Young Women’s Prognosis for Feminism: Alive, Kicking and Life-saving!

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The Australian newspaper’s contribution to International Women’s Day this year was

this article: “What young women want: Feminism is dead, or at least in desperate need

of an extreme makeover.” An IWD forum launching a fight to decriminalise abortion in

Victoria demonstrated anything but! Co-sponsored by Radical Women and Campaign

for Women’s Reproductive Rights, the event attracted women and men spanning the age

spectrum. Many were young women, with lots to say.

Checking the pulse. The Australian was reporting the release of the Victorian Equal

Opportunity & Human Rights Commission’s (EOHRC) research, Women, Rights &

Equality: What do they want now? The publication marked the 100th anniversary of

women winning the vote in Australia.

The EOHRC concludes, “Feminism is seen as having a damaged brand image,” being

equated with “radical and militant women who want to be men.” Younger women, it

says, “see it as something of an anachronism whose job is largely done.” Much of the

commission’s report details how reality, particularly in the workplace, conflicts with

these perceptions. An example is the bulk of the care for children, ageing parents and

dependents with disabilities that women provide. Sixty-nine percent of Australians, it

states, believe that this is a woman’s role. In 2006-2007, the Victorian EOHRC received

nearly 500 complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of sex,

pregnancy or breastfeeding. The number of unreported cases would magnify the picture

many times.

The report provides evidence of intense sexist exploitation in the workplace. The

employment rate of Australian mothers is well below most of the world. In 2001, 45% of

women with children under six were in jobs. In May 2007, women earned 16% less than

men. It’s worse in occupations that are predominantly female: most workplaces staffed

at least two-thirds by women pay less than $18.00 an hour. Women are two-thirds of

the casual workforce. Forty-six percent of all employed women work part-time; most of

these jobs are casual and dead-end, with no flexibility in hours. Yet most young women,

according to the EOHRC, are not aware that pay inequality is pervasive and systemic.

They believe they have the same opportunities as men and can pursue the career of their


The young women surveyed would not accept the rotten working conditions of their

mothers. Believing in paid maternity leave as an entitlement, they were surprised to learn

that Australia does not have a national scheme. They would also be shocked to find that

the rights to abortion and childcare are not yet won.

Call off the funeral! Contrary to the commission’s despair, Radical Women is

optimistic. Thanks to the feminist movement, young women expect equality. They will

not take the hardship their feminist mothers fought to overcome. For this reason, they will

not tolerate the rollbacks! There are already young feminists leading significant fights.

RW interviewed four of these women. Danielle Archer, Jaye Hardy, Sara Pearce and

Shae Pendlebury speak out about feminism and why it’s the force needed for these times.

Sara Pearce: Student at Monash University, 23 years old

“I define feminism as the fight for equality for everybody. It’s about getting everyone

equal rights and equal standing in society. I have always believed in this. I began by

identifying with the early feminist struggles for the vote and the rights to jobs and equal

pay. They taught me what can be achieved through the power of uniting to change


“Women have won some equal rights in law, but we need to make social change. The

treatment of women in the media is really a hot topic for me — it makes me very angry.

Women are made into objects of possession — not necessarily for men but for capitalism.

Business makes profits by preying on the insecurities ingrained into us, like our weight

and our looks. They manipulate our sexual liberation and use it as a method of control.

They also use the self-doubt we often internalise: that we’re not good enough to work,

study, have well-paid or high-power jobs or run the country.

“The cost of education is another issue. We’re going to be in debt for 40 or 50 years,

taking into consideration the time we’ll need to take off work for kids — without free,

accessible childcare or paid maternity leave. This puts us in debt for our whole lives! I

can also rant about Centrelink. I have endless trouble because I live with my boyfriend.

We are flatmates in every sense: we don’t share money or possessions and we don’t

consider ourselves in a defacto relationship. But Centrelink assumes we’re like a married

couple. If I earn a certain amount of money, it means that my partner has to rely on me.

I’ve been in this situation before. I had to work two jobs while going to uni, because I had

to support my partner as well. Now same-sex partners face the same thing.

“People who think feminism is divisive are not looking at the big picture. They are stuck

on feminism as being just for women. That’s the perception put out there. But feminism

is about freeing everyone. It’s about recognising that everybody should be equal and

about challenging the way society now is.”

Jaye Hardy, 28 years old: Student Liaison Officer at RMIT University

“Women should have equal rights, equal pay, equal access and control of their own

bodies. Society’s structure needs to be changed to allow this.

“I find that a lot of young people don’t want to be defined by a greater group, because

we are an individualistic society and people want to be judged on their own merits. The

idea that ‘I am equal, so now I don’t need any more help’ is individualised: they don’t

look at society as a greater whole. I think they see the label of feminist as someone who

is fighting for more than they deserve. They see aligning with a movement as weak.

That’s what I find from young women who say, ‘I am glad mum was a feminist. I am

glad she got all of those things, but there is no need for that now, and I have equal access

to everything.’

“I think I have always been a feminist, and I embrace the label. I’ve learned about the

patriarchal structure of society, which is so ingrained that you don’t notice. For example,

women staying at home to look after the kids is considered a legitimate alternative to

accessible childcare; a woman’s career takes second place. Having no paid maternity

leave is also a big problem. Women won’t be equal without economic independence.

This is why we must fight for equality and recognition in the labour force.

“When a movement is successful, the system has to portray it as something negative and

unfair in order to stop people from joining it. Turning feminism into a dirty word is a

proof of the movement’s unifying power and the system’s fear of it.”

Danielle Archer, 31 years old works at

Victorian Trades Hall Council as Coordinator of Young Unionists Network.

“I think of feminism as a socially progressive movement in a society that is dominated

by patriarchy. Marginalising and oppressing women benefits nobody. Feminism is about

achieving social equality for everyone so they can participate and have their needs met. It

unifies people to address the cause of oppression which is the structure of our capitalist


“The world economy is behind the oppression of women — the way it uses their unpaid

domestic labour, which then becomes the basis for the undervaluing and low pay of

women in the workforce.

“The need for a feminist movement today is huge. A lot of young women look to its

achievements and think that everything has been done. They think we have equality

and equal pay, and we have free choice. But we only have to look at abortion and the

fact that it’s not freely, easily or safely available to all women. Or paid maternity leave

— Australia is the fifth worst in the world. There’s no free childcare. Women are still

doing the free domestic labour, breeding and raising the next generation of workers. Sure,

we can vote, but we’re still treated as second-class citizens.

“A burning issue for young workers is youth wages. They make up a huge part of the

casual workforce, and a lot are women — particularly in hospitality and retail. These

women are single mothers and students. Youth wages equals slave labour, and sexism

makes it possible.

“The Howard government contributed a lot to the demonising of feminism. It used its

decade of power to suppress dissent, and it saw feminism as a threat. Young women

have voted only under that government which bred a culture of individualism. Feminism

is about solidarity and collective organising. A government that painted activism and

protest as terrorism also bred fear, and many young women are afraid of a movement

they don’t understand because it has been made a taboo.

“Feminism can be a force that unites. An example is the defence of the Fertility Control

Clinic against anti-abortionists. The last one I attended had women and men of all ages

and cultural backgrounds. The chants — ‘Women and men, we’re here together. We

oppose anti-choice terror!’ and ‘Workers, women, queers unite. Fight back against the

right!’ are a wonderful example of people coming together to defend every woman’s

right to make her own choice.

“I’ve been a feminist longer than I’ve identified the word to describe myself. Being

around people who share my beliefs and matching our experiences and ideas led me to

recognise myself as feminist. I found this liberating.”

Shae Pendlebury: Fine Arts Student, RMIT, 25 years old

“Feminism is one of those words where it almost seems silly to have to define. It’s about

women being equal in everything, including their bodies. That it’s stereotyped as angry,

radical women who hate men is a lot about intimidating women, making them worry

about how they’ll be perceived.

“Feminism is a threat to the patriarchal structure, because it is a way to explain things. It

enables women to confront sexist behaviour and its power.

“Feminism has achieved a lot, such as getting the vote for women, the beginning of

paid maternity leave for women in the public service and the right for women to earn an

income and have some economic independence. But there is still so much to be done.

One issue is the way women are portrayed in the media, which is getting worse. Business

exploits our sexuality to sell products, while it also targets us as consumers.”

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