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A remarkable woman; a feminist

Penny Wong

Jessie Street was a remarkable woman. She devoted her life to campaigning for equality for women; justice for the disadvantaged; elimination of discrimination; and world peace and disarmament. Yet she never lost sight of the importance of securing practical outcomes, like child endowment for mothers and allowing women to keep working after they married.

As a young woman, Jessie Street was active in the women’s suffrage movement in London and worked with disadvantaged women and children. After she returned to Australia she helped form the United Associations of Women which had the motto: “For Freedom, Equality, Status and Opportunity.” Like many Australian feminists, Jessie Street was also active on the rights of Indigenous Australians. She played a crucial role in the movement which led to the 1967 referendum removing provisions from the Constitution discriminating against Aboriginals. She embodied the precept to think globally and act locally, well before it was articulated in those terms. She was the only woman member of Australia’s delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, where she worked to ensure the UN charter recognised equal rights between the sexes. Yet she also found time for activities like helping a co-operative of unemployed women who produced vegetables, eggs and flowers; and providing training for women working as domestic servants. What strikes me about her life is the translation of values into activism – Jessie Street’s dedication to the causes which inspired her, and to campaigning to achieve social change. 

For too many years, the work of Australia’s first wave of feminists was erased from our collective memory. I applaud the work of the Jessie Street Trust in promoting her achievements and in funding projects which carry on her legacy.

But while the erasures of the past may have been redressed, we now face a new tendency – an inclination to portray feminism as a museum piece rather than as a vital contemporary cause. We live at a time when people seem eager to proclaim the demise of feminism, or to assert that we have transcended the need for feminism. It is true that, thanks to the feminists of earlier generations, the lives of women today have been immeasurably improved. But does that mean feminism is over – its goals achieved, its victories won – and that we can happily close up shop?

The lived experience of women and girls tell us otherwise. It is telling that some issues Jessie Street campaigned on so long ago, including equal pay and violence against women, remain with us today. There is still a gender pay gap in our society today. There are still terrible levels of violence against women in our society today. Economic security and physical security are fundamental elements of human freedom. For as long as women earn less than men, have less secure jobs, and are more likely to be victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, feminism’s work remains to be done.

What is a feminist?

The Oxford English Dictionary may comprise 20 volumes, yet its definition of feminism is commendably concise – advocacy of the rights of women based on the theory of equality of the sexes. For all the diversity, complexity and nuances of feminist thinking and philosophy, I think that is a definition we can agree on. A feminist is someone who supports gender equality.

A feminist is someone like Muriel Matters. Muriel Matters was a South Australian actor who went to England, joined the Women’s Freedom League and campaigned for votes for women. In 1908, she chained herself to an iron grille in the ladies’ gallery of the House of Commons, a piece of iron work that obscured women’s view of Parliamentary debates. She was sent to prison for a month.

A feminist is someone like Edith Cowan, the woman whose likeness is on our $50 notes. She was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921, the first woman member of an Australian Parliament. Edith Cowan campaigned on issues ranging from cutting the price of pram tickets on suburban trains, to introducing sex education in schools, to allowing women to enter the law and other professions.

A feminist is someone like Beatrice Faust, who helped found the Women’s Electoral Lobby, or Eva Cox, or Carmen Lawrence, or Jocelynne Scutt, or Quentin Bryce. It’s someone like Gail Kelly who says that when she became chief executive officer of Westpac she said to herself: “Right. I’m now going to tackle gender inequality head-on. I’m going to make a difference, and lead by example, and actively put in place policies and practices to support women.”

Gender inequality today

For all the achievements of our feminist predecessors, Australian society is still characterised by real inequality between the sexes. There is still gender inequality in Australia when it comes to pay. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that, on average, women working full-time earn 17.1 per cent less than men working full-time. This gender pay gap reflects the segmentation of working women into lower-paid occupations and industries, and the historic undervaluing of female-dominated occupations. It also reflects discrimination against women, especially when it comes to the impact of women’s choices to care for their children on their work and career prospects.

There is still gender inequality in Australia when it comes to power. In corporate Australia, just 18 per cent of the directors of ASX 200 companies are women. Forty of the 200 biggest stock-market listed companies have no women at all on their boards.  In the law, women account for less than a quarter of the partners of the country’s top law firms. In politics, 92 years after Edith Cowan entered the Western Australian Parliament, women make up less than a third of all Federal, State and Territory MPs. 

Since the change in the Federal Government, women’s representation at senior levels in politics has gone backwards. The Rudd Labor Government had 13 women in a 42-member Ministry, and six women in Cabinet. Now, the Abbott Coalition Government has six women in a 42-member Ministry and only one woman in Cabinet.

Jessie Street, always an internationalist, might well be shocked if she were alive today to discover that Australia now has a smaller percentage of women in the lower house of parliament than Uganda, Mozambique, the United Republic of Tanzania or Afghanistan – and that our international ranking on this measure has dropped from 15th to 48th. And I suspect she would find it hard to believe that Australia in 2014 has fewer women in cabinet than countries such as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

There is still gender inequality in Australia when it comes to attitudes and behaviours. Women throughout Australia confront prejudice, discrimination, and unfair treatment every day. The blatantly sexist disrespect shown by some in the media and the wider community towards our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard shows why we still need feminists.

So does the incidence of violence against women, both inside and outside the home. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that nearly one in five women had experienced sexual assault since the age of 15 – and nearly 1.5 million Australian women have experienced violence at the hands of their partner at some time during their lives.

Sliding backwards

Over the years, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been one of the Liberal Party’s most aggressive cultural warriors, yet he is now apparently comfortable with the f-word. Speaking at an International Women’s Day breakfast in Parliament, he acknowledged that once upon a time he would not have felt comfortable addressing such a gathering. But, as his wife Margie had put it: “What is it that turns an un-reconstructed bloke into a feminist? Three daughters.”

I’d like to welcome Tony Abbott to the fold. But in light of his restoration of Knights and Dames, I’m wondering whether he might be confusing the medieval code of chivalry with modern feminism. Because his government’s record on women’s issues during in its first six months in office is not promising. The Abbott Government has cut the pay of childcare workers and early childhood teachers, predominantly women, by abolishing Labor’s $300 million Early Years Quality Fund. It is cutting the pay of cleaners, mainly women, by scrapping Labor’s Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines. These Guidelines increased minimum wage rates for cleaners working in Federal Government offices.The Abbott Government calls this red tape and is moving to repeal the Guidelines. This will open the way for pay cuts for thousands of low-paid workers who come into Commonwealth offices around the country in the small hours to empty the bins, vacuum the carpets and dust the furniture.

The Abbott Government is also attacking retirement incomes of low-paid workers. Its legislation seeking to repeal the mining tax also seeks to abolish Labor’s Low Income Superannuation Contribution. This is a superannuation payment of up to $500 a year for workers on incomes of up to $37,000. Women make up 2.1 million of the 3.6 million workers who benefit from the Low Income Superannuation Contribution. Women are less likely than men to finish their working lives with adequate retirement savings – the Abbott Government’s cuts will exacerbate this inequality.

The Prime Minister hangs his feminist credentials on his Paid Parental Leave scheme. In contrast to Labor’s paid parental leave scheme, which is targeted at the low and middle income earners who need help, Mr Abbott’s scheme will deliver benefits to the highest-paid women in the country. It will cost taxpayers $5.5 billion a year. That cost is funded by a new tax on large companies, including the banks and supermarket chains, which will flow though into higher consumer prices.

So the Prime Minister who toys with calling himself a feminist could only find one woman to appoint to his Cabinet. He is increasing the cost of living for low and middle income families to fund benefits for the highest income earners. He is cutting the pay of women who clean his offices. He is cutting the pay of women who care for and teach our young children. And he is eroding the retirement incomes of low-paid women. I really don’t think Tony has thought this feminism thing through.

What’s in a name?

The Abbott Government’s equivocation on women’s issues was highlighted when the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator Michaelia Cash, rejected the term feminist. In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, she said: “I believe in equality, I believe in female empowerment, I believe in the implementation of policies that will further women’s economic opportunities … But certainly, labelling myself as a feminist, if that is a prerequisite now for being a Minister for Women, that’s ridiculous.” She went on to describe feminism as “a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now.”

Why would Australia’s Minister for Women want to portray feminism as an outdated ideology of the past? Are we all equalists now, but not feminists? I know that for some women, discomfort with the term “feminist” reflects the fall-out from divisions in feminism’s second wave. There are committed women who support equality but who wish to distance themselves from some of the more strident stances taken during the 1970s and 1980s. But I don’t think this is what is on Senator Cash’s mind. For some on the political right, rejecting the term “feminism’ is ideological. Some social conservatives like to portray gender equality as being at odds with family values.

But gender equality is not an exclusive preserve of the Left – and there are many right-wing feminists.In the United Kingdom, the Home Secretary Theresa May, donned a Fawcett Society T-shirt reading: “This is what a feminist looks like.” She is seen as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party and is the unofficial leader of a group of Tory feminists in Westminster. In the United States, Sarah Palin startled many when she came out as a “conservative feminist.” That prompted Naomi Wolf to argue that feminism is compatible with conservative political philosophies because at its core it is about individual freedom and choice.

Right-wing women may prefer the rugged individualism of free markets, they may advocate for a minimalist state that doesn’t intrude on individual choices, and they may have conservative social and religious values – and yet, as Wolf memorably puts it, “they crave equality as strongly as any leftist vegetarian in Birkenstocks.” In Australia there are Liberal Party women like Pru Goward who identify as feminists. And there are many other Liberal women who may or may not embrace the label but whose careers show that women are the equal of men.

Why you should call yourself a feminist

There are many women who say “I’m not a feminist, but …” – and then go on to articulate feminist principles. I say that if you are a supporter of gender equality you are a feminist – and that it is important to use and be proud of the term.

For a start, it associates us with a tradition. We are talking about women who worked tirelessly over the years, women who risked arrest, who stared down ignorance, prejudice and overt hostility. The lives we lead today owe no small debt to their sacrifices. To walk away from the term feminist is to belittle their efforts. We have the right to vote, we have access to education, to jobs and careers, and the prospect of economic independence and sexual freedom only because the feminists of earlier generations fought on our behalf.

Rejecting the term “feminist” is a political decision. It diminishes one of the most important social movements of the modern era. It’s a manoeuvre many on the political Right engage in to delegitimise the values of feminism, to undermine policies aimed at achieving gender equality and to turn back the gains of the past. Feminism is not an extreme term – it is a mainstream movement that has transformed modern Australia for the better.

Feminism has delivered benefits for men as well as women, facilitating greater involvement by men in caring for their children and tackling stereotyped views about what a “real man” should be. It is an important movement for all men who care about social justice and the women they love.

It’s a trap to think that feminists’ work is done, that the revolution for gender equality has been won, and its gains cannot be reversed. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards wrote in their 2000 book ManifestA: “For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it – it’s simply in the water.” I don’t see feminism as being like fluoride in the water. I think it is like a bus travelling up a steep hill – if you don’t keep pressing on the accelerator, you will start rolling backwards.

Feminism and choice

Some of those who reject the term “feminist” do so in the name of choice. They argue that feminism fails to acknowledge the choices of individual women – choices like staying at home to care for their families, or choices about how to dress and how to express their sexuality and their femininity.

My view is that gender equality does not mean that everyone must make the same choices. What it does mean is that the same range of choices should be available for men and women. Yes, women should be free to make their own choices about how to dress. But they should also be free to have a night out without fearing for their safety. Women should be free to choose to stay at home to care for their children. But they should not be denied the choice to work because childcare is not available or workplaces do not accommodate employees’ family responsibilities. And what about the choices for women who would like to go part-time to spend more time with their children but simply can’t afford to do so? We can vastly improve the choices available for women by lifting pay rates in female dominated occupations – by closing the gender pay gap.

Women want to make their way based on their own choices and their own merit. But cultural barriers and unconscious biases within the workplace still stand in the way of women achieving their full potential.  In a society where gender inequalities are structurally entrenched, it requires collective action to expand the space for individual choice and to ensure women are treated on merit. I agree that feminists should support women’s choices, rather than seeking to limit them. But the real constraints on women’s choices come from the social structures and deep-seated prejudices – the very structures and attitudes which feminists seek to change.


I hope I have made out the case for the continuing importance of feminism and feminists. We should own this label. Wear it with pride. And put it into action. For feminism’s values are enduring. The inequity and the injustice it stands against have not yet been eradicated. And there are forces in our political system working to turn back its achievements.

Jessie Street once said: “Vital changes of policy have been brought about by moral pressure.” So as the 125th anniversary of her birth approaches, let us remember that we enjoy today’s freedoms because of the commitment, passion and hard work of the feminists of yesterday. Let us also realise that the freedoms of future generations of women will depend on our work as feminists today.

Freedoms, choices and opportunities for our daughters and our grand-daughters will depend on whether we too are willing to bring about vital changes of policy by moral and political pressure. And by our own actions.


Penny Wong is the Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Senate, where she has represented the Labor Party and South Australia since 2002. This is the text of her speech to the Jessie Street Annual Luncheon in NSW Parliament House on 11 April 2014. 


Suggested citation

Wong, Penny, 'A remarkable woman; a feminist', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, April 2014.<>


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