In the ’70s, staunch feminists led the charge towards equality – not just for women but for people of colour and the LGBTQIA+ community. Fifty years on, are the systems of power and constraint they railed against actually getting worse? By Stephanie Dowrick.

Feminism now

The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established in England in 1982.
The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established in England in 1982.
Credit: Home Sykes / Alamy

We were witty, exuberant protesters against centuries of sexism, and we were determined. We went far towards “reclaiming the night”. We also danced through the night in newly created women-only spaces. We looked at ourselves through a “female gaze”, dressing, talking and behaving in ways that had little reference to being “hetero-sexy”, “pleasing”, “compliant” – or in need of controlling “protection”. We defied norms. And Norms.

When we lay down in the streets of Brixton, South London, to protest against screaming racism against all people of colour, we were terrified when the police came in on their horses to break us up. Yet we persisted. At Greenham Common, where women camped in mud to protest against the obscenity of American cruise missiles, there was dancing, ululating and hollering that “freaked the soldiers out”. Military violence was rejected non-violently.

We were brilliantly subversive at feminist publishing company The Women’s Press – which I co-founded in 1977 and was MD and then chair of – not only in the groundbreaking writers we cherished and published but in our presentation of ourselves. Our logo was an iron, a symbol of women’s repetitive, thankless work. In our hands, the iron lent itself to jokes: “Don’t be oppressed”, “Steaming ahead”, “Red hot”, as well as playing on the word “Press” itself when all the work done at our Shoreditch publishing house was to enlarge women’s lives and not confine them. 

We had deep wells of hope. We believed a more just, equal and peaceful future was coming globally. We believed that our call for human dignity for all was so righteous and belated it could not be resisted, or co-opted. We assumed Australia would be at the forefront.

Few women’s or gay liberation and civil rights pioneers could have predicted the extent to which feminism in particular would be reduced to a pallid version of itself in this nation: serving the institutions of power without fundamentally challenging or changing them.

At the highest levels of Australian government, even tamed feminism appears to be on life support. And why wouldn’t it be? Since 1975, there have been moderately progressive federal Labor governments for only 19 years. In Australia for the rest of the time, the power of overtly patriarchal, racist, environment-smashing politics and policies has been bewilderingly intense. Australians, often in a bare majority, have been seduced into voting for “special interests” politicians offering nakedly cynical promises of crumb-sharing, swayed by media support for vicious, mendacious, personality-bashing campaigns against policies to bring greater equity and desperately needed protections against graft and greed.

It’s not just robust, passionate, ethical feminism that has been co-opted into serving “the markets” better than it does people. Race justice has also been withheld consistently by the institutions here that wield most power.

This race, class and gender obstructionism affects our lives at the most intimate and inner levels. The personal has never been more political. It affects the way we regard our own selves and the people around us. It affects our emotions, our wellbeing, our sense of hope and belonging. It is far, far worse than the Liberal National Party “has a problem with women”. Or diversity.

The LNP has a problem with common decency, transparency, ethics, honesty and accountability. Incompetence and gross protectionism have become natural and therefore defensible. But those calling for change are deemed anything but natural, whether this is for Black Lives Matter or Indigenous autonomy. Or against the unremitting impoverishment of a million Australians or abuses of refugees. Or the monster amounts spent to support toxic industries – including “defence” – and environmental devastation.

This won’t ever be a matter of bringing more women into status quo politics. Nor is it a question of whether the men in power and those pulling their strings should introduce gender or diversity quotas to replace their current, and frankly laughable, systems of “merit”. This is a problem of conscience and consciousness, not of numbers.

When anyone aligns themselves with socially unjust or environmentally harmful politics, they are accepting a view of who is entitled to dictate the shape or even the survival of our world. This is precisely what the liberation movements of the 1960s, ’70s and onwards did everything possible to expose – and undermine. A version of feminism – let’s not call it sexual politics or women’s liberation – that’s focused on privileged women’s greater financial and professional success without changing the institutions of power is a feminism that has been co-opted and re-purposed. Not for women’s benefit or for men’s, and certainly not for children’s, but for a form of hyper-capitalism and militarism indifferent to anything but its own bleak vision of success.

These are profound issues of attitude, of a sexism so lacking in awareness of itself that a prime minister can claim shock that a serious crime could allegedly be committed 50 metres from his office. Yet only months ago that same prime minister was on the record saying victims of sexual assault should be believed… until they are not. And it’s not men only harming the body politic. The openly racist and anti-feminist Pauline Hanson is permitted such an effective voice in the senate that the Family Court of Australia will be dismantled rather than adequately resourced, despite some already-abused women and children living in gravest danger. And that in the same week when the murder of Brisbane mother Hannah Clarke and her three children by a husband and father was deeply regretted in parliament.

Sexism is the claiming of power by one gender to determine the rights and conditions of existence of all, with power-sharing “given” with expectations of gratitude and compliance. Writer Shulamith Firestone described it as “the most rigid class/caste system in existence, the class system based on sex – a system consolidated over thousands of years, lending the archetypal male and female roles an undeserved legitimacy and seeming permanence”.

Sexism radically harms children as well as women and most men. It’s the same sexism, worsened by racism, that sees the Murugappan family incarcerated in a one-room hut on Christmas Island as props for Peter Dutton’s obscene claims that to return them to Biloela would “restart the boats”. It is also the same sexism, racism and denial of respect and integrity that sees Indigenous women suffering crimes against their humanity so “usual” they’ll never cause the prime minister to ask his wife how he should respond.

We in Australia in 2021 live with a coalition of the unwilling: unwilling to make any but cosmetic changes to their behaviour or outlook and blind to the cultural, institutional and structural changes that need to be made. Is the fault with feminism itself, and a dramatic weakening of its ethical principles and demands? Is the fault with sincere commentators who confuse numbers of women in positions of power with essential questions of how political power is used – and for whose benefit? Or is the pushback against any genuinely radical ideas so ubiquitous and well funded in contemporary Australia that all but the bravest are subdued?

It’s pretty evident, after all, that despite 50-odd years of so-called second-wave feminism, and despite undeniable changes for the better for many across most (not all) economic classes, the systems of power and control that second-wave feminism attempted to influence are getting stronger, more controlling and decidedly worse. I feel the weariness of “worse” intensely.

The same lies are told to the same effect repeatedly by conservative politicians of whatever gender or sexuality. Women can still be shamed, not for what they have done, but for what has been done to them. Older women have become the fastest-growing group of homeless. Younger women and girls are reporting unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm – plus insidious bullying, much of it from other girls. That bullying speaks of dramatic inner insecurity and self-hostility projected onto others. What kind of feminism is that?

It could have been, it should have been, very different. Women’s liberation was a freedom movement questioning everything from body image to gross inequities on the basis of race and social class; from legal, educational and employment opportunities to imposed definitions of sexuality and gender, and how we should care for and relate to one another.

It was a protest movement, splintered and argumentative, angry and hopeful, disruptive and aggressively trivialised (“women’s libbers”, “bra burners”, “ugly lezzos”). But it counted, not least because it was a mass movement with ethics and conviction. It was loud, courageous and totally absorbing for those of us living it. We marched. We wrote widely influential articles and books. We interrogated and disrupted “truths”. We fell in love with ideas and ideals and out of love with anyone who wished to constrain us. We understood there’d be no human rights without race and gender justice. We understood that exploiting people or the planet was a violence that we could not tolerate. We were anything but quiet.

This was not a young women’s movement only. Nor was it predominantly middle-class or white. At The Women’s Press in London, perhaps our greatest success was in giving voice to global women of colour, including from the United States where writers as world-shaking as Alice Walker (The Color Purple) came to us primarily so that they would not have to explain themselves to those who regarded them as “other”.

What we also learnt and practised was this. One group of human beings cannot determine the value of other human beings’ lives without reducing us all. I do not think I fully understood as a younger woman that the power of feminism, race justice, gay, environmental and peace politics calls for a new understanding of what it means to be human. That’s what liberation means: liberation from the utterly false proposition that some lives intrinsically matter more than others.

The time is over for any thinking that separates us on the basis of grotesque superficialities. The cascade of events over recent weeks shows us decisively that when courageous people interrogate, challenge and dismantle abusive power structures, they are reigniting a feminism and anti-racism that holds those responsible to full account. This demands a change in consciousness as well as conduct that’s way beyond the cosmetic promotion of a few women. The pushback from conservative politicians and media will accelerate. So will the protest. Australian of the Year Grace Tame is not alone in reminding us that our care for one another is our most fundamental responsibility and privilege. Our survival now depends upon understanding this. And acting – once again – on that insight.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 6, 2021 as "Feminism’s retreat".

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Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and social activist based in Darwin. She is the author of many books including Intimacy and Solitude and Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love.

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