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Issue #1629      March 5, 2014

International Women’s Day

Women’s rights & class struggle

Childcare, reproductive rights, land rights, women’s services, education, equal pay, jobs and trade union rights: these are central, pressing issues facing women. So many gains are threatened.

Though it was no way the beginning of the women’s rights struggle, in those four and a half decades the struggles of the women’s movement, the trade unions and left and progressive political forces resulted in many social and economic gains for women.

It was a powerful part of that impetus that saw the Whitlam Labor government came to office in the early 1970s with a platform for social change.

Women benefited from the introduction of Medibank (now Medicare) and funding for women’s health that resulted in free, safe abortions, family planning, women’s refuges and other women’s services.

International Women’s Year in 1975 saw special programs for childcare, for migrant women, Indigenous women, and other disadvantaged groups. There were programs to eliminate sexism in schools and discrimination in the workforce.

Over the years the number of childcare places rose dramatically, with funding from the government and assistance to parents. Equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action and other legislative measures were introduced.

Tertiary fees were removed and TAFE was developed, offering women opportunities to return to studies in special access programs and community learning centres. The formation of the Family Court removed the blame, trauma, high cost and long delays of the old punitive divorce system.

The equal pay case of 1972 resulted in the average wage (ordinary time earnings) for full-time female workers rising from around 60 percent up to 80 percent of male earnings by the end of the 1970s.

The ACTU adopted a Working Women’s Charter in 1977, trade union women’s committees were set up, women’s officers appointed and specific issues affecting women taken up. Childcare became union business.

The right of women to work, including married women, was won. Married women in the public service were given permanency and allowed to join superannuation schemes.

Campaigns were waged and over time gains won in family leave, carers’ leave and childcare provision. However, like all concessions won under capitalism, they were not permanent.

Ascendancy of the Right

Now we are experiencing a reversal of many of these gains. Today’s attack is coming from the reactionary policies of the economic rationalists, and the extreme Right of politics including, the Christian Right.

As governments privatise and deregulate industries, and employers introduce technological change, casualise and downsize workforces to compete on international markets, the pool of unemployed grows.

Australia still has a relatively highly segregated workforce, with women concentrated in a narrow range of occupations and industries. They are predominantly employed in shops, banks, insurance offices, education, health and community services, the public service, accommodation, cafes, restaurants and clothing and textiles.

Some of these areas have the highest rates of casualisation and part-time work and most appalling exploitative conditions. With the exception of the tourist sector, they also account for much of the job cutting taking place.

An attempt is being made to drive women back into the home to try and cover up the failure of the system to provide work for everyone.

This is being done by a number of means.


The Howard government cut the operational subsidy to long day care community based childcare centres and outside school hours centres and slashed fee relief for parents. As a result fees rose, centres closed, and staffing were cut, affecting the quality of care.

Some families had to find alternative care, often of dubious quality or withdraw from the workforce. It is usually the woman who is forced out of the workforce – for either social or economic reasons (women’s wages are still lower than men’s).


The ability of women to plan their working and family life is also threatened by attacks on family planning and the right to have an abortion.

Abortion will be a big issue in IWD marches following the threat of Zoe’s Law and the anti-abortion Christian fundamentalist nature of the Abbott government as expressed by the reactionary backbencher Cory Bernardi who accused women of using abortion as “an abhorrent form of birth control” and labelled pro-choice advocates as “pro-death”. He called abortion “a death industry”.

“Pro-family” (in reality anti-family) and “right to life” (who in fact are putting the lives of pregnant women at risk) would drag us back to the dark ages of backyard butchery where lives would be lost and women traumatised and their health destroyed.

Only the wealthy would be able to afford safe procedures or receive the best advice and support.

Changing work patterns

Women’s participation in the workforce has been made more difficult by enterprise bargaining as it brings more flexibility for the employer in the workplace.

Full-time jobs are continuing to be replaced by part-time and casual positions. The weekend is being taken away from workers.

Women are still predominantly found in the lower paid, less secure jobs with poor conditions. Those who do have full-time jobs are working longer hours.

“Flexibility” and the drive for “efficiency” and “productivity” in enterprise agreements has translated into reduced job satisfaction, stress, health problems, and increased difficulties in balancing family and working lives.

If individual employment contracts replace awards and collective bargaining then the progress towards equal pay for work of equal value could be set back decades.

Govt attack

Just as the Abbott government is set on turning the clock back on multiculturalism and Indigenous rights, so it is launching an attack on women’s rights.

Cuts to women’s health and welfare services, other community services and to legal aid, will set the position of women back decades. These attacks are part of the wider offensive on the working class and consequently must be met and defeated by the working class as a whole.

Next article – Culture & Life – Fascists running amok and bogus jobs

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