Inside Story

The femocrat factor

Should the Australian women’s movement have relied so much on government? Sara Dowse responds to Anne Summers’s The Misogyny Factor

Sara Dowse 6 June 2013 1358 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

The Misogyny Factor
By Anne Summers | NewSouth Publishing | $19.99

Dear Anne,

I’ve just finished reading The Misogyny Factor and want to thank you for examining this phenomenon so minutely. It’s shocking to me that forty-odd years after what we’ve called the second wave of feminism took hold of this country such hatred of women still operates, and with such ferocity. After reading your book, no one could possibly doubt its existence or its truly dire effect on the conduct of Australian democracy.

Yet I have problems with some facts you use in building your case (though I must confess that my sensitivity arises from my role in the process you describe). Comparing our approach to the American one, you argue that the Australian movement’s focus on discrimination legislation and other government interventions has compromised its independence and contributed, in the end, to the policy regressions set in train by the Howard government. Because Australian women have gone backwards in terms of workforce participation, and progress has stalled in meeting other objectives including affordable childcare and genuinely equal pay, we should have concentrated more on challenging these misogynistic attitudes than pushing for legislation. Yet challenging those attitudes is exactly what we started out to do.

Few would disagree that the much-praised pragmatism of Australian feminism derives from the fact that its resurgence coincided with the 1972 election of the Whitlam Labor government. This was a government committed to reform in a range of areas, including (one could say most notoriously) the abysmal, virtually invisible status of Australian women. When Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid as his personal adviser on women’s affairs, however, reform for women took a slightly different turn. You are critical of the movement’s pragmatism because reforms can be dislodged, yet it was exactly that pragmatism which Reid herself resisted. You state, for instance, that the government’s anti-discrimination legislation was stymied by the Dismissal. But there was no anti-discrimination legislation put forward under the Whitlam government, because Reid strongly believed that such legislation would be costly for the individual and, more, raise false expectations about what governments could do in eradicating discrimination. She was in favour of federal government contract compliance, as operated under Titles VII and IX of the US Civil Rights Act, but quotas were considered too radical for Australia, and no one in the movement then was clamouring for affirmative action, or even seemed to know what it was.

The stated aim was to change community attitudes about the place of women in society, and each and every reform adopted was considered in light of how it would help in reaching this objective. A new childcare program was initiated, with a greatly increased allocation, because of its perceived centrality in enabling women to fully participate in society. There were important initiatives in health and women’s services. It was the establishment of women’s units in key government departments, not discrimination legislation, that went forward for Whitlam’s signature on the day of the Dismissal, to be taken up by Fraser after his election. Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Women’s Affairs Section (soon to be a branch, then an office) was commenting on cabinet submissions as routine well before the practice was formalised under Hawke. Yet you suggest that nothing significant was achieved until his government came to office. Even the departmental desks existed beforehand; the problem was that they were too low down on the bureaucratic totem pole. Labor’s election policy, carefully crafted to address this, was to get departmental heads involved. The term “femocrat” gained currency under the Fraser government, and was, at least initially, a term of rancorous abuse. I have had the dubious distinction of being considered by some to be Australia’s first femocrat.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this and don’t claim to have covered all the bases. My main contention is that changing community attitudes about women was Reid’s foremost consideration and influenced all our actions in the bureaucracy during that period. At the time, I admit, I wasn’t entirely attuned to her vision – nor, needless to say, were her many critics within the movement. I didn’t see how important a couple of million dollars set aside for International Women’s Year could be, compared with the $75 million, say, spent on childcare. Yet with hindsight it is easy to see, as you illustrate, how that childcare program could be undermined in subsequent years whereas the ripple effect of IWY has been enormous. Likewise with 1975’s Women and Politics Conference, which galvanised women across the political spectrum to plunge into politics, putting their hands up for office at every government level. At the time, however, the media had a field day with both. How can you forget how demeaning the media was to everything women did in those days? The only difference is that we didn’t have the internet or social media to contend with. If we had, I bet my bottom dollar we wouldn’t have come as far as we have.

But progress, you say, with reference to Hillary Clinton’s insight, is not the same as success. For reasons touched on above, I’m not so sure that our setbacks are solely due to Australian women’s looking to government as we have. I do believe that government has a role to play in lifting the status of the disadvantaged, however risky that reliance may be. Inside and outside government, feminists have long been tasked with changing community attitudes. But other developments were at play. The ascendancy of market economics diminished the public sector’s clout (and was responsible for the collapse of the childcare program, for one). Most significant, perhaps, were changes within feminism itself, when, as Reid has observed, it went from being the women’s movement to “the movement of women” – both a gauge of its success and a sign of its political weakness. The movement fragmented, became diffuse, more invisible. Moreover, feminism lost its earlier egalitarian ethos as it increasingly came to be seen as a movement for women “getting ahead.”

But you are right and I was wrong about Gillard. This is how I put it only last year:

Gillard is an intelligent woman who, in her own words, “gets things done.” The Canberra public service loves her for just that reason. Stories of Rudd’s indecisiveness, arrogance, temper tantrums are legion. No doubt he could be difficult to work with, at times extremely so… and the remedy as seen at the time was to replace him, as was done ad nauseam in NSW. But the best one could say about Gillard is that she is an excellent negotiator and administrator. If she is a leader of the party she is not of the nation. Her public performances are wooden, her speeches uninspiring. Above all, her policies are suspect.

I was hard on the PM, yet my criticism wasn’t levelled at her personally but at where she appeared to be taking the nation. I was dismayed by the fact that she was unable to persuade the Australian public that asylum seekers are not illegal and could make a genuine contribution to the nation in the way that ten-pound migrants and 1970s “boat people” have. I was disappointed in the mining tax she cobbled together, and the wholesale adoption of failed American education policies such as My School and the emphasis on NAPLAN testing. At the back of it perhaps was my old second-wave feminist belief that if women were to enter the political arena in sufficient numbers at sufficiently high level, the nature of that arena would be radically changed, and it wasn’t. What I overlooked completely was the pervasive and ingrained effect of misogyny. So I think it would have been better if you’d put the chapter on Gillard’s weathering it ahead of the others. In a not-so-funny way it may itself be a measure not of our defeat, but of our success. Power is never shared without a struggle, and the stakes have never been higher.

All best wishes and keep up the great work,