Dear Julia: a letter to the PM on women’s rights

Marg Gleeson.

You have been reported in the media as preferring to be judged by your actions rather than as a woman.

I congratulate you! This is what all women want: to be judged on their merits not on the basis of gender.

An activist of “the second wave” of feminism, I have been fighting (along with my sisters) against sexism in the workplace and the broader community for more than 40 years.

Approaching my mid-60s, and preparing to take late retirement (like most single women I have not been able to accumulate sufficient superannuation to retire gracefully), it is confronting to reflect that in spite of the obvious gains made by the women’s movement in the 1970s and ’80s, so much has been lost.

The major issues of concern to women in the 1960s and ’70s: equal pay, child care, abortion rights, violence against women, sexist advertising, etc., have yet to be resolved.

When I commenced work in the Commonwealth Public Service in 1966, my wage was set at 80% of a male in the same classification. The “marriage bar” had only just been removed so that women were no longer compelled to resign on marriage. Sounds archaic from a 2010 perspective doesn’t it, Julia?

But as you know, in spite of the equal pay decision almost 40 years ago, the gender pay gap still exists and is getting bigger.

I currently work in the social and community services sector (SACS). Eighty percent of SACS workers are women and are generally paid between 20% and 40% less than male workers in the public sector doing the same work.

In May 2009, the Queensland Industrial Commission granted pay rises of between 18% and 40% in recognition of the historic undervaluing of community work derived from the perception of it as an extension of women’s caring work in the home.

You can see why so many of my colleagues approaching retirement think that not much has happened for wage justice for women in the last 40 years in spite of the gains of the second wave.

You have been receiving kisses from us in the past weeks in support of the Australian Services Union’s equal pay case now before the Fair Work Australia. Community workers, their families, friends and clients have been saying no more lip service to equal pay! Pay up! It’s not as if we’re asking for the 40-plus years back pay as well!

How about acting for pay equity and committing now to fund the community sector pay outcomes from the case before Fair Work Australia? Women can then judge you and your government at the ballot box by your actions, not by more promises.

The paid maternity leave recently announced seemed better than nothing to workers already on the minimum wage, but legislation to compel employers to pay this as an industrial entitlement (like annual leave, long service leave and sick leave) should be the next step. I consider this preferable to a trade-off within the publicly funded income security system.

A minority of employers have funded paid maternity leave for many years. However, in the absence of legislative support for paid parental leave, such provisions are always up for grabs each time enterprise agreements are up for renegotiation.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment after decades of struggle, and in spite of helpful common law rulings, is that in Queensland and NSW for example, abortion is still in the Crimes Act.

In Queensland, where I live, a young woman is facing up to seven years in prison, charged with intent to procure her own abortion. Her partner faces a three year sentence, on charges of procuring or supplying the means to procure an abortion. Medical practitioners normally willing to undertake these procedures now feel nervous.

I have not seen abortion rights mentioned in your government’s proposed reforms to health and hospital funding. Ensuring that all women seeking terminations are able to access these services through the public and community health systems would be supported by the vast majority of the population who support women’s right to choose.

Once again Julia, women are keen to judge you on your actions in this area of basic women’s rights.

There are no powerful business interests (like the mining corporations) to negotiate with on the issue of abortion rights. Shouldn’t that make it easier for you to take action in the interests of the majority of the population — women?

Baby boomer feminists, who can still rekindle the excitement of the days of the second wave, and our younger “gen X” and “gen Y” sisters are very happy to take you at your word and judge you by your actions and not your gender.

We say stop the reversal of the gains of the second wave and take action to meet our demands to end the gender pay gap and achieve abortion rights.

[Marg Gleeson is a Socialist Alliance member working in the community housing sector in Brisbane.]

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