Men and women of Australia forget how PM Whitlam’s government changed the life of females in Oz forever: Gough’s women’s advisor, Elizabeth Reid, reminds us the rage needs to continue.
Maintaining the (female) rage
By Elizabeth Reid*
Setting the context
It is difficult to transport oneself back to the world women lived in when Gough Whitlam came to power as Prime Minister in Australia in 1972.
I joined Whitlam’s staff in April 1973 as his adviser on matters relating to the welfare of women and children. Within days the letters started pouring in from women across Australia, all ages, backgrounds, affiliations, etc.
Photo: Then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam with his Women’s Advisor, Elizabeth Reid, 1973-5.
In my first six months in the job, these are the realities of their lives – in 1973 – that women wrote to me bemoaning:
Loans to single women were refused as there was no husband to sign
Women were refused mortgages unless they were signed and guaranteed by a man
Single women were not eligible for government grants to new home owners
Married women temporarily unemployed were not eligible for unemployment benefits since they were not regarded as breadwinners
Working women paid the same taxes as working men but were not eligible for the same social benefits
Relocation allowances were only made to married male public servants
Widows received only 5/8ths of the pension if her husband died; widowers received the full pension
Applications for Commonwealth Secondary scholarships could only be submitted with the signature of the father – this was printed in heavy black type
Women returning to the country with their husbands from overseas could not fill in their own Quarantine and Customs Declaration
Ex-service women were not eligible for War Services Home Loans
The letters poured in. Soon, I was receiving more mail than any member of Cabinet other than the Prime Minister.
Australian society in 1972 was patriarchally saturated. The doctrine of the headship of men went unchallenged and permeated all aspects of the society. There was a gendered division of labour and a woman’s place was in the home, caring for the children.
In the workforce, the hegemony of the doctrine of the man as head of household was manifested in the concept of the ‘male breadwinner’, in the consequent gendered inequities in wages and conditions, and in the absence of women from union management.
The obverse of the doctrine of the headship of men was the doctrine of the subservience of women to men, and of women’s natural frailty/helplessness which created their need for protection, by men.
In Queensland women had no right to sit on juries for it was held that this was tantamount to a right to sit in judgement on men. It was argued that women sitting in judgement on men went against the teachings of the Bible and was ’an abomination of God.’
Girls who ran away from home were subjected to a humiliating medical examination including an unnecessary pelvic examination before being sent to appalling institutions, staffed mainly by men, where they were deprived of education and subjected to brutality.
Women colluded in their subservience. Many women, for example, did not put their names on the electoral roll. When Betty McLean stood successfully as a candidate for Wodonga Council in July 1974, she announced that one of her first tasks would be to get the local farmers’ wives to put their names on the electoral roll. It was commonly accepted, she pointed out, that only the property owner, that is, the man, was listed as an elector.
By the time Whitlam left office in 1975 the world had changed radically for women. How did this happen?
The Women’s Liberation Movement
I sprang into Whitlam’s office as a fully clothed feminist. From my university days onwards, I had been involved in single issue activism: abortion law reform, homosexual law reform and the struggle for women’s reproductive rights and freedoms. I had been a member of a small group of Catholics struggling to develop a theology of sexuality and relationships.
When the Women’s Liberation Movement started in Canberra in 1970, I joined it and led discussion groups on Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and listened to talks on women in China and women in Cuba.
Consciousness raising groups started at the Canberra Women’s Lib house in 1972. I learnt to use the pronoun ‘I’ and the importance of listening without interrupting.
I co-facilitated the lively continuing education course on Women in Society in 1972 and joined WEL, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, when it started later in the year. I was the campaign manager for an Aboriginal woman candidate in the 1972 federal election.
In January 1973, the Feminist Theory Conference, held at Mt Beauty, was attended by over 100 women from around Australia. The themes for the conference were:
The Historical Origin of Female Oppression – Biology, Private Property, Is the Matriarchy a Myth?
Sisterhood – How can women unite?
The Patriarchy – The nature of Authority, The Family
Feminism – liberal, radical, socialist feminism
Australian Sexism – do you wake in fright?
This was our language; these were our concerns.
Fervent debates were taking place in the women’s movement about reform versus revolution, about wages for housewives, about radical lesbianism and sisterhood, about the nature of patriarchy and of sexism.
So, when I arrived in Whitlam’s office, I had marched on the streets, written articles, painted placards, drafted submissions, and more. The women’s movement had equipped me with a radical conceptual framework, a feminist discourse, a strategic agenda and passionate commitment.
This then had to be tested against the realities of women’s lives…and so began a long process of listening and talking to women across Australia so that we could respond to their realities. And, simultaneously, began the long march into the halls and offices of state to learn how to formulate, seek approval and implement the emerging policies.
By 1974, a conceptual framework and strategic approach had been articulated which shaped Australia’s program for International Women’s Year in 1975 as well as all other policies and programs for women. Prime Minister Whitlam tabled this feminist framework in Parliament on 4 December 1974.
The feminist conceptual framework was framed in terms of reform and revolution, of patriarchy and sexism, of agency and voice.
The speech that the Prime Minister made at the inaugural meeting of the National Advisory Committee for International Women’s Year elaborated the framework. It contained a definition of sexism without sexism being named as such:
“We have to attack the social inequalities, the hidden and usually unarticulated assumptions which affect women not only in employment but in the whole range of their opportunities in life.’”
Thus he was instructing the committee to place the addressing of sexism in Australian society at the heart of their work.
The speech also acknowledged a central tenet of the feminist manifesto, one which coincided completely with Whitlam’s own manifesto, namely the essential role of government in such an endeavour. Historian Humphrey McQueen, in an insightful unpublished obituary, wrote:
“Under Whitlam ‘reform’ required governmental involvement to advance social equality for gender, generations and regions, as well as class.”
We feminists had entered the governmental arena in order to bring to bear the resources of the state to the concerns of women. Yet, whilst acknowledging the centrality of the state in addressing issues of concern to women, the speech goes on to acknowledge that:
“Government legislation can only achieve so much and I shall not pretend to you that any Government can achieve immediately for Australian women the revolution (my highlighting) required to allow them to develop fully.’
This is recognition that both reform and revolution are necessary to bring about the changes women needed. To achieve this, the speech continues, is a “matter of changing community attitudes and uprooting community prejudices”.
Thus central to this feminist framework for action was the need for radical change, indeed a revolution, in attitudes about women within society, and within women themselves. Addressing sexism through attitudinal changes in Australian society was to be at the core of the programme for International Women’s Year.
The second strategic objective for the Year was achieving what were called the threshold reforms, such as child care, access to education and training, health care, social services, and more. These were the changes needed to bring women to the threshold of choice, changes that would make it possible for women to take decisions about their lives.
The third strategic objective was the setting free of women’s creativity. To lighten the bleakness which often settles around the narratives of women’s lives, it was decided to celebrate and promote women’s creativity and other sources of joy in their lives.
In his speech at the opening of the Women and Politics Conference, in August 1975, Whitlam spoke of the feminist concept of the personal as political and so brought this feminist insight into the traditional concept of the political:
“Women are insisting more and more that concerns of the home be the concerns of politics, the personal be political. Child care, family planning, housework and so on are now becoming issues for the political arena. To this extent, women are in the process of trying to re-define and to re-describe the political.”
Whitlam was at ease with the feminist framework and discourse and comfortable in using it.
So much for frameworks and the language of feminism…but what was achieved?
The achievements of the Whitlam years
It is difficult in retrospect to comprehend just how much was in fact achieved during Whitlam’s two terms as Prime Minister between 1972 and 1975. Every aspect of the lives of women were touched. Here I wish only to draw to your minds some of the often extra-ordinary policies and programmes from which women benefited.
The addressing of sexism, the challenging of patriarchal structures, norms and attitudes, were at the heart of the program for International Women’s Year. No arbitrary or distorting assumptions were to be made about women’s proper place (or men’s); rather the preconditions were to be established for all women to take whatever places they themselves freely chose. Of particular concern was the negative impact of sexism on women, seen especially in the extent to which women experienced poverty, violence and degradation. To achieve this, the nature and extent of sexism in Australian society had to be understood, and then changed.
Two other initiatives were also critical in challenging and changing sexism, in creating the required revolution in people’s heads: The Royal Commission on Human Relations established in 1974 and the 1975 Women and Politics Conference.
The Royal Commission on Human Relations was established with powers to enquire into a wide range of factors which could affect male and female relationships, including termination of pregnancies, rape within and outside of marriage, family planning and fertility control, childbirth, and sex and relationship education. Such a Royal Commission is unique in the world.
The hugely successful Women and Politics Conference brought together over 700 women from throughout Australia. The aim was to provide as many women as possible from all walks of life throughout Australia with a forum for discussion of the actual and possible roles of women in political activity and decision making, not only as voters and as members of political parties but in the broader context of political life. It was designed to increase “understanding of the prejudices and beliefs which generally exclude women from political life, and of the changes necessary to enable them, and all women, to freely participate in the decision-making that affected their lives”.
It is now difficult to conceive that, when Whitlam came to power, women’s right to equal pay for equal work had not been recognised, much less their right to equal pay for work of equal value. One of the first acts of the newly elected Whitlam Government was to apply to the Arbitration Commission to re-open its hearing on the ACTU’s application for equal pay in federal awards. This, Whitlam thought, was his government’s most striking and historically significant reform for women.
Despite the then widespread societal concerns about “latch-key kids” (1), Labor came to power in 1972 with a commitment to the provision of pre-school services…but with no recognition of women’s overwhelming need for child-care facilities and services. A new understanding arose during the first Whitlam Government and the 1974 policy speech committed the government to a comprehensive programme of services for children. A diversified and integrated child care services program was established and funded to enable women to better undertake their responsibilities at work, in the community and in the home. Adequate and affordable child care arrangements made it possible for women to take their place in society and to freely choose the kind of life that best suited them.
The Supporting Mother’s benefit was introduced, payable to any women with the sole custody and care of a child. For the first time, women, including unmarried mothers, were able to choose to keep their child and not have to give it up for adoption. This measure gave these women a sense of agency, self-esteem and financial independence. It relieved a great deal of the hardship endured by single mothers and also led to the demise of the adoption industry in Australia. Whitlam concluded that this reform was “the most significant single innovation in social security for a generation”.
The Family Law Act 1975 introduced no-fault divorce, which made it possible for women to leave violent or otherwise intolerable marriages. It replaced the dissolution of marriage through evidence of guilt with a single ground for divorce, namely, the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, to be established by a 12-month separation.
Agency, representation and voice, including indigenous, migrant and abused women
A commitment was made to end the invisibility of women by giving them a voice and a presence.
Whitlam set out to ensure that women were given the opportunity to participate in all sectors of society. His was the first government to appoint women to commissions, boards, as judges, and arbitrators, and diplomats. Women were appointed to bodies such as delegations and panels, with special attention being paid to ensuring the voice and presence of indigenous, migrant and abused women.
Women were encouraged to speak for themselves, to express their values and aspirations, to present their way of being in and seeing the world. Their creativity was nurtured and promoted.
The Whitlam governments made it clear to all women, whether indigenous, rural, or migrant, women of all ages, levels of education and socio-economic class, that they were needed in society as active citizens, as public commentators and moral guides, and as leaders.
Eighteen-year-olds were given the vote for the first time.
Education and Training
The introduction of free tertiary education made it possible for women to choose to be educated. TEAS (the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme) offered means-tested and non-competitive financial assistance for all tertiary students. This made tertiary education more accessible for women in the lower income groups. Women, young and not so young, single and married, flocked into universities and colleges. They and their families, their children especially, benefitted immensely from these measures.
The Schools Commission was charged with looking into the education of girls and in 1975 tabled the first national report into Australian girls’ education, Girls, Schools and Society. The report established that significantly fewer girls than boys finished secondary schooling – and with a narrower curriculum – and recommended a range of changes to curriculum, teachers’ attitudes, student and teacher assessment, school organisation and community values.
A range of retraining schemes was introduced with special provisions to assist women who had been out of the paid workforce to upgrade their skills, to broaden their knowledge of the occupational structure of the modernising workforce and to re-enter it. Special attention was given to migrant women and other low paid women working in the clothing, footwear and food industries. Working women’s centres and migrant women’s centres were established.
Significant changes occurred for women in the workplace. The principle of equal pay for work of equal value was applied to female-dominated industries and occupations on the grounds that historically there had been a gendered-undervaluation of work in these areas. In May 1974, the adult minimum wage was extended to women.
The National Rehabilitation and Compensation Inquiry and the National Superannuation Inquiry, both established by Whitlam, were directed to take women’s particular needs into account. The use of Contract Compliance as a means of improving conditions for women was explored. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on maternity leave, discrimination and remuneration were ratified.
The workforce was restructured with the introduction of part time employment, a shorter working week, and flexible working hours so that workers could better combine their caring responsibilities with their workforce responsibilities.
During the Whitlam years, administrative arrangements for handling matters of concern to women within the bureaucracy were established. An innovative approach based on feminist principles was designed, more network than hierarchy, more centre-periphery than vertical integration. This new bureaucratic machinery for women is often referred to as the hub and spoke model: small units responsible for developing and implementing policies for women at their point of origin, backed up by a strong central coordinating body, linked by networks or channels of communication. This ‘wheel’ of administrative arrangements for matters relating to women in Australia differed significantly from administrative arrangements established for women in other OECD countries.
Within the Australian Public Service, the government could effect change more directly than it could in other areas of the workforce. The use of the term ‘Ms” was introduced as a small but significant gesture towards gender parity, although the initial resistance and backlash to its use was extensive. Partners in same sex relationships received the same benefits as spouses, for example, for diplomatic postings. Maternity and paternal leave provisions were introduced consistent with the ILO requirements. Cyclones were given male names for the first time.
Services for women
Women’s liberation groups around Australia moved quickly to set up refuges for women as the extent of violence against women became known. By June 1975, 11 refuges were operating. Other services needed by women were established: rape crisis centres, women’s health centres, incest counselling services, and more. Federal funding was secured for these services.
Family planning associations were supported. Community health centres were established and were of particular benefit to migrant and low income women.
The Whitlam Government 1972 -1975
In 1985, Whitlam published The Whitlam Government 1972 -1975. Humphrey McQueen, in the unpublished obituary, points out that this was “not a volume of memoirs, but a thematic analysis under nineteen policy headings”. Its importance lay in that it was Whitlam outlining the historical and political contexts from which the policies his governments introduced arose. Humphrey continues:
“Because the Whitlam legacy has been blurred on every side by false attributions and by forgetting, the measure of the man must be plumbed through a survey of his initiatives in those domains.”
One of the 19 policy domains analysed in the book is on Women. When in 1985 I read this chapter, I was bitterly disappointed and set the book aside. I did not recognise what he had written as what I had lived through. There seemed to me to be something old-fashioned about his framing of the issues: his analysis was in terms of equality of rights and improved government services. It was not a feminist analysis. It was not couched in the language of the women’s movement of the 1970s, not even in the language used to write his speeches and for documents. Yet he never gave a speech or signed off on a paper which was not thoroughly read, reflected on, discussed and amended.
Nor did I recognise myself in the words that Whitlam used in his book to describe the women’s movement: “women’s groups throughout Australia launching energetic campaigns demanding equality of economic, social, political and sexual rights and improved government services”. (p515)
I picked the book up again last year and read it from a different perspective. I kept two questions in mind:
What did Whitlam identify as important in what his governments achieved for women and children? And why?
How did this differ from my view of what was important and why?
Throughout the chapter on Women, Whitlam uses the language of representation, opportunities and rights. He wrote:
“It was natural that in our first term of Government we set about restoring women’s rights and removing discrimination in all its social, economic or legal forms. We recognised for women that for women to take their place in society on a basis of dignity and equality it was necessary to remove discrimination and, beyond that, to meet the needs of women in overcoming handicaps. That was the theme of our social policy programs. There was much to be done and we acted accordingly.” (p518)
For Whitlam, it was self-evident that women would have to depend on federal governments to secure their rights and improve services. The rights that women need, he stated, “were those set out in four international conventions: ILO Convention No. 100 – Equal Remuneration, 1951, UN Convention on the Political Rights of Women 1953, UN Convention on the Nationality of Married Women 1957, and ILO Convention No. 111 – Discrimination (Employment and Occupation).’ (p511)
Perhaps the most telling insight into his way of understanding policies for women was that he discussed the most important threshold policy for women, that is, child care, in his chapter on Education, not in his chapter on Women. It was as if our primordial struggle to move policies, power and funding away from the pre-school lobby into integrated child care arrangements had not happened under his watch. But it had.
However, importantly, his account moves beyond rights towards the end of the chapter when he outlines the background to and the terms of reference of the Royal Commission on Human Relations, of which he says:
“The Commissioners were pioneers, not only in Australia, but in the world, in the humane and rational examination and consideration of the matters entrusted to them. Our community and all the families and individuals in it should benefit from their work.” (p521)
Whitlam had long supported a woman’s right to abortion on demand. At the 1971 ALP Federal Conference, he had stated: “… if a woman does not want to bear a child, she should not have to. I believe in abortion on demand”.
The Royal Commission on Human Relations arose out of the ashes of a failed Private Member’s Bill which sought to make abortion legal in specified circumstances.
The work of the Royal Commission was to radically change the attitudes and behaviour of Australians with respect to the “family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships”. Theirs was a revolutionary task.
Whitlam’s commitment to women
Whilst the language of Whitlam’s chapter on Women may have been of rights, representation and services, yet, in reading it, one is left in no doubt about Whitlam’s deep commitment to the cause of women.
Whitlam felt that there was “an alarming history within the Labor Party of ignorance and inactivity on women’s issues” (p515) and set out to reform it. Jenny Hocking (2) points out that, from the 1960s, he argued for change in the Labor Party on a range of new issues: political and economic participation for women, equal pay, an end to the White Australia policy, land rights and equality for Indigenous Australia, national development, internationalism and self-determination for developing nations.
Whitlam’s commitment to issues of concern to women had been present throughout his political career. He had agitated for equal pay for women, for the removal of discriminatory employment conditions and for the ratification of the UN conventions from his earliest years in Parliament.
However, it was the work of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in the lead-up to the 1972 election that made him realise just how immense the reforms needed to address the concerns of women were.
When, in the run up to the 1972 election, the McMahon Government proposed the establishment of a Royal Commission into the Status of Women, Whitlam was able to thunder, during an election speech:
“You don’t need a Royal Commission into the Status of Women to know about the costs of child care. You don’t need a Royal Commission into the Status of Women to see whether they should get equal pay. You don’t need a Royal Commission into the Status of Women to see whether they should get equal employment opportunities for promotion and position.”
He continued, as quoted in Laurie Oakes and David Solomon:
“I have in mind that there should be a woman appointed to a top diplomatic post overseas. … There should be a woman appointed to the Arbitration Commission. There should be women appointed to those bodies which are concerned with the areas where women are among the major employees, such as the Schools Commission and a Hospitals Commission.”
This he did, deliberately and systematically throughout his term in office.
Whitlam drew his commitment to the reforms women were asking for from his broader commitment to human rights and in particular to the call of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘to ensure fundamental rights and freedoms for all persons, without discrimination of any kind.’
This commitment provided Whitlam with a set of working principles:
The principle of equity, fairness and justice
The principle of enfranchisement as a precondition for social justice, and
The principle of re-distribution: of services, opportunities, benefits, wages, security and wealth.
Any proposal for policy development or advocacy, if argued in terms of these principles, would be listened to (on a good day, at least). All of the policies and programmes supported were to be in line with these principles.
So when Dennis Altman sent Gough a copy of his book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation in August 1972, Gough wrote back immediately pointing out that the draft criminal code for the Territories contained some “fearsomely archaic prohibitions on personal conduct” and stating that his expectation was that “a Federal Labor Government would introduce a new ordinance which made no reference to any form of sexual conduct not involving violence”.
Similarly with Aboriginal land rights. Similarly with multi-culturalism.
For Whitlam these were not vexed or clouded issues. There were a clear principles to be followed.
With the blindness induced by a passionate commitment to a revolution in the lives of women, I had no idea when I took up the position with Whitlam of how longstanding and how consistent had been his more cerebral personal and political commitment to the rights and dignity of each person, women included. Nor did I appreciate how different our ways of looking at the issues were.
Feminists argue the centrality of the concepts of sexism and of patriarchal power to the analysis. Their analysis is grounded in the everyday lived experience of women’s lives. Their struggle is to release women from social norms and values that limit and devalue them, from ingrained and institutionalised gendered prejudices, from gendered violence and discrimination. Sexism does not simply create differences between women and men; it creates inequalities.
For Whitlam, his commitment was to people’s rights and freedoms. A rights-based approach does not presuppose or require the process of empathic experiencing that gives flesh to a feminist analysis. However, it was Whitlam’s principled commitment to women’s rights, representation and services that so changed Australian society.
We worked with mutual respect and affection to achieve the extraordinary range of social changes introduced during those years.
As we were then, so are we now?
Sara Dowse was the first person appointed to head the Office of Women’s Affairs that Whitlam created in his Department.
In an article in Inside Story in June 2013 reflecting on those times, Sara wrote:
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 …. understood that lifting women’s status in a society like ours required more than legislative reform and specific government services, necessary though these were.
… 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.
Does a bedrock of sexism remain in Australian society? Is a feminist analysis and framework still urgently required? What principles shape the moral capital of our current politicians and society?
In recent weeks, tampons and sanitary pads in relation to taxation have been brought into mainstream political debate. Politicians have fumbled around trying to find ways of talking about periods and pads without using these words, in much the same way they did when I was accused of not representing the women of Australia because I had written an article on masturbation.
The recent taxation discussion was all about how this would mean a revenue loss of $480m over 10 years.
It was not a discussion of the cost to women, not only in taxes but also the cost of the products, of living with their reproductive capacities and how this might be lessened and shared. Nor was the social role of women’s reproductive capacities mentioned or costed.
Similarly the discussion of negative gearing, housing markets and superannuation have only rarely shown the relevance of facts such as the following to the debate:
The lack of affordable housing keeps women trapped in situations of brutality and violence
Aboriginal women are 38 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault than other women
Of the 45 women who have died as a result of violence this year alone, between 9 and 12 per cent of them have been Aboriginal women – 3 to 4 times the population parity rate
Older women are at a growing risk of becoming homeless
Only about 3 out of every 100 two-bedroom rental lettings are affordable for a single parent whose sole income was Centrelink (December quarter 2014, Victoria)
Women earn 18% less than their male counterparts – the highest gender pay gap in 20 years
Female managers get paid as much as 45% less than their male peers; the more senior you are the higher the gender pay gap
The gender wealth gap is increasing with the disparity in average wealth between single men and single women across all age groups increasing from $18,300 to $47,000 between 2002 and 2010 (Curtin University study 2014). This was driven by the value of housing assets owned by single men.
The average superannuation payout for women is a third of the payout for men – $37,000 compared with $110, 000.
One in three women have no super savings at all.
Unfortunately, the public debate on negative gearing, housing markets and superannuation has been reduced to oversimplified political point scoring and confrontation. The wealthy have benefited and women, all women, have suffered.
Sexism continues to form the unarticulated bedrock of our work and play. The belief that a woman’s place is in the home caring for children and that men are the breadwinners still pervades our society. It is manifest, for example, in the extent to which mothers who go to work are penalised.
Women who choose (or otherwise) to be mothers earn less money than any other segment of the workforce, are less likely to be interviewed and hired, are less likely to be promoted, are more likely to work part-time or in jobs that are beneath their education and experience, and are generally considered less capable and committed workers.
Mothers experience a 17% loss in wages over a lifetime, take an average 4% pay cut after the birth of their first child and a 9% cut for each subsequent child.
Paradoxically, given the continuing unequal division of labour in the home, a Macquarie University study in 2010 found that male managers who are parents earned an extra $2000 to $5000 a year for each child, while women with similar experience lost $2000 to $7000 a year for each birth.
Blind resume studies show that men who are fathers are more likely to be interviewed, hired and offered a higher salary than women who are mothers.
The largest pay gap exists between female workers and female workers who are mothers. OECD figures from 2014 show that working mothers earn 22% less than female workers without children during their prime working years.
Recent budget cuts disproportionately negatively affect Aboriginal women, single mothers, women survivors of violence, homeless women, rape and incest survivors, working mothers and other women in need. For example:
Cuts to the rental affordability scheme
Cuts to the construction of new refuges
Cuts to women’s shelters, refuges, counselling, etc.
Community legal services are being compelled to means test those in need of legal support; they will lose 30% of their funding by the end of 2018
Changes to the means-tested Child Care Benefit will mean that children most in need of access to these services may be deprived of them.
Yet the budget debates and discussions slide past these serious gendered social costs without passionate moral outrage surfacing in a coherent fashion.
The lived experience of women’s lives, the explicit and also the soft and subtle expressions of sexism that smooths these lives like sand paper, the patriarchal culture of micro-aggression, violence and murder, has lost whatever political ground it had gained. Feminist analyses, and there are many, and their moral vision do not have a place within current political debates.
In a recent scathing but important article called ‘How Malevolent Buffoonery became the New Normal of Australian Leadership’, Jane Gilmore wrote that current Australian political leadership lacks charisma and intelligence and, presumably, moral capital.
This is supported by a recent article in the Australian Financial Review in which one of the most senior members of the Canberra Press Gallery wrote that the Prime Minister is a fool and an idiot and no-one notices or steps forward to defend him. Sexism thrives in such a political climate
Jane Gilmore argues that there is so much to be angry about in Australia today and that outrage is too exhausting to maintain for years on end. She concludes that the most damaging thing that the current malevolent buffoonery has given Australia is a deathly torpor.
Maintaining the Rage, and the Enthusiasm, Comrade
This is worth reflecting on. How do we maintain our enthusiasm in the current political and cultural contexts? How do we remain suffused with hope, guided by values and principles? How do we sustain the spirit and the courage required to carry on such unrelenting struggles?
Photo: Elizabeth Reid in 2015.
I offer some thoughts that can be drawn from the Whitlam past.
Firstly, maintaining our enthusiasm requires us to be aware of the good in the world around us. It is to be named and praised. It is worthy of our enthusiasm. It can be built upon.
The good in the world around us exemplifies the principles or values by which we wish our social interactions to be shaped. For Whitlam these were the principles of social justice, of equity, of fairness, of redistribution. What are ours today? How today do we want to have regard for others?
In the absence of principled political leadership, Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission, has clearly taken on Whitlam’s mantle of being a person of principles, someone who is clear about the principles that structure their moral and legal universe and insist on living and applying them and holding power to account. We must actively celebrate this.
We must be clear on our own values and principles and ourselves be prepared to speak truth to power. For this we will need to reclaim a moral discourse, to re-learn and be able to use moral concepts. To do this, we will need a sense of the lives of others, a process of empathic experiencing through which we come to know what is good and increase our awareness of the realities of the lives of others.
We must struggle not only to name the gendered and other unacceptable dysfunctionalities in our society, for this in itself leads only to rage. We must struggle to find the language and frameworks to analyse them and find the entry points for change so that our enthusiasm and activism can find the pathways to the changes we wish to see.
Beyond all else, Whitlam taught us that what we do must be informed by a clear vision of the society that we would like to bring about. This is how he could achieve so very much in his short time in office.
Who today has such a vision? Who is telling us the stories of responding to others in a morally adequate way? To do so requires creative processes of empathy, attention and imagination.
And ‘Comrades’ indicates that these are collective endeavours.
(1) A latchkey kid or latchkey child is a child who returns from school to an empty home because their parent or parents are away at work, or a child who is often left at home with little parental supervision.
(2) Jenny Hocking FASSA is an Australian academic, author and biographer. She is Research Professor and Australian Research Council Discovery Outstanding Research Award (DORA) Fellow with the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. In 2013 she was appointed the inaugural Distinguished Whitlam Fellow at the Whitlam Institute, University of Western Sydney
This address, which was entitled ‘Maintaining the Rage’, was delivered to a monthly meeting of the Vintage Reds of Canberra, the ‘Retired Progressive Unionists of the Canberra Region’, at Dickson Tradies Club on 16 June 2015.
* Elizabeth Reid AO, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, is an internationally-renowned development practitioner, feminist and academic. She founded, established and worked with pioneering and specialised UN institutions, government agencies and non-governmental organisations, particularly in women’s development and health. Reid was the world’s first advisor on women’s affairs to a head of government, appointed by the Australian Labor Government of Gough Whitlam in 1973.