Do we still need Feminism?
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
The Brisbane Institute
14 March 2006
Thank you Ray Weekes - and thank you to the Brisbane Institute for inviting me to address you this evening.
When Bob Hawke was Prime Minister and I was a hapless journalist, he was determined never to answer a question anyone asked. This included me. Which was a challenge, considering I had to interview him for as long as ten minutes on either television or radio.
His principle technique for not answering any question that wasn’t a free kick was to parry with it. Debate its meanings and ridicule the questioner’s use of words. It was a technique that provided hours of education and entertainment for viewers glued to the set learning about the finer points of grammar or the use of obscure words from their national leader- and it terrified journalists.
This question, do we still need feminism, may invite a similar response. We could easily fill the next forty minutes asking ourselves what Feminism is, what the need is and, in fact, the point of the question? Was feminism ever needed, you might ask, let alone might still be needed? Is it, like the French Revolution, too early to tell?
So allow me to parry with my own question. First of all, what is feminism?
Is it the monolithic destroyer of civilisation portrayed by those who oppose the modern women’s rights agenda, or is feminism merely a vast oligarchy of anti imperialist, anti capitalist crusaders who have enjoyed a stranglehold on governments, the Family Court and other institutions of the state for more than a generation, forcing their august leaders to bow to their outrageous demands. It is, mind you, a secret stranglehold since men have run all these institutions and still do. This particular view relies on a view of women that was first evidenced in the writing of Genesis, where the temptress Eve got all the blame, and has echoes in the sirens of Ulysses who again tempted hapless men to perish on the rocks.
No doubt there are some in this audience thinking that the overthrow of imperialism and capitalism doesn’t sound like a bad outcome; sadly for you while the truth is that if feminism had half of the influence so frequently ascribed to it, women would be ruling the world- but it ain’t the truth. Nor is it the truth that feminism is to blame for social problems like juvenile delinquency, unemployment and male suicide. How disappointing for those who want conveniently simple answers to amazingly complex problems. Feminism, perhaps flatteringly, is vastly over estimated.
I’ve certainly received members of the men’s movement into my office nervously looking for the hundreds of sharp-eyed, acid tongued feminazis waiting to pounce. We are called any number of names, are generally assumed to hate men, or be lesbians and of course, be bitter, twisted socialists. When I tell some nice man sitting next to me on a plane what I do, he immediately draws back in panic, a look of horror on his face. When he can squeak out a question it is almost invariably “I hope I haven’t said anything wrong?” So no, admitting to being the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is not a great pick up line, Maureen Dowd take note.
We hear opinion columnists, authors and politicians referring to “the feminists” as though all feminists think the same and must sign up to some secretive manifesto before undergoing a shadowy initiation into the dark arts. I wish. There are as many feminisms as there are women who call themselves feminist. And don’t think we always like each other! Maternal feminists like Anne Manne, for example, aren’t welcome in many feminist circles for her proclamation that feminism- and she names feminists like Simone de Beauvoir - has degraded motherhood. There are feminists like myself , for example, who believe equality between men and women can best by achieved within a capitalist democracy; there are others who believe overt social regulation to be the only way. There are environmental feminists, feminist economists, historians, radicals and gradualists. There are those who insist on wearing makeup and high-heels while others see all that as a sign of our oppression. There are those who reject the company of men and others who persist in sleeping with the enemy.
Perhaps at its simplest, feminism can be considered, as Paula Treichler puts it “ ...the radical notion that women are people”. Or perhaps we can agree with Rebecca West, who so famously said in 1913,
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat”.
Rebecca West certainly represents those well educated, middle class women who did not want materially but were hungry for intellectual, social and economic independence. Their desires were and are valid but they often allow critics of feminism to accuse its proponents of elitism.
In fact the more basic challenges of feminism are those of female health, reproductive rights, education (most of the world’s illiterate are women) the feminisation of poverty and the right to live free from violence, including sexual violence. However much the feminist movement has relied on the articulate wittiness of the Rebecca Wests of the world, feminism has always been about the fundamental rights of life rather than permission to be shocking at a dinner party.
You might say that the various strands of feminism make the term meaningless. However there remains, in all of the definitions and factions, one abiding principle.
Feminism is about choice. The right of men and women to the same range of life choices, irrespective of gender. The right to choose an education, a career, a life in professional sport, or politics or at the Bar or on the Bench- or the right to choose to be a devoted parent, carer and home-maker, the family centrepiece. Or the right, as many point out, to mix the two, with more or less success. The right to choose to say something shocking, or to be shy and silent.
Choice is an interesting notion isn’t it? We might argue that up until the Industrial Revolution there was very little to choose between. Life was grim and inevitable, you did what you had to in order to survive. Personal choices were luxuries, the stuff of Shakespearean drama. In these circumstances communalism and the restriction of individual rights were essential for the survival of the village, the community, the tribe, the family, indeed the person.
But in the modern era choice, personal choice, is a fundamental cultural value, although one in constant tension with social obligation. It is also central to modern economic theory- which says when we maximise choice we maximise satisfaction and thus the efficient distribution of resources. Human rights become part of the invisible hand, how interesting.
Choice is also central to political democracy.
Essentially if feminism hadn’t been invented by Mary Wollstonecraft after the French Revolution, it would have had to have been invented by Smith, or Ricardo, or another of the pioneers of economics. Feminism is a response to the failure of dominant groups to share power and authority, but some also see it as a useful response to market failure. It is recognition that when choice is not maximised, satisfaction is not maximised, resources are not allocated efficiently, economic growth is not maximised- so long as half the world’s consumers and suppliers have less say in how they exercise their choices than the other half.
Which of course goes to the original point- all this assumes women are people too. I take it there is no one in this room who disagrees with that.
For those of you who feel I am merely dealing with an interesting aside in the history of political philosophy, let me remind you of the Arab Development Bank’s recent analysis of economic underdevelopment in the Arab world. The Bank, hardly a front for the Bush Administration, is concerned by economic growth rates averaging around ½ percent, compared with Australia’s growth rate at seven or eight times that, for example. The Bank did not conclude that corruption, lack of water or access to iron ore supplies were to blame for the region’s dismal economic performance. It identified three key factors; lack of education, limited human rights and in particular, the lack of women’s rights. This is about more than women not being able to wear short dresses or work on the oil rigs, this is about the use of roads, hospitals, schools and public facilities by a full half of the population who are not able to contribute towards that investment.
I doubt many would argue that feminism, as a social change movement, was not necessary. It was outrageous that women were precluded from voting because they were not clever enough, or would cause trouble. It was absurd that women were prevented from attending university because it might fever their brains and bodies, leading, as some doctors warned darkly, to insanity and sterility. It was unfair that women were paid less to do the same work. It was unjust that women were required to leave the workforce upon marriage and had no legal avenue for complaint when the boss or the manager sexually propositioned, threatened or touched their bodies. We now regard the rights of women to vote, work, marry whom they please and to stand for parliament as givens. Most, although not all of us, believe the same is true of their right to control their own fertility.
The question tonight is thus reduced to a simple one: given the astonishing gains that women have made towards equality over the last century, and particularly over the last thirty years, do we need feminism any more?
I would say yes and yes again, but that feminism also needs to change not its goal, but its practice.
You would think that all we know about economics and politics would make feminism redundant. But of course the world is not so rational and so long as people remain predisposed to irrationality, prejudice, superstition, unfounded assumptions and the very reasonable desire on the part of some to hang on to their existing so-called privileges, then feminism must also remain an active and constructive force for good.
I am sure I need not remind you of the enormous disparities in the life outcomes of men and women still- the starkness of the gender differences is to be wondered at. Allow me a brief recitation: domestic violence, where women remain 86% of its victims and between 15 and 20% of its perpetrators; poverty rates, where women in old age are two and a half times more likely than old men to live in poverty and very much more likely to live in poverty with dependent children, to representation in public life, where women make up a quarter or thereabouts of our elected representatives, fewer of our corporate executives and still fewer of our Board members. At the other end of the scale, 95% of women in the workforce today earn less than $50,000 each year and are less likely to have family-friendly working conditions than men. Where the earnings of all women in full time work are compared with those of men in full time work doing ordinary hours, there is still a 16 cents in the dollar gender pay gap. Once you take all earnings into account, and part timers and casuals are included, the earnings gap is 44 cents in the male dollar. Yet the time use surveys show women do the bulk of the unpaid work, unsurprisingly, and that women in full time work do more work, paid and unpaid, than any other category of worker. 60% of full time working women do more than 12 hours housework each week- for full time men, make that 11%.
Many of those gaps start to open up when women have children; having children becomes the source of considerable economic disadvantage for women, when in fact they should be cause for celebration. Pregnancy discrimination remains a frequent cause for complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
Women in the community also feel very strongly about their continuing sexualisation in advertising and the fact that rape is the most unreported crime of all because women lack confidence in the criminal justice system’s determination to deal with it.
Surely eradicating these evils is a noble goal, and remains the goal of feminism.
So why the continual backlash against feminism in the community? Why the suspicion of all things feminist?
Perhaps part of it is just the inevitable generational struggles between older leaders and young people; that feminism is changing, as it should, to adapt to new circumstances and challenges, and part of that struggle is to reject the particular form of feminism that came before.
Perhaps it is this amazingly confident group of young women bursting out of universities and technical colleges with all their degrees, or working their way diligently up the management ladders from the bottom, who think they don’t need it. That there is no need to be concerned with gender discrimination any more because they earn more than their boyfriends and have just been promoted over five young blokes at work. These days many women don’t partner and have children until they are well into their thirties- and in the mean time success and merit have gone hand in hand. So they think all those old femo’s tales about how the boss sacks you when you tell him you’re pregnant ( haven’t they noticed they’re still hims?) or expects you to take a pay cut after your unpaid maternity leave are just that, old tales. Until it happens to them- the boss really does sack and demote pregnant women, many others do find themselves unpartnered or ignored by eligible men, or unable to conceive because they left it too late- while, they notice, all those blokes they climbed up the ladder with seem to have it all- children, families and the promotion.
Men remain the overwhelmingly majority of corporate executives, top professionals and holders of public office. Worldwide, men hold nine out of ten cabinet level posts in national governments, nearly as many parliamentary seats, and most top positions in international agencies. Men, collectively, receive approximately twice the income that women receive and also receive the benefits of a great deal of unpaid household labour, not to mention emotional support from women. And let me hasten to point out to you that what I have just said was written by a man, in case you were wondering.
It’s a wonder these confident young women don’t muse more on this - but perhaps, like all young people, they assume it will be different for them.
Sadly, it mostly isn’t. And at that point, women, with the exception of ABC journalist Virginia Haussenger, who wrote about childlessness and kicked up a storm, go very quiet. Quiet indeed. Shocked really. Others settle in for a twenty year battle between work and family, but many either drop back to work which enables them to put their children first, or give up and stay home full time to protect their children. Frequently they say they made this choice- but the question for the economist as well as for the political philosopher is how constrained was that choice, how free was it?
A minority of women actively choose to live the full time life of a wife and mother, despite having other options, and feel entitled to make a virtue of it. Meanwhile their younger sisters keep telling anyone who asks that feminism’s dead and they don’t like those unmade up short grey-haired women in pants suits telling them their cup’s half empty.
But it’s not just young women who think it’s gone too far.
Many men feel alienated from the social structure that they see as no longer supporting the form of pre-feminist masculinity that they have built their lives and their identities upon, and they feel threatened.
We should all recognise that there is a certain section of our population – made up of some unskilled and semi skilled blue collar male workers – who have been seriously disadvantaged by the processes of economic reform and globalisation of the last two decades. How easy it is to blame women for taking their jobs, instead of technological change.
It is correct that on some counts, men aren’t doing very well. Men, for example, provide the workforce for most of the dangerous occupations. They suffer the most industrial injuries, pay most of the tax and are under heavier social pressure to remain employed. Men are the main targets of violence and many more men than women are imprisoned. They are twice as likely to die before the age of 45- it is only when men and women are over seventy that more women die than men, because by then there aren’t many men left. Boys also do far worse than girls at high school level and also miss out on caring for their children- which is not merely a responsibility and a demanding task, but also a joy and a pleasure.
Many of these men, searching about for whom or what to blame for their reduced circumstances, have hit upon feminism as the root of all their ills.
Economics gets ignored. Interestingly many members of the so called infant men’s movement are exactly from these socio-economic groups. Almost invariably they have joined a men’s rights organisation because of their frustrations with the Family Court and Child Support Agency post separation or divorce. Many criticise these men for their crudity, anger and unwillingness to take responsibility for the positions they are in- and there is no doubt I particularly experience a great deal of personal animosity, threats to my safety on web sites from men who have never met me and so on. Probably because I have tried to directly engage with men about the connections between Family Court outcomes and their role in the family before separation.
That is not really the point- the point is that clumsy, unfair and angry as some may say it is, it might also be the beginnings of a social movement which, like the feminist movement, will eventually have to become more mainstream to survive. It’s true that feminism began as a middle class concern and fanned out while the men’s movement has begun as a blue collar movement, but no one can deny the effectiveness of parts of this nascent men’s movement in achieving policy change, nor its capacity to raise the issues and to get other men thinking about their disadvantages, as well as questioning how great it is being a bloke. And feminists can make common cause- in the demands of the men’s movement for fifty fifty parenting, we have the beginnings of what feminists dared not dream of- a world where women and men are equally responsible for children and therefore equally able to have economic independence and achieve in the public world.
Frankly these men might be better served by the class struggle rather than the gender one, because there are many more men who continue to do quite nicely, thank you, and they are generally well educated, white collar men. Yet feminism could well make use of the men’s movement for common ends, although perhaps I am being overly optimistic.
For many men, the failure to embrace feminism may be about their privileges. Men’s privilege, advantage and greater power - - institutional, economic, social and personal power – has been called the patriarchal dividend.
Who would willingly give that up- and the more we talk about how underprivileged women are, poor they are, under-represented are, the more we intuitively reinforce the notion that men are the lucky ones, the privileged ones. Again, who would give up a privilege if the other choice was to be under-privileged?
Perhaps women need to talk about how wonderful it is being able to leave work when we want, have babies when we want and expect to be cared for by men for the rest of our lives while they march off to be shot at in wars and slave for fifty hours a week in unrewarding, dirty or dangerous work to keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed, only to die seven years younger than we do leaving a large group of well endowed widows whooping it up on cruises around the south seas?
Perhaps this argument could do with further development? There is no doubt that on one level, while men are advantaged by their gender roles, there certainly are others on which they suffer disadvantage. Toxic side effects you might say. And if we leave the movement of angry men to one side for a moment, the growing recognition of the disadvantages men face in their own gender roles among other men perhaps provides us with hope for the future of feminism and the future of equality.
It is increasingly obvious to young men especially that it is not true that boys will be boys; that masculinity is genetically ordained and that men cannot change their ways. That women can entertain a raft of life style choices, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
There is a growing international movement of men based on what are called pro-feminist principles. They have taken up the theory of feminism and applied it to an analysis of the position of men. Rather than a men’s movement that is oppositional to women and their equality, we are working as men and women to remodel gender roles to the advantage of all of us, and to give men and women alike greater choices in the way they live their lives.
Many men, brought up in an era where gender equality is accepted in theory if not in practice, are now reacting to the restrictions that their male role places on them, and are starting to claim some equality too, in areas that they have traditionally been denied access. In particular to caring roles, as parents. I believe this is the way forward for us all.
And this is where I am currently seeking to contribute. My current national research project, “Striking the Balance: men, women, work and family” is particularly focussed on the use of unpaid time, the execution of unpaid responsibilities, particularly to family, and the impact this has on the choices men and women are then able to make about their paid work. In other words about the impact of the sharing of care, unpaid care, on gender equality. While the final discussion paper incorporating the results of dozens of focus groups and community consultations is not due for release until the middle of this year, what is already clear is that men are deeply conscious of the limits placed on their fathering and caring roles by the restrictions of paid work, by the presumption of the principle bread-winner role, by assumptions in the work place that men must put work first, family second. Curiously I did not sense that women were so conscious of this limitation on men, although they were frequently resentful of the tiny amounts of unpaid work their men did and concerned about the consequences for their children. Overall men and women were agreed that arguments between working parents about who does what at home were a common cause of marital tension.
In other words Australians, once you scratch the surface, worry that the current balance between work and family, paid and unpaid time, the sharing of responsibilities, is ultimately to no one’s advantage. Women clearly lose, but so do men.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,
“where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places; close to home – so close that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in, the school or college he attends, the factory or farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning here, they have little meaning anywhere”
Feminism was placed on the policy agenda by women. The reason is obvious: it is women who are disadvantaged by the main patterns of gender inequality and who therefore have the claim for redress. But we are beginning to understand that men are also necessarily involved in gender-equality reform. 
After all, to quote another eminent woman, Margaret Mead, “every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man”.
Feminism in future may not look as it has in the past or as it does now, but I am convinced that feminism will have a necessary place in our future society. In my work, I meet many, many young vibrant and engaged young women who ascribe to feminist values and are actively thinking, talking and working towards and about equality
More power to them.
But it is time they were joined by more men, and all worked together. Perhaps there was neither the time nor the place for this in the feminist battles of old, perhaps any revolution has to start with a reviling of the oppressors, the identification of an enemy. Of course many feminists did work with men but were ignored- the flame throwers and the funny jokes got the headlines instead. Whatever was the case, today it is quite clear that women cannot fight for feminism alone and expect to breach the remaining gaps. It has to be done with a direct appeal to the interests of men and the advantages to them of a system based on merit, not privilege, of individual choice not chromosomally determined destiny. At least if there are then differences in outcomes- if the geneticists are right and women and men do have different work and family preferences- then that will have been decided on fact, not on supposition, on an individual’s genes, not on assumptions about half the planet’s. The war against slavery, the factory reforms of the 1800s, the battle for female suffrage all confirm the importance of social mobilisation in achieving cultural change.
The 21st century will demand that feminism continue to exist. As the treasurer only too happily reminds us at every opportunity, the ageing of Australia, the lowering of our birth rate and economic globalisation are producing a number of pressing national challenges for Australia, the need for increased workforce participation being among them.
But again whatever the importance of gender equality in resolving these new challenges, there is no guarantee that we will adapt it automatically. Seamlessly, noiselessly. Cultural change will not proceed without at least discussion, without promotion. Without change first in our beliefs about who does what in the home and in the work force, who cares for the children and how much care they deserve, who is fit to lead us in public life, to admire and respect. We need to change beliefs and then social practice in order to ensure that the gains from globalisation, economic prosperity and technological change will not be at the expense of social disruption and discontent. In higher divorce and separation rates, in childhoods rushed by and problems ignored by parents too busy and institutions not required to respond. It is also quite possible that without further social change, for which read improved gender equality among other things, the direct gains from globalisation, economic prosperity and technological change will not be realised at all.
The furtherance of our great national interests in the 21st century suggest, no demand, that gender equality be part of our response to the challenges of the 21st century. And none of that will happen without feminism.
The need for feminism has remained as great as ever. If you include men in the picture, then you may want to call it something different, but it will be about the same thing. A fair go. A wiser Australia and a richer one, where gender no longer matters, where men and women are equally free to choose.
 RW Connell “Change Amongst the Gatekeepers: Men, masculinities and gender equality in the global arena” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society Vol 30, no 3, p1801.