“A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
Gloria Steinem turned 80 last week. But her words remain as relevant as ever.
Our lack of progress is prompting a rethink of the feminist cause.
On the weekend, professorial fellow at the University of Technology, Eva Cox, wrote a landmark piece in The Saturday Paper, asking, “Has feminism lost its way?”
Here, she deconstructs what’s gone wrong:
“As an original ’70s feminist, I recognise our grander plans for major gender changes to the social system failed. We underestimated both the power of sexism and our capacity to abolish or reduce it. We naively believed that gender equity would follow the removal of legal barriers, such as the right to discriminate, and alter masculine priorities. But we failed to create any serious inroads into patriarchal structures or to change macho cultures.”
In part, she blames the neoliberal paradigm shift in the 1980s, with market models used to calibrate progress.
It raises the question: Should money be the main measure of what matters?
Debate about the modern workplace is framed in these terms: a gender pay gap of 17.1 per cent; 13.9 per cent representation on boards; and women doing the bulk of unpaid care.
These issues are obviously important (especially after new figures show the US gender pay gap stuck stubbornly at 23 per cent).
But perhaps we should be focusing on the bigger picture, instead of the pixels?
In a mea culpa, Cox (pictured right) admits to reframing childcare policy into “econospeak” in the 80s to, “make Labor accept the need for it”.
She recanted, in her 1995 Boyer Lecture, saying we need to “value social capital more highly than financial capital”.
Instead, we continue to concentrate on raising the status of women in “male-defined areas of power”, such as in politics or on boards.
As Gloria Steinem said, “Women do a great deal of unpaid work in their homes, whether it be raising children or taking care of elderly parents. Their work needs to be counted as productive work. Men also need to raise children and work in the home”.
We also need to bust the myth of the transformative effect of women in power.
“The recent female PM, a few state Premiers and a retiring Governor-General were all replaced by men,” Cox writes.
They’ve barely cracked the glass ceiling.
There’s little evidence to show female leaders produce better outcomes for women: think Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Benazir Bhutto.
In Australia, Julia Gillard fought for an increase for our lowest paid workers, but cut the sole-parent payments: a mixed record, at best.
So, what can we do?
Cox suggests reviving our passions for feminist change by working out what went wrong.
I like to think of it as a bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach.
Or, as Cox puts it, by “targetting good social outcomes, which overlap with feminist interest areas. We need to increase trust, social capital, good feelings, care, generosity and other parts of social glue”.
Especially when it comes to asylum seekers, the welfare system, and climate change.
You won’t find this in the GDP.
Critics could argue that money is power.
But surely we all – whatever our gender – want a more civil society?
Cox calls for “more action in devising solutions rather than just protest campaigns”.
Let’s talk about ways we can revalue, redesign, and recalibrate women’s worth.
As Gloria Steinem said back in 1992, “If you say, ‘I’m for equal pay’, that’s a reform. But if you say, ‘I’m a feminist’, that’s… a transformation of society”.
Thanks to these women, feminism is not lost: it is found.
Watch The Hoopla’s Gabrielle Jackson discuss the issue with the Studio 10 panel: