Touted as the first feminist conference in Sydney in 15 years, “F: the conference” was a reminder of how far governments have wound back women’s rights over the same period.
From anger at Howard’s attacks on child care and divorce, to dismay with “raunch culture”, where objectified sexiness is supposed to represent women’s sexual freedom—it was obvious that the 500 conference attendees knew the common claim that sexism is a thing of the past doesn’t correspond to reality.
But speaker after speaker neatly demonstrated that feminist theory can’t assert a clear strategy to fight this backlash.
Sally McManus from the Australian Services Union made well-received arguments for mobilisation as part of the campaign for Equal Pay in the community sector. She emphasised the importance of workers’ struggles in gaining wins against racism, sexism and bosses.
On the same panel, Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, reflected a very different class interest. She argued for more women on company boards. The contradiction was repeated again when feminist Anne Summers argued that electing women is our best hope for beating sexism and that we should celebrate the women in the Labor cabinet.
The next day, author and activist Larissa Behrendt condemned the Northern Territory Intervention, outlining its devastating effects on Aboriginal women.
One of the very same cabinet women that Summers was encouraging us to celebrate is the key prosecutor of the Intervention—Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin.
This strategic conflict goes to the heart of feminism’s problems—the deep and long-running conflict between the interests of working class and ruling class women.
The election of women to parliament, or their appointment to boards, only benefits a small section of women. Women at the top rely on systematic sexism just as much as ruling class men do. The pressure of competition for profit means they are pushed to place the burden of childcare and housework onto women as far as they can get away with.
Some feminists think greater representation of women as business leaders or parliamentarians will somehow change this. It won’t. We don’t need to look further than Thatcher, Macklin, Clinton and Gillard to know these women are in no way immune to the profit imperative
There are more women in the federal cabinet than ever before—but the same cabinet let ABC Childcare collapse and refuses to remove the ban on same-sex marriage.
Campaigning to get women into these positions would mean lining up against the interests of the vast majority of women—and men. While the Intervention into Aboriginal communities deepens racism, while refugees are scapegoated and while women continue to receive lower wages than men, feminists like Summers want to demand 40 per cent of places in corporate boards for women. It seems likely that this demand will soon be realised. This will leave untouched the real problems afflicting women. Rudd’s refusal to reverse Howard-era attacks will remain.
The final session of the conference showed the weakness of trying to fight sexism from a position of common female identity. The speakers denounced what they see as feminism’s history of de-prioritising other forms of oppression.
But instead of looking at the links between sexism, racism, and homophobia, speakers were anxious to insert their concern about these issues into feminism. But the problem here is feminism itself. There is no common interest of all women—for example, rich women benefit from racism. The solution here is a united fight against racism, sexism, and homophobia—not by all women, but by the working class.
The movement for women’s liberation emerged in the late 1960s out of the campaign against the Vietnam War. Many women saw their oppression as tied up with the whole system and united with everyone fighting back against it. Unfortunately, discussion about the lessons of these struggles seemed to be off the agenda.
F raised hopes for a fightback against women’s oppression. The strong attendance itself showed a widespread dissatisfaction with the position of women in society.
But the potential for that fight won’t come from women like Elizabeth Broderick—it will come from a movement that puts workers’ rights and social justice for all back on the agenda.
By Lucy Honan