The 1970s could be characterised as a decade when feminists (though we didn’t, to begin with, call ourselves that) crept into just about every institution you can think of, with the express intention of turning it inside out. The labor party, it should be said, wasn’t exempt from this.
At the time I was a single mother, a low-ranked journalist in the Australian information Service, though I was soon to be promoted to head a newly created unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This was the Women’s Affairs Section, the bureaucratic back-up, if you like, for Gough Whitlam’s women’s adviser Elizabeth Reid - the first such adviser in the world. Reid was a ministerial officer, but my appointment represented the feminist entry into the bureaucracy itself – a much more powerful institution than it is now after the aggrandisement of the Prime Minister’s Office under Howard and Rudd, and Abbott today. Not to mention the cuts to the public service.
Elizabeth Reid was full of insight and vision. She understood that lifting women’s status in a society like ours required more than legislative reform and specific government services, necessary though these were. But 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.
I was still in Prime Minister’s in 1975 when the government changed as a result of the coup. It was an agonising decision to stay, but the choice was clear. Those were the days when the Westminster tradition stood for something, and I was a public servant, not a ministerial officer. To leave would mean abandoning the women’s reforms to a certain demise, to stay gave us at least a chance to work for their preservation, not to mention continuing our consciousness-raising.
As it turned out, Malcolm Fraser was more supportive than any of us could have believed. He overturned a previous government decision that devolved oversight of refuges to the states. He straightened out a problem that saw the bulk of the $75 million childcare appropriation going to pre-schools instead of childcare. In 1977 the appropriation for refuges was actually doubled. Most significantly, from 1975 to 1977, he kept the women’s portfolio.
With the return of Labor in 1983, the position of femocrats was for a time secure, even boosted. Labor’s policy was to return the Office, now of the Status of Women, to PM’s as a full division. Nonetheless, the function became inevitably more bureaucratised. Also, on the Labor’s program were the two very important pieces of legislation: the Sex Discrimination Act, so long in coming, and, two years later, the Affirmative Action Act. those of you who were around then may remember the heated parliamentary debates around both of these.
So, what are we feminists to do? I’ve suggested that what Australia’s parliament needs is a women’s caucus. Our political culture as it stands makes this difficult if not impossible, but if enough of us put our heads to it, it could come about. Men find it easy to pick off individual women, but my own experience has shown that there’s nothing more powerful – and threatening – than women in groups. In other words, what may be required is more solidarity among us, rather than the proper way to dress. Or, god help us, ‘leaning in’.
In closing, I would suggest that nobody is better primed to change this than you are, the women attending this conference. The women sitting in the audience here tonight. We not only need to get women in positions of power, but we need to return to examining what that power is about, and to developing long-term strategies for gaining a more just society. We need to convince other women as well. That may be, in the last analysis, even more important than forever trying to convince a bunch of men.
We women represent slightly over half the population and there’s more strength in that number than we realise or have been prepared perhaps to act on.