: Step up feminists: it’s not over yet

Step up feminists: it’s not over yet

Kate Galloway

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (‘SDA’) it is timely to reflect on the status of women’s equality in Australia. Could it be true to say, as some have suggested, that we inhabit a post-feminist era.

The foundation of feminism — in all its guises — rests upon the establishment and defence of women’s enjoyment of equal political, economic and social rights. While legislation such as the SDA enshrines gender equality into law, substantive equality remains elusive.

In terms of political power, women’s overall level of representation in Australian parliaments is only 30 per cent. Yet women form 50.2 per cent of the Australian population. The gender-based attacks on the Prime Minister evidence the challenges faced by women in the political arena. Women are similarly disproportionately represented amongst the senior ranks of most professions, notably law and on boards of public companies.

Not all agree with the apparent emphasis on gender equality for such women who might join the ranks of these ‘elite’. They prefer instead to highlight the much worse outlook for women from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This has been spelled out in the current debate over paid parental leave. While some argue for a salary-linked payment, others favour a standard payment that will benefit more women more equally. Regardless, women are worse off economically relative to men in almost all domains. Women graduates earn lower salaries than men in almost all fields, and jobs that are predominantly staffed by women attract poor rates of pay.

Socially, women are marginalised in popular culture, in sport and in their bodily autonomy. Pervasive media representations of dominant men and sexualised women pervade both our consciousness about what it means to be a woman and how women are expected to behave. Apart from attempts at equality such as the SDA, these ideologies and values in turn permeate the law, itself a reflection of wider culture.

In 2010 for example, Tegan Leach was the first woman ever prosecuted under Queensland’s Criminal Code for procuring her own abortion after illegally importing an abortion drug. While she was acquitted, the decision to investigate, to charge and to prosecute highlights the fragility of women’s autonomy.

Recent public calls for breastfeeding women to feed ‘discreetly’ and out of ‘high traffic areas’ reinforce the patriarchal prerogative of managing women’s bodies and excluding women from occupying public spaces. While these comments were defended as ‘mere opinion’ in the face of legislative protection for breastfeeding, the message they proffer goes much deeper. This is a good example of how public discourse about women continues to seek to limit women’s substantive equality in all spheres — political, economic and social — despite their formal equality at law.

First, women’s bodies — their sexuality, their reproduction and even their breastfeeding — are to be controlled. While this is done through law, it is sustained also through social commentary and representations of women.

Secondly, women are constructed — both socially and, I would suggest, at law — in terms of their sexuality and their reproductive status. The shorthand for this is that women’s marital status continues to be relevant at law and in social discourse as a means of constructing and limiting women. Last year, for example, in Ashton v Pratt (No 2), the applicant failed to recover damages for breach of contract in part because her relationship as escort to the promisor was ‘meretricious’ and therefore the transaction was against public policy.

Feminist scholars have analysed the genesis of this focus on control of women’s bodies. Through ancient times, the Middle Ages, Industrialisation and modern times, Western culture has associated woman with nature and a lack of rationality, a lack of substance and an unruly and therefore ‘threatening’ free spirit. This work identifies a (masculine) need for the domination of nature and the privileging of control over nature through science and culture, and indeed male domination over women, above the embodied experience of women as ‘other’ and the ‘natural forces’ of reproduction experienced by women. This biological construction of women determines their subordinate place in society — politically, economically and socially.

Is our world post-feminist? I doubt it. Despite ostensible gains in women’s formal equality, in all spheres of life women as a group suffer substantial inequality. Now is hardly the time to declare feminism is over. We need it just as much as ever.

KATE GALLOWAY is a mother who has variously breastfed, stayed home, volunteered, and worked as a lawyer and academic. In each case she has observed first hand the challenges that continue to face women. A PhD candidate, her research analyses aspects of the law of equity from a feminist perspective.

© 2013 Kate Galloway

(2013) 38(2) AltLJ 138
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