RESPECT for Women seminar - Linda Matthews

RESPECT for Women seminar

Thursday 9 September 2004

National Perspectives Panel

Presentation by Ms Linda Matthews, South Australian Commissioner for Equal Opportunity

I would like to begin by sharing some of my thoughts. When I first took up this job I was very concerned with some of the complaints that we got. However, they didn't seem to fit into the kinds of categories that we've heard from Irene Kahn this morning, however we know they still happen in domestic violence situations in Australia.

When I‘ve talked with women from overseas (and we've done some work with women’s organizations in different countries), I've been heartened by their eagerness to hear what we've done in the past and how we've actually tackled discrimination and harassment and how much they've wanted the stories, the materials. They've said things to me like, "If we had legislation like this, it would be absolutely wonderful."

So I realise how useful that experience is for women from other countries who have used it to lobby and have taken back some of the experiences. Naturally, they will use it in their own cultural contexts; it won't be exactly the same. But I've been surprised at how similar the messages are that they want to promote and how little they have actually changed some of the material that I have sent to them.

I want to talk about what women have achieved since the seventies in Australia when we really first began the fight for women's equality. Whilst I agree with what Pru has said, that the fight is not yet over, not by a long shot, we have made some progress, and you would hope that we had after nearly 30 years of the fight. I actually think there's less overt discrimination now, including all forms of discrimination that affect women in Australia: sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, marital status and sex discrimination.

You don't hear as we did once, as Pru was saying, about jobs for men and jobs for women. Having said that, I think much has gone underground. I think discrimination is more covert now, which makes it much more difficult to deal with through legislation - a topic for another time. There is acceptance about choices about whether to marry, to have children, to get divorced and remarry in ways that are clearly not occurring in some other countries, as Irene talked about with us this morning.

Women can be leaders, although not many of us are; we do have contraceptive choice; there are childcare centres. There are problems with all of these, but it is much, much better than it was. It is unrecognisable since the time I left school in many of these areas. But in exercising these choices, women have not found things as easy as they hoped. I guess many of us were way more optimistic 20 and 30 years ago than things have turned out. 

We know when we hear women talk about this now, and I know it from the complaints that I deal with, the difficulties of combining work and family and the guilt that often accompanies that, particularly from women. Women are still doing the brunt of child rearing and housework. There aren't many men out there who take their share of household chores, and there's only a few house husbands, and it is seen as a derogatory term still in many male quarters.

Overwhelmingly, women are the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and other speakers have talked about that, so I won't talk about that, although I ran the state's domestic violence unit for a number of years, and in many ways I'm less heartened by the progress that we've made around that, although it is still better for many women. Services are better than they were.

Some women have been concerned now because they've left the decision to have children too late, and there are lots of complaints from media commentators and others that women are whingeing way too much about all of the things that I have just talked about. And some of them like to blame feminists and other women for things going wrong. Young women tell me that they don't like the feminist label because of the association with radical feminism: you know, the man-hating bra-burning notion. One of them told me that the equality message needs to be sold or marketed differently - that challenge needs to be given to younger women.

I'm quoting from a new book that was reviewed in the Weekend Australian last week by Julia Baird called Media Tarts; I haven't read all of it yet, but it makes some interesting points. Here is a passage from a journalist quoted in the book:

While encouraging women in the seventies and eighties to reach for the sky, none of our purple-clad feminist mothers thought to tell us the truth about the biological clock, our biological clock, the one that would eventually reach exploding point inside us.

And none of our mothers thought to warn us that we would need to stop, take time out and learn to nurture our partnerships and relationships, or, if they did, we were running too fast to hear it. The end result: here we are, supposedly having it all as we edge 40, excellent education, good qualifications, great jobs, fast-moving careers, and the truth is -

she continues -

for me at least the career is no longer a challenge, the lifestyle trappings are joyless and the point of it seems, well, pointless. I am childless and I'm angry, angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mother's as gospel, angry that I was daft enough to believe feminine female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase.

I have to tell you that seventies feminists never thought that. Then we have people like Janet Albrechtsen and Angela Shanahan writing in The Australian blaming feminists for things that haven't turned out universally well for women.

MS ..........: If only we were that good.

MS MATTHEWS: Yes, that's right, if only we had that much power. Then, of course, the men's groups. I won't start on that. When I go on radio, I still hear the same things that I was hearing 20 and 30 years ago. In America I recently read an article by Susan Shapiro Brash, Professor of Gender Studies at Marymount College in New York, who wrote a book called, " The New Wife: the evolving role of the American wife," and she talks about a new generation of women who have given up their jobs to look after their children and their husbands because it is all too hard. She says that this generation are turning into their grandmothers, not their mothers.

Young women say they don't need special help, and there's a case that we use in training at the Equal Opportunity Commission that highlights issues when ‘self-help’ doesn’t work. A young 25-year-old woman - it was a Melbourne case - who was sexually harassed at work and she wanted to deal with it herself. I haven't got time to go into this case, but we dissected it in detail because it is a very illuminating one, but it all ended in tears, unfortunately. As Pru said when she was talking about this, many young women can deal with issues without recourse to legislation, but sometimes they can't, and this illustrates why the legislation is still needed.

There's a lot of people now who are saying men shouldn't be blamed, and I think that is right about individual men. But I was having a discussion with a group of women recently and we were talking about what we call structural inequality or systemic discrimination issues, and a number of the women, even in that discussion, said they thought it sounded like male bashing. It was certainly not that and not intended to be that, but I think it shows what a heightened sensitivity this area generates.

On a more positive note around that, I came across an article by a man called Julian Baggini, who wrote this article that appeared in The Guardian this year. He says:

Clever women have been claiming stupid white men ruled the world for years, but the first person for being widely lauded for saying so is Michael Moore, another stupid white man. A woman can make a point incessantly, but not until a man says it is it taken seriously. Like interstate wins, men's opinions count double. Take the problem of knowing the difference between racy banter and offensive sexism. Even feminists can agree that $12 million might be an obscene amount to pay for sexual harassment, but men who think their own confusion or the disproportionate size of the settlement is a greater problem than the harassment itself are surely deluded. It is easy to say lighten up when you've never experienced depression yourself.

He continues:

One of the distinctive phenotypic effects of the Y chromosome is attention seeking and self-important behaviour. We have become so used to thinking we are the most important creatures to walk the planet that we assume our temporary difficulties must be the gravest problems facing society today. We are like householders fretting over a cracked window pane that is the result of a cyclone that's wrecked the homes of those around us. Men should realise that the ill winds of discrimination, double standards and unrealistic ideals that threaten us now have been disrupting the lives of others for centuries.

Current issues for younger women. They certainly have more choices than we did. Whenever people have choices and they exercise them, some of them are unwise. More young women taking up smoking is a worry. Body image and eating disorders: there's no worse crime than to be called fat.

And drugs, plastic surgery. I don't know whether any of you saw an item on the news during the week, that one of the latest presents that parents are giving their 18-year-old girls in America is a breast implant. Women don't marry so young; a series of relationships is acceptable; they are not so constrained about career or relationships. Seventies feminists had to fight a lot harder and there was a high toll on many relationships. I can remember trying to rigidly enforce rules around housework, I have to say to no avail.

I think many younger women are less likely to buy into unhealthy male culture, long hours and ruthless behaviour at the top in Government, in politics and business. And they are less convinced by stereotypes - again, I'm being very general about this - but I think that is good. But we were in a dilemma in the seventies. On the one hand, we protested loudly, and we had to, about the injustices faced by women, and we were trying to develop a better future.

We said we could manage everything, because we had to say that at that time: family, work, community activities. Of course we couldn't do it all - we never thought we could - but we did make those kinds of public statements a lot to galvanise other women. Younger women are talking about the complexities of their lives, their difficult choices, things they will and won't do, and the boundlessness and limits of their aspirations. I think that is terrific.

But I know - and agree with Pru - that they will still be facing some of our dilemmas - sexism, harassment, disproportionate burdens of care - for which they will find their own answers. Hopefully the work/life balance will be better for them. 

Thank you.