Feminism: has it gone far enough?

Issue 

During a panel discussion entitled "Women, Race and Class" held at the Marxist Educational Conference in Sydney over Easter, KAREN FLETCHER, feminist activist and former GLW journalist, took up the issue of where feminism is at in the 1990s, and what it needs to do to maintain its relevance. Following is an abridged version of her talk.

In 1976, Pat O'Shane wrote an article for Refractory Girl entitled "Aboriginal Women and the Women's Movement". In it she argued, "... for the majority of women involved in the women's movement, sexism is what the great fight is about; for Aboriginal women — when they look at all the medical, housing, education and employment statistics — it becomes very clear that the major fight is against racism.

"And when the white women's movement takes head-on the struggle against racism, which is the greatest barrier to our progress, then we've got a chance of achieving sisterhood and, through our combined struggles, liberation of all humankind."

In 1993, in the 20th anniversary edition of Refractory Girl, Pat O'Shane's daughter, Lydia Miller, wrote an article with the same title. She concluded that little had changed for Aboriginal women in the intervening 20 years and reiterated, "For Aboriginal women, race and class are the primary forms of oppression, and until this appears as a leading agenda item on the debate within the women's movement, then that movement will not have immediate relevance to the needs of Aboriginal women".

The relationship between gender, race and class remains contentious in the feminist movement today. The issue of race, in particular, has practically torn apart several conferences of the Network of Women Students in Australia. There has also been a growing awareness of class issues, a recognition that in the women's liberation movement, some women are more equal than others. This has not necessarily translated into an understanding of the nature of class society, and even less to an adoption of a winning strategy for the movement, but it does indicate the potential for a new generation of radical, inquiring feminists.

But the old social democratic trap is still snaring a lot of them. "Get real, join the Labor Party — participate in the mainstream political process, get where the power is, fight the boys on their own terms" goes the argument. And it's an argument that still wins too many young women away from the independent feminist movement — either into the femocracy or out of politics altogether through disillusionment, frustration or good old-fashioned sexual discrimination and harassment.

But while many young feminists will wax lyrical about their admiration for federal health minister Carmen Lawrence and her fight for women to gain more seats in parliament, most will also express anger at Labor's failure to legalise abortion in the states where it holds power and concern at the impact of the ALP's deregulation of the labour market on women.

For while feminists, land rights activists and unionists in the ALP are providing progressive cover with their ever so newsworthy 35% quotas and Mabo-induced reconciliation packages, ALP governments, both state and federal, are implementing policies which are increasing the gap between men's and women's wages, driving down all workers' wages, shoring up pastoralists and mining companies against land rights claims, guaranteeing access to the forestry industry in old-growth native forests, privatising public assets and closing down community services.

Recruiters for the ALP left still argue that these kinds of policies can be changed if enough progressive people join the party.

But the coopted quickly become absorbed. Jennie

George, former champion of migrant women outworkers in the garment industry, looks set to enter the Senate for the ALP after long and faithful service smoothing the way for labour market deregulation in her role as ACTU assistant secretary. I'm sure we could all add our own stories of activists who once stood beside us at abortion rights pickets and land rights marches who now use their inside knowledge of the progressive movement to outflank us from positions of power — far more effectively, in most cases, than clumsy and doddering conservatives could ever have hoped to.

One of Australia's most high-profile feminists, Anne Summers, is a partisan for the ALP. She has worked for both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating during election campaigns, putting together policy packages designed to win the women's vote, and has been successful in eradicating the traditional gender gap which usually has less than 50% of women voting for the ALP. In the last federal campaign, she designed a child-care policy specifically targeted at high-income women with children — a group with the capacity to swing the election in Labor's favour in critical marginal seats. In his election victory speech, Keating gave special thanks to "the women of Australia", 50% of whom had voted Labor — the first time the magic figure had been reached.

Coopted feminists are not a purely Australian phenomenon. Former Victorian premier Joan Kirner and Naomi Wolf's so-called "Feminist Roadshow" late last year highlighted the links between the "power feminism" advocated by the US writer and our own home-grown variety.

Joan Kirner embraced Wolf's brand of feminism warmly in her speech to the Sydney public meeting, suggesting that the 35% quota for women parliamentarians agreed to by the ALP national conference should be extended into the private sector. Indeed, she emphasised, the private sector should be at the top of the women's movement's agenda. She led a round of applause for panel member Ann Sherry's move from the Office of the Status of Women to the boardroom of Westpac Bank.

Kirner also mooted a plan to introduce an Australian version of the US Democrats' fundraising scam: Emily's List (from Early Money Is Like Yeast). In Fire with Fire, Wolf advocates the scheme, by which subscribers donate funds to the election campaigns of female Democratic candidates, as "revolutionary". Wolf advised us to write down her "secret of revolution": $6.2 million raised through Emily's List in 1994.

But feminists who perceive that there is something wrong with this perspective don't necessarily draw the most progressive conclusions. A group of young women from the student organisation Left Alliance picketed the $80 a ticket extravaganza with leaflets bearing Naomi Wolf's photograph in a gun sight with the caption "Yuppie Feminism for the Easily Impressed". The women identified Wolf as the enemy — not the political position she and Kirner were putting forward.

The ALP power feminists have more left cover than feminists such as Naomi Wolf, because they can mask their true class position with references to so-called ALP tradition. Kirner was careful to make this point early in her speech. Wolf, rather more crudely, ignored the existence of the working class entirely and called upon the well-heeled audience to "redistribute the master's Porsches".

But underneath this difference in presentation, they both spoke of a world where some women gain power but everything else remains the same. Just as some men rule, and drive Porsches, so will some women. Just as many men will continue to starve, so will many women. Mining companies and pastoralists will continue to plunder Aboriginal land — but women CEOs and board members will play a larger role in directing that plunder and profiting from it. Great!

Pressure on women to accept this anti-working class politics as feminism comes from many directions. This is the feminism that gets the media, the book deals and the public recognition. This is the feminism that women bureaucrats in government departments and advisory units are paid to disseminate and justify with government statistics, and even with theory if pushed. This is the feminism which decides funding to community organisations such as refuges, rape crisis and legal centres, domestic violence resource centres and health services. This is truly power feminism, because it does wield power, can enforce compliance and regularly crushes dissent.

I want to touch on another pole of attraction in the feminist movement today which is also playing a role in keeping the movement relatively quiet and inactive.

This is the post-isms. It is a phenomenon present mainly on campus, but since student feminists are among the few who have organised radical political action and theoretical discussion in recent years, it has a significance which goes beyond the universities. It has dampened the potential for a radical layer of students to ignite and galvanise public opinion in favour of women's rights. It has, to some extent, taken over the role once played by the somewhat discredited separatist and difference theories.

The influence of French feminist and linguistic theory on women's studies curricula in Australian universities has been enormous. Women students eager to explore the reasons for the oppression of women in our society have been attracted to a seemingly radical and powerful methodology which sees reality as a linguistic and/or individual construct, thereby giving us the power to change the world simply by thinking about it, or talking about it, in a different way.

Post-modernist methodology and post-structuralist philosophy are analogous, and probably related to, the popular New Age concept that one can, as an individual, heal one's life by simply thinking about it differently. If we stop taking responsibility for others and concentrate only on ourselves, on our personal lives, things will be better. Some of the madder elements in the New Age movement will even argue that those who starve in famine in the Third World somehow allowed themselves to get into that situation.

In the student women's movement, post-modernism and post-structuralism have been put forward as providing the best way to deal with the problem of the intersection between gender, race and class. Some women in the movement have suggested that the kind of frustrations expressed by black women cannot and should not be addressed. We all construct our own reality, they will claim, and each of us has a unique experience of our reality. To seek to form political alliances on the basis of common oppressions is "problematic", "totalising" or even "totalitarian".

What is put forward is not so much a strategy as an anti-strategy. It provides theoretical justification for not putting up a fight. In the student movement it can find fertile ground, because of the relatively privileged economic and social position of the students themselves. For many of them, retreat into private, individual worlds is a viable option — and unfortunately for the feminist movement, many young women who could have played an active role have been persuaded to do precisely that.

So the field remains open for the power feminists — because they do have a political strategy. And, despite the claims of post-modernists, some discourses are more equal than others — money still speaks louder than words.

But the explosive potential of a feminism that fights for the rights of all women remains. The task of mobilising working women and men of all races and nationalities in defence of women's rights remains squarely in the sights of Marxist feminists, who continue to play a leading role on campus, in International Women's Day and Reclaim the Night committees and in projects such as building the Democratic Socialist Party, Green Left Weekly and Links.