The Guardian 8 March, 2006
Come so far...Yet so far to go
One of the slogans for International Women’s Day this year is: COME SO FAR … YET SO FAR TO GO.
How true for women in Australia and many other industrialised countries.
Women have come a long way over the past century. Decades of struggles by the trade unions, political parties, women’s, students, peace and other groups around important issues of the day have seen great advances for women and for the working class as a whole.
These struggles have never let up. Whether it be the right to vote, for economic independence, reproductive rights, health, education, the right to work or working conditions, wages, social security, justice, divorce, trade unions, churches or culture — women have had to struggle for their rights in all these areas. At times these struggles have been led by women’s organisations and movements, on other occasions by trade unions and other groups where men and women have struggled together.
Eighty years ago the all-male ACTU Congress was hotly debating whether men should allow their wives to work! Women workers were entitled to 54 percent of the wage paid to an adult male. The argument being that the male provided for his wife and their children, whereas a single woman only had to provide for her own needs.
Even up until the 1970s, banks still denied single women housing loans. They were considered to be too high a risk because they did not have a husband to support them — even when the woman was employed on the same wage as her male counterpart who had a loan. It was almost impossible for a woman with children to get a loan if her marriage broke up.
When in the mid-1970s banks sent out unsolicited credit cards, it was to their male customers only.
Come so far
During the 1960s and ’70s a strong movement for women’s liberation won many advances for women. This progress was assisted with the election of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1972.
Equal pay decisions in the public and private sectors meant that in some occupations equal pay for the same work was phased in and in other areas the gap between men and women’s wages narrowed. This, of course, did not bring an end to employer’s sexism or discrimination by other means, such as employing men in higher paid jobs or giving them more overtime.
Employers were forced to consider women for jobs that had previously been shut to them. Married women were allowed to become permanent in the public service and join the same superannuation funds as their male colleagues.
Changes were made to school curricula to remove sexist content and encourage girls into non-traditional areas of study and work, including apprenticeships.
State and Federal Governments poured considerable funding into women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, childcare and many other areas of assistance to women.
Discrimination on the basis of sex was outlawed, equal opportunity commissions were set up and many employers saw the need to call themselves equal opportunity employers. They could no longer advertise jobs as being for a particular sex.
In 1977, ACTU adopted a Working Women’s Charter which spelt out basic women’s rights such as the right to work, opposition to discrimination, and called on trade unions to remove the barriers (e.g. times of meetings) to women being active members and holding office in their union. Still there were very few female delegates and an amendment calling for the right of married women to unemployment benefits and abortion on demand was defeated.
"Childcare is union business", became policy. While women bore the brunt of the responsibility in regard to children, men were also increasingly recognised as having some responsibility.
The question of the plight of migrant women became a trade union issue, as did the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Divorce was an extremely messy, expensive process, drawn out over many years, with fault having to be not only proved but aired publicly in the Supreme Court. Even then a judge would decide whether to grant a divorce, often on the most subjective of grounds. The woman’s "morality" would often enter the equation when it came to custody.
The Family Court with no-fault divorce brought a huge amount of relief and justice for women living in intolerable relationships.
With the opportunity of free education, free medical treatment through the introduction of Medibank and economic support, women with children had some hope of economic independence and making choices about their lives. It was possible to obtain legal abortions.
Community childcare centres with government subsidies made it easier for many women to return to work or take up studies.
When the TAFE system was first established in the mid-1970s, programs were free. There were specific courses in community learning centres designed to assist women in taking up a course — hobby or vocational — and bridging programs for women to gain mature age entry to university or re-enter the workforce after a period away from work. University fees were abolished, opening up opportunities for more women to study, and a system of student allowances introduced.
By the end of the 1980s sexism, discrimination, the use of women’s bodies for advertising, sexual harassment were by and large considered unacceptable. Of course that did not mean they had completely ended, by no means.
Yet so far to go
Although more men are sharing domestic responsibilities, many women still carry the double burden of paid work and unpaid domestic labour.
Women still have a long way to go if they are to realise their legislative rights, and to gain genuine equality in the workforce, in politics and in the social and cultural spheres.
There are still so many areas in which women’s rights were far from adequate, where discrimination has not been eradicated, where women are still unable to make real choices such as re-entering the workforce. Women’s incomes are still on average far lower than men’s. Women are more likely to be forced to accept casual, low paid work.
The workforce is still largely segregated with men tending to do the more highly paid and secure work. Yet, women are no less skilled.
Today, women have even further to go than 20 years ago. Many of the gains made by women during 1960s and ’70s are being quietly stripped back. There are rarely loud pronouncements.
Reproductive rights such as IVF and abortion are under attack. Childcare that was becoming affordable and accessible is now out of reach for so many mothers, thanks to its privatisation. Women’s bodies are once again being used to sell products. Many women’s community services have lost their funding, and forced to close. Federal government funding is being redirected to church and other philanthropic organisations that share Prime Minister John Howard’s ultra-right Christian values.
The Family Court and the concept of no-fault divorce are under siege. Howard appoints "moral conservatives" to official positions at every opportunity.
Many single mothers are set to lose their parenting support or see it severely cut. Thousands will be forced into the workforce under conditions that are impossible for anyone with family responsibilities, and denied unemployment benefits. They are being punished; in the eyes of the Government their morality is in question — otherwise how would they have ended up in such a situation!
The original concept of TAFE has been demolished; it is being privatised and taken over by corporate interests. University fees are prohibitive. In the sphere of health, GP and specialist shortages, waiting lists, the creeping introduction of co-payments and the prohibitive cost of the private system all take their toll on women.
The Work Choices legislation has made it legal for employers to arbitrarily sack workers in workplaces with 100 or less employees. This opens the way for women to be sexually harassed — to refuse means the sack.
Secret individual contracts (AWAs) that do not have to meet the minimum standards of awards or enterprise agreements are a recipe for starvation wages, very long or very short working hours, unpaid overtime, unsafe work practices, and de-unionisation.
Men are also affected by these developments — directly and indirectly — whether it be the workplace, health services, family planning services, education, or whatever.
Employers never let up in their drive to increase profits through the exploitation of working men and women; never let up in the class struggle. It is inherent to the capitalist system.
Strength in unity
It suits employers to have divided workforces, where men can be pitted against women, Vietnamese workers against Arab workers, or one religion against another by giving one group higher wages, or more overtime or permanent or easier work.
The last thing a capitalist wants is a united, organised workforce which defends the rights of workers regardless of their sex, age, race or religion. Hence the savage attack on trade unions, the mass working class organisations that provide the basis for such unity and struggle to improve the conditions of workers.
Thus the struggle for women’s rights is an integral part of the class struggle. Working women are part of the working class. Their fight for equality is part of the fight for workers’ rights, and is the responsibility of men and women.