Socialists in the Australian women's liberation movement

By Margaret Allan

To understand the development of feminism in Australia, it is useful to briefly recap the political situation that gave rise not only to the women's liberation movement, but to the whole range of social movements that sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

During the Second World War, women were drawn into many non-traditional areas of work, such as making ammunition and ships. These were much higher paid jobs than women were used to, and many women who did not previously work for pay experienced life as working mothers for the first time. There was some public child-care provision, and the ideology that women were incapable of metal work and similar trades conveniently disappeared as everyone was urged to “do their bit for the war effort and the boys at the front”.

When men began returning from the war in large numbers in 1945, women were forced to give up these jobs. It was the start of the “baby boom”: women were encouraged to have babies to repopulate. This was also the start of the economic boom of the 1950s.

The ideological push to get women back into the home and into “happy families”, especially with all the new labour-saving electrical appliances being mass marketed, was very much part of the conservatism of the 1950s. This was also the time that any suspected communists were being targeted -- the McCarthyism era, when the Cold War was escalated.

In this conservative family values era, women were discouraged from questioning their roles as looking after the home and family. But many were feeling unfulfilled.

In 1963, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published in the United States. It identified the “problem with no name” and began to publicise how many women felt about their lack of full participation in society. Broader discussion of the limitations placed on women began, with the development of small consciousness-raising groups. This initially involved mainly middle class women and laid the basis for a mass consciousness that was to flourish into women's rights organisation during the social upheaval of the late 1960s and 1970s.

In the United States, the explosion of the mass movement against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s drew large numbers of women, especially university student women, into radical activity.

It did not take long, however, for these women activists to recognise the barriers that sexist attitudes about women's “proper” role in society placed on their full and equal participation in the movement. While they were being asked, and wanted to devote all their waking hours to building the marches and other activities, when it came to the political leadership, they were relegated to making the tea, licking the stamps and generally sustaining their male comrades in battle.

The expansion of tertiary education during the 1960s also meant that there were large numbers of young women getting an education, raising their expectations -- and hitting bricks walls as they attempted to play the same role as men in campus life.

Their disgruntlement and anger quickly and spontaneously generated lively discussions and organisation for women's right to be treated as intelligent equals to men, not sex objects and domestic slaves.

In 1969, the now infamous bra-burning protest by student women outside the Miss America contest catapulted feminism onto the public stage. Campus women's consciousness-raising groups and feminist collectives flourished, and the mass feminist movement was born.

The United States Socialist Workers Party, with which our tendency was associated from the middle 1960s, had already, in the 1950s, been propagandising around the oppression of women under capitalism and the ways in which women were enslaved in this system, such as by the beauty industry. That party intervened in the emerging mass movement from the very beginning, and was largely responsible for the importance that our own tendency placed on the questions of women's oppression and building a movement for women's liberation.

While feminism did not spontaneously emerge from the anti-Vietnam War movement here in the same way as it did in the us, as the ideas, debates and actions of the new women's liberation movement in the us began to filter through to Australia, they quickly catalysed wide discussion amongst the broad left which quickly took an organised form, in which our tendency was directly involved.

The development of a new mass feminist movement which raised a myriad of issues -- from women's reproductive rights to equality in education -- threw up a challenge to the main left force in Australian politics at the time, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which had, since the 1930s, largely limited its campaigning for women's rights to workplace demands, carried out through the trade unions it led. I will come back to this.

Gay and lesbian movement

The gay rights movement was an important parallel development at this time which, while organising separately from the women's liberation movement, also challenged the role of the family and bourgeois sexual morality.

The modern gay movement started in June 1969 after the Stonewall riot in New York and quickly spread to most of the other advanced capitalist countries. The movement began as one for gay men's rights; women organising as lesbians came later, although lesbian women were organised in the women's liberation movement.

While there is still some campaigning against legal discrimination against gays, usually within a lobbyist framework, the mass mobilisations at the beginning of the movement, such as the Mardi Gras march in Sydney, have been either demobilised or commercialised.

Our party played a role in organising the first Mardi Gras protest march, which was far more political than today. Our comrades have been involved in a range of gay and lesbian rights campaigns during the last three decades, including that against the repressive Tasmanian laws against homosexuality, which succeeded in changing some of the legislation in that state. We have always campaigned and educated our comrades around the struggle for the rights of gay men and lesbians in the context of the struggle against capitalist oppression. Our analysis and platform are contained in a document published in 1996, Socialism and the struggle for the rights of lesbians and gay men.

From the end of the 1960s, Australian women's eyes were being opened by their participation in many political discussions and movements. Women began to demand participation in the leadership of the radical movement, and began to write about women's oppression and feminism.

As well, a sexual revolution was under way, made possible by women having access to the contraceptive pill -- women could finally have sex with less fear of pregnancy.

Two main currents

There were two main elements battling for hegemony of the movement during the 1970s. These two currents were the radical feminists on one side, and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) left and Communist Party of Australia on the other. The Socialist Party of Australia, which has renamed itself the CPA, was involved in only a few specific campaigns and groups, such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, because they were involved in the peace movement, the social movement that had approval from Moscow. When I refer to the CPA from here on, it is to the original Communist Party of Australia.

Radical feminism

First I will look at radical feminism. “Patriarchy” was the word used by Engels when describing anthropologically the different types of family or kinship units that have existed. He called families, clans or other social groupings that traced descent through the mother's side matrilineal. Descent traced through the father's side was patrilineal. Matriarchal or patriarchal were used to describe situations in which the auhtority and power over the group were invested in either the woman or the man.

The term patriarchy was redefined by radical feminism, and put into common usage, to refer to whole social systems controlled by men through their control of women's reproductive functions. That is, women are seen as oppressed because of their biology and their role as child-bearers.

Adherents to patriarchy theory tend to agree on these four points:

  1. Patriarchy expresses the totality of the social relations of male supremacy and female subordination.

  2. Patriarchy has existed in all known socioeconomic formations, though most analyses tend to focus on the particular features of capitalist patriarchy.

  3. Patriarchy is a hierarchical system in which power and control are vested in men to effect and reproduce their domination over women. Patriarchal relations are said to be reproduced through the sexual division of labour and patriarchal ideology.

  4. Patriarchy unites men across class lines. Their unity is based on the fact that although men hold different degrees of power within the patriarchy, all men dominate at least some women.

Radical feminist arguments are explicitly or implicitly biologically determinist -- women are “naturally” caring, sharing, nurturing peaceful beings -- a stabilising force in society, whereas men are prisoners of their raging hormones, aggressive, warmongering. Men cannot control their animal-like instincts -- they rape women and are violent, so for women to survive, they must separate from this threat to them and their children.

An extreme view held by some radical feminists was summed up by Kimberley O'Sullivan in Girl's Own, a Sydney-based radical feminist newspaper, No. 5 1981:

Wimmin and men are two different species. Not different races within the one humanoid species but different species who evolved separately and differently. Wimmin are biologically and morally superior but men hold power by force of arms.

The flaw of any theory that relies on this notion of patriarchy (our theory is also based on patriarchy, but as Engels defined it) to explain women's oppression is that it counterposes the liberation of half of humanity to the liberation of the other half. All men are said to have a primary interest in women's oppression.

Like liberal feminism, this type of radical feminism is fundamentally a bourgeois feminist current. While liberalism seeks to humanise capitalism through reforms -- getting more women into positions of power, etc. -- both tend inevitably to develop a reactionary aspect because of their insistence that capitalism is not founded ultimately and necessarily on class exploitation, and therefore on women's oppression.

The two most influential and original statements of radical feminism were Kate Millett's Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: the case for feminist revolution, both published in 1971.

Since then, writings from academics such as Andrea Dworkin (a vehement supporter of censorship, who says that pornography is the theory, rape is the practice) and Renate Klein and Robyn Rowland in Australia have been influential. One of the main centres for radical feminist theory in Australia in recent years has been women's studies courses at Deakin University in Geelong. This is also the base of finrrage, Feminist International Network Resisting Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, which campaigns against the use of science to violate and manipulate women's bodies and their reproductive capability.

They oppose all reproductive technology -- including things such as IVF technology and the use of RU486, the morning after pill, on the basis that male doctors experimenting with women's bodies is another form of the violence that is naturally a part of men's attitudes and behaviour. This is an ironic reversal for radical feminism, which originally argued in favour of reproductive technology to free women's reproduction from men's control.

We have argued against radical feminist views consistently, in many different forums. One area was the censorship and pornography debate, on which we wrote and distributed a pamphlet encapsulating our opposition to censorship as a path to stopping the sexual exploitation of women.

One section of radical feminists advocate separatism as political practice, based on their analysis of the origins and nature of women's oppression.

The identification of men as the enemy led many radical feminists to the conclusion that women should separate themselves from men politically and socially. Lifestyle preferences for all-women households, personal relationships, cultural institutions and even communities, were often promoted as the key to liberation.

This often leads to the assertion by some separatists that a “true feminist” is one who does not have sex with men, and is celibate or a “political lesbian”.

Most radical feminists in the second wave eventually went into academia or worked in women's services such as rape crisis centres and women's shelters.

The CPA and feminism: the first phase

The CPA had been engaged in women's rights campaigning on and off since the 1930s. However, its perspective on how to build a movement for women's liberation was badly distorted by its Stalinist, then Euro-Communist, politics.

Until the rise of the second wave, the focus of the CPA's work was almost exclusively on the needs of working women, carried out through its base in the trade unions and in collaboration with the ALP left.

Some of this work was important. Party members were responsible for establishing the working women's centres in most states, initiating the Women and Labour conferences, starting the equal pay campaign.

However, the CPA's economism, and the glorification of the family inherited from Stalinism, blinded it to the need to address all manifestations of women's oppression.

When the mass women's liberation movement arose in Australia in the early 1970s, the CPA oriented to it with the primary aim of recruiting to the party in order to boost its political weight in all the social movements and its bargaining position vis-a-vis the ALP.

In the process, the CPA was often satisfied with recruiting women who had radicalised around women's liberation issues and were sympathetic to a left perspective. It left them to organise the party's intervention in the women's liberation movement semi-autonomously inside the party, forming party women's collectives. These were justified in terms of “allowing women to lead”, but in fact ghettoised the party's women's liberation work and released male party members from any responsibility for the work.

Little effort was made to educate the new women members in Marxism, or to integrate them into the party as real and potential leaders in all areas of the party's work. This helped lay the basis for later attempts to mechanically link feminist issues with class issues in the party's analysis of women's oppression and liberation.

With an inadequate and distorted grasp of Marxist theory, isolated within their own party, weighed down by the Stalinist legacies of workerism and dismissal of the family as the main site of women's oppression, and under increasing pressure of social democratic reformism from the ALP, the CPA women intervening in the movement, when confronted with other analyses of women's oppression such as the newly emerging patriarchy theory, were almost inevitably going to adapt to anti-Marxist perspectives.

The result was so-called socialist feminism.

Socialist feminism: the CPA's second phase

Socialist feminism began as an attempt to develop a synthesis between radical feminism and Marxism, particularly drawing on the radical feminist concept of patriarchy. It first emerged as a theoretical current in Australia, Britain, Canada and the us in the early 1970s, from left women. In Australia, this was principally the Communist Party.

It developed as a critique of both radical feminism and Marxism. Socialist feminists argued that radical feminism's concept of patriarchy was ahistorical because it assumed that relations between women and men were unchanging throughout history and universal in all cultures. The socialist feminists argued that radical feminism was simplistic in arguing that there was one single cause of women's oppression. They said that it focused too exclusively on ideological factors and that it totally separated the oppression of women from capitalist social relations.

But they also rejected what they called the narrowness of Marxism.

Unfortunately, women in the CPA got their understanding of socialism not from the revolutionary socialist current of the Bolsheviks, but from the reactionary record of Stalinism, which betrayed the struggles of the oppressed and exploited, including women.

While the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution implemented widespread reforms which benefited women greatly, within a few years of Stalin's counter-revolutionary leadership, abortion and divorce were again made illegal, and the ideology of the traditional family and women's “proper” place in it was officially reasserted.

The socialist feminists' insistence that Marxism does not provide a full explanation of women's oppression and a program for combating it is based on this extremely distorted view of Marxism.

Socialist feminists said that Marxism is reductionist and economist in its insistence that all social relations, including between the sexes, are framed and determined by social relations that are centred on production of the essentials of life.

They argued that while Marxist theory could provide feminist analysis with a materialist foundation, patriarchy and relations of production have different origins and are relatively autonomous of each other. Relations between men and women, they said, have their own independent logic, dynamic and history that have no necessary relationship to the prevailing relations of production.

While Marxists reject the idealism of such a view, this does not mean that they accept the vulgarised, mechanical view often presented as the materialist alternative. Although relations between men and women are historically and materially incomprehensible in isolation from prevailing relations of production, relations between the sexes cannot be reduced to economic relations.

In any society, relations between the sexes are influenced by non-economic relations and the social consciousness these relations generate -- political, moral, religious and other ideas.

The Marxist (or historical materialist) approach does not deny that all known class societies have oppressed women. Nor does it dispute the fact that male privilege is a central feature of the capitalist system. Marxism emphatically agrees that men dominate virtually all aspects of capitalist economic, political and social life, and that capitalist society is riddled with degenerate sexist attitudes.

It also agrees that a by-product of this is the oppression of individual women by individual men. Sometimes individual men can be responsible for extreme violence against women.

But none of this proves that “patriarchy” is an autonomous structure with its own history, laws of motion and material base separate from the class relations associated with exploitative relations of production. In fact, this notion leads to most of its adherents moving closer to the patriarchy approach, abandoning more and more of the class issues and arriving at increasingly right-wing conclusions.

By the time socialist feminism was being formulated, the CPA was already orienting to the ALP under the leadership of Gough Whitlam. CPA feminism concentrated on winning the ALP to various women's reforms. These demands for reforms -- child-care, equal pay etc. -- were central to building the mass women's rights movement. But the CPA's primary orientation to the ALP prepared the way for a sell-out and moderation of its women members' feminism -- and their later absorption by the ALP.

Activities in the early movement

A Women's Liberation group was set up in Sydney in 1969 by women who had been active in the anti-war movement and other radical causes. Some had been involved in the ALP, and most had a generally socialist outlook, but none of the founders were members of any radical political party. The group's first independent action was marching as a contingent in the December 15, 3000-strong anti-war mobilisation in Sydney. It had an activist perspective and related to the other social movements.

The orientation of Women's Liberation enabled it to link up the struggle of the Vietnamese people with its own struggle. Soon groups existed in Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Newcastle, Brisbane and Sydney. The CPA soon took an interest.

In May 1970, a National Women's Liberation Conference was held in Melbourne, organised largely by the CPA. The CPA and others presented an economist perspective on women's oppression, which we criticised in our newspaper, Direct Action, at the time.

In January 1971, Sydney's first women's liberation conference was held. Then a women's liberation trade union conference was held in Melbourne in August 1971.

We had comrades at nearly all of these conferences and in groups that were springing up at the time. For example, we were involved in a group called Sydney Bread and Roses, which came out of the first women's liberation conference in Sydney.

That group argued for a mass movement perspective. It saw consciousness-raising groups as important, but argued against them being an exclusive focus, because they could lead to women “letting off steam” without achieving real social and political change.

A feminist newspaper called Mejane was launched shortly afterwards, produced by members of a women's collective which included our comrade Robynne Murphy. Mejane took up issues of work, reproductive control, women in politics, education and women's history.

The Women's Abortion Action Campaign was formed in 1972. Our comrades were among the founding members. Over the years, we have been consistently involved in campaigns to make abortion free, safe and accessible, as a fundamental right of every woman.

In the early 1970s, many feminists threw their lot in with the ALP and built a successful campaign for the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972. The Women's Electoral Lobby, which started in 1972, was one organisation that came out of the ALP and focused on the ALP's women's policies. This was a major goal for many women who came to believe that having the ALP in government was the way to achieve change. It was only three years before Whitlam was dismissed by the governor-general, during which time the mass movement succeeded in forcing some child-care and women's services funding out of the federal government. This created job opportunities for women's movement leaders.

In 1973, Refractory Girl, one the first Australian feminist journals, was launched. It covered a wide range of women's liberation issues from a left perspective.

Quite quickly, the key women producing it, such as Eva Cox, were coopted into support for the ALP and its femocracy. It wasn't until 20 years later that it was invigorated by a new production collective, including one of our comrades, and started to document and criticise the many failures of the ALP in regard to women. This lasted only for a few issues, however, and now its politics reflect the ALP-oriented Women's Electoral Lobby.

Also in 1973, after a battle with university administrations, several women's studies courses were established. This was a big step forward in the battle to have women's role in society documented and studied. But it also started the movement of many feminists into academia and a corresponding decrease in movement activity for many of them.

Differing approaches

Marxists have always held that it is in class society and its institutions, in particular the patriarchal family, that the origins of the oppression of women as a sex lie, and that without a society based on exploitation, there would be no material basis for the oppression of women.

Marxists do not believe that there is any biological or psychological basis for the oppression of women. In a classless, collective society, neither different reproductive functions nor differences in strength or intellect would need to be exploited.

Since property relations are conducted through the family in capitalism, we need to dismantle these property relations to liberate women.

We are democratic socialists, not Stalinists. We have had to and still do fight against the idea that Stalinism is all socialism had to offer, and have carefully studied socialist history, Marx and Engels' writings and the Bolsheviks' policies. Now we also have a rich experience in movement building.

Resistance, the socialist youth organisation, was formed in 1967. From the very start of our tendency, we took up women's liberation as one of our socialist goals. We came from the anti-Vietnam War movement, but were immersed in all of the movements at that time, which gave us a better understanding of how the struggles for women's liberation and socialism were totally linked.

We also benefited greatly from work of the US SWP, especially the writings of Evelyn Reed and Mary-Alice Waters.

We took education around all issues very seriously, and all our comrades were educated about women's oppression. We disagreed with the concept of women's caucuses in socialist parties because they can ghettoise the work and comrades, leaving only women to understand and organise against women's oppression.

For example, while it is mostly women who lead the party's Feminism and Socialism class series, all comrades are expected to complete this series, and our male comrades who lead Introduction to Socialism and Introduction to Marxism classes have to be able to educate around women's liberation.

Not only do we educate all comrades in this area. We also understand that women comrades often need extra encouragement to develop as leaders because of the sexist conditioning they are subject to under capitalism.

In September 1970, issue number 7 of Direct Action had the paper's first women's liberation front cover (the earlier ones had mainly been anti-war related). The recruiting advertisement from the first issue said, “If you oppose the Vietnam war and conscription -- if you want a socialist Australia -- if you support the struggle for socialist democracy in Eastern Europe, Russia and China, the struggle for women's liberation and the struggle for national liberation around the world -- then join the Socialist Youth Alliance” (the name of Resistance at the time).

The first issue also reported on the Socialist Youth Alliance conference, including on a workshop about our work in the women's liberation movement:

In considering SYA activity, the workshop felt it necessary to examine the development of women's liberation groups in Australia.

Extensive classes of different aspects of women's liberation would function as threefold educationals.

  1. They would serve as an introduction for women who come into , and would encourage them to join and work in the women's liberation movement.

  2. They would educate the whole of the SYA, men in particular, and attempt to give a deeper understanding of the history and aspects of women's oppression. [Note the contrast with the CPA, which isolated issues of women's oppression in women's caucuses.]

  3. They would give a clearer perspective of what demands were the correct ones in building a movement around women's liberation.

As socialists we concluded that we must be able to link up the demand for women's liberation with socialism, we must convince women who join the women's liberation movement that they are not going to be liberated under capitalism, that it means a complete revolution, to also help us build a socialist youth organisation, as a means of forwarding the struggle against all aspects of the capitalist system.

We understood that working-class men as a group (sexist as they might be individually) face the objective predicament that the oppression of working-class women drags down the condition of the whole working class. Liberation from class oppression and exploitation will require the full participation of working-class women, just as liberation for women will require the full participation of working-class men. Unlike ruling-class men, working-class men are potential allies in the struggle against gender oppression.

None of this is to deny that women must develop their own collective identity and forms of organisation. We saw the need to build an autonomous women's liberation movement.

All women are oppressed, so women must organise independently, across classes, for their our own liberation. They must be the political leaders of their own movement.

But this movement must work in an alliance with other oppressed groups, particularly the working class. It must ultimately be part of a broader political movement committed to ending capitalist rule. Consciousness of this necessity, and of the interrelationship of gender and class oppression, will grow with the increasing involvement of working-class women in the women's liberation movement.

Economistic organisations such as the International Socialist Organisation never took the same approach to feminism, even at the time of the second wave. While it supports gender equality, it thinks feminism is a bourgeois movement.

While the iso concedes that all women, regardless of their class position, are oppressed, the fact that ruling-class women can cushion the worst effects of oppression with their wealth leads it to downplay the sexism that all women experience to the point of almost negating it.

Women from the ruling class do experience the effects of women's oppression less. But we disagree with the iso's simplistic reduction of the struggle for women's liberation to the class fight, and its classification of all feminism as radical feminism. In saying that working women should fight only for socialism, it refuses to see the fight that working-class women must wage to eradicate sexism within the working class, in order to mobilise the masses of both sexes against capitalism.

Socialism will not automatically bring gender equality. It has to be fought for before, after and during the revolution, because both women and men are still conditioned by the dominant -- capitalist -- ideology, and this will not change overnight.

Working Women's Charter

In 1977, the Working Women's Charter process started. There had been a similar project in the UK, and the Communist League (which later fused with what eventually became the Democratic Socialist Party) and the CPA initiated it in Australia. It was later taken up by the ALP-dominated Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) as a focus for women in the ALP. This led to it being adopted by the ACTU congress with some of the content watered down, especially the parts on abortion.

The original Working Women's Charter leaflet explained that the charter was “a vehicle for launching a campaign to break down the sexism within the trade union movement, to force unions to take up problems confronting women and to prepare the way for male workers to understand that sexism only divides and weakens the working class”.

We participated in this process when it started in Sydney. Several activists in the Wollongong Working Women's Charter Committee were members of our party, and this led to the Jobs for Women campaign at the Port Kembla BHP steelworks in Wollongong and Newcastle.

In 1978, we, along with other Fourth International groups, started what we called the turn to industry. This was based on an overly schematic assessment that there was to be an upturn in the class struggle, and that by being positioned among workers, especially in manufacturing industry, we would be very well placed to play a leading role in this upsurge.

It was a major reorientation of our party, and as many comrades as possible, both women and men, were assigned to find jobs in industry. Many of our more experienced women comrades have experiences to relate from their jobs in foundries, on the railways and in the steelworks in Newcastle and Port Kembla.

Not only did women comrades have to do all the same union activity, but most also had a harsh battle against sexism on the job. They fought against the use of sexist language and ideas as well as posters of naked women around the workplace, and against discriminatory work practices. These comrades became far more confident in all areas of politics, but especially in arguing for the rights of women.

The quest for women to gain more non-traditional jobs, a goal ignored by bourgeois feminism, was an important part of our perspective. Even when legislation was passed banning discrimination against women in the workplace, we saw campaigning as very necessary to politicise more women and break down stereotypes.

One of the most important such campaigns was the Jobs for Women campaign in Wollongong. It was launched in 1980. We had immersed ourselves in the turn to industry, and when a branch of the party was established in Wollongong in 1979, many of the male comrades obtained jobs at the Port Kembla steelworks. However, our women comrades were not as well received by Australian Iron and Steel, a subsidiary of BHP, which employed women largely in the cafeteria and in secretarial work.

Despite the fact that it was employing 30–40 new male workers per week, there were more than 2000 women on the waiting list.

When the party launched the Jobs for Women Campaign, there was wide support from the women's movement and many trade union and other left activists, especially in the Working Women's Charter committee. In April 1980, a seminar on sexual harassment was organised by the committee, in which we played a significant role. At this seminar, the Jobs for Women Action Committee was formed.

Earlier there had been a sexual harassment case in a small shop, where many young women filed a complaint against the shop owner, who had harassed 41 of the young women workers there, who were aged 14–17.

The example of the courage of these young women gave confidence to the older, often migrant women who had been on the steelworks waiting list, and together they filed complaints against BHP with the state of New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, which had been set up largely as a result of the political pressure generated by the women's movement.

Building the campaign in the community involved winning support from trade unions, women's groups and the migrant communities. Leaflets were put out in the languages of these communities, and the women went to many meetings organised by community groups and won widespread support.

Winning the support of the leadership of the trade union that would cover them if they succeeded in obtaining work was important. This union, the Federated Ironworkers Association, did support the campaign after the women explained that they were not after male jobs, but after their own jobs. At that time, there wasn't a shortage of jobs in the industry, but previously, in 1973, BHP had laid off male workers, replacing them with some women workers, a move resented by the men employed there.

In July 1980, the Jobs for Women Action Group sent up a tent embassy outside the steelworks. It went on for two days and nights, during which time more than 2000 signatures were collected from male steel workers. Many also donated to the fighting fund and brought food packages (from their wives -- obviously supportive of the struggle). This period turned into a forum for discussion, assisted by a pamphlet written in five languages explaining the issues.

Keeping up their activist campaign, even when negotiations were being held between BHP, the union and a counsellor for equal opportunity, the women organised a street march, continued picketing of the steelworks and a massive fundraising campaign.

In November 1980, BHP agreed to hire all the women who had filed complaints. However, after two and a half years, BHP decided to retrench some of its work force, and unfortunately the last hired first fired policy came into effect, and many of these women lost their jobs.

Later, when 34 women finally put their case to the Equal Opportunity Tribunal, arguing that BHP's past discriminatory hiring practices had meant that they were unfairly last hired, and would not have been so had there been an equal opportunity hiring procedure, they were awarded damages totalling more than $1 million. This was possible only after two years of pressure on the nsw government resulted in them obtaining legal aid. BHP unsuccessfully appealed against this decision.

This precedent was tested by another 238 women, who were successful in reaching an out of court settlement in 1994, although it was not very large, fourteen years after the start of the campaign for equal opportunity. Overall, more than 700 women were involved in the legal action. Robynne Murphy said at the conclusion of the campaign:

We faced so many problems and setbacks. We had to petition five times before we could get legal aid for the first stage of the campaign. High flying politicians like Nick Greiner and Neil Pickard got legal aid at the drop of a hat, but thirty-one unemployed women taking on the “Big Australian” kept getting a blanket refusal. And we got it finally because we mounted a very active political campaign around the whole case.

I don't think we could have sustained such a campaign without the party. Once the party took the decision to build the campaign, it followed through for the whole fourteen years. Collective thinking and political campaigning helped us overcome the pressures of dirty tricks, legal technicalities and general bloody-mindedness that we were subjected to as individuals. We found that by acting collectively you can win, even when the odds were stacked against us like they were with BHP.

CPA collapse and cooption

In the 1980s, the CPA started to decline in size and lost a number of leading women to the ALP. This was the logical outcome of the symbiotic relationship between the ALP left and CPA since its split with the Socialist Party of Australia.

In 1983, after another major election campaign, with the support of many women, the ALP got back into government with former ACTU president Bob Hawke at the helm. At this time, some demands for formal rights for women were put into legislation, including laws against discrimination and for limited affirmative action.

The CPA was deeply involved in the Accord, the pact between the government and the union leadership which froze wages and started to set back working conditions. Its acceptance of this anti-worker pact put the CPA well on the way to eventual dissolution into the ALP.

We noted at the time that the ALP had been working overtime to project itself as a government responsive to the needs and demands of women. Not only had the ALP discovered that women candidates win more votes, but in the first two years of office it had established numerous advisory councils and equal opportunity centres, not to mention proclamation after proclamation on women and employment, women and education and so on.

Many good feminists became coopted into the ALP. They were given high-paying jobs heading women's departments and positions in all of the advisory councils in the government, private industry and in various programs for women. This was the start of the femocracy that we speak about today. Most who did this genuinely believed that that was where real change needed to be made, and that by being a part of it, they could assist that process. However, most of these women eventually became reluctant to speak out against the government for fear of losing their new careers and lifestyles.

In 1984 the Women and Labour conference was the biggest and most vibrant yet. It was held in Brisbane and was attended by 1700 people. The theme of this conference was racism; migrant women and Aboriginal women attended in larger numbers than before, and were starting to play a bigger role. But it was to be the last Women and Labour conference for 11 years. The CPA basically killed it off, and we did not have the resources to take on organising the next one.

There was, however, still a real resonance for women's conferences. Five hundred women attended the Socialist Feminist conference in 1984.

The next Socialist Feminist conference was in 1987 in Sydney. It drew 700 people, but at this time the CPA was preparing to dissolve and the ALP was moving far more to the right.

During the late 1980s, socialist feminism declined. More and more women were orienting to the ALP. This left some space for radical feminism, and one of the major events every year was the Reclaim the Night march, the first of which had been held in 1978. Initially the marches had been aimed solely at red light districts, often heckling the sex workers. It was only later in the 1990s, when the politics became broader, that we intervened in this event.

In the last few years, Reclaim the Night has become politically healthier in response to the cuts to women's services and ideological attacks on women's rights. It has raised many more concrete demands on the state than those put forward by the radical feminists who had control over this event for many years.

In 1987, the Network of Women Students Australia (nowsa) was formed, from the first national women on campus conference in Canberra. Later, the National Union of Students, controlled by ALP forces on campus, tried to take it over.

1991 was the launch of Green Left Weekly, and in this new initiative we continued our excellent coverage of issues and events in the women's liberation movement. Since the first issue, it has included the “…and ain't I a woman?” column to highlight and discuss issues of women's oppression and liberation.

This was the same year that the book Backlash, written by Susan Faludi, was published. It documented the ideological backlash against women's rights since the decline of the second wave. During this time, we held many educational talks and public forums about the backlash against feminism to educate our members and others about why feminism wasn't redundant and women were still a long way from equality with men.

It was useful to illustrate the need for a revolutionary perspective because the backlash was all about creating an ideological environment to roll back some of the gains that were made in the second wave of the women's liberation movement. While these were important gains, we needed to convince others that any reforms won under capitalism can be taken away, and the fight to defend and extend them still continues.

In 1994 there was a new spate of abortion campaigns, some small but nonetheless important. The spark was the Superclinics abortion case in nsw, in which a woman lost her suit against doctors who had failed to diagnose her pregnancy until it was too late to have an abortion, so she was forced to go ahead with the pregnancy. In dismissing her case, Justice Newman reaffirmed the criminal nature of abortion, saying that upholding her right to abortion would be like upholding the right of someone to steal a car or commit some other crime.

In the same year, act campaigners won their first and only freestanding abortion clinic.


The emergence of postmodernism as a fashionable academic doctrine had harmful effects on feminism as well as other social movements. Postmodernism was largely an academic phenomenon, but in some areas its effects were felt much more widely. At universities it seriously infected women's collectives and other forums for feminist discussion and action, including the 1994 nowsa conference.

Postmodernism, as a way of thinking about the world, had a demobilising effect on the feminist movement. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many disillusioned left-wing activists rejected not only the Stalinist project, but the whole of socialism. They ended up rejecting the Marxist view that the world is shaped by social and historical forces, not by individuals who have certain ideas and make certain choices.

Expressed within the social movements, postmodernism was a view that the difference between individuals was greater than any commonalities. In the feminist movement, this meant a denial of the importance of women acting collectively against their oppression as women.

Differences had to celebrated, so adherents of postmodernism argued that movement events should become celebrations of diversity, to represent the myriad of different kinds of women.

While we recognise that women come from all sorts of backgrounds, and have many different experiences, we know that if we want to win equality, then the commonality of the oppression that all women experience, albeit to different degrees, has to be identified and challenged.

To paraphrase Lenin, the working class's only tool is organisation. That is all we have with which to fight the power of the ruling minority. In great numbers, the working class and oppressed groups, of which women are one, can succeed.

It was certainly a relief to see the effect of postmodernism on feminist activists diminishing over the next few years.

During the 1990s we took main responsibility for making the International Women's Day march and rally happen each year.

IWD had been in effect abandoned when the CPA and ALP women basically dropped it, and the radical feminists were busy in academia or women's services. If it had not been for us taking on this work, most likely IWD would have collapsed.

We have rebuilt the collectives over recent years. There are some large and lively ones now, involving all sorts of activists.

Obviously, we try to win women who join the collectives to our Marxist understanding of the nature of women's oppression, but we also see the importance of IWD to rebuilding the movement.

Another style of bourgeois feminism emerged in 1996, based on ideas that were not altogether new. “Do It Yourself” feminism arose partly as a response to “generation gap” political discussion precipitated by criticism from “older” conservative women such as Anne Summers and Helen Garner, who wrote the book The First Stone. Garner described younger feminists as cold puritans and strangely inarticulate.

diy was the next stage of liberal feminism, espousing individual solutions to women's oppression -- ”girls” doing it for themselves, reclaiming language, dressing sexily and being sassy to liberate themselves and show that they had. This was encapsulated in the books diy Feminism by Kathy Bail, and Generation F by Virginia Trioli.

The logical conclusion from this was that the women's liberation movement was no longer needed, since we can all liberate ourselves with personal confidence and fashion. This was, however, more popular on the internet and at universities than in most women's real world, where sexism is a regular experience that cannot be overcome by a new attitude and a new look.

The irony was that this form of feminism arose at roughly the same time that the Howard government was elected. Right from the start, it brought in cuts to funding, child-care, women's services etc. faster and deeper than the Labor government before it had dared. Among other things that the Coalition government did was to abolish the section of the Australian Bureau of Statistics that collected information on the status of women in Australia, so now it is far more difficult to measure how the conservative politics of Howard's government are affecting women.

During this period we have attempted to counter the ideology of diy using branch discussions and Green Left Weekly to explain the real situation for women under the Howard government.

In 1997 the Women and Labour conference was relaunched by academic radical feminists based at the Australian Women's Research Centre. There were very few young women attending, and no national organisation emerged from it, despite some mention of this by the organisers. In fact, the next conference may even be in doubt.

Nevertheless, in 1998 radical feminism started to gain ground again among new activist feminists, such as in Left Alliance. This is happening mainly at universities. The transgender debate, renewed opposition to men's participation in movement events, censorship debates -- this is all coming up in movement collectives and in such forums as nowsa.

Internal work

When we look at the big picture today, however, it is clear that the weight and influence of our party in feminist activism and ideas are greater than ever. Our organisational centrality and the importance of our role as the sole bearers of Marxism within activist feminism in Australia today both flow from decades of consistent work in the movement.

But most importantly, they flow from our analysis of the origins and nature of women's oppression, and therefore what needs to be done to overcome it. Unless we correctly understand women's oppression, we won't understand how to overthrow capitalism and thereby lay the foundations for the liberation of all women. Unless the mass of women -- the majority of whom are working class -- are mobilised in action for their own liberation as women, the struggle to overthrow capitalism will not succeed.

It has been and continues to be our Marxist analysis that allows us to put the movement's ebbs and flows into historical perspective; which gives us an optimistic outlook; and which is a safeguard against retreats into piecemeal reformism, political cooption and the idealism that leads to demoralisation.

The fundamentals of Marxist analysis of women's oppression and liberation are contained in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Zetkin, Luxemburg and many more “classics”, which we study closely and constantly. But we have also produced our own documents and pamphlets based on our experiences in movement building since the second wave, and the conclusions we have drawn from these.

Feminism and Socialism, adopted in 1992, details the basic strategic perspective set out in the party program and is the most important of these. We have also documented our positions on pornography and censorship, abortion rights, patriarchy theory and many other questions in pamphlets and our press. These writings are a valuable record of past experiences and will make a crucial contribution to achieving political clarity in the new mass movement that will eventually emerge.

To employ our analysis and experience most effectively, we understand that the party membership as a whole must be thoroughly educated in the Marxist analysis of women's oppression. This must be a constant process, involving class series, branch educationals, conference talks and workshops, and involving all members regardless of their gender or their specific party assignments.

This is essential because the DSP today carries a burden of responsibility in the struggle for women's liberation which is quite disproportionate to our size.

How well we generalise the richness of our tendency's experiences and the depth of our scientific understanding will be a major determinant of the strength and advances made by the third wave of the women's liberation movement.

[Margaret Allan is a member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia. This article is based on an educational talk to the party's congress, held in Sydney in January 1999.]


I am trying to locate any references to my grandmother Pauline Anne Jane BUDGE who, I believe, was a founder of the Australian Womens' Party around the 50s. I have some papers of hers that I would like to verify.

Any information would be very gratefully received.


Hi Margaret,

Hoping you may be able to help/point me in the right direction. I'm a researcher writing a thesis and I am trying to pin down (prefereable with evidence) when fathers became more actively involved in supporting their partners and children in relation to domestic duties, present at birth, assisting with raising the children, and basically the driving factors behind the transition from traditional 'breadwinning' roles for father towards the more active contemporary fathering model we have today. A lot of journal articles refer to dual income families being a response to economic challenges facing families. Was the womens movement not the driving force behind women moving into the labour market and rallying for equal rights and opportunities (post-war?) and didn't the womens movement provide better opportunities for women and babies in relation to healthcare (Peel) that saw more women birthing in hospitals than home? Is it right that in response to this men started to support their partners at the birth and this became very popular in the 70s. I've found a lot of information about this sort of stuff but nothing official that back it all up etc. Where do I find this sort of thing? And my main confusion is that all the journal articles I have read have indicated women entering the workforce was due to economic pressure but was it more than this? Apologies for the 20 million questions, just trying to understand what shifted fathers towards the more supportive role they have progressed towards today. Many thanks for any advice :)