How Green Left backs women’s rights

Issue 
An equal pay rally.

As approaches its 1000th issue, more than 20 years after it first hit the streets, we will be looking back at some of the campaigns it has covered and its role as an alternative source of news. This week we look at women's liberation.

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The mainstream press pretends to address women’s issues with occasional articles on motherhood, the cost of child care and the difficulties of working mothers. But Green Left Weekly has taken on the big issues, such as equal pay, equal work opportunities, reproductive rights, freedom from domestic violence, street violence and sexual harassment and what it means to be a feminist.

For many years, GLW invited women to contribute to a regular column entitled “… and ain’t I a woman?” Over the years, the column covered a wide range of topics about women: from networks for older women to equal pay; new reproductive technologies to abortion rights; sexist advertising to women’s unpaid work as carers.

GLW has covered every International Women’s Day (IWD) march around the country since 1991. Tens of thousands of women mobilise in rallies and other public events every year, reinforcing the fact that this is a significant date for women to speak up about their demands for progressive change. But GLW’s coverage differs from the mainstream media’s distorted view of the day.

GLW advertises the organising meetings, encourages women to get involved, and discusses the issues and demands to be put forward. GLW reports on IWD as a community event that is organised and staged without much help from state or federal government departments or bureaucracies, in which everyone can take part and express their views.

The mainstream media cannot ignore the event so it distorts it, preferring to ignore the “ordinary” women on the march and instead promote the "prominent" women — female politicians, politicians’ wives, authors and so on — who attend celebration breakfasts, as spokespeople for all women.

This type of coverage aims to convince us that "ordinary" people can't change things, and that we should just rely on politicians and famous people to look after us. GLW’s coverage, on the other hand, encourages women to play an active role in the movement for change.

As GLW pointed out in 1993: “In 1928, the demands of the first International Women's Day Rally in Australia were for equal pay for equal work, an eight-hour day for shop assistants, the basic wage for the unemployed and annual holidays on full pay. Last weekend, March 6-7, the annual IWD rallies, marches, festivals, dances and cultural events around Australia were still demanding the same basic rights for working and unemployed women.” In 2014 little has changed.

A 1912 decision of the Arbitration Court set women’s pay at 54% of that of a man doing the same work. Sixty years later the Whitlam government introduced the principle of equal pay, and it was later confirmed by the Equal Opportunity ActM of 1999.

Women can now become commercial pilots, work after marriage and take up to two years (unpaid) maternity leave. We have had a female prime minister, governor general and several premiers, and we are constantly assured by the mainstream media that women are equal with men. Yet women are still paid less than men and bear the brunt of child-rearing and housework in family situations.

There have been victories in the fight for equal pay. In February 2012, GLW reported on “the most important equal pay case since equal pay for work of equal value was formally recognised in 1972”. This was the historic decision of Fair Work Australia to award pay rises of between 23% and 45% to 150,000 mostly female workers in the social and community services sector (SACS). Before this decision, there were 16 previous equal pay cases that tried to improve pay for sectors that employ mostly women, such as the community services sector. Every case failed.

The Australian Services Union waged a determined and ultimately successful campaign to address the gender-based undervaluation of the community services sector and deliver long-overdue pay rises. The decision will give wage rises to youth support, disability, refuge, family support and social workers, as well as clerical and administrative staff.

Women’s fight for reproductive rights and voluntary motherhood is another issue that GLW has covered in detail over the years. Reproductive rights include the right to abortion, access to fertility enhancement technologies such as in vitro fertilisation or artificial donor insemination regardless of relationship status or sexuality, and access to contraception.

With the exception of the ACT, abortion is still a crime throughout Australia. Women's access to abortion services still depends on judicial interpretations of the law and the availability of abortion in mostly privately run clinics.

The right to abortion is under constant attack from Right to Life, conservative religions and the Christian lobby. Their current threat is over the definition of a “person”. In Australia, “personhood” is defined as viability after birth, but right-wing MPs, such as the Christian Democratic Party’s Fred Nile in NSW, have introduced a constant stream of private members’ bills to try to change that definition.

GLW reports that the latest attempt is Zoe’s law — named after a child who was stillborn due to injuries her mother suffered after being hit by a car — which would allow people to be charged with the criminal offence of manslaughter if they cause a pregnant woman to lose her unborn foetus. The bill would redefine when a foetus is recognised as a person to 20 weeks gestation or a weight of more than 400 grams.

At present, NSW law defines harm against a foetus as an aggravated assault against the mother. The maximum sentence is 25 years in jail. There is no need for this law and, although those promoting it say that the law if passed would exclude abortion, there is no guarantee that such a law would not open the way for an anti-abortion amendment in the future.

The murder of Jill Meagher in late 2012 put violence against women in the spotlight once again.

Parts of the mainstream media and internet commentary took it as an opportunity to blame the victim for what happened to try to warn other women.

GLW took a directly opposite view, and in a widely shared comment, GLW journalist Tim Dobson said: "That people will conclude from Jill Meagher's disappearance that women should not walk home alone, rather than men shouldn't rape, assault or murder women is indicative of so much that is wrong in our sexist society. Justice for Jill would mean all women at all times should be able to walk down any street without threats, harassment or violence directed towards them. It's what we all need to keep fighting for."

Yet, Meagher’s case is very rare. For most Australian women, the home is still a much more dangerous place than the street. Most sexual assault and violence against women, including violence resulting in death, is carried out by someone known to the victim, usually a partner or family member. For men, the opposite is true — 86% of homicide by an acquaintance and 78% of stranger homicides are by men against men.

As GLW noted, far more needs to be done to educate men on how to be respectful to the women in their lives and to create the circumstances in which gender equality can truly exist. In a society that is apparently built on the "foundation stone" of the family unit, violence inside the home needs to be addressed in tandem with violence on the street if we are to make real progress.



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