Whatever happened to the feminist movement of the late-1960s and early 1970s in Australia?
The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in Australia officially started in 1972, riding on a global wave of the feminist movement. Lobbying for women’s rights and presenting appeals to the Whitlam government at the time proved to be successful in the re-opening of the equal pay case, the lifting of the sales tax on the contraceptive pill and the introduction of paid maternity and paternity leave into the Australian Public Service.
The feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s lost momentum in Australian society for a variety of reasons, but to say it is dead would be incorrect. Sawer maintains that “It is possible that every new wave of feminist protest starts out with sharp critique – not just of male-dominated society but also of preceding feminist organisations…” (2008, p. 251). However, Sawer also goes on to argue that feminist activism remains consistent throughout the generations, as women require a distinct political sphere of their own, “…free from the tutelage of men…” with their own ability to recognise and advocate for their own political concerns and priorities (p. 251-252).
The women’s movement continues and has been persistent over time. However, it has not necessarily been marked by continuous protest and disruption. It is because of fluctuation between intense and unobtrusive activity that some view the women’s movement to have succeeded or to be over or done with. The protests that took place over the 60s and 70s have been absorbed into Australian government and social institutions, as new values and perspectives are drawn from developments in the women’s realm. These activities can incorporate commemorations of the women’s initiatives in the past, acknowledging the recognition of successes in Australian and global women’s movements. Such acknowledgement ensures public awareness and helps to raise the profile and importance of such activism.
Sawer recognises the ebbing and flowing of the women’s movement throughout Australia’s history as “…the word ‘feminism’ itself dropped in and out of fashion… [that] made it perhaps unsurprising that… young women wanted to be seen as liberationists, not as feminists” (2008, p. 263). There was, and still is, such negative imagery surrounding feminism, i.e. “ugly, hairy legs, separatists, man-hating, fat” (p. 264), that it became more difficult to recruit younger women whilst these sentiments were prominent in the public domain.
Over time, it has become evident that friendship and common ties have kept the women’s movement alive. Newsletters from women’s organisations has ensured the continuous flow of information out into the public discourse… even though such discourse has been stifled by the media at times. Dissemination of such information has proved to be vital to the women’s movement over the years, especially with the advent of communication and web-based technologies that make such information transfer a simpler task. This is reinforced by the significance of annual events such as the ‘International Women’s Day’ across the world, which has also “…encourage[d] more women into political activity” (Sawer 2008, p. 272).
Yet, it has also been observed that the women’s movement has been significantly impeded by market forces and neo-liberalism. Sawer comments on this, stating “From the 1990s… shifts in the political landscape and the increased dominance of the… market made it more… difficult for equity arguments to be heard” (2008, p. 278). As a result, the focus of the women’s movement has strongly shifted to issues such as domestic violence prevention to minimise economic costs by the increasing accrual of days women did not participate in the workforce. It can be argued that market-oriented reforms undid a lot of WEL’s efforts towards the women’s movement. Bloodworth concurs with these notions, as she emphatically argues that “The fact that women’s oppression is a product of class society explains why we can win reforms if we fight for our rights, but not achieve liberation while capitalism continues to exist” (2005, p. 110).
BLOODWORTH, S. 2005. Women, class and oppression. In: KUHN, R. (ed.) Class and struggle in Australia. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: Pearson Education Australia.
SAWER, M. 2008. Making women count: a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Sydney, UNSW Press.