Australian Women: Repertoires of Change

Gwen Gray & Marian Sawer. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In the early 1980s, hundreds of women were accused of disrupting Australia’s most sacred ceremony: the annual Anzac Day march commemorating the Australian men killed during the disastrous landing at Gallipoli during World War I, and held on April 25. Because Anzac Day has become such an important symbol of Australian nationhood, the use of the occasion to draw attention to the issue of rape in war was considered deeply shocking. Ordinances were drafted to make it an offense to do anything likely to give offense or cause insult to those taking part in an Anzac Day observance. Sixty-one women were arrested in 1981. The following year, 750 women marched and laid a wreath before the official march began and then stood on the hill above the war memorial holding their banner “In memory of all women raped in all wars” so that all could see it during the official ceremony.

Women’s disruption of the Anzac Day ceremony has been described as the collision between feminism and patriarchy or between feminism and the patriarchal state (Dowse and Giles 1985). It was one of the last manifestations of the radical repertoires of the women’s movement of the 1970s. Despite the increased emphasis on militarism and the Anzac legend after the election of a conservative government in 1996, this kind of head-on confrontation between feminism and patriarchy was not repeated. Feminists were active in the movement against the Iraq War but no longer protested against Anzac Day, which was increasingly popular among young people, many of whom made the pilgrimage to Turkey to take part in the ceremony at Gallipoli itself. It is received wisdom that repertoires of collective protest have relatively short life spans. Other strategies of the Australian women’s movement, the development of feminist policy machinery within the government, and the creation of feminist-inspired women’s services, have been longer lived. The lack of visible feminist protest, however, has tended to make governments somewhat cavalier in regard to women’s policy, anticipating that tax changes or budget cuts that particularly affect women will cause relatively little political pain.

Historical Context

European settlement of Australia began in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived with convicts from Britain’s overcrowded jails. Indigenous settlement in Australia dates back much further, at least 50,000 years. As in other settler societies, the arrival of the Europeans had very deleterious effects on the Indigenous population. Today, the two Indigenous peoples of Australia, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, make up some 2.3 percent of the population. The character of the original European settlers, the convicts and their overseers, is sometimes blamed for the low status of women in Australian society, stereotyped as either “damned whores” or “God’s police”—a dichotomy taken up in the title of the best-selling feminist history of Australia (Summers 1975, 1994, 2002).

By the 1850s, the separate Australian colonies were achieving responsible government and democratic franchises for their lower houses of parliament. They introduced democratic innovations such as the use of government-printed ballot papers (the Australian ballot) and written nominations for elections. By helping remove violence from elections these innovations removed one of the arguments against women’s franchise. By 1894, South Australia legislated to give women the right to stand for election and to vote for parliamentary candidates, and was then able to ensure that these rights would be preserved in the new federation, the Commonwealth of Australia, which came into being in 1901.

In 1902, the new Commonwealth government legislated for a uniform franchise, which meant that most women were able to vote and stand for election to the national parliament. Australia was the first country in the world to take this step, although Aboriginal women for the most part had to wait until 1962 for the same rights. Australia was also slow to elect women to parliament, largely because the two-party system entrenched from 1910 was resistant to running women candidates but also because of the constraints placed on women by strong maternalist ideologies. These ideologies were institutionalized in the wage system, where men received an arbitrated “family wage,” supposedly sufficient to maintain a wife and children, and married women were not expected to work or pursue professional careers. The first woman elected to an Australian parliament, Edith Cowan, who was elected to the Western Australian Parliament in 1921, was accused of heartlessly neglecting her husband and children, although her youngest child was 30 years old. Although a handful of women like Cowan stood for parliament in the interwar period to pursue women’s equality, many of those involved in the suffrage movement were disillusioned by male party politics and reluctant to stand under the banner of the major parties.

Political Participation and Representation

The Australian Labor movement was notable for its early parliamentary successes in the 1890s and for the brief installation of the first Labor government in the world (in Queensland in 1899). Other Labor governments soon followed, stimulating the establishment of a two-party system, based on the class divide between labor and nonlabor and the associated divide between collectivist and individualist ideology. The Australian Labor Party was created as the political arm of the trade union movement, and affiliated trade unions continue to play an important role in its structure.

The national system of conciliation and arbitration, whereby industrial awards were determined by a quasi-judicial process and were legally enforceable, was established with the support of the Labor Party in 1904. Three years later, in the landmark Harvester case, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court enshrined the right to a family wage that was sufficient to support a man and his wife and children in frugal comfort. Although this decision was progressive for its time, in determining wages by reference to needs rather than to market forces, the assumption that women were economically dependent and did not themselves have dependents resulted in lower wages being set for women in associated cases. Women were deemed to need only 54 percent of the male wage in a landmark case in 1912. When women campaigned for equal pay, they received lukewarm support from trade unions, which anticipated that equal pay would mean a reduction in male wages.

For these and other reasons, women were not viewed with favor as political representatives of the working class and, before World War II, neither side of politics had nominated a woman to a winnable seat in the national parliament. The handful of women who had entered State parliaments up to that time tended to come from the conservative side of politics and/or had inherited their seat from a relative. The influence of Irish Catholicism within Labor politics had become stronger as a result of a split over conscription during World War I and the expulsion of Protestant leaders from the party. Irish Catholicism was characterized by a very conservative gender ideology, which tended to confine women to motherhood roles and impeded their entry into public life.

Nor did women achieve significant representation at the local government level. Unlike some countries, in Australia women have never been better represented in local government than in parliaments. In part, this was because of the nature of the local state, which was construed narrowly as providing services to property owners. Property qualifications were retained until relatively late. Local governments were concerned with “roads, rates and rubbish” in keeping with the wishes of ratepayers and did not acquire a significant role in the delivery of community services before the 1970s (Sainsbury 2001). The assumption of a limited range of child care and other social service responsibilities was partly in response to pressure from politically mobilized women rating local government candidates and entering local government to promote such issues, and partly in response to a Commonwealth government intent on expanding social service provision generally. Local government received direct Commonwealth funding for the first time in 1973.

As in other democracies, the arrival of the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1970s increased the pressure brought to bear on political parties and led to a sharp increase (albeit from a very low base) in women’s political representation at all levels of government in the 1980s. Electoral reform was also important. The increased use of proportional representation (e.g., Australia’s bicameral parliaments now all use proportional representation for one of their houses) expanded opportunities for minor parties as well as for gender-balanced tickets for major parties. Women took on political leadership roles in new parties that were created after the arrival of the second wave of the women’s movement and had less built-in institutional bias against women. In 1986, Senator Janine Haines became the first woman leader of an Australian parliamentary party as leader of the Australian Democrats. The emergence of Green parties also gave women new political leadership roles and new styles of collective leadership.

Feminist mobilization over the continued resistance to women’s candidacy within the Australian Labor Party led to the adoption of voluntary quotas in 1981 and to the adoption of quotas with sanctions in 1994. Women were to be preselected for 35 percent of winnable seats by 2002 and, if the target was not met, the National Executive of the party would nullify preselections as a sanction. Today, women make up over 35 percent of Labor parliamentarians across all Australian parliaments and a new goal has been set of 40 percent by 2012. An Australian EMILY’s List was created in 1996 on the initiative of two women who were former State Labor Premiers, acting from within the party to form a pressure group to ensure that the Labor Party did not renege on its commitments to women, whether as candidates or in the policy area. The group, which includes many former parliamentarians, provides campaign support and mentoring for women who are endorsed Labor candidates and who have made commitments on gender equity and choice issues. It has provided a political base for equity interventions by Labor women parliamentarians, helping to counterbalance the conflicting pressures of political life (Sawer 2006).

Australia’s main conservative party, confusingly called the Liberal Party, has moved markedly to the right since the 1980s. Women today make up only 22 percent of Liberal parliamentarians sitting in the nine parliaments across Australia, compared with 37 percent of Labor parliamentarians (see Table 1). Not only has the Liberal Party (and its coalition partner, the Nationals) been putting far fewer women into parliament than the Labor Party, but the Labor women also have much stronger links to women’s groups in the community. In the 2004 Australian Candidate Study, 78 percent of Labor women candidates, in contrast to only 29 percent of Liberal and National women candidates, said they had been “very active” in women’s organizations in the community. After the 2007 election, the Rudd Labor government included a record four women in its Cabinet (20 percent). They included Julia Gillard, the new Deputy Prime Minister, and Senator Penny Wong, the first Asian-Australian and openly gay woman to be a federal Cabinet minister. There were slightly fewer women on the opposition front bench but they included, for the first time in the Coalition’s history, a woman, Julie Bishop, as Deputy Opposition Leader.

Table 1. MPs in Australian Parliaments, by Gender and Party, July 1, 2008
Party Men Women Percentage Women
Source: Parliamentary Library, Canberra.
ALP 284 165 36.7
Liberals 180 54 23.1
Nationals 58 9 13.4
CLP 3 2 40.0
Australian Democrats 1 100.0
Greens 10 10 50.0
Other parties 10 2 16.6
Independents 21 11 34.4
Total 566 254 31.0

Economic Participation of Women

A major workforce issue in Australia is the lack of any comprehensive system of paid maternity leave, let alone paid parental leave. Australia is one of only two Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that does not provide paid maternity leave for women workers (the other being the United States). The failure to provide a comprehensive system of paid maternity leave has been criticized by United Nations (UN) treaty committees, such as the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2004, the federal government introduced a maternity payment for all women inside or outside the paid workforce, but it was far from meeting the standards of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 183 on maternity protection (14 weeks of income replacement and a guaranteed right of return). Currently, there is provision for unpaid parental leave of up to one year, but a 2006 survey found that 30 percent of mothers and 35 percent of fathers did not meet the eligibility criteria owing to a range of factors, including self-employment, not being with the same employer for 12 months before the birth, and not working for an employer for the full 12 months. A further 10 percent of mothers and about 5 percent of fathers were casual employees and hence ineligible (Parental Leave in Australia Survey 2006).

Although legislation was passed in the 1980s at both the Commonwealth and State levels requiring equal opportunity plans to be prepared in public sector agencies, there has been reduced commitment to this goal since the 1990s. Starting with the federal government in 1984, such plans were required to identify and remove barriers to employment for those from Indigenous or non-English-speaking backgrounds, those with disabilities, and women. However, the subsequent restructuring of the public sector in order to “let the managers manage” ran counter to the kind of central monitoring of implementation required for effectiveness.

In terms of the private sector, there has been a similar drift away from serious commitment to implementing equal opportunity by a federal government committed to reducing business regulation. Since the passage of the Affirmative Action Act in 1986, the federal government has required large private-sector companies (with more than 100 employees) to prepare affirmative action plans to identify and remove barriers to equal opportunity. At first, the only sanction was naming a noncomplying company in parliament, but firmer measures in the form of denial of government contracts or industry assistance to noncomplying companies were added in 1992. Such sanctions are still officially part of the Australian government’s procurement policy, although little is heard of them. The body responsible for overseeing affirmative action for women in large private-sector companies, the Affirmative Action Agency, was replaced by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency in 1999 and reporting requirements were weakened.

Despite a ruling as long ago as 1969 (by the then-Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission) that women should receive equal pay to men for equal work and the subsequent 1972 national wage case decision that enshrined the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, inequalities persist. More than 30 years later, women continue to earn substantially less than men. Australia saw a significant narrowing of the gender pay gap during the 1970s as the equal pay decisions flowed through federal and State industrial tribunals, but there has been little progress in closing the remaining gap. In May 2008, for example, women working full time received, on average, only 84 percent of the amount earned by their male counterparts, excluding overtime, which widens the gap still further (ABS 2008).

Primarily, pay equity in Australia has been pursued through industrial relations mechanisms and this has also been true of family-friendly work provisions. Test cases before industrial relations tribunals have historically been the most effective way to advance pay equity for women and the recent shift away from centralized wage fixing has the potential to significantly increase wage inequalities. Australia’s gender pay gap has not been as great as the pay gap in those OECD countries that lack the benefits of centralized systems of wage fixing. Indeed Australian women whose pay is set only by industrial awards receive around 95 percent of male pay.

Despite the historical significance of the equal pay cases, unequal pay occurs across all employment sectors in Australia (see Figure 1), in both female and male-dominated industries. The reasons for the continuing discrepancy are complex, but unequal pay usually takes one of two forms: women being paid less than men for doing a similar job, and women being paid less because they work in undervalued female-dominated occupations such as teaching, nursing, and in human services more generally. The deregulation of the labor market has had a disproportionate impact on women, in particular because of loss of control over working hours and loss of the protections provided by the award system.

Impact of Transnational Feminism

The Australian women’s movement has always seen itself as part of an international women’s movement. It has used international forums such as the League of Nations and the UN and affiliations with groups such as the International Alliance of Women and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom to help advance its agenda. There has been continuing interplay between national and international efforts to advance the status of women, and feminists have sought to establish new international norms and standards that can then be used to exert pressure on governments at home (Lake 1999 ; Sawer 2007). After the early achievement of women’s suffrage in Australia, feminists traveled abroad to bring news of the resulting benefits to public life and to assist the suffrage movement elsewhere, particularly in the United Kingdom.

In the interwar years, Australian feminists continued to be active in national and international efforts to achieve equality rights for women. During World War II, Jessie Street helped mobilize Australian women behind demands for a women’s charter, similar to the demands being made in other countries for women to have a real voice in postwar reconstruction. As a member of the Australian delegation to the conference founding the UN, Street played a major role in ensuring that equality provisions were included in the UN Charter and establishing the Commission on the Status of Women (Lake 1999 , 191-198). In turn, the UN Women’s Convention developed by the commission eventually provided the Commonwealth of Australia with the constitutional power necessary to enact sex discrimination legislation. Through its external affairs power, it became a signatory to the UN Women’s Convention in 1980 and ratified it in 1983. A series of judicial decisions had found that the Commonwealth could enact domestic legislation to give effect to international treaties and conventions, even in areas where it lacked a specific head of power.

After the arrival of women’s liberation from the United States and the emergence of second-wave feminism in the early 1970s, the symbiotic relationship between national and international movements was maintained. Australian feminists took advantage of political opportunities at home while also working through multilateral networks abroad. Those who played an important role in the UN system included Elizabeth Reid and Justice Elizabeth Evatt, while Senator Margaret Reynolds helped promote the Australian innovation of gender budgeting (described later) through the Commonwealth of Nations and former Senator Pat Giles had two terms as president of the International Alliance of Women. Reid, appointed women’s adviser to the prime minister in 1973, played a significant role in the preparations for the International Women’s Year conference in Mexico City, including the drafting of the World Plan of Action. She led the Australian delegation, the only official delegation to the conference to be led by a feminist.

Justice Elizabeth Evatt was elected to CEDAW in 1984 and was elected chair in 1989. She was actively involved in adopting the CEDAW general recommendation that identified gender-based violence as a form of discrimination against women. She also worked toward greater integration of CEDAW into the UN human rights system and encouraged the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the reporting process. Helen L’Orange was one of the many members of the Women’s Electoral Lobby who made the transition into feminist policy positions in government. As head of women’s policy agencies at State and Commonwealth levels in the 1980s, she initiated ground-breaking interagency work on domestic violence—the New South Wales premier proclaimed that her billboards at railway stations represented “the first time that any government has proclaimed in ten languages that wife-bashing is a crime.” At the international level, she helped draft the UN Declaration on Violence against Women, which provided international recognition that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women” (Sawer and Groves 1994, 76, 79).

International Women’s Year provided the rationale for unprecedented government expenditure on feminist projects, initiated by Elizabeth Reid as women’s adviser to the prime minister—in effect a national “consciousness-raising exercise.” It also provided the rationale for developing the Australian model of women’s policy machinery, extending out from a lead agency within the main policy-coordinating arm of government. This machinery provided “a well structured, overtly feminist presence in the bureaucracy.” Policy units were established and women’s advisers were appointed in many government departments and statutory bodies at the national and subnational levels. Their mandate was to oversee the development of women-friendly policies and to monitor the impact of all policy on women. This included the gender analysis of all cabinet submissions. Feminist bureaucrats, dubbed “femocrats,” faced opposition from inside and outside government; in the relatively favorable political climate of the time, however, they became legitimate political players (Maddison and Partridge 2007, 33-47).

Another strand of policy monitoring, introduced in the early 1980s, was the process now known internationally as “gender budgeting.” This process, pioneered at the federal level as the women’s budget program, was coordinated by the lead women’s policy agency and required all government departments and agencies to disaggregate the impact of budgetary outlays on men and women for the purpose of a major budget document. This process of requiring preparation and publication of the gender breakdowns of budget allocations was gradually introduced into all Australian jurisdictions and was subsequently “exported” to many countries—more than 40 by 2002 (Sharp and Broomhill 2002). On the basis of this pioneering role, Australians have been routinely invited to participate in UN expert group meetings on policy machinery for women, most recently in 2004.

Somewhat ironically, although almost all UN member states now have some form of government machinery, such machinery had almost disappeared at the national level in Australia by the end of 2004. The relocation of the Office of the Status of Women from the powerful and central Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the outlying Department of Family and Community Services and its renaming as the Office for Women, symbolized the abandonment of the earlier model that prioritized policy advice and coordination over program delivery. The UN-mandated process of “gender mainstreaming,” based on the original Australian approach of focusing on the gender effects of mainstream policy, had been used by a neoliberal government as a pretext to mainstream gender policy expertise out of existence (Sawer 2005; Maddison and Partridge 2007, 48-53).

Traditionally, international conventions and instruments, and the reporting processes associated with them, had provided important momentum for feminist policy work within Australia. For example, the UN World Plan of Action adopted at Mexico City in 1975, the Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women adopted at Nairobi in 1985, and the Platform of Action adopted in Beijing in 1995, all provided the occasion for wide-ranging consultation processes with NGOs and the drafting of national plans of action to advance the status of women. Reporting to the UN on implementation of these agreements as well as implementation of the UN Women’s Convention helped focus attention on progress and backsliding by governments. NGO work in preparing shadow reports helps balance the more self-congratulatory flavor of government reports. Australian Anne S. Walker, executive director of the International Women’s Tribune Center at the UN in New York from 1976 to 2002, played an invaluable role disseminating the information needed for effective NGO participation in the UN system.

ILO conventions were also important in inspiring and providing a legal basis for feminist policy initiatives. Convention 111, on equal opportunity in employment and occupation, was ratified by the Australian government in 1973 and provided the basis of federal antidiscrimination work until the passage of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. ILO Convention 156 on Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women Workers with Family Responsibilities, ratified in 1990, provided the basis for federal legislation safeguarding unpaid parental leave in 1993. Another international body with an impact on Australian policy was the OECD Working Party on the Role of Women in the Economy, which helped underpin the work of those seeking to break down Australia’s high level of labor market segregation, while also being a forum through which Australia’s innovation of gender budgeting was disseminated (Sawer 1990, 243-244).

Given the strong involvement of Australian feminists in national and international arenas, along with the generally favorable political opportunities of the 1970s and 1980s, Australia’s first report to CEDAW in 1988 was received enthusiastically and was considered exemplary, both in terms of substance and in its self-critical nature. However, Australian efforts to promote gender equality went into serious decline for at least a decade from 1996. By 1997, CEDAW expressed concern over what it viewed as a retreat from international leadership on gender equity issues and the abandonment of women’s policy machinery (Maddison and Partridge 2007, 10). At the same time, the usefulness of UN forums for exercising leverage on the Australian government was being significantly reduced as the Howard government (1996-2007) distanced itself from the international human rights system and reacted very defensively to UN criticisms. The election of the Rudd government in 2007 brought a more positive orientation to the international human rights system and a commitment to the ratification of the CEDAW Optional Protocol, something the preceding government had refused to do.

CEDAW’s 2006 assessment of Australia recognized the existence of legislative and other measures to advance the status of women but identified a number of areas of concern, including the absence of a national system of paid maternity leave. Other shortcomings include the persistent gender pay gap; the large numbers of women in segregated, low-paid, and casual work; the relatively low number of women with adequate superannuation; and the disproportionate number of women with sole economic responsibility for raising children.

In conclusion, many of the gains Australian feminists made, inside and outside bureaucracies, nationally and internationally, have been arrested in recent years. As suggested by a recent Democratic Audit Report:

Whereas Australia was once a leader in the global struggle for gender equality … in recent years [it] has resiled from this commitment and many of the achievements of an earlier period have now been undone. This is most obviously true with regard to the dismantling of the women’s policy machinery and the silencing of the women’s non-government sector. (Maddison and Partridge 2007, xii)

Nature of Civil Society and Women’s Mobilization

Concern has often been expressed about the uneven spread of political resources in modern democracies. Nearly 50 years ago, American political scientist E. E. Schattschneider famously argued that different interest groups had very different levels of influence in the United States. Large powerful groups, he said, enjoyed good access to decision-making processes while small, weakly organized, and poorly resourced groups found it hard to get heard: “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper class accent. Probably about 90% of the people cannot get into the pressure system” (Schattschneider 1960, 35).

A major study done for the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration in the 1970s (Matthews 1976) found these ideas to be highly relevant to Australia: the groups enjoying access to Australian government bureaucracies were unrepresentative of the general population. The study found a massive overrepresentation of producers’ groups—especially groups located in Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra—and gross underrepresentation of all other groups on the advisory committees attached to government departments. In particular, there was a “paucity of representation” of public interest groups and groups representing disadvantaged minorities such as immigrants, welfare clients, women, and Aborigines. Patterns of informal access followed similar lines: nonproducer groups had not been able to establish institutionalized links with government departments, largely because of their low socioeconomic leverage. Recommendations to increase representativeness in deliberative processes included the adoption of extensive consultation, the wide circulation of discussion papers, and the provision of financial assistance to groups with few resources. It was proposed that government financial assistance be made available to help groups run an office, undertake research, and engage experts where necessary to prepare submissions to government and parliamentary inquiries (Matthews 1976, 347-353).

On the basis of such recommendations, action was taken beginning in the 1970s to strengthen the capacity of groups previously marginalized in public policy processes. Consultation became regular practice at all levels of government, groups were provided with government funding, and new peak bodies (umbrella groups with coordinating and representational roles) were set up and given access to the policy process. The voices of previously stigmatized groups, such as sex workers, began to be heard and to have an influence in the policy process. The development of these mechanisms, termed “extra-parliamentary institutions of representative democracy” by Marian Sawer, was strengthened by the report of a national parliamentary committee in 1990, which argued that peak body funding indeed facilitated the representation of disadvantaged groups and provided a balance to the perspectives of well-resourced organized private interests. The committee recognized that community groups needed independence to allow them to comment critically on government policy. By 1990, 38 peak bodies, representing a diverse range of marginalized and semimarginalized groups, were funded by the Commonwealth government in the community services and health area alone (Sawer 2002, 39-49).

Women’s NGOs received their first significant funding from Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government (1972-1975) as part of International Women’s Year. Then followed lean years under a conservative federal government but, with the reelection of a Labor federal government in 1983, a wide range of groups was granted operational funding and new consultative mechanisms were established. The 30 different organizations funded under the National Agenda for Women’s Grants Program in 1995-1996 included the Coalition of Australian Participating Organisations of Women, a network of some 60 feminist organizations. Other peak organizations, such as the Women’s Emergency Services Network, were funded directly by relevant government departments. Although some groups were unhappy with funding levels and allocation, government financial support greatly increased the capacity of organizations to have their voices heard in public debates (Maddison and Partridge 2007, 79-84).

Under the Howard government, most of these extraparliamentary institutions of community representation lost funding and access to government. The year 1996 marked the beginning of a discursive shift, during which NGOs representing disadvantaged groups were redefined as “noisy vested interests,” engaged in special pleading (Sawer 2002, 43-44). By 1999, the system of funding a range of women’s advocacy groups was abolished and replaced by a new system whereby three funded secretariats were charged with channeling the views of women to government. Another secretariat representing rural women was added in 2002 (a rural-based party was part of the Coalition government) but no similar arrangement was made for immigrant or Indigenous women. And it was made clear that the federal government did not want to hear, let alone fund, the voices of those critical of its policies, including those on whom its policies were having greatest impact.

The abolition of operational funding for women’s NGOs resulted in the disappearance of some organizations and financial hardship for others. Grant money was only available in very small amounts for special projects, and increased control over NGO advocacy became part of funding contracts. The secretariats did not participate in public controversies over child care, paid maternity leave, or reproductive health issues and were told they would lose funding if they spent government money on modeling the impact of welfare reforms on women. The abolition of the Women’s Bureau in the federal employment portfolio had already resulted in the loss of a program commissioning research on women and work. These constraints imposed on research and advocacy severely undermined the capacity of women’s NGOs to perform their representative and policy advice functions. It is notable that one of the first acts of the newly elected Rudd government was to remove the so-called “gag” clauses in NGO funding contracts.

Women’s Health Policy in Australia

Australian feminists have been active in many policy areas—including tax, on which there were major mobilizations in the 1980s. Health, however, has been a priority for many Australian feminists and forms the basis of the following case study. One of the high points for feminists was the promulgation of a National Women’s Health Policy (NWHP) in 1989, the first of its kind in the world. The policy was accompanied by a National Women’s Health Program to implement the NWHP recommendations and was endorsed by all relevant ministers in federal, State, and Territory jurisdictions. From the beginning, Australian women adopted a broad approach to women’s health. Following a perspective later set out by the World Health Organization, a “social” view of health was taken that emphasizes the connections between the social and economic conditions of women’s lives and their experiences of health and illness (Commonwealth Department of Community Services and Health 1989, 6).

As in the United States, groups of Australian feminists focused their activities on women’s health and the problems of medical care systems from the beginning of the second wave of feminism. The early vitality of women’s health movements in the two countries is partly explained by the particularly poor access to conventional medical and hospital care in both places. In Australia, women’s liberationists initially led the movement, setting up their own women’s health centers and calling for the radical transformation of the conditions of women’s lives that made them sick. However, favorable political circumstances in the early 1970s opened opportunities for collaboration with the state. Public funding for various projects and the development of appropriate policies became a real possibility and, although some feminists remained steadfastly opposed, most agreed to work within an “institutionalized” framework. Women-run health centers, crisis centers, and information lines and services first received government funding in the 1970s and new ventures continued to be supported by sympathetic governments in the 1980s and 1990s. On the policy side, extensive consultation with Australian women took place and policies and strategies were developed in all jurisdictions in the 1980s, including a National Women’s Health Policy and National Women’s Health Program, the first of their kind in the world. Under the national policy and program, the infrastructure of women’s health was greatly expanded. In 1996, the election of a conservative government, hostile to women’s health, at the Commonwealth level, marked the end of a national focus on women’s health for the next decade. However, the existing network of centers and services set up at the community level remained intact and supportive. State and Territory governments facilitated the continuation of women’s health work within the limits imposed by a financially centralized federal system.

The fortunes of the women’s health movement have waxed and waned since the 1970s, depending primarily on the political opportunities presented at different levels over time. Although the NWHP was ignored at the national level during the neoliberal Howard period, most States and Territories have policies or strategies in place. Moreover, most of the women’s health infrastructure, established at the community level over the past 35 years, remains intact and is supported with public finance. However, the special women’s health machinery set up within bureaucracies in the 1980s and 1990s has now been almost entirely disbanded.

Women had been interested in health issues, especially reproductive health issues, long before the 1970s, of course. However, contraception and abortion rights movements developed relatively late in Australia. One of the reasons was concern on the part of political elites about a declining birthrate in an empty continent in the first half of the 20th century and associated pronatalism, with its criticisms of birth control measures. Family-planning organizations, themselves originally influenced by racial purity and eugenicist ideas, did not emerge until the 1930s, and abortion rights groups only became active after World War II (Broom 1991, xiv; Siedlecky and Wyndham 1990, 9-31). When the feminist women’s health movement emerged, women’s reproductive choices were still extremely limited, a situation exacerbated by the refusal of many male doctors to prescribe contraception or refer for abortion (Stevens 1995, 24-32) and by the impact of a private health insurance financing system that underpinned only a narrow range of services.

By the early 1970s, as in some other Western countries, a thoroughgoing feminist critique of conventional medical systems had emerged. The scope of medical practice was held to be narrow, focusing on illness rather than health and ignoring the physical, mental, and social foundations necessary for well-being. Women were excluded from the senior levels of medical practice and from policy making, and nurses operated as “handmaidens” to doctors. It was argued that women’s concerns were often trivialized and insufficient information was given; it was a “pat you on the head and kick you out the door” approach. Normal processes, such as childbirth, were held to be overmedicalized and social and economic problems were treated inappropriately with dangerous tranquilizers. Serious gaps in service provision were identified. Moreover, the subsidized private health insurance system did not extend to those who could not afford private insurance, so that access even to conventional medical services was poor (Wyndham 1983; Broom 1991, 32-58; Doyal 1983, 21-32; Scully and Bart 1973).

The Australian women’s health movement began as a vigorous grassroots force and it looked to the state to support its initiatives from the beginning. This approach had its critics, especially among radical feminists, but majority opinion accepted government financial support when this was forthcoming (Gray 1999, 205-15). In the early 1970s, a particularly sympathetic government, the Whitlam Labor government, held office at the federal level. By 1975, 11 women’s health centers had been set up in the community, along with 21 women’s refuges. These centers all applied for and were granted government financial support. An inaugural National Women’s Health Conference was held in Brisbane in 1975, as part of International Women’s Year. It was funded by the Commonwealth and opened by Prime Minister Whitlam. Lean years followed, however, under a conservative government from 1975 to 1983. Very little support, financial or otherwise, was forthcoming, except for refuges for women escaping violence, a policy supported by senior women in the Liberal Party and the prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. Although Commonwealth money for women’s health centers was steadily withdrawn, women’s movement activists were eventually able to persuade State governments to step in and provide continuing funding for established centers (Gray 1998, 107-125). Access to more than one prospective funder might be seen as an advantage of a federal system of government and Australian feminists have not been backward in playing the “multi-level game” (Chappell 2002, 149-170).

During the second half of the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s, when the Commonwealth was unsympathetic to women’s health, policy development and program establishment continued at the State and Territory level under most (predominantly Labor) governments. Several States held enquiries into women’s health, produced substantial reports, and put new policies into place. It was during the 1980s (and in Queensland in 1991) that women’s health policy machinery was established in the bureaucracies of all Australian jurisdictions, first in the States and Territories and in the second half of the 1980s at the Commonwealth level. The machinery took the form of either a women’s health unit or a women’s health adviser position. The staff of these units ranged from 2 to 30 full-time equivalent positions and the focus was policy development. Another important advance during this period was the establishment of the (intergovernmental) Australian Health Ministers Advisory Council Subcommittee for Women and Health in 1987. This subcommittee comprised national and subnational women’s health advisers and women’s health unit staff, along with representatives from key stakeholder groups, including medical women, the nursing profession, and the Australian Women’s Health Network (AWHN).

The election in 1983 of another Labor government at the Commonwealth level (where most of the money is) produced the next major expansion of women’s health activities. Sensing a window of opportunity, a group of women organized a second National Women’s Health Conference in 1985. The 700-plus women gathered in Adelaide resolved that a national policy should be developed, to be consistent with the World Health Organization’s global health for all strategy, along with a National Women’s Health Program. The Commonwealth was called upon to commit itself to ongoing funding. Policy development turned out to be a lengthy but highly participatory process. The Commonwealth funded a team of women, headed by a well-known feminist, to travel the country consulting women about their views, preferences, and needs. One member of the team remembers that Australian women were acutely aware of the ideas embodied in a social view of health even before they had heard the term. It is estimated that the representatives of more than a million women from diverse backgrounds and parts of the country were involved in consultative processes.

The policy was finally launched in 1989 and although a disappointingly low level of Commonwealth funding was committed, the program was funded for two consecutive periods of four years. Under the program, a wide (incompletely catalogued) variety of projects was put into operation. They ranged from the development of a distance-education package for women’s health nurses and a two-year consultation project on the health priorities of indigenous women in western New South Wales to conventional women’s health projects. By 1994, after five years of the National Women’s Health Program, 55 government-funded women’s health centers were providing information, education, counseling, support services, and, in most cases, medical services. There were 262 government-funded services for women escaping violence and more centers have been established since that time. In addition, most states and territories funded a range of women’s health services and programs within the health portfolios. Attitudinal change was promoted by education programs specially designed for such professionals as police officers, judges, and doctors (Gray 1998, 111).

The end of the second four years of the National Women’s Health Program coincided with conservatives taking control of Australian politics at the national level. From 1996 until 2007, the Howard government made no effort to advance women’s health and most members were likely not aware of the main issues and debates. A delegation (of mature women) from AWHN to the then-minister for the status of women in 1998 was welcomed with the question, “Well girls, is there anything left to achieve in women’s health?” Nevertheless, the funding for existing programs was retained—although not without a struggle. An attempt by the Commonwealth in 2004 to remove women’s health completely from the public health funding agreements between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories was eventually withdrawn after AWHN hastily organized a lobbying and letter-writing campaign. The Commonwealth controls the purse strings and no major advances took place during the Howard government. At the subnational level, however, modest advances were made when political opportunities arose. For example, a second four-year Women’s Health and Well-Being Strategy, endorsed by 36 key community and women’s health groups, was launched in the State of Victoria in 2006 (Gray 2008).

Under the Howard government, women’s (and men’s) reproductive health rights were consistently under threat at the Commonwealth level, first from a senator well-known for his right-to-life views, who held the balance of power in the Senate between 1996 and 1999 and later from conservative health minister Abbott, who was of a similar persuasion. No serious inroads were made into the existing service structure, however, and the Medicare rebate for abortion services remained in place despite repeated suggestions that it should be abolished. On one key issue, the health minister and the prime minister were defeated. A public campaign, partly stimulated by some of the minister’s reproductive health statements, was launched by Reproductive Choice Australia, a coalition of nongovernment health organizations, including sexual health and women’s health groups. The campaign aimed to remove legislative roadblocks preventing the importation of mifepristone (RU-486) and worked to support a private members’ bill to that effect, cosponsored by women senators from both government and opposition parties. Heated public discussion was fueled by the health minister’s very public opposition to the bill, made with the support of the prime minister. Eventually, after months of controversy, the bill successfully passed Parliament in February 2006; 24 of 27 female senators supported it but only a minority of male senators did so.

Despite the inattention to women’s health at the Commonwealth level over the past 11 years, a mosaic of nongovernment, women-controlled health centers and projects, alongside a network of special government services, operates at the community level and forms a structural backbone for the women’s health movement. Service providers, many of them small units, work together in a multitude of ways at the local level. Women’s health workers collaborate with other service providers to offer information and referral, conduct needs analyses and run information sessions, workshops, and seminars. They engage in consultancy and advocacy and regularly promote community development. Women’s health centers typically work within a feminist framework that acknowledges the diversity of women and focuses on a social view of health.

A proliferation of specialist groups has meant that the women’s health movement is much more diverse than in previous decades. It is therefore less focused but is nevertheless able to find the resources to act on the most important issues, despite the unfavorable, if not antagonistic, political environment at the national level prior to the 2007 federal election. Unable to gain a political hearing, AWHN worked as well as an unfunded group can be expected to, staging large national conferences every five years. It runs a Web site, hosts an e-mail discussion list, and produces an electronic newsletter. Despite parlous finances, cheap modern communications allow the management committee to meet regularly by teleconference. The Australian women’s health movement has weathered setbacks, disappointments, and storms but it survives, along with most of the infrastructure that it has been instrumental in setting up. What has not survived, however, either at national or subnational levels, is the women’s health policy machinery established in the 1980s and 1990s.

The dedication of the members of the movement bore fruit in 2007. AWHN held a national forum in Canberra to profile women’s health in the lead-up to the federal election. Key stakeholders were invited, a national Aboriginal Women’s Caucus formed, and a discussion paper prepared. This work was rewarded when the Labor Party announced the following month that, if elected, it would preside over the development of a new national women’s health policy and program. At the time of writing, a consultative process over the new policy was expected to begin in late 2008.


The arrival of the second wave of the women’s movement in Australia was heralded by a thoroughgoing critique of patriarchy and radical hopes for the transformation of society. A period of political reform presented the possibility of trying to create women-friendly government and expand feminist-inspired women’s services. Some have argued that these political opportunities meant that feminists disappeared into policy positions rather than strengthening the power of women’s movement organizations “outside.”

Although early hopes of the revolutionary transformation of society proved short-lived, and the women’s policy machinery proved vulnerable, a more durable legacy of the second wave of the women’s movement was the heightened expectations of young women that they would receive equal treatment. The rise of neoliberalism in Australia has threatened, however, many of the social supports required if women are to enjoy equal opportunity. In particular, the deregulation of the labor market has threatened many of the gains women made in the areas of equal pay and family-friendly employment conditions.

The women’s movement has been successful in defending abortion rights, but outside the area of health the lack of movement visibility has contributed to so-called reforms in welfare, industrial relations, and family law that have all had a disproportionate impact on women. The individualist discourses associated with neoliberalism have made it more problematic to mobilize collective identities and challenge the rhetoric of choice. And yet without a renewal of women’s movement pressure, the policies needed for further progress toward gender equality are unlikely to be forthcoming.