Why be a feminist today?

April 21, 2007

The short answer to that question is: because we need to be. It is an illusion that women have attained true equality.

We are told through the mass media, the education system, and in our workplaces and homes, that women "have it all", that we've "smashed through the glass ceiling". We can — and do — juggle work and family commitments. We have careers in medicine, law and engineering. We have the same legal wage rights as men. We can study at university. Isn't all that proof of equality?

Formal equality before the law, access to education and the like are direct results of the campaigns of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and '70s. These rights were hard won; like the trade union movement's struggles for decent wages and working conditions, nothing was ever handed to women on a platter.

And there are some formal rights that women still don't have, such as the right to control our bodies. Abortion remains on the states' criminal codes and is available only through common-law rulings.

Women still receive, on average, only 66% of men's average wage, and we still take most of the responsibility for unpaid household work, and child and aged care. We are still bombarded with sexist advertising.

A particular section of society benefits greatly from women's unpaid domestic work, from women's limited reproductive rights and from the stereotypes of the "ideal woman". It isn't you and me who are the main beneficiaries — unless you happen to be the executive of a cosmetics company, own a newspaper or two, or are a heavyweight politician. Those who gain the most are the members of society's ruling elite.

Making women feel ugly puts billions of dollars into the pockets of owners of the "beauty" industry. Having a large pool of people "trained" to do most of the domestic work and caring free of charge means the rich elite doesn't have to pay through higher taxes for the provision of public childcare and aged care services. In fact, women's oppression is indispensable in a social system that puts private profit making before people's needs.

In the 1960s and '70s, the women's liberation movement campaigned for women's rights alongside and as part of the movements against war, for justice for Indigenous people and for workers' rights, to name a few. All these movements intersected and strengthened the others. Aboriginal people won the right to vote; the war against Vietnam was stopped by massive public protests; and amazing actions were taken around the world to combat racism and protect civil liberties. It was a time that proved that when masses of people take collective action they can reshape the world.

The advance of neoliberalism since the 1980s, and especially over the last decade under PM John Howard, has impacted negatively on the social movements, and there is no longer a strong, active women's liberation movement in Australia.

That doesn't mean, however, that all is lost or that complete equality for women — legal, social and economic — can't be won. Over the last decade women have played a central role in social protest, leading important campaigns against racism, for refugee rights and against war, for instance.

The ruling class is permanently scared that a movement of ordinary people will rise against the injustices of the status quo, and that the majority of society will come to see things the way they really are and begin to seriously challenge the oppressive capitalist system. They know from those earlier movements' victories that progressive social change can be won — that society's priorities can be shifted away from profit margins and towards meeting the needs of the majority.

We can resist and change the sexist status quo. Women do it every day, whenever they challenge the sexist ideas in popular culture — the idea that women need to be thin and attractive to be worthwhile, for example, or the idea that women shouldn't work in male-dominated industries, or the idea that if women act dumb we'll be accepted.

The limitations on the "equality" won by earlier movements shows that to achieve far-reaching and permanent social change it is necessary to go beyond capitalism. Resistance is a feminist organisation. We challenge women's oppression in every sphere of life, encouraging all young people to resist and fight against sexism and to help build a powerful movement for our complete equality.

Resistance aims to help bring about socialism — a society in which the economy is based on meeting all people's needs, not just those of the wealthy elite, in which communities decide what they need and when, and in which everyone participates in decision-making processes. Every victory against sexism and for true equality is a step towards that goal.

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