoot in Prime Minister’s, which turned it into a central policy department and effective rival to Treasury. Ideas were developing as well about new roles for hitherto unseen bureaucrats. I was in the vanguard of this change in that, unlike most other bureaucrats, I began to have a public role, if a carefully prescribed one.

All the same, my new position occasioned no little hostility. The creation of the four‐woman unit in PM’s and the sudden elevation of a public-servant journalist to one of the highest positions in the bureaucracy were received with incredulity, and resentment, within the department and without. From seasoned departmental officers to press gallery journos, it was met at the very least with consternation. Yet there was definitely a plus to this. Because it was all so new, we could take people by surprise. We were pioneers; there was that clear open space before us, where many of our feminist ideas could be tested, honed and executed. And no one was in a better place at a better time to seize the day than I was.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the minutiae of public-service procedure, but two aspects of it are important, and remain so. First, we resisted great pressure to “prioritise.” If with our pitifully low numbers we were often forced to, our guiding principle was that nothing in government should be “off limits” to half the population. In practice that meant we sought, and obtained, the right to comment on each and every cabinet submission in relation to what impact it would have on the lives of Australian women. This, in the context, was nothing short of revolutionary.

We also worked to establish a machinery model for the oversight of the lamentably labelled “women’s affairs” – the innovative “hub and spokes” that Marian Sawer has written about. This, like our impact statements, was based on the idea that women’s voices were to be heard in a variety of settings not often associated with so‐called “women’s interests.” But because we had to move slowly, we concentrated on getting units established in departments chosen for their obvious impact on women. These included, unsurprisingly, Attorney‐General’s, Social Security, Education, Health, Immigration and Aboriginal Affairs. We did try for Treasury but, unsurprisingly again, here we were unsuccessful.

Our lack of success with Treasury only serves to demonstrate what the British classicist Mary Beard identifies as the ancient patriarchal tradition that still works so effectively to stifle what she calls women’s “public voice.” Beard opens her essay on the subject with the scene in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus’s wife Penelope emerges from her chamber to listen to a bard downstairs in the great hall of her house singing about the number of years Odysseus has been away. She isn’t pleased about this, and asks the bard to come up with “another, happier” number. At that point her son Telemachus, who’s recently reached his manhood, tells her in no uncertain terms to “shut up,” as Beard puts it. “Mother,” he says and Beard quotes, “go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

And it was just this tradition that operated in PM’s. We were able to overcome it only by dint of our novelty and the fact that we had the power of the prime minister behind us. “What does the PM want?” we were often asked, meaning, of course, what did Elizabeth Reid want, and that was all we needed. When push came to shove, however, as I’ve said, we did have to prioritise. We used to joke that even on our deathbeds, a ministerial officer would come rushing in to demand yet another cabinet submission on childcare. Little did we know how prescient such a premonition was. We also put a lot of energy into refuges, raising awareness among ministers and bureaucrats alike about the extent and severity of domestic violence. The latter especially was seen as a perfectly legitimate “women’s issue.” Not so much women’s health services, but as long as we could argue that access to effective, safe and accessible contraceptive advice would steer women away from the political hot potato of abortion, we were on relatively safe ground. The Section, then the Branch as it became, and finally (before we were booted out of PM’s and demoted to a department of home affairs in December 1977) the Office, had some notable successes in these areas.

Although it garnered far less expenditure, and none of it ongoing, the International Women’s Year, or IWY, program devised by Reid and administered through the IWY Secretariat can also be counted a success. Why? Because of all the measures taken under Whitlam, that was the one with arguably the most lasting effect. That and free tertiary education, from which a generation of women benefited. Childcare today is almost unaffordable, with fees and waiting lists rivalling those of exclusive private secondary schools. Domestic violence rages, but funding cuts and administrative changes in New South Wales alone threaten the viability of women’s refuges. But IWY dramatically changed the way we women think about ourselves, and this remains with us, even if there’s still some distance to go.

It goes without saying, however, that there were very few feminists, male or female, in either of the two main parties back in the 1970s. (Joan Child, for instance, the one woman in the House of Representatives at the time, from 1974 to 1975, was opposed to the push for childcare, confusing the centres feminists wanted with earlier infamous “baby farms.”)

But let’s speak about the men. Schooled in their experiences of the Great Depression, when so many of them suffered the double humiliation of unemployment and depending on the incomes of their wives, most Labor ministers felt challenged by the apparently middle‐class issue of feminism. Yet there was also the question of the women’s vote, and the hope of even the crustiest among them that organisations like the Women’s Electoral Lobby represented a promising shift away from the conservative parties – a development I’m happy to say holds even more today.

Before I went to PM’s, I had been seconded to Clyde Cameron’s office to work on the platform that Labor women finally got up at the ALP’s 1973 conference. The major speech I wrote was on the minimum wage, which, according to the Higgins formula devised in 1907, only applied to men. A woman’s wage, meanwhile, was held to be no more than three‐quarters of a man’s, and usually far less than that. Naturally I argued in the draft how unjust this was, and it was a revelation to see that my words brought tears to Cameron’s eyes.

As for the Coalition, this was a little more complex. I was still in Prime Minister’s in 1975 when the government changed as a result of the coup. It was an agonising decision to stay, but the choice was clear. Those were the days when the Westminster tradition stood for something, and I was a public servant, not a ministerial officer. To leave would mean abandoning the women’s reforms to a certain demise, to stay gave us at least a chance to work for their preservation, and to continue our consciousness‐raising.

What I hadn’t expected was to be appointed to the position I’d been acting in. I had gone through the motions of applying, but never thought I had the remotest chance of succeeding, given the dramatically changed political climate. I only learned that I had succeeded when it was announced on the radio, on ABC’s PM, that I was to be Malcolm Fraser’s “super‐girl.” I went to work the next morning paralysed with dread. But John Menadue, the department head, disclosed that, when informed of my appointment, Fraser merely remarked, “She’s a socialist, isn’t she?” and left it at that. Can you imagine such an exchange taking place today?

As it turned out, Fraser was more supportive than any of us could have believed. He overturned a previous government decision that devolved oversight of refuges to the states; Fraser resumed direct funding after trouble occurred with Bjelke‐Petersen in Queensland. He straightened out a problem that saw the bulk of the $75 million child-care appropriation going to preschools instead of childcare, especially in New South Wales. In 1977 the appropriation for refuges was actually doubled, at a time when other areas were being slashed. Most significantly, from 1975 to 1977 he kept the women’s portfolio and appointed Ian McPhee, an exemplary small‐l liberal whose wife was a feminist, as his minister assisting.

That said, our relationship was strictly professional; in all that time I spoke to Fraser face‐to‐face exactly three times. It was, I now realise, as tricky for him as it was for me. Neither of us could afford to let this productive interaction be known: he because of the hostility to feminism in the Coalition, and, believe me, it was strong; and I because I couldn’t afford to be seen, in those extremely polarised times, to be spruiking for the Coalition, or, indeed, the architect of the coup (even while my objective was to keep, or indeed strengthen, Labor’s reforms).

Fraser had his own agenda as well. Both Ian McPhee and Beryl Beaurepaire, then the influential head of the Liberal Party’s Federal Women’s Committee, had protested against the blocking of supply. Whatever his own thoughts on feminism, perhaps Fraser thought it politic to keep them both on side.

Feminists, especially in the 1970s, were subjected to constant criticism for being middle-class. And white. There was substance to these charges, but the crux of the matter lies with how they were manipulated to work against all women. One of the key Whitlam reforms to my mind was, as I’ve mentioned, the abolition of tertiary education fees. This was a social justice reform but also one firmly in the national interest. It’s even possible that it was not only the much‐vaunted economic reforms of the 1980s that brought the prosperity of the 2000s, but also the improvement in the standard of education of Australia’s population.

Indeed, many of the underlying principles of the Hawke‐Keating reforms are being called into serious question at the moment. The supremacy of “the market” – as much a god, it would seem, as anything religion has thrown up and just as sacrosanct – has resulted in critical and, I would say, inevitable outcomes. Countervailing Labor measures have served to cushion these: the social contract of the 1980s alleviated some of the pain caused by the economic restructuring; the quick action taken by the Rudd government to offset the threat of the global financial crisis saved us from the worst effects of what has variously been called economic rationalism, or market or neoliberal economics. But effects there have been. While Australia’s debt-to-GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the developed world, Australian household debt is one of the highest. Figures from a variety of sources show that socioeconomic inequality has been growing, and if present policies are allowed to continue, it will continue to do so.

So, back to women. I’m reminded once again that women were some of the chief beneficiaries of the waiving of tertiary fees, and many of them, by dint of their husbands’ occupations, were assumed to be “middle‐class” – an assumption too often ill‐founded. The argument consistently put forward in the 1980s to support the introduction of HECS was that free tertiary education benefited only those who would have gone to university anyway. But this overlooked a generation of mature-age students, women especially, who never before had the opportunity to further their education. And of course the case still stands.

Education should never be seen as a privilege, a meal ticket for those well‐off enough to afford it. First and foremost, it’s investing in a country’s future. Nothing will guarantee more our ability to withstand the challenges thrown at us than the skills and education of our people – all of us, women as well as men. This might be considered a utopian objective. But it is a lodestar, something to guide us, a priority, if you will. Julia Gillard did so much to signal its importance, and while I didn’t support every aspect of her approach to it, her efforts can only be applauded; and the present government’s attitude, to it and just about everything else, deplored.

Now back to 1975, and the women sitting cross‐legged on their mats to the side of the long red carpet leading to the entrance of the Maria Isabel Hilton. As well as being IWY, 1975 opened with the visit to Australia of Milton Friedman, doyen of the Chicago school of economics, crusader for monetarism, as it was known at the time. How striking that the clarion call for market ascendancy coincided with the year for us women.

As the Friedmanite philosophy percolated through the bureaucracy, parliament and press corps, we began to be bombarded with calls to cut government expenditure, given to be the principal cause of so‐called “stagflation.” What with the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, we feminists were flying against the tide, and saw our own philosophy reduced in the public mind to opening up career paths for women.

The movement itself became formalised as more and more activists took up positions in the women’s studies programs we had fought for, and began to teach and devise what to me were ever more incoherent and irrelevant analyses of the female condition. As for the public service, the women’s portfolio became more bureaucratised. With the return of Labor in 1983, the position of femocrats was for a time secure, even boosted. Labor’s policy was to return the Office, now of the Status of Women, to PM’s as a full division, and to reinstate the women’s desks in other government departments with ongoing involvement of their permanent heads to give them the necessary clout. Nonetheless, the function became inevitably more bureaucratised.

Also on Labor’s program were two very important pieces of legislation: the Sex Discrimination Act, so long in coming, and, two years later, the Affirmative Action Act. Those of you who were around then may remember the heated parliamentary debates around both of these; for those who weren’t they are a less than gentle reminder of where we could be headed if men like Cory Bernardi have their way.

Yet for all the sound and fury, I believe that is unlikely to occur. Though the socially conservative backlash through the Fraser and Howard years was to be expected, society has moved on. I don’t believe ideas about women’s place will ever gain the purchase they had in the 1950s, Howard’s picket fence notwithstanding. And I do believe that the terrible misogyny unleashed on Julia Gillard had as much to do with the circumstances of her ascendancy and the brutal opportunism of the opposition as it did with the pervasive sexism that sadly persists in our culture.

For all that, the trickiest enemy of feminism – at least the feminism that galvanised me in the 1970s and has stuck with me all through our “lipstick” years – has been the neoliberalism of the past three decades, the one that has led us straight down the trickle‐down path to this shockingly blinkered and inhumane Abbott budget. And so when someone like Peta Credlin says she wants to give women a “hand up” instead of a “handout,” all I hear is yet another riff on the Liberal Party’s roll‐out of slogans.

In the 1980s we began to be subjected to new definitions of success, measurable chiefly in material terms. Glass ceilings aside, there were blandishments for women too; so much so that feminism itself began to be seen as a passion for individual advancement. There are nuances to navigate here; I have no problem with women in power – only a little while ago we had a government, indeed governments, with brilliant women ministers, and a female prime minister whose negotiating skills are only now beginning to be valued as they should have been at the time. But if such women are too eager to join the men’s club, if their success is seen to be the sine qua non of feminist progress, then I can’t help but feel disappointed.

So what are we feminists to do? Some clues, I feel, can be found in Rachel Nolan’s article in the May edition of The Monthly. Nolan puts what we’re up against forcefully and succinctly:

When the country’s first female PM has been stalked from office in a tide of sexist abuse and the perpetrators have the same power they always had, when the number of women in Australian parliaments has peaked and declined, and when the country’s most infamously sexist political leader can blithely describe himself as a feminist (as Abbott did again at the International Women’s Day event), the argument that if women learn the right skills they will soon justly prevail has been blown apart.

Nolan suggests that, instead of trying to toe the line and dress the dress, women in politics should accept that we’re different and that the difference will be beneficial, salutary for the national interest. “Too much testosterone” in one room is to be avoided, says International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde. According to her, blame for the global financial crisis can be squarely laid on just that.

I’ve suggested as well that what Australia’s parliament needs is a women’s caucus. Our political culture as it stands makes this difficult if not impossible, but if enough of us put our heads to it, it could come about. Men find it easy to pick off individual women, but my own experience has shown that there’s nothing more powerful – and threatening – than women in groups. In other words, what may be required is more solidarity among us, rather than dressing in a particular, proper way. Or, god help us, “leaning in.”

So here is another story from the 70s, and it happened, of all places, in the heart of the Australian bureaucracy. In PM’s, to be exact. Along with my own promotion, Lyndall Ryan, my second‐in‐charge, was offered one. But she would only accept it if all the unit’s members were promoted as well. This, in the context, was remarkable. I haven’t put my head to investigating it, but I think you could trawl through the annals of the public service and never find another instance like it. And we won. Because of one woman’s initiative and concern for her fellow workers, every one of them found themselves on a higher rung of the ladder.

We learned solidarity, in part, from the union movement, although an action like Ryan’s would have been uncommon among white-collar workers as we were organised then. And there were other differences. Unionisation of the workforce stood at around 50–60 per cent. It now hangs on at about 15 per cent.

The irony, often stated, is that the very policies and mindset hailed for boosting Australia’s prosperity also opened the way for the erosion of union strength. The consequences for the Labor Party have been profound. This is not the occasion, nor am I the thinker, to trace these changes, but I do believe that Gillard made a critical strategic mistake in insisting that the ALP is a trade union party and not a social democratic one. This same division of opinion raged through the Whitlam years, and there was a lot more reason for it then, when unions were such a force. But today, when people with progressive ideas and a belief in social justice are crying out for a party in which to place their trust, it’s simply political suicide even to suggest that they would be excluded. Not to mention the unemployed.

Similarly, it may be useful to differentiate the party from the Greens, but it’s politically inept to portray them as Labor’s enemy. What Australia needs now more than ever is a broad, strong progressive side of politics that is able to triumph over the troglodytes now in charge. Because they only are in charge, in large measure, because of the way Labor failed the people of Australia, by not getting its house in order, not throwing off the NSW disease, not ensuring that joining is worth the effort for members of its rank and file, and not resolving just what it stands for and what sort of party it is.

I would suggest that nobody is better primed to change this than women, both in the party and without. But we not only need to get women in positions of power, we also need to return to examining what that power is about, and to developing long‐term strategies for gaining a more just society. We need to convince other women as well. That may be, in the last analysis, even more important than forever trying to convince a bunch of men.

We women represent slightly over half the population and there’s more strength in that number than we realise, or have been prepared perhaps to act on.

To go back to PM’s, back to 1975. At the very moment when the economy was beginning to be deified, I was the only woman sitting at the table at the weekly executives meeting. And I was, accordingly, the only one to ask, “Isn’t the economy meant to serve society, instead of the other way around?” I was made to look a little foolish and irrelevant at the time, but I have no hesitation in asking the same question tonight. •