Has feminism lost its way?
During the past few years, I have been seriously rethinking feminism. This intensified at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival when I attended a session by Michael Sandel on money, followed by a panel on feminism. Sandel analysed the damage done by more than two decades of neoliberal market models; the feminist panel ignored this and just complained about continued inequities, but not why this is so.
If we are to revive or reignite the passions for feminist change, we need to work out what went wrong. Data shows quite clearly that men still hold almost all the power positions: note the attendees at the recent G20 meeting, our cabinet and most other decision-making institutions. Women are still paid less, do most unpaid care work, and are more prevalent in the lower ranks of workplaces. There are more women in paid work, who are also better educated than men, but we are still missing out on positions of power. After 1970s cuts of full-time hours to 37.5, they grew longer and are now some of the longest in the developed world. This limits time for other parts of our lives, as macho workplace cultures value competitiveness and profits over human relationships by overemphasising economic growth.
The few women in leadership roles are not evidence of feminist changes to policies or priorities. The recent female prime minister, a few state premiers and a retiring governor-general were all replaced by men. Like Thatcher, these women are all oncers and so barely scratched the glass ceiling. An argument, often raised by the hopeful, is that change will come with time. But statistics show stasis in many areas, such as equal pay, and some backsliding in others, such as sole-parent payments.
As an original ’70s feminist, I recognise our grander plans for major gender changes to the social system failed. We underestimated both the power of sexism and our capacity to abolish or reduce it. As self-defined radicals and reformers, we targeted the long-term institutional masculine biases of political agendas that grossly undervalued feminised contributions and any suggestions of sharing power. We naively believed that gender equity would follow the removal of legal barriers, such as the right to discriminate, and alter masculine priorities. We were effective in many areas: raised women’s employment rates, got equal pay for the same jobs, increased part-time and flexible jobs, established funding for affordable community-based childcare, banned sex discrimination and increased fertility control. But we failed to create any serious inroads into patriarchal structures or to change macho cultures.
Much of this was due to our failure to predict the effects of other changes that were under way. The ’80s was when the neoliberal paradigm shift took over from the postwar push for social cohesion and the welfare state. Its market model of self-interest undermined social progress.
Michael Sandel’s useful insights show how the shift caused so much damage. Using money and market prices as the main measure of what matters has coarsened society’s capacity to make good value judgements. I asked Sandel why he didn’t include gender in his analysis and his answer pushed some buttons. He said some feminists claimed women could use the market models for progress. In the ’80s I reframed childcare policy into what I called econospeak, to make Labor accept the need for it, so mea culpa! However, I did recant in my 1995 ABC Boyer Lectures entitled “A Truly Civil Society”, when I claimed we needed to value social capital more highly than financial capital. However, by then, too few of those in power recognised the flaws of materialism.
How do we then counter the slowdown and failure to change the gendered distribution of power and influence? The shift to market models meant many women’s groups focused on raising the status of women via access to power in current macho terms. More women in male-defined areas of power – in politics or on boards – was erroneously claimed to be the route to feminist change. But we failed to see they were promoted because they posed no threat to the system that allowed them into the tent to share some of the power that men controlled. There are active women’s groups with current demands for remedies to violence and exclusion, access to childcare, improvements to bad media images and solutions to female poverty and lack of representation. But these are not radical demands and are defined as “women’s issues”, not general problems for society. The overall agenda creates protests but does not analyse why we make no progress in these areas or offer alternatives.
At the same time, there are signs of political discontent and distrust that signal a need for a rebalancing of the policy agendas to restore the focus on the contributions that make up our connected, collective lives outside the workplace and economy. New policy options need to be designed to target good social outcomes, which overlap with feminist interest areas. We need to increase trust, social capital, good feelings, care, generosity and other parts of the social glue that are a mostly feminised area. These are areas that cannot be commodified and therefore are not counted in gross domestic product.
I want to see more action in devising solutions rather than just protest campaigns. Feminists need to lead so that we can counter the bipartisan bad policies of the major political parties: low welfare payments, bad indigenous programs, overlong working hours, too many market-based not community-based services.
There is an urgent need to solve many “wicked” policy problems – boat people, inequality, environmental damage. These issues need much better connectivity and social cohesion, so it is irrational that women are not there to contribute perspectives broader than the limited experiences of current leadership incumbents. We need wider views than macho neoliberal economics can offer to cope with the problems caused by an ageing population, mobile workers, single-person households, social inequities and growing personal care needs.
The current Zeitgeist is pessimistic about big changes, so too many of those who define themselves as “progressives” prefer to deal with individual issues not bigger picture ideas. We need optimism to promote the possibilities of social change and show how gender change can also benefit men by extending their limited role choices as well. My basic approach is summed up by a popular 1970s badge that stated: “Any woman who wants equality with men has a low level of ambition.” We need to work again on feminist changes to the whole system, so we can all enjoy, and contribute to, a more civil society.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "Has feminism lost its way?". Subscribe here.