Women and Labour Conference revivedThe fifth Women and Labour Conference, the first for 11 years, will be held at Macquarie University from September 29 to October 1. Green Left Weekly's KATH GELBER spoke to conference organisers MELANIE OPPENHEIMER and MAREE MURRAY about preparations. Question: How did the idea for this conference come about?
MM: Both of us do research on work — Melanie on women's voluntary work, and I on child labour — and we've had to go back to 1984, to the last Women and Labour Conference. That's 11 years ago! There is a lot going on [in women's lives] that's just not getting a forum. That's when we thought about reviving the conference.
MO: Three books came out of those conferences which are still really good references. We saw this as a good opportunity, for a new generation of women, to organise another one. While we haven't been to any, we are aware of the history of the conferences.
Question: One of the hallmarks of previous conferences was they were very big, broad and inclusive. What have you done to retain that tradition?
MM: The conference has been in the pipeline for 18 months, and the first committee started a year ago. The first Women and Labour Conference was held at Macquarie Uni in 1978, so that was another aspect — bringing it back there.
We managed to secure funding to support indigenous and rural women. Others can apply to the conference committee for financial assistance.
MO: The breadth is reflected in the draft program. We have women not only from academia but also from the community. I don't know how we managed that — the publicity and the conference tradition, I suppose.
Question: Where have you sent your publicity?
MM: We're on the Net! Also, its been sent to a lot of women's magazines, campuses, women's groups, journals and newsletters. Word has got out.
MO: There are a lot of younger women who don't know about the previous conferences; I think about 50% of our paper givers would not have known about them.
Question: What type of papers have been submitted?
MO: We have over 140 papers. There is a plenary each morning, followed buy six concurrent sessions, a workshop stream, and on Saturday a film stream which is being run by Margot Oliver, who organised the film stream at the first conference in 1978. There is a lot of choice — some might complain there is too much!
MM: There have been a lot of papers on the issue of women in the paid work force. We haven't had a lot of papers on green themes. We also have papers on sexuality, indigenous women's issues and quite a few on republicanism.
MO: There are some on non-traditional employment and a lot on EEO, which is the strongest stream. We also have some personal narratives from older women who have been through the women's liberation years.
Question: Are many activist women's groups participating?
MO: The BHP Jobs for Women campaign will be covered by two different workshops. Radical Women from Melbourne are doing a workshop on women workers.
The major plenary on Saturday is called "Women's voices; women's rights in the constitutional debate". Ellen Ramsay from the University of SA is organising that session, which includes Joan Kirner, Jocelyne Scutt and Dale Spender.
Sunday's plenary, "Women and Labour: Towards 2000", includes Jennie George and Sue Walpole.
Question: Many of those are pretty high-powered women. Do you have some activist women on those panels as well?
MO: They are doing the sessions and workshops. One of the things about organising a conference is, if you want people to attend, you have to get names. We haven't really gone out to get those names, they contacted us. For example, Ellen Ramsay offered to organise the Saturday plenary for us.
Question: Have you any idea how many women will attend?
MM: We estimate 500 per day for three days. Some registrations are for the whole conference, but we have single day registrations.
MO: We want the conference to be accessible to as many women as possible, and to do that we have to keep costs low. For the registration fee, participants get lunch on Friday and Saturday, and a book of abstracts if they register for the whole conference.
On Saturday evening there is a conference dinner featuring an older woman activist from Adelaide who has been involved in the Hindmarsh Island campaign.
Question: What if some people still can't afford it?
MM: People can apply to the committee to have their registration fee waived until the money allocated to subsidising registrations is used up. We have free child-care for the three days.
MO: Also, people don't have to show proof to get the lower rate. A part-time worker, for example, is partly unwaged so they could register at the concession rate.
We also need lots of volunteers, so we are suggesting that if people want to come to the conference but can't afford it, they can help out.
Question: How many people are involved in the organising committee?
MM: About 22. We have women from non-English speaking backgrounds on the committee. We had to struggle to get support from the History, Philosophy and Politics Department at Macquarie Uni, which initially met our request with stone walls.
Question: Have you had any feedback regarding the supposed feminist generation gap?
MO: We are attracting younger women as well. We had a debate, which isn't a generational thing, among some older and younger women about whether men should be allowed to attend the conference.
The committee decided to open the conference to everyone. We will have outlines for the chairs of sessions; it's very important to ensure that women are given priority in speaking. We have 140 female presenters, and four male, two of whom are co-presenting with women.
MM: We are holding some women-only sessions. The department at Macquarie University also has a policy, formulated about three years ago, that conferences held there must be open. We would have lost the venue if the conference was women only.
MO: This is a big issue. Certain parts of the women's movement, coming from a separatist position, were dictating to us how we should run this conference.
The vote was very close, and there was one resignation afterwards. One of the compromises is that at the final plenary, the question of whether men should attend Women and Labour Conferences will be discussed. Some had differences such as saying men could come, but not give papers.
MM: Or that boys couldn't go to child-care.
MO: Yes, where do you draw the line? Now we are all working together and have put our differences aside.
Question: What do you hope the outcomes of the conference, besides printing up the papers, will be?
MM: We would like a venue for the sixth Women and Labour conference to be proposed.
MO: It's important to create a place where women from all walks of life, not just academia, can talk together. I don't mind if there's confrontation at the conference, as long as debate is ongoing. Women can come together and agree to disagree, but the conference is an opportunity for us all to be in the one place, debating issues and looking forward.
Perhaps other conferences of this type can be held, whether it's the sixth Women and Labour conference or other sorts of networking. It's important to boost the women's movement.