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Professor Michelle Arrow Current Australian Research Council project: Co-editor History Australia (2019-2021) Image courtesy: Effy Alexakis, photowrite.

From International Women’s Year (1975) to now

Geoff Helisma


This year’s International Women’s Day theme is Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World. The Independent put some questions to Professor Michelle Arrow, who has written extensively in that context, particularly regarding Elizabeth Reid AO’s contribution to the movement during the Whitlam government’s years.


Geoff Helisma: How important was the work of Elizabeth Reid in relation to the rights women now have, when compared to International Women’s Year 1975, as proclaimed by United Nations General Assembly?

Prof Michelle Arrow: She was the first femocrat – a feminist who worked inside government to try to make government more responsive to women’s needs. As the first person to do this, that makes her very important in the longer story of women’s rights in Australia. Her ideas, as to how women might get more from government (eg forcing government departments to respond to women’s problems with child care, social security, etc), were very influential on the development of women’s ‘policy machinery’ in all parts of government. She wanted all government departments to respond to women, not just a department of ‘women’s affairs’.

GH: I just had a look at Whitlam’s speech from the International Women’s Day Reception, Melbourne, 8 March 1975, and he does not mention convenor Elizabeth Reid – how would you interpret this fundamental omission?

MA: That is unusual, but she was first and foremost his adviser – government advisers don’t tend to be mentioned in speeches. However, the government was experiencing lots of difficulties by 1975 and Reid was losing some of her influence, so this might explain it as well.

GH: In your piece on the Conversation website you write: ‘And we are painfully aware that neo-liberalism has shrunk the state and limited the possibilities for activism.’ What do you mean by this statement, could you please provide examples of, or expand on, the assertion?

MA: Neo-liberalism had reduced the size of government just at the time that women were starting to make larger demands on it – for example, government provision of childcare, aged care and welfare benefits like the supporting mothers benefit. Neo-liberalism, as an ideology, maintains that smaller governments are better and that the marketplace is the best way to manage the provision of services that used to be provided by the state. We can see in aged care that this has been a disaster as for-profit providers have been found to offer sub-standard care but generate huge profits for owners (as the Royal Commission this week has demonstrated). Similarly, in child care, many providers make significant profits but, despite government subsidies, childcare is often prohibitively expensive for many women who need reliable care in order to work. And all of these industries rely on a low-paid, largely female workforce.

And, in terms of limiting the possibilities for activism, activists in the 1970s had more time for activism partly because they were in a less punitive economic environment.

GH: In a related statement you write: ‘If our parliament is full of men who ignore, belittle and disrespect women, and women who enable these men, it is because we, the voters, have put them there.’ It seems that some women in power are enablers of men’s sexist behaviour; can you illustrate how this assertion is happening in our governments?

MA: Prominent women in the Liberal Party refuse to call themselves feminists, [mean] while they have benefited from the work of feminist activists in the past (including women in the Liberal Party) in order to get into parliament in the first place. Many of them have overlooked or excused the bad behaviour of their male colleagues – none of them said anything publicly about the fact that a cabinet minister had been accused of rape, and none of them have been prepared to call out the bad behaviour of their colleagues after it was discussed on 4 Corners or other programs. The Labor Party has managed to get to almost 50 per cent of female MPs with a quota – the Liberals doggedly refuse to implement quotas, and their number of female MPs is around 30 per cent. They are treated appallingly within their own party (witness Julie Bishop’s treatment when she was running for leader) but they won’t highlight the sexism of their colleagues, and neither did they call out those who treated Julia Gillard in sexist ways when she was PM.

GH: Have you any thoughts regarding how social media, the digitisation of news and the concentration of the mainstream media into fewer corporate entities have affected women attaining equality in society – both negative and/or positive?

MA: Social media has been very positive for women in many ways, even though they face trolling and sexist commentary there. Social media has become a space where women can make disclosures about abuse and build online communities, etcetera, away from the mainstream media. However, sometimes I think we can mistake social media activism for political action – the two things are related, but they’re not the same, and that was the point I was trying to make in my article. 

GH: Do you have any suggestions on how people who are primarily interested in people’s welfare as the foundation upon which to build an economy rather than the ‘market economy’ model, can defeat the might of the likes of Murdoch and ideologically conservative governments?

MA: This is the million dollar question! I confess I’m not quite sure, but I do think that higher levels of civic engagement generally can’t hurt. Political parties have become hollow institutions, and that has been bad for our politics. Given that these institutions are the only ones we currently have, it seems wise to invest in them and to try to work to make them better, and more responsive to people’s needs.