How far have you come, baby?

Cherchez la femme. In his March 1 speech to the National Press Club, Treasurer Peter Costello announced: ‘We ought to be looking to make this the most female-friendly place on Earth.

What a fabulous thought.

Of course, there are questions to be asked. Which females, I wonder, does Costello have in mind? Students? Working mothers? Women over 65? Or maybe he’s thinking of women with disabilities, or breast cancer patients, or women seeking abortions or about to give birth. What about female artists and writers, indigenous women, women asylum seekers or Muslim women? I’ve certainly not exhausted the range, but I hope I’ve made my point, that half the population is as varied as the other half, and providing for the needs of one group among us may well detract from those of another. The first thing anyone involved with women’s policy learns is that we women are a diverse, contradictory, often refractory bunch.

Thirty years ago, when I was involved in developing policy myself, the government conducted annual pre-budget consultations. Essentially a public relations exercise (the budget had already been decided when they were held), the consultations exemplified the relative innocence of those days, when ordinary citizens met with Cabinet ministers and face-to-face delivered their demands. It was early in the Fraser government and a round of consultations with women’s organisations had been arranged. But before the women met with the ministers, we in the department brought them together to discuss the issues among themselves, and with skilful manoeuvring enabled them to present a more or less common front.

Separately, however, each had a concern about the others. ‘Sara,’ said one migrant women’s representative, ‘do you actually believe that the Aborigines are … what do you say … redeemable?’ When she left the room and her indigenous counterpart returned, she expressed her disgust for the ‘Eyeties’. The Country Women’s Association delegate clearly disliked them both. By the end of the day the entire procedure had taken on the character of farce, with one woman coming in a door immediately after another had gone out, to voice her distrust of the actor off-stage, just as that woman had done only the minute before. And so it went. We had conservatives and social democrats, single mothers and ‘family’ champions, businesswomen and housing advocates; a variety of perspectives not altogether conducive to mounting a unified case.

It would be easy enough to interpret this story as evidence of the legendary cattiness of women, and it was indeed the fear of giving that impression to Cabinet that made us work so hard to smooth over the differences. And in those days, too, the media pounced on any disagreement as positive proof of the notorious female tendency to squabble. Yes, it was sexism at its worst. But I risk reporting the experience because of how deeply, if hilariously, it was impressed upon me through those meetings that, in policy terms, there is, in reality, no single group called women, and how difficult it is to negotiate our differing demands.

Yet, despite it all, no one can really question that, as a group, women have been and still are discriminated against by the mere fact of being women. For nearly 60 years it was entrenched in the wage-fixing system of our country that a woman was only worth three-quarters of a man. In the post-war period women paid a 22 per cent luxury tax on contraceptives. Not until the 1970s was a woman able to buy a house or take out a loan without a male guarantor, and a woman was considered a deserter if she left a marriage, no matter how dangerous or difficult it was. Apart from these ridiculous examples, an arguably more insidious systemic discrimination has continued to operate, with the result that in spite of arbitration commission judgments of the ’70s and legislation enacted in the ’80s, women still earn, on average and over a lifetime, less than men doing comparable jobs. And the mere fact of this has consequences all the way down the line, from today’s purchasing power to tomorrow’s superannuation.

Recently I’ve had reason to revisit women’s policy for a paper on oral history I was asked to write. In the early ’90s I was approached by the National Library of Australia to begin recording conversations with feminist activists for their oral-history archives. I’m still conducting the interviews, which document the resurgence of Australian feminism in the late 1960s and its influence on governance from that time. Those I interviewed include academics, consultants, journalists and writers, but the largest group by far have been former ‘femocrats’, women who went into government in order to improve conditions for women and advance their status in society.

Femocrats are a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. Their appearance on the scene in the 1970s and ’80s can be attributed to what the historian Keith Hancock once observed was a traditional Australian reliance on state support for individual endeavour, plus the happy coinciding of feminism’s resurgence with the election of the Whitlam Labor government. This serendipitous combination of forces, arguably unique at the time in the Western world, had repercussions long after Whitlam’s dismissal and influenced the movement’s direction throughout the Fraser, Hawke and Keating years.

By 1991, when Eureka Street was born, feminists had found positions in all our parliaments, local councils, bureaucracies and universities, and had made an appreciable impact. In the cultural arena, too, a feminist sensibility had taken hold. The Hawke-Keating government had enacted federal sex discrimination legislation in 1984, and two years later its affirmative action act was passed. Changes to legislation and practices surrounding rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence made Australians more conscious and condemning of these abuses, if they did not entirely eradicate them. Almost 45 per cent of women aged 15–65 were in the workforce, a significantly higher figure than that of preceding decades. Women comprised 50 per cent of tertiary education students as well. What had changed most of all were women’s self-perceptions and the higher expectations we had for our lives.

And yet, and yet … all was not well. The biggest unmet demand, and arguably the most crucial, then as now and right back to the ’70s, was child care. As women’s workforce participation rose (today it’s at 56 per cent), the need was so keen that in 1992, when Anne Summers was appointed to Keating’s staff, she advised the then prime minister to double the number of child-care places available. It was enough to swing the election in his favour, but now, 14 years later, the situation is even worse than it was then.

It was back in the ’70s, I’ve been recently reminded, that feminists in government decided to put our greatest energies into the push for child care. There was a contradiction here, for just as we acknowledged the diversity of women and our differing needs, so did we recognise that at the heart of all discrimination lies the incontrovertible fact that women can become mothers. In virtually every society studied, throughout history and across cultures, this single possibility has put us at a disadvantage, whether we actually have children or not. We called it the sexual division of labour then, and we came to understand that the only way to ameliorate its harshest aspects in a modern society was by offering a wide range of affordable, accessible services for enabling women to provide for themselves and their families on a more equal footing with men, and give them peace of mind while they did. I still believe this is the case, which is why it’s so disturbing to me that what was once one of the best children’s services programs in the world has become the shambles it now is. It’s far too cumbersome and expensive, operating on a complicated system of rebates, and the quality of care has deteriorated as more and more government funds are diverted from community-based centres to corporate operators.

Though the siphoning of funds into the commercial sector began under Labor, it has gathered furious momentum during the Howard decade, to accord with the Prime Minister’s philosophies about the worth of private enterprise and the proper role of women. The child-care debacle, combined with a cluster of other policies such as the baby bonus and regressive tax breaks for single income families with children, have put serious barriers in the way of mothers seeking employment outside the home, and there are signs, indeed, that their numbers are declining. Equally disturbing is the signal this may give to coming generations, the girls who could grow up believing that complete fulfilment is to be found in home and family, just like we did back in the ’50s and ’60s.

What an irony, then, to find our white knight in Peter Costello, the country’s premier free-marketeer. Costello has been worrying about the labour shortage arising from our ageing population and, to counteract it, has pushed for measures to get women, even older and disabled women, back into the workforce at the very time that Howard has washed his hands of us, dropping the Office of the Status of Women (now the Office for Women) out of his department and presumably out of his mind. It was Costello who argued that recipients of the supporting parents’ benefit (the bulk of them women) must return to work once their youngest child turns six. But, as many women in his own party have argued, to make this possible we need more child care. And, ironically enough, getting women to pull up the slack was exactly why a coalition government enacted the first child-care act back in 1972, to deal with the labour shortage that had built up during the ’60s.

I suppose it’s up to us to keep up the pressure, now that it’s on record that the Treasurer hopes Australia will become the world’s best place for females. Which, come to think of it, does put him in a rather odd position. It was Vladimir Ilyich Ulanov, that barbaric Bolshevik, who argued that you could measure how advanced a democracy was by the way it treated its women. Poor Peter Costello, resigned it would seem to play a perpetual second fiddle to Howard, has found a way to distinguish himself only by joining Lenin’s company. And knowing the pitfalls of women’s policy as I do, I guess that’s going to be the least of our saviour’s troubles. 

Sara Dowse is a novelist and essayist. Under her leadership the first women’s affairs section of the Prime Minister’s Department, established in 1974, became the Office of Women’s Affairs, now the Office for Women. She lives in Sydney.



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