NOWSA: feminists debate the way forward


MELBOURNE — More than 600 women gathered here for the Network of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) conference on July 16-20. NOWSA is the largest national gathering of student feminists in Australia. As such, it is an important forum for discussing how to rebuild the women's liberation movement.

This year's conference included many constructive debates on topics such as abortion rights, prostitution and issues for working women. The conference began with a discussion about the different strands within the feminist movement: Marxism, radical feminism, liberalism and socialist feminism. This discussion enabled women coming to the conference to situate debates within a political context.

This was important because the organising collective for the conference was dominated by separatist and identity politics. Collective members had tried to impose this perspective on the conference by excluding transgender women from the collective, arguing that it is necessary to be a lesbian in order to be a feminist, that sex work should be criminalised and that NOWSA was plagued by "racism".

By contrast, Marxist feminists argued that women-only space should be open to all who want to fight for women's liberation, including transgender women and women who have sex with men. They also argued against calling on the state to criminalise sex work and for a mass movement to defeat racism.

Unfortunately, these debates were carried out in an intimidatory and confrontational atmosphere. Women who disagreed with the positions put forward by the NOWSA collective were labelled "racists".

During one of the plenary sessions, the audience was asked to sit in racially segregated areas: Anglo background people divided from non-Anglo background people. When a few white women arrived late and sat on the non-Anglo side, a collective member told them to stick to "their" side of the room because they were corrupting "her" autonomous space.

Vicki-Anne Speechley Golden, an Aboriginal speaker, sparked a vigorous debate by stating that all white people, including those in the audience, were responsible for the rise of Pauline Hanson. A collective member then read a statement which attacked conference participants as "racist" for disagreeing with Aboriginal speakers. The label "racist" was used to obscure healthy debate about different political strategies.

Intimidation was also used inside the NOWSA collective. Before the conference, Resistance activist Virginia Brown was expelled from the collective when she disagreed with the rest of the collective's identity politics. During the conference, another collective member, Kate Davison, was expelled at a meeting at which she was not present, for alleged "racism".

The charges against Davison revolved around a few organisational slip-ups and her disagreement with identity politics. Outraged by the decision, some members of the collective produced a satirical cartoon which highlighted how those who disagreed with the collective were treated (see box).

Underlying the conflict at this year's NOWSA were two main strategies: one represented by the collective (dominated by Patricia Karvelas and Charmaine Clarke) and the other by members of Resistance.

Identity politics

The collective argued that "experience of oppression" is the determining factor in being able to fight it. The most important part of "fighting" oppression, they say, is that oppressor groups (men or white people) "own their racism" and "sexism".

By contrast, Resistance argued that the central question for any movement for liberation is the cause of the oppression it seeks to overcome. All people bought up in this racist, sexist and homophobic society are imbued with these prejudices, but neither racial, sex nor homosexual oppression stem from individual attitudes; they are caused by the economic and political structure of the society we live in.

Racism is not created by individuals, but by a system which profits from the denial of Aboriginal land rights and the super-exploitation of migrant labour. Arguing that conference participants should "own their racism" lets the real racists in society — the government, wealthy landowners and big business — off the hook.

Even if all feminists strove to "own their racism", racism would still exist because, without political action aimed at attacking the political and economic basis of racial oppression, injustice and discrimination would continue to thrive.

The idea that all white people are racist and all men are sexist was coupled with a retreat from a strategy of building a movement to eradicate these oppressions. The collective argued that those "genuine" about getting rid of racism should take a hostile stance towards movements and campaigns. A member of the collective attacked the education and women's liberation movements, and the organisations of the left, as irrelevant to her "experience" as a non-English-speaking background woman (NESB), and therefore "racist".

Resistance rejected this perspective. The only consistent way to overcome your own racism is through engaging in struggle to overcome racism in society. For example, many high school students realised the racist character of Australian society through getting involved in the mass high school walkouts against Hanson organised by Resistance last year. By getting onto the streets and fighting racism publicly and collectively, high school students were able to challenge the deeply racist prejudices fostered by this society.

The feminist movement needs to build alliances with other movements of the oppressed for their liberation, particularly the anti-racism movement. These alliances need to be built through discussion, solidarity and common action.

Throughout the conference, NESB and Aboriginal women who raised problems with the collective's perspectives were told it was "racist" to disagree because the collective was supported by a particular, self-selected group of indigenous women. Asserting that anybody has a monopoly on the right to speak in the movement, and enforcing this by the threat of ostracism and isolation, is destructive.

Sidelining debates

One of the NOWSA collective's most controversial decisions was to exclude transgender women from the collective. Many feminists opposed this decision.

Knowing when it went into the conference that it had already lost this debate, the collective did its utmost to avoid discussion of the issue. Collective members refused to answer questions from the floor about their exclusion of transgender women, and Hanna, a speaker on the gender plenary, asserted that the women wanting to discuss the issue were being "racist" for ignoring her issues.

The NOWSA collective imposed a quota system at the conference which stipulated that 50% of all speakers had to have NESB or indigenous backgrounds. Although the collective was successful in promoting the experiences of NESB and indigenous women, the quota system was criticised for being tokenistic.

Rather than women being asked to speak because of their political opinions or activism, they were asked to speak because their skin colour helped to fill the quota. As well, the quota system was used to prevent opponents of the NOWSA collective's political perspective from speaking.

A casualty of the quota system was the political perspective of Resistance and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), many members of which were removed from plenary speakers' lists because they were of Anglo background. At the last minute, Maria Voukelatos was asked to present Resistance's perspective on pornography and prostitution. Voukelatos was uncomfortable about being asked to speak because of her ethnic background after another Resistance member, who had prepared a talk on the plenary topic, was barred from speaking because she is white.

The conference voted for a quota system requiring 40% indigenous and 30% NESB speakers at next year's conference.

'Evil communists'

The collective actively fostered anticommunist hysteria to try to scare women away from examining the different political perspectives behind the debate.

Despite a number of conference participants expressing differences with identity politics and criticising the tokenism of the quota system (30% of the conference voted against it), all opposition to the quota was attributed to the socialists — the DSP and Resistance.

Resistance put forward a charter, supported by a range of activists, which proposed that NOWSA should be a democratic, open conference which aimed to build campaigns and make the links between women's and other oppressions. Obviously feeling threatened, the collective launched a tirade of sectarian diatribes against Resistance, accusing us of being a "racist" organisation with a "hidden agenda" which had men behind it.

At the end of the conference, the collective decided to bid for NOWSA to be held in Melbourne again next year. This was rejected by more than 60% of conference participants, who voted for the next NOWSA to be held in Adelaide.

Despite the collective's intimidation and undemocratic procedures, many women left the conference with increased confidence and determination to fight racism and sexism. The overwhelming sentiment of those who attended was that it is possible to build alliances between different oppressed groups and, when we work together, we can fight for our liberation. This sentiment was reflected in the public action held as part of the conference in which 300 women marched through Melbourne's streets demanding an end to racism.