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The Development Of Second Wave Feminism In Australia Essay, Research Paper

As long as women in general continue to avoid public disclosure or statement of their existence they can be regarded as not existing or not fully human. 1

The examination of the Australian government s reaction to second – wave feminism and the implications it created for Australian women, allows us to view the 1970 s as a period of social growth for women as they gained political awareness and feminist consciousness. Unhappy with their position in Australian society, women s anger and frustration generated a demand for change as women fought to have their issues heard in the political domain.

Second-wave feminism hit Australia at the end of 1969 and created a movement of

political groups which criticised the expected role of Australian women in their society. These women pushed to identify with their right to decide to define themselves, and to be autonomous, responsible individuals. 2

The women s liberation movement was focused on a revolution pushing for women to

change their perception of themselves and society. Emphasis was placed on raising female awareness and promoting personal transformation. Women began to

acknowledge the institutions which were contributing to their subordination, making their impact into political life a major issue for the movement.

The control and development of Australia s political system had traditionally been regarded as only suitable for men and their socialised attributes. Australian society had adopted the sex-role ideology as a means of defining male characteristics as superior to female characteristics. This sex-role ideology assumes both biologically and historically, that individuals should be classified according to their biological sex which constructs their appropriate gender.3 This differentiation of the sexes was thought to

prescribe innately different qualities, attitudes and characteristics.

Men were and many argue still are, deemed legitimate in status and role articulation, whilst a women s attempt at political life were looked upon as deviant because they conflicted with her duty in the home and to her family. 4 A women s power is thus confined to the domestic sphere where it has functioned traditionally.

Politics has traditionally been envisaged as a public realm for man, based on the characteristics of the masculine stereotype. Women s participation in contrast, is considered small and irrelevant. This masculine structure of Australian politics defines those who do not participate or succeed according to it s male-oriented structures, as failures; thus excluding women. This notion confines women to domesticity socially and hence politically.

Female political participation is explained in terms of male standards and

male-orientated organisational frameworks. 5 If a woman assumes feminine

characteristics she is considered inferior in her capabilities. Yet is a women accepts masculine qualities, she is looked upon as deviant by both men and women. Those women that choose to accept their socialised role , remain powerless publicly and therefore politically. Yet those that go against the status quo are considered socially unacceptable and receive little if no support for their active participation in politics.

Women s groups in Australia at the beginning of the 19th century remained

conservative in the acceptance of their traditional sex-roles, and activities focused on the domestic interests of women. These groups worked to perpetuate the traditional female stereotype. As Australia moved into the 20th century however, there was the emergence of more militant feminist groups who challenged the view of women and their roles in public and private life. The feminists in Australia did succeed in exposing the male dominated structure of Australian society and politics, yet failed in achieving their radical goals of women s emancipation whilst continuing to support the importance of the nuclear family as the basis of stability in Australian society. 6

Second -wave feminism emerged in a period of rapid social growth and change and

when political issues and conflicts were an open part of public life. Australian women were exposed to the struggles of the women s movement overseas, particularly the media coverage from the U.S.. Members of Australia s contemporary movement came from backgrounds in student protest, the anti-war movement and pushes for equal pay and representation in trade unions. These women felt their issues and concerns were being ignored , as they were playing a supportive role to their spokespeople who were nearly always men , and who s positions were rarely challenged.

The new women s movement made it s first serious impact into parliamentary politics, with the establishment of the Women s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in 1972. The WEL campaign focused on equal pay, equal employment opportunity CEEO, equal access to education, free contraceptive services, abortion on demand and free 24-hour child care. With it s establishment on 23 April 1472, WEL had an initial membership of 85 people all holding a primary aim of social protest. WEL s concerns were focused on changing legislation s rather than promoting feminist consciousness.

WEL worked to have major influence of the 1972 elections as they drew public

attention to the issues of women, causing politicians to take them into serious

consideration during their election campaigns. WEL s success derived from their well researched submissions and media skills. Women journalists were recruited into WEL and produced articles that appeared in Nation Review, the Age, The Australian, The Bulletin, The National Times, The Australian Financial Review, Women s Day and The Sunday Telegraph.

WEL s means of power in using the communications media to influence politicians

had hold over a large number of women voters.7 Media exposure meant that WEL s

access into public life could not be ignored. Television and radio increased and

accelerated it s political impact. Publicity was supportive of WEL and it s issues. WEL was operating through established channels of communication and Australian considered them as acceptable. WEL was seen as a powerful yet non-threatening force in Australian politics and society. It s lack of radical tactics appealed to many women.

WEL continued to gain further success in the following years through the lobbying for anti-discrimination and in establishing it s presence in a vast range of government policies. WEL provided a springboard for the entry of large numbers of women into public life.8 These women held powerful positions in Australia policy making and were seen to create a structure in Australian government which allowed for the development of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action.

The Australian government was forced to become more responsive to the problems

and needs of women. The ALP s commitment to social reform allowed the demands of

the movement to emerge. It was thought that unless women gained political education and expertise, their ability to bring about the changes they wanted would not be increased.9

Since the advent of the women s movement, there was an increasing demand for more women in parliament. The absence of women in Australian public life had adversely effected the quality of life for many. Whitlam addressed this, and by June 1975, there were 23 women members in parliament, one in the House of Representatives, four in the senate, and a total of 18 in the State parliaments.10 The mere presence of women in parliament provided an opportunity for women to become a part of the decision making process.

The rise of male unemployment in Australia forced a changed of gender emphasis in the Whitlam government, as they were forced to accept the challenges put forward by the movement. Because of the increasing number of women being absorbed into the workforce, improvements were necessary for female working conditions – equal pay, and job opportunities and the availability of adequate child care. 11

The new Whitlam government allowed women to see immediate returns for their

political efforts.12 Issues that once seemed to not exist , such a domestic violence, were being raised and the government had to become more effective in providing services for women.

The Whitlam government acknowledged the traditional subordination of women to a

secondary role of assisting the menfolk, carrying out domestic chores and rearing large families in isolation .13 The government established the distinction between women s traditional and separate functions in the private sphere, and the impact urbanisation has had in changing attitudes regarding women s role socially, economically and politically.

With six days of office, Whitlam had re-opened moves for the equal pay case,

removed the sales tax on the contraceptive pill and provided a $300 000 contribution to the UN fund for population activities.

Previous to 1966, the Australian Public Service held a bar on employing married

women. In 1966 this bar was lifted and later maternity provisions of 26 weeks without pay were introduced. In 1973, the Whitlam government introduced new provisions allowing an minimum of 12 weeks on full pay, and a mother was allowed a further 40 weeks without pay.14 The Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act of 1973, introduced further ground breaking changes in policy by allowing a father or father figure of a child 9 weeks leave without pay .15

The Australian government removed the 27.5% sales tax on oral contraceptives, and later they were placed on the pharmaceutical benefits list. By April 1973, the cost of a months supply was $1. The family planning Association proved instrumental in providing contraceptive services to many Australian women.

However the abortion law reform was a major campaign that failed. Laws restricting abortion remained in all States and Territories. The termination of a pregnancy was lawful only if the pregnancy threatened the mothers physical or mental health.16

The labour government increase in the number of women in parliament was

highlighted with the appointment of Elizabeth Reid to assist the Prime Minister on women s issues. Elizabeth Reid was chosen for her demonstrated commitment to women and her intellectual abilities. 17

Reid provided the policy initiatives which were to became the programs of later years. Services such as women s refuges, rape crisis centres and women s health centres, child care , working women s centres, policies for equal opportunities for girls and women in education labour market training, employment and access to housing. 18

The Whitlam government recognised the increase of female participation in the

workforce, and the amount of working married women which was increasing

dramatically. However this employment was concentrated in the traditional female

occupations of clerk, sales women, typist, domestic and process worker, nurses and teachers. Jobs such as footwear, butchery, night – fill work and printing trades were still legally closed to women.19

In 1974, the National Employment and training scheme ( NEAT) was established and

provided necessary training and financial assistance for women re-entering the

workforce. Reid established policies that instigated Australian women s visibility and recognition in public life. Reid understood the family as an institution which contributing to women s subordination.

The Supporting Mothers Benefit was introduced in 1973 for single women with

children, making it eligible to unmarried mothers, deserted de facto wives, wives of prisoners and separated wives.20 The Australian government was finally

acknowledging those women outside the institution of the nuclear family.

Child -care became a major policy , as governments had failed to make a distinction between pre-school and childcare. The major parties before 1972 had paid no real attention to a child care policy. The Australian Bureau of Statistics in their 1969 report, revealed 403, 000 working women and 11, 000 men in Australia were solely supporting children under the age of 12.21 Their were only 555 child care centres throughout Australia providing childcare for approximately 14, 000 children, and only 40 of these were receiving any form of State or local government assistance.

In response to the movement, The Whitlam government introduced a financial aid

scheme to aid existing centres and to establish new ones. The Child Care Act came into force on 2 November 1972. Reid pushed to change the former paradigm and argued for integrated child-care services. The NSW labour women s organisation were successful in creating a government service with a broader view of women s rights.

The United Nations designation of 1975 as International Women s Year was

welcomed by the Australian government.22 Elizabeth Reid played a major role in the Prime Ministers commitment to a community based international women s year (IWY) program for 1975. This commitment played an essential part in the promotion of change amongst Australian society and it s attitudes and the movement impact onto government. Reid s theme for the IWY was the revolution in our heads, as emphasis was placed on changing societal attitudes along with the structuring of government and it s institutions.

Whitlam s objectives for the IWY were to change attitudes, reduce discrimination and allow and assist women s creativity. Whitlam considered it, far better [to] have much more for reaching consequences to change the attitudes of people within these institutions rather than to bypass them . (NAC, 1974:15) For the first time in Australian history, the national government acknowledged the decades of neglect women had had to suffer, and made a conscious attempt to provide women with the ability to freely choose that way of life best suited to them individually .23

In 1974, Whitlam requested all ministers and premiers initiate programs to improve the status of women in accordance to the objectives of the IWY. The IWY was seen as an opportunity to assess the position of women and initiate programs which provided a deep commitment to their basis rights. 24

The formation of a National Advisory Committee was considered insurance of

Australia facing the responsibilities of the IWY. Refuges, women s health centres and rape crisis centres became priorities for the National Advisory Committee (NAC). The NAC continued to handle almost 700 submissions for funding and worked to provide for a variation of women s services such as consciousness raising seminars, workshops and conferences, feminist films, videos, books and festivals. 25

The NAC did not see its function as an alternative funding agency for projects other departments had refused or failed. The NAC considered alternative funding as only ignoring the issues and pushing them within the cracks of institutions. The changing of attitudes within these institutions was deemed far more influential, and a way of ensuring that the governments objectives continued after 1975.26

The vast social change caused by the empowerment of women created extraordinary

media backlash. Reid s position in government became sensationalised in the media and also created controversy within the women s movement. With the spotlight on Reid s appointment both by Australian society and the movement she was represented caused expectations to increase and inevitably take it s toll on Reid.

Reid s commitment to her position was constantly exploited in the media, portraying her role as a novelty rather than important. The media campaign portrayed the Whitlam government and it s contributions to the IWY as wasteful spendthrift and incompetent .27 The press scrutinised Reid and her personal life, and had a field day with the news of Reid separation from her husband and daughter. The media hostility created fears amongst the Whitlam office as Reid was becoming a liability for the labor government. Reid eventually resigned from government in 1975, emotionally and physically exhausted. 28

Reid s appointment was also highly controversial amongst the women s movement.

The movement resented the state appointing their figurehead and resented those that applied for the position. They stressed that the women shortlisted were all, white, highly educated, socially adept and heterosexual . 29

Reid represented a perfect example for femocrats, an Australian term used to define feminists who take on women s policy positions in government. Femocrats were criticised by many women in the movement as part of the patriarch as they failed to change bureaucratic structures. Femocrats faced constant frustration in being blamed for the policies they couldn t change and received no credit for the policies the did.30

Reid s achievements in politics must take into consideration the extraordinary

pressures and hurdles that she was up against. Reid worked with the lack bureaucratic resources, lack of trust amongst the women s movement and with the unstable support of the labor government, while being surrounded by continual press hostility. However Reid managed to represent the issues of Australian women and create the initiatives which were to became the functions of Australian government in the late 1950 s.

The women s movement, through the mobilisation of WEL, established itself as a

powerful political force. The Whitlam government addressed the movement through

not only the changing discriminatory policies, but more importantly, changing

Australian society s attitudes towards women and their potential socially, economically

and politically.


Primary Sources;

* Daniels, Kay., Murnane, Mary., Uphill All the Way; A Documentary History of

Women in Australia, University of QLD Press, St. Lucia, 1980

* Escolme – Schmidt, Elizabeth.(ed),Women of the Year; A Collection of Speeches by

Australia s Most Successful Women, Watermark Press, Buderim, 1987

* Kingston, Beverly., The World Moves Slowly; A Documentary History of Australian

Women, Cassel Australia Ltd., Stanmore, 1977

* National Advisory Committee, International Women s Year; Priorities and

Considerations, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1974

* National Advisory Committee, Status of Women; Reference Paper, Australian

Information Service, Canberra, July 1975

* Office of the Status of Women; Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,

National Agenda for Women; Implementation Report, Australian Government

Publishing Service, Canberra, September, 1992

* Office of the Status of Women, Interim Australian National Report to the United

Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Australian Government Publishing

Service, Canberra, 1994

* Sex Discrimination Act; Review of CES Services and Programs, JS. McMillan

Printing Group, Sydney, April 1995

* United Nations and the Advancement of Women; 1945 – 1995, Blue Books Series,

Vol VI, Department of Public Information, New York, 1996

Secondary Sources;

* Graham, Caroline., Borrowing From Each Other , The Other Half; Women in

Australian Society, ed. Jan Mercer, Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, 1975, 421 – 426

* Mercer, Jan., The History of the Women s Electoral Lobby , The Other Half;

Women in Australian Society, ed. Jan Mercer, Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, 1975,

395 – 404

* Sawer, Marian., Sisters in Suits, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1990

* Summers, Anne., Where s the Women s Movement Moving To? , The Other Half;

Women in Australian Society, ed. Jan Mercer, Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, 1975,

405 – 420

* Wishart, Barbara., Political Socialisation and Women in Australia , The Other Half;

Women in Australian Society, ed. Jan Mercer, Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, 1975, 365 – 376


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