Can Howard put the feminist genie back in the bottle?
Between 1900 and 1910, an average of 400 divorces were granted in Australian courts each year. Between 1961 and 1970, that figure averaged around 9000 per year. No-fault divorce laws were introduced in 1975 and in the following year 63,230 marriages were dissolved, the vast majority at the instigation of the woman.
Women continue to instigate the majority of the more than 50,000 divorces currently granted in Australia each year and the divorce rate continues to rise — 12% during the 1990s.
Entry into the institution of marriage has also been declining since 1947. The number of people aged over 15 who are married fell from 65.4% in 1976 to 57.4% in 1994. There were 106,100 marriages in 1996. In terms of weddings per 1000 people, this was the lowest rate since 1900.
For the first half of this century, less than 10% of women never married. However, sociologist Peter McDonald has concluded that, on present indicators, 22% per cent of women will not have married by age 35 by the end of this year — the highest level in Australian history.
The above statistics are taken from a federal government report on marriage and relationships, "To Have and to Hold", released in mid-1998. The report provides an insight into the reasons for the Howard government's massive program of social engineering to stem the flow of women, and young people, out of the traditional family unit.
Massive tax and family law changes, child-care cuts, youth wages, cuts to Austudy and the youth dole, funding to "men's rights" and anti-abortion groups, de-funding of women's and youth lobby groups, and increased funding and influence for Christian charities in the community service sector are all part of Howard's plan to reduce his welfare bill by forcing women to provide unpaid welfare services to their families, for love.
Just before Christmas, the government proudly announced that there had been a slight increase in the marriage rate in 1999. Their policies have begun to bear fruit as people find it harder and harder to survive outside the traditional family unit.
Women's legal services are already reporting an increase in the number of women forced to endure violent relationships because of the growing pressures on the Family Court, by both "men's rights" groups and the government, not to grant property rights, child custody and income support to women who want to divorce. The abolition of no-fault divorce is firmly on the government's agenda.
The question is: although more women may again be forced to marry, and even to stay married, to protect their economic welfare and that of their children, will women really go back to the kitchen without a struggle? I think not.
Fewer and fewer young women are prepared to sacrifice themselves at the altar of their families' every need in the name of selfless love. Housework is largely recognised for what it is: tedious, dirty, gruelling, thankless and unpaid.
A 1991 study found that women's unpaid work increased by 60% when they married and 91% when they became mothers. A distinct lack of enthusiasm for a life of slavery has resulted in plummeting marriage rates and is now even causing concern about birth rates amongst long-term social forecasters.
Nothing short of an all-out assault on young women's rights and fighting spirit will reverse this trend. As it becomes clearer that this is precisely Howard's agenda, there must be another upsurge in the movement for women's liberation. This next wave should reach deep into the suburbs and country towns that are the real frontline in our fight against domestic slavery.
By Karen Fletcher