By Chris Spindler
SYDNEY — Standing in the seat of Marrickville in the NSW state elections for the Democratic Socialists is prominent women's activist Karen Fletcher. Fletcher was centrally involved in the International Women's Day organising collective. Green Left Weekly spoke to her about her views on women's rights and on being a socialist.
What is the Democratic Socialist view on a woman's right to choose?
In NSW abortion is still on the criminal statutes, and neither Labor nor Liberal have a policy of decriminalisation. NSW Labor is maintaining its policy of allowing a "conscience vote" to its parliamentarians. The Democratic Socialist policy is that the relevant conscience is that of the woman making the decision, not of the politicians.
The other serious curb on women's reproductive rights in NSW is the number of private and church-run hospitals which refuse to provide information about contraception or to perform terminations and related procedures. The rapid privatisation of hospitals by the Fahey government, in both urban and regional NSW, is making this problem even worse.
Are women achieving economic independence and equality?
The impact on women workers of enterprise and agency level bargaining in NSW has been overwhelmingly detrimental.
In 1993 a study by the government's own Women and Work Unit revealed that women have traded important conditions for pitiful or non-existent wage rises, and in many instances have lost wages as a result of shorter working hours and reduction of overtime.
Non-unionised and non-English speaking background women have been the worst hit by the deregulation of the labour market in NSW.
But deregulation was introduced first by the federal Labor government, and the ALP remains committed to the process, despite the fact that it has led to a widening of the gap between women's and men's wages.
The ALP's commitment to equal pay is revealed as nothing but rhetoric when it is recognised that their major economic policy, deregulation of the labour market, is in direct contradiction with this fundamental feminist demand.
Genuine economic equality obviously can't come through a few unenforced pieces of legislation. Companies must be forced to guarantee access to non-traditional areas of work with affirmative action programs in hiring, training and seniority. Traditionally female occupations must have an increase in pay to make them comparable.
All of us, women and men, have to fight enterprise bargaining's undermining of conditions and real wage rises that are so desperately needed.
How else do you differ from the major parties' policies?
Apart from reproductive rights and equal pay, Democratic Socialists stand for vastly expanded child-care, real rape law reform — not just judicial education window dressing — and the legalisation of prostitution.
In these policies we differ enormously from both Liberal and Labor. We are talking about a real commitment to women's rights, one that entails fundamental change in the way our society is organised.
The kind of change we are talking about doesn't come with a bit of tinkering at the edges of the system. It can't be brought by a few people sitting in a parliament.
The Democratic Socialists are about involving more ordinary people in political activity around the issues that concern them. Running in the election is only part of our political activity.
We are also active in the anti-woodchipping campaign, the movement against the third runway and the campaign for a free East Timor. These too are clear reasons why working people should vote for the Democratic Socialist alternative.
What is the significance of International Women's Day?
I am a member of the IWD '95 Organising Collective. It's great to be part of a feminist tradition that stretches right back to the first wave of feminism at the turn of the century. The first IWD was in 1908, and that was also organised by socialist women, women like Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg.
Most people think of the first wave of feminism as being about the right to vote, and it was, but it was also about equal pay, reproductive rights and many issues which are still firmly on the agenda.
We think it's really important to retain and build on the IWD tradition. The organising collective is mostly student and working women, so we work on organising the day in our spare time. It's a lot of work, but the reward comes when the crowd of women gathers and we see how many active feminists there are out there. The media would have us believe that feminism and feminists are outdated, but events like IWD show we're still here.
How do your socialist politics relate to feminism?
Feminism and socialism have always had a close relationship. Socialism is about creating a society in which everybody can fulfil their real potential, and the socialist movement has a long history of struggle upon which we can draw.
It is about organising for change, about challenging, the vested interests which oppose us, about devising a strategy that can win liberation.
For me, being a member of the Democratic Socialist Party flows from being a feminist. As an independent, non-aligned feminist, I felt powerless, angry, frustrated. I still get angry, but now I am part of an organised force for change.
The elections are just one way we can impact on what seems like the all-powerful "mainstream". But we're not saying put us in parliament and we'll make the world a better place. We're asking people to join with us to make a better society, whether that be in the feminist, environmental or union movements or wherever people are fighting for something better.