It is 85 years since International Women’s Day was first observed in Australia and more than 100 years since its inception. Over those years, there have been so many advances in the fields of technology, medical science and labour-saving devices in the home. Women’s suffrage has been won and women have made many gains in the economic sphere. But after all those years of struggle have women achieved equality? Have they been liberated? Has the drudgery, the long hours and hardship been removed from their lives?
Clara Zetkin, a leading communist of her time (prior to WW1), proposed the concept of an annual international socialist women’s day with the purpose of bringing about women’s suffrage and furthering women’s equality. She addressed women at the second International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1910.
March 8 was chosen after a women’s demonstration was called on that day in 1908 under the leadership of women workers in the New York City where hundreds gathered to demand the vote and to urge the building of a powerful garment trades’ union.
In Australia, IWD was first observed in 1928, when the Militant Women’s Movement gathered in the Sydney Domain on March 25. Issues raised on that occasion included an eight-hour day for shop girls, equal pay for equal work and annual holidays on full pay.
In the intervening years, many gains have been won through the militant, organised working class in their trade unions – the eight-hour day, sick leave, annual leave, long service leave, workers’ compensation, paid overtime, penalty rates, occupational health and safety laws, advances towards pay equity, paid maternity and paternity leave, minimum wage rates, the concept of a living wage, permanent full-time employment, trade union and other rights. Married women gained the right to permanent employment in the public sector, superannuation and unemployment benefits. Some of the biggest gains were made during the years of communist leadership in the trade union movement. Not one was handed to workers on a plate by benevolent employers.
Gains rolled back
The Coalition government’s WorkChoices and its repressive anti-union legislation that preceded it saw the pay gender gap widened for the first time in 25 years. Pay convergence has been halted and reversed; the gap in gender equity grows with women in full-time paid work earning 18 percent to 27 percent less than men even though they are more likely to have a tertiary qualification. Pay equity increasingly seems further out of reach as the capitalist steals the opportunity to downgrade wages and conditions.
Thousands of women have lost penalty rates, been forced into casualised positions and other important job conditions and minimum wages have been cut in real terms.
For many capitalists, times of crisis are seen as a time to increase wealth and retake the gains won by working class struggles. Labor has used the most recent crisis to ramp up the attack on the working class, and women in particular have born the brunt of these attacks. For example, 90 percent of the single parents who lost their parenting payment at the beginning of this year are women. (Guardian, “Single parent welfare cuts impose crippling burdens”, Issue #1581 February 13, 2013).
Far too often the wins have not translated into real change. Women officially won the right to equal pay in the 1970s although that has never been delivered in real terms; nor has childcare that is increasingly out of reach of ordinary workers; recognition against violence against women has not translated into a decrease of violence.
There were successes in campaigns for entry into the professions and to own property and participate in public life. But in reality the barriers remain, making it difficult for women to enter or advance in many occupations. Australia still has one of the most highly gender segregated workforces in the OECD.
The precarious nature of the wins for the working class under a capitalist system is never more evident than in times of crisis and as seen in the 1930s Depression it is the most vulnerable in the society, particularly poor women, who face multiple hardships.
With the global economic crisis attacks on working women have escalated, in particular the casualisation of their employment and a rise in under-employment. With the shift to political and economic conservatism, there is a return during times of crisis to the old model of firing women first as men are often viewed as the legitimate jobholders.
A study Women: Their rights in Australia over the past 40 years (1972-2012) by Caroline Brentnall of the Fitzroy Legal Service reported that in September 2002, 2.4 million women in Australia were not in paid employment, despite about 500,000 of them wanting, but being unable, to work. About 32 percent of those who wanted to work stated that the reason stopping them was a lack of appropriate childcare.
Addressing a recent AWU conference ACTU president Ged Kearney said “Women are experiencing a trifecta of discrimination that can greatly impact on their working life and financial future,” pointing to systemic wage inequities, the cost of caring and violence.
Ms Kearney questioned the discrepancies of starting salaries of female graduates being significantly lower than their male counterparts and pointed out that this coupled with more chance of job insecurity because of work and family balance saw women earning on average one million dollars less than men over a working lifetime.
Conditions are also elusive for many women who are overly represented in casual and insecure work. Thirty-five percent of mothers of children under 12 are employed casually, and have no paid sick leave or carer’s leave. The precarious nature of the work and time out for family responsibilities also sees women retiring with less than half the amount of savings in their superannuation accounts compared with men.
Lack of will
Government responses have shown when it comes to working women’s rights there is a real lack of will for change. In 2009, the Fair Work Act introduced a national employment standard that allows parents and carers to ask for a change in working arrangements to care for young children under school age or children under 18 with a disability but it is of limited value.
Whilst it allows eligible employees the right to make the request it doesn’t make it a right. An employer can refuse a request on “reasonable” business grounds and once a request is refused, the law does not provide any avenue for an appeal against an unreasonable refusal.
A 2007 Democratic Audit of Australia (DAA) prepared by Sarah Maddison University of New South Wales and Emma Partridge University of Technology Sydney found that while Australia had once been a leader in the global struggle for gender equality it has now resiled from this commitment and many of the earlier achievements had been undone.
They found it is most obviously true with regard to the dismantling of women’s policy and the silencing of the women’s non-government sector. They found that neither major party demonstrated much commitment to gender equality as an essential component of democracy; that any new government would need persuading that there is a more immediate electoral beneﬁt to be gained from the investment of time, effort and money required to reconstruct what has recently been dismantled.
The DAA identified the role a neo-liberal market-driven focus has played in shifting political focus from social justice considerations to individualism and a winding back of the welfare state. Women inevitably become the first casualties under the scenario, becoming sidelined and marginalised and left without a voice in the political arena. The women’s movement has been forced into what DAA described as “defensive politics” as women try to just hold on to what remains of their gains and resist the neo-liberal onslaught. This has even been revealed by recent attacks on reproductive choice, a fight many women considered had largely delivered and been permanently won.
Solidarity between women
The report also warned against assuming a universal (white, heterosexual) woman as the subject of debate and policy and called for equity for women and between women acknowledging the many different circumstances and identities of Australian women. The struggle is intensified for many groups of women, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women from non-English speaking backgrounds.
The struggle they recommend is only one to win back previously hard fought for gains. The report stops short of pointing to socialism as the alternative needed to secure gender equality and real change for working women.
Change is possible with organised struggle by a strong women’s movement in a socialist system. This has been clearly demonstrated by the achievements of women in socialist Cuba led initially by the communist leadership of Vilma Espin, who became the first woman elected to full membership on the Cuban Communist Party’s Politburo in 1986. From 1960, she spent nearly all her political career as head of the Federation of Cuban Women, an organisation of more than three million women.
The work of the Federation improved the status of women in a society known for its history of machismo, giving a prominent voice to improvements in maternal and child health-care policies as well as the need for women to educate themselves. In 1975 Vilma Espin successfully lobbied for passage of the Cuban Family Code of 1975, which codified the duties of men to participate in household responsibilities, such as child rearing.
The elections in February this year saw women elected to 48.9 percent of deputy positions at the national level. Women now make up 46.4 percent of the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power and 50.5 percent of provincial delegates. Parliamentary representation is only part of the story. With the backing of the Cuban Federation of Women politicians in Cuba can exert a profound influence in the government for real advancement of women’s rights and this is a reflection of real democracy.
As put by Vandana Shiva, feminist and trade activist, “The problem with the free trade logic is that it puts trade above people’s lives and shifts government focus from the welfare of people to the promotion of exports and imports.”