To mark the 100th International Working Women’s Day (March 8), a women’s liberation activist of the 70s, Jill Brasell, reflects on progress since then.
Ask a young woman today what she thinks about women’s liberation, and she’s likely to say either “What’s that?” or “We don’t need that any more - we’re liberated now.”
She wouldn’t be alone in thinking that having a woman prime minister, and several other women in high positions, proves that there are no longer any barriers holding women back, in New Zealand anyway.
But let’s go back for a minute to the early days of the women’s liberation movement, the “second wave” of feminism that had such a huge impact on society throughout the western world in the early 70s. The goals of the movement seemed clear enough, and achievable.
We dreamed of, and fought for, a future in which:
* equal pay would lead to equal incomes
* opportunities for work and education would not be related to gender
* freely-available contraception and abortion would mean every child was a wanted child, and family planning would be under parents’ control
* the unravelling of old gender roles would mean women would share the breadwinning and men would share the housework and child care
* cheap, good-quality daycare would give people the freedom to have children, and work or study too
* sexual freedom and social equality would bring an end to rape, pornography and prostitution.
The millennium seemed a long way off then. Plenty of time to bring these changes about, or at least get within sight of them. But - that future is here now. Let’s see what we’ve got.
While we’ve won some legislation against sexual discrimination in employment opportunities and pay, the gender gap has scarcely narrowed at all in terms of income, and in social terms it’s more entrenched than it’s ever been (“Women are from Venus, men are from Mars”).
Women now have access to a greater range of careers than ever before, but they still face a conflict between children and career that doesn’t trouble men. And because women still pay a high personal price for having children, many delay childbearing till it’s too late, so infertility has become a new social problem.
Access to abortion is easier, and contraception more available, but a consequence of this that we never foresaw has been the new-right notion that having children is a “lifestyle choice”. According to this thinking, you choose to have a child as you might choose to get a dog, and so society has no responsibility for it or for your role as a parent. You can sink or swim on your own, because after all it was your choice. (Never mind that non-parents as well as parents depend on the supply of doctors, mechanics, cleaners, bus drivers, builders and so on continuing beyond their own generation.)
On the whole, men have more or less adjusted to working alongside women in many formerly male jobs, and even accepted them as bosses. They don’t mind women getting equal pay, as long as they work like men (that is, don’t take time out to bear or care for children).
But where the 70s feminist vision of the future meant men would have to give up their privileges in the home, they’ve been less amenable. So instead of sharing paid work and house work with their partners, as we hoped, many women now find themselves working a second shift when they get home from work.
Socialised child care?
Just about the only goal of the 70s WLM that has come close to being realised is that of childcare, which is now widely available and subsidised (though not free). But even this isn’t quite as we envisaged it. Parents who want to care for their children at home (mostly women) are now under pressure to get back into employment as soon as possible, putting their kids in childcare or, if they can afford it, hiring a nanny.
Rape is still a constant threat (no good calling the police - they’re doing it too) and the “sex industry” is now legitimate business.
Unfortunately, no. The issues of the 70s remain, some in slightly different guises that we couldn’t have imagined back then. In western society the principal of equal rights is generally accepted, but the practice lags behind. A few women on high pay does nothing for the thousands on minimum wage.
And we should never forget that for most women in the rest of the world, nothing much has changed at all. Ancient forms of oppression continue in many cultures, and women remain the very poorest of the poor in most places on earth.
Time for a new women’s liberation movement?