If you ask a young woman today what she thinks about women’s liberation, chances are she’ll say either “What’s that?” or “Who needs it?”
She wouldn’t be alone in thinking that the fact that New Zealand has had two women prime ministers and women in some other high positions proves that there are no longer any barriers holding women back.
But does it? Have women really achieved the “liberation” we dreamed of in the 70s?
Back then, the goals of the women’s movement seemed clear enough. We fought fora future — just around the corner, we thought — in which:
• equal pay would lead to equal incomes for men and women
• opportunities for work and education would not be related to gender
• freely-available contraception and abortion would mean every child was a wanted child, and family planning would be under parents’ control
• women would share the breadwinning role, and men would share the housework and child care
• cheap, good-quality daycare would enable parents to work or study as freely as non-parents
• children would no longer be forced into stereotyped gender roles
• sexual freedom and social equality would bring an end to rape, pornography and prostitution.
The millennium seemed a long way off then, and surely time enough to bring these changes about, or at least get within sight of them. But with the millennium well behind us now, how many of those goals can we tick off as achieved?
While we’ve won some legislation against sexual discrimination in employment opportunities and pay, the gender gap has scarcely narrowed at all in terms of income. Women may have equal pay rates, but can’t approach men’s incomes unless they can work like men (that is, not take time out to bear or care for children). Having a few women on high pay does nothing for the thousands on minimum wage.
Women now have access to a greater range of jobs and careers than ever before, but they still face a conflict between family and work that men rarely feel. And in spite of anti-discrimination laws, sexual harassment and prejudice still effectively limit women’s choices.
Access to abortion is easier, and contraception more available, but a consequence of this that we never foresaw has been the new-right notion that having children is an individual “lifestyle choice”. According to this thinking, if you choose to have a child (as you might choose to get a dog), raising that child is entirely your responsibility, and you can sink or swim. (Never mind that you are helping to ensure the ongoing supply of future mechanics, doctors, cleaners, bus drivers, builders and so on.) Consequently, many women put off childbearing till it’s too late, and now infertility has become a social problem.
Men (why were we surprised?) didn’t pick up the housework partnership idea with any enthusiasm, if at all. Instead of home-based parenting becoming a shared role, it has almost disappeared. Most women, unless they can afford nannies and cleaners, find themselves working at a job all day then doing a second shift of housework when they get home.
Socialised child care?
Just about the only goal of the women’s liberation movement that has come close to being realised is that of daycare for young children, which is now widely available and subsidised, though not free. But parents who want to care for their children at home (mostly women) are now under economic and social pressure to get back into employment as soon as possible. Looking after your own children is not considered to be work — especially if you are a sole parent.
Freedom from gender stereotypes?
The 70s conviction that gender is created by upbringing has swung back so far the other way that we now have the notion that men and women are from different planets (Venus and Mars); that is, they are so fundamentally different that equality is not only impossible, it’s unnatural. Take a look in any toy store, or children’s clothing store — where the vast bulk of products are aimed exclusively at either boys or girls, and very few at both — for evidence of gender socialisation far more extreme and rigid than it was even in the “feminine mystique” days of the 50s and 60s.
Rape is still a constant threat (no good calling the police — they’re doing it too). Pornography is instantly and universally available on the internet, and prostitution is legitimate business.
Hardly. The principle of equal rights may be generally accepted in the developed world, but the practice lags well behind. Most of the issues of the 70s remain, sometimes appearing with a slightly different twist that we couldn’t have imagined back then, and new ones keep surfacing.
And let’s not forget (as we in the West are inclined to conveniently forget when we talk about “society”) that for billions of women throughout the world, nothing much has changed at all since the 70s, or in fact for centuries. Ancient forms of oppression still hold sway in many communities, and cultures in which women’s rights are more or less non-existent continue unperturbed by changes in the West. Women remain the very poorest of the poor in most places on earth. While all this remains true we can hardly speak of progress.
Time for a new women’s liberation movement? I think so.