A still from the documentary Brazen Hussies (Image: Supplied)

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reminded of the original intentions of second wave feminism: to seek radical change, not to strive for equality based on dominant male values.

My thoughts were prompted by two events. A preview of the new Australian documentary Brazen Hussies, which tells stories from the women’s liberation movement between 1965 and 1975; and the funeral of feminist Susan Ryan, who served as a cabinet member in the Hawke government.

Susan and I worked together under Whitlam to secure funding for childcare, women’s refuges and equal pay. Susan introduced the Sex Discrimination Act, better education for girls and much else.

These events made me very aware of the gendered limits to what we have achieved. We need to create more optimistic, more functional and more civil societies. We can’t do that by using dysfunctional masculinised values.

This problem is clearly illustrated in the recent storm of gender bias claims in Australia’s COVID-19 recovery plans. The government clearly stated that its intentions were to fund businesses and tax cuts that would restore spending and profits. It would also fund major building and infrastructure projects, increasing employment in male-dominated jobs.

Protests that these plans would create a “pink-collar” recession came not only from women’s groups but also from those who realised that there was no attempt to fill the obvious shortages of labour in the care and public sectors. This is despite these issues being highlighted in the many concurrent reports from the aged care and disability royal commissions, stories of overworked health facilities and a range of public services and community groups.

These omissions reinforced my long-held belief that the current paradigm of pro-market neoliberalism inherently includes an inability to see the value of community care and public services, which are also major employers of women.

Even the creeping privatisations of child and aged care have not overcome this blindness to the value of necessary services and their expansion. This limited viewpoint completely fails to acknowledge the value of those jobs, which in the main are poorly paid and traditionally cover feminised areas.

The origins of this prejudice date back to the industrial revolution when paid work of mainly men began the divide between their contributions and the unpaid (private) work of mainly women. This has carried on into the unacknowledged gender biases that includes ignoring all that isn’t counted in GDP, and consequently undervaluing most of what was once seen as private women’s care work.

My concerns have been confirmed by a range of other commentators, and not the usual suspects — including The Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor Ross Gittins. His description in the SMH last week is more powerful than any I could offer:

The simple truth is that, over the centuries, what economists call the ‘institutional arrangements’ that make up the economy have been designed by men, for the convenience of men. This was fine when the great majority of the paid (note that word) work was done by men, but not so fine now women are better educated than men and make up 47% of the paid workforce … the first place a bias in favour of men is hidden is the division we make between the production of ‘goods’ (by the agriculture, mining, manufacturing, utilities and construction industries) and the production of ‘services’ by every other industry.

His description confirms concerns I have had for the last four decades: that the market-based economic paradigm has completely taken over from the previous mix of social policies and economic ones we had post World War II.

This bias divide also fails to recognise the major shift of the last decades away from manufacturing and production jobs to an ever-growing service sector. The continuing growth of jobs in education, health care, cleaning, nursing and personal services seen as women’s work — often supplied by co-ops — community groups or even publicly owned services, has been ignored.

However, a very different view was taken by Minister for Women Marise Payne, who claimed the budget does not disproportionately benefit men, and is a “budget for all Australians”, focused on economic recovery and driving jobs.

Fronting Senate estimates last Monday, Senator Payne rejected the assertion that the federal budget was gender blind and had not done enough for Australian women.

“If we are talking about supporting business investment, the JobTrainer fund, the JobMaker hiring credit; they’re not gendered initiatives,” Payne said.

These denials clarify why feminism is stuck, and maybe going backwards.

Yes it’s true we have sex discrimination legislation so we cannot be refused entry to male-majority industries, as we once were. But the problem remains that continuing gender bias ensures the values put on jobs, skills and qualifications still reflect the masculine views of what matters — economic wealth production — while feminised areas of social and personal wellbeing remain less valued, unfunded, underpaid and politically neglected.

The implicit beliefs of those in power are that women will be treated “equally” only if they share the dominant values, and do not try to redefine them.

We thought we could make changes by joining the system. We were wrong.

Many of the women we agitated into power were parvenus or ended up following the party line. Most current feminist groups have demanded numerical equality but not emphasised the need for change, or at least adding feminist values, to current power-brokers’ agendas and thereby improving governance decisions.

The last decades have lulled feminists into the belief that we could do it by pointing out, via statistics and infiltration, the changes we sought. The paradigm shifts to dominance of market-based models, however, have reduced the interest in social policies, lowered trust in democracy and undermined necessary changes to priorities that create stable functioning societies.

So, when the budgets and priority settings undermine social needs in favor of financial material goals, many feminist groups complained about numbers. Rather than pointing out the risks to the whole of society in failing to fund the social jobs and other feminised spheres, most of the critiques focused on the numbers of jobs.

What we need to do is to point out the serious ill-effects of excluding these jobs. Australia, a rich, low-tax country, is creating underclasses and discontent on a major scale.

Australia has a high rate of gender-based majority occupations: nursing, children’s services, primary teachers, food preparation, personal care and cleaning are all hugely feminised industries.

Those in power forget that in the early management of the virus, it was the nurses and other feminised job holders that were crucial in taking care of those affected.

Feminist advocacy needs to point out that these roles are essential to restoring social and economic functionality as well. Rather than counting the jobs we lose, why not show what damage is caused by ignoring and undervaluing their essential contributions to our recovery?

The IMF even sent a warning about governments like ours, advising that “safeguarding critical social spending can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected while also supporting near-term activity, given that the outlays will go to groups with a higher propensity to spend their disposable income than more affluent individuals”.

As Ian Macaulay analyses in John Menadue’s Pearls and and Irritations:

The IMF’s ‘World Economic Outlook: A long and difficult ascent’ sees the world economy ‘climbing out from the depths to which it had plummeted during the Great Lockdown in April’, but with a great deal of uncertainty about the pandemic. In words whose author could have had Frydenberg in mind, it warns against ‘ill-targeted subsidies or wasteful government spending’.

So let’s rethink political priorities and include omitted feminised social values, rather than continuing to support the destructive biases of outdated masculinity plus market-based models.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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