I’ve been a working mum for 25 years. Having raised two daughters as a sole parent, I know all about navigating the minefield for women, commonly referred to as “choices.” Whenever I hear today’s media discussion about maternity leave and welfare reform, the alarm bells go off. Big Business wants us home — at taxpayers’ expense — and the Howard Government is frogmarching us back behind the white picket fence. The name for this is “family values.”
I’m a beneficiary of the 1970s Women’s Liberation movement, which followed the footsteps of our feminist foremothers. Global economic expansion after World War II had brought women into the workforce in droves, upgraded the standard of living and created a “revolution of expectations.” This set the stage for the social movements of the 1960s. The international feminist movement demanded everything from equal pay for comparable worth to full reproductive rights and the abolition of the patriarchal family — cutting through to the root of women’s oppression: capitalism. The freedom fever was still running hot in the ’70s. Abortion on demand, childcare and the right to leave a marriage were chief planks of Australian feminism. But real choice for women requires economic independence. Equal employment opportunity and equal pay ranked high on the agenda.
This laid a whole new foundation for Australian women. The Family Law Act of 1975 instituted no-fault divorce and took into account the value of women’s domestic work in the division of assets. In 1984, the Sex Discrimination Act outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status and pregnancy in employment, education and the provision of services. It also made sexual harassment unlawful. Childcare centres opened for working mothers, and women’s refuges provided escape from violent relationships.
But there was also some unfinished business. Equal pay became recognised, but only on paper. Still concentrated in casual work and the lowest-paid jobs, women today earn only 2/3 of men’s wages. Abortion remains a crime.
By the mid 1970s, capitalism was in recession. Reforms wrested from the system would likely be the last of any significance. Now bankrupt, the profit economy is resorting to unbridled exploitation. Howard’s job is to whip Australia’s working class into line, and women are feeling the first blows.
Reproductive rights not good for business. This economy couldn’t function if women enjoyed equality and independence. We’re needed to breed — and care — for tomorrow’s workers, free of charge to the boss. As workers, our exceptional skills keep industries humming. Our under-paid labour not only makes us super cheap but sets the lowest possible standard for pay and conditions across the board.
Since the 1940s, government-funded child endowment — fought for by earlier feminists — has allowed working mothers like myself to supplement our income and provide for our kids, if only barely. And childcare made it possible for us to carry the double burden. But the neoliberal policies of the last decade have changed all that. Working women can no longer manage with the combination of welfare payments and their inadequate wages. Because of the privatisation of childcare and other services, they face the “choice” of giving up their jobs to stay at home or working for next to nothing. The impact of their meagre earnings eats into their welfare income to such an extent that — after the costs of childcare — they can end up working for 40¢ an hour. Hardly worth the effort! Even worse, raising two children was recently costed at $450,000 — making this alternative also impossible.
The Howard Government is now overhauling the welfare system. It plans to consolidate all payments — from unemployment and disability to parenting — into one. The rationale is to stop the rorting, particularly of disability pensioners and sole parents! But the reason is unmistakable: cut welfare and use our tax dollars to rescue business and pay for Bush’s war.
Women should not pay for maternity leave! Australia is one of two wealthy countries in the world — the United States being the other — not providing paid maternity leave. Since the 1960s, thanks to the pill, women have been making their own decisions about when and if to have children. Big business is now in a tizz over the declining birth rate, and blaming women for a “fertility strike.” It is an industrial showdown: business’s hysteria shows how important women’s reproduction is to its profits.
The Howard Government’s solution is to pay for maternity leave with our taxes. Not only that, mothers individually are to continue paying as well. It is proposing 14 weeks of taxpayer-funded maternity leave if the woman gives up other government benefits, such as the one-off “baby bonus” payment. It’s a double whammy rip-off: besides forfeiting their entitlements, as income earners and consumers women are the majority of taxpayers. And the union movement supports this! No more bailouts for business. Make the profiteers pay!
Whose fertility? The debate assumes that only certain women should breed: white and married. Last year, an unmarried woman challenged Victoria’s laws on access to IVF (in vitro fertilisation) treatment. Only women in established heterosexual relationships can use the program. When her case went to the High Court, the Howard Government teamed up with the Catholic Church to defeat it. Howard is even prepared to gut the Sex Discrimination Act in order to stop any state from allowing free access to IVF and donor sperm. For decades, Aboriginal women, migrant women, poor women and women with disabilities have been denied their reproductive rights — by forced sterilisation, welfare authorities taking their children or infant deaths caused by poverty and the racist health system. Refugees, most of whom are women and children, cannot live in this country.
For biological self-determination. The Radical Women Manifesto says: “Our sexuality is for us alone to determine; we must define ourselves. Fundamental to the liberation of women is our right as free individuals to exercise control over our own bodies based on our own judgement, free from economic or social coercion. Bearing and nurturing children is only one part of a woman’s life. Children should not be our private responsibility nor should we be forced into childbearing.”
The struggle for reproductive freedom binds together all women abused and exploited by the global economic system. It unites movements, from trade union, Aboriginal and refugee rights to disability and queer. When we join as a single force and fight like hell for women’s independence, we’ll have the strength to finish the work of our foremothers. We’ll be able to uproot capitalism and plant something beautiful in its place: feminist socialism.