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Issue #1771      March 29, 2017

Politics in the Pub, Perth: IWD

STRENGTH IN UNITY

The Perth branch of CPA organised a public event on International Working Women’s Day on March 8. Four women members of the branch made brief presentations, which were followed by a lively discussion between the audience and presenters. As one attendee remarked afterwards: “It was so good to be able to engage in feminist debate with an audience that included men with progressive ideas”.

We’re all aware of the ridiculous double standard that lauds strong-willed bosses when they’re men, but call women in the same roles ”bitches”. Meryl Streep’s, portrayal in The Devil Wears Prada of the ultimate “bitch” boss, humanised this stereotype in an arguably unprecedented way. Streep’s character, editor-in-chief of a fictional fashion magazine, refuses to apologise for her vision and power, but also often pays great personal costs for doing so. This nuanced portrayal undoubtedly inspired many to question the impossible standards we continue to place on women even after they’ve overcome substantial barriers to attain ”success”.

The first speaker of the night was Dr Eileen Whitehead, who gave an overview of the history of the western women’s movements in the last few centuries. It provided a good historical backdrop to the following discussions and showed how the fight for women’s equality progressed over the years.

She highlighted notable figures in the movement and their achievements, dividing the movement into pre-industrial, post-industrial, world war and post-war, second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1990s third-wave feminism periods. Some interesting mentions included the establishment of the first girl’s school in the 13th century by Helen of Anjou, French suffragettes of the 18th century, and the first woman doctor in the UK in 1812, Margaret Bulkley, who had to masquerade as a man to work.

The role of industrialisation in leading to organised groups of working women, who then campaigned for issues such as voting rights and equal pay was mentioned. She also highlighted the role of the Russian revolution in 1917 that brought about many firsts for women anywhere in the world. Post-revolutionary Russia saw full legal and political equality for women in law and in practice. Meanwhile, in the rest of the west, women still had to deal with regressive laws such as those preventing married women from working in Australia. These were abolished after the 1960s rise of the feminist movement.

Ashtyn Antulov was the second presenter and discussed women’s ability and rights to create their lives in contemporary western society. She highlighted the lack of support for working mothers that negatively impacts their incomes, careers and overall well-being. Her second focus was on the sexualisation of women in the media. She discussed how rampant consumerism in a capitalist society has preyed upon women, first creating insecurities around body image and then capitalising on it to sell needless products and services.

She pointed out the irony that women are also punished for conforming to the standards set by the media. A lose-lose situation. Ashtyn provided suggestions for what practical steps can be taken to counter these issues. The conclusion was that we must continue to fight for and defend our rights, and we must recognise capitalism as an enemy of personal empowerment.

Fayeza Khan was the third speaker who spoke of women as workers in a capitalist society. Her focus was the continuing clash of workers’ interests with the interests of the capitalist class, and how women’s issues are a subset of this bigger problem. So, while the gender pay gap remains, what also remains, but has in fact increased, is the income inequality in society at large. Therefore, she said, overcoming the gender pay gap, while not addressing the injustices of the capitalist system, would mean working women will be less vulnerable, but equally vulnerable as men to exploitation, poverty, homelessness and poor quality of life.

She concluded that a working woman’s issues are those of the working man’s, which include in today’s Australia the fight to protect workers’ unions, penalty rates and other rights, but ultimately, to bring a new economic and political system.

The final speaker for the night, Lorena Trigo, presented the view from Cuba, a socialist country. She presented some facts and figures from the small Caribbean nation that showed how big the society was in terms of achieving gender equality. Lorena contrasted pre- and post-revolution Cuban society, highlighting gender equality as an achievement of the socialist revolution. For example, before 1959, under the Batista regime, Cuba had one female in parliament, and today Cuba has 48.9 percent women parliamentarians. Cuba is ahead of both Australia and USA on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report: Cuba ranks 27, USA 45 and Australia 46. In Lorena’s own words: “How is this possible?

At roughly $50 billion, Cuba has a tiny economy. It isn’t capitalist. It isn’t rich. So, by US standards, it isn’t “free”. These results are especially hard for some in the United States to accept because they reject the legitimacy of Cuba’s government and its socialist system.

Then Lorena went on to highlight the full participation of women in the socialist revolution of Cuba which was necessary for the success of the revolution itself, and the successes made in overcoming gender inequalities. Some of the interesting facts she related included the now four million-strong Federation of Cuban Women, 96.7 percent adult female literacy, one of the world’s highest doctor-patient ratios with many health system programs directed at women, first country to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission, generous paid maternity leaves, fourth lowest death rate from cervical cancer, and 43.3 percent women labour force with equal pay.

What followed the talks was a lively and frank discussion with both men and women participating in giving their views. The first point raised was the need to highlight the importance of an egalitarian society for both women and men. Everyone agreed that patriarchal values that still persist, while affecting women the most, in turn also take from men an important part of their social role as fathers and partners.

Those who have seen the gains made for women from post-60s movements, lamented how society seems to have gone backwards around women’s issues since then. Another participant posed that the neo-liberal economic policies that have broken down progressive movements and workers’ unions are to blame for this regression. There was discussion on the various threads of feminism, and participants and presenters were in agreement that men and women both have and need to continue working on feminist issues together.

The Communist Party of Australia campaigns for women’s equality ‎and full rights for both working men and women.

Next article – Millers Point: magnificent record of struggle

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