Eva Cox address to 2014 PSA Women’s Conference

The highlight of this year’s conference was an address by noted feminist and academic Eva Cox:

I’ve been to a few PSA conferences, but probably not at a time when I felt quite so desperate about what’s happening with feminism as I do at the moment.

Basically, feminism has stuffed over the past few years. We’ve done a very bad job of trying to provide the sort of leadership we should be providing. It’s about time we started to go back and start thinking about what the hell it was all about.

In the 1970s, we were very optimistic about the sorts of changes that we could make. There was a sense of optimism. Back then – and I got reminded of this by Germaine Greer when we were both on the same platform at some stage – we didn’t use the term ‘feminism’. We talked about ourselves as the ‘women’s movement’ or the ‘women’s liberation movement’, because what we were about in those days was trying to change society, change what was valued, and move away from the idea that men, masculinity and the patriarchy determined what was valued.

We tried to think through what it would be like if we had a society where things were re-valued, where the private and the public were not so separated, where the public was not just about men and the private was not just about women. Domestic violence is a really good example. We took that out of the home and we put it on the public agenda. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do very much over the past 40 years about improving rates domestic violence. We set up a lot of services, but what we still need to change are the gender inequities that actually create domestic violence.

In the 1970s, we really wanted to change what was important. We went for equal pay and we got it technically in the early ‘70s. People started accepting the idea of equal pay for doing the same job. But what we didn’t change was the fact that those jobs that are defined as feminine are still totally undervalued. That’s why we still have an 18% wage gap. And that’s not a wage gap because we work shorter hours, that’s a wage gap on an hourly rate, which means we get paid less for the work we do.

I can never work out why a childcare assistant gets paid less than a person who parks cars. Parking cars doesn’t do nearly as much damage to children if you don’t do it well. But we somehow ignore those sorts of things. If it’s done by a bloke, it must be more valuable.

We moved into the ‘80s and something happened which unfortunately most of us have really not acknowledged.  We had one of the biggest shifts in terms of public policy that we’d had probably since the 1930s and ‘40s:  Neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberalism appeared and everybody shifted the agenda. We set up to try and have debates based on economics.  Economics is an appallingly sexist discipline.  It doesn’t deal with relationships, it doesn’t deal with feelings, it doesn’t deal with values, it doesn’t deal with any of those things that make life important.  It only deals with the exchange of goods and services and other things that can be related to that.  It narrows the field of what’s important in a very odd way.

It actually has managed to bugger up almost everything that we did in the 1970s because it moved the political agenda to the point where everything moved out of the public sphere and into the privatised market model. Even the public sector has picked up the market model.

I hate to tell you this, but market models suck. It’s just fantasy that there’s a relationship between the need of the client and the need of the provider.

Economics is a social science.  Sociology and economics and most of the social sciences have a very poor rate of predicting the future.  They can’t do it. It can predict what firms do because firms operate on the idea that they are a corporate identity that is there to maximise profit.  But it doesn’t work for human beings because we’re not corporate identities who maximise profits.  So, unfortunately, when economists try to predict what we will do they get it wrong to a fair degree.

We actually do not have a progressive movement which is opposing the way we’ve gone.  The women’s movement somewhere along the line lost its mojo, lost its sting.  Somewhere around the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, we were still pushing quite hard for change. But in the ‘80s, things changed in the women’s movement.

We moved – and think about this – from trying to change society to trying to change the status of women.  They’re not the same thing.  We pushed for the status of women on the basis of some loony idea that if we got women into senior positions that they would change the system.  I’ve always maintained that organisations have an infinite capacity to protect themselves against change; that the cultures of organisations make sure that the people who are progressed are not the ones that are going to change. In any organisation – public, private and not-for-profit – the survival of the organisation tends to take control. You’re not going to promote stirrers; you’re not going to promote activists; you’re not going to promote people who have ideas for change unless the change fits into the current major concern – which appears to be increasing profits.

Demonstrations don’t work.  For those of you who were not around in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, yes, we had demonstrations. Yes, they were effective. But do you know why they were effective?  We were lobbying people on the inside.

We were inside Parliament House; we were in ministers’ offices; we were in political parties.  We were behind the scenes with the alternatives. We weren’t hanging around Hyde Park and feeling it was nice being there with a whole lot of other people.

I know I sound fairly bitter about this, but I’m really getting pissed off with the idea that just because you go and catch up with your mates you’re going to change the world. What we did to change the world in the 1960s and 70s was the hard work of putting up the alternatives. Nobody is proposing alternatives now.

The Labor Party isn’t.  Most of the unions are fighting just to retain things, and they’ve never been terribly good at being innovative about alternatives. Even the equal pay stuff, we did a very strong push long before the unions picked it up with any sort of solidity and pressure.

So we are stuck at this point with women basically going backwards. And we are not getting very far with trying to create change because there aren’t the organisations and the campaigns out there that are doing serious campaigning.

Women are being nice. We’re politely asking the Government for things, or we might be rudely asking the Government for things, but we’re asking.  We’re not offering the alternatives, we’re not engaging people and we’re not doing the things that need to be done.

We allow the things that we talk about to be classified as ‘women’s issues’ which diminishes the issues. Yes, we’re very good at fundraising for particular things like pink ribbons – we’re not nearly as good  about pushing for things which are really radical and different. And we need to. Why? Because basically the blokes have screwed it up.  It’s not that I think women will necessarily do it better, but at least we should have our own chance to screwed it up before we let them get back to having another go.

It’s time we provided leadership. It’s time we started thinking, “What can we change? What do we need to change?  How do we put child care back to being a community service and not an economic service?”  I’ve found women saying things like, “Why should women who don’t have jobs get access to child care?”  Well, why not?  They need a break from the kids, the kids need a break from them.  In most European countries you get all sorts of children’s services from the ages of 2 and 3.  Here they give you 15 hours a week in term time, for the year before you hit school, and they think they’re doing very well.

In the 1970s, we pushed very strongly for women’s right to work. But we have gone, particularly if you look at the situation of sole parents – from the right to work to the obligation to have a paid job.  We don’t have the community services we need to back that up.

We don’t have the other thing that we expected in the ‘70s, which has disappeared off the agenda: shorter working hours. If you go back to the 1970s, we went from the 40 hour week to the 38 hour week, to the 37½ hour week and to the 35 hour week for certain areas.  And then the debate stopped.

It went to the same place as the paperless office, I think. That was another one of the predictions.

There are women are out there talking about wanting flexible working hours. No, you want shorter working hours for everybody so you don’t get penalised for being the woman asking for flexible working hours.

Holland has got the highest per hour productivity and the shortest working week in Europe, so why don’t we actually say, 10 hour working days are crap? They lead you to making stupid mistakes.  Even 8 hour working days are too long.

There’s a group in England that is pushing for 6 hour working days.  Now, if you had a 6 hour working day, it would be much easier to deal with the fact that you’ve also got kids and an ailing mother and you actually really would like some time to have a walk and want to live like a human being.  We’ve forgotten that. We place such an emphasis on paid jobs for identity, money, contribution etc., we’ve forgotten that some of the things that are most important are those things we do for nothing.

One of the things we [women] miss out on sometimes is the fact that we should be providing leadership, and women feel uncomfortable being leaders.  They feel uncomfortable taking risks.  I’m a risk taker.  I stand up here and say the sorts of things I say to this Conference that most women wouldn’t say.  I do that because I think if we’re going to get change, we need to push the boundaries wide so that the people who come up through the middle look reasonable compared to the ratbags on the fringe.  I’m perfectly prepared to be a ratbag on the fringe, but I want to recruit some more ratbags because at the moment there is no fringe.

We need to sit down and work out the content of the world that we want to live in and put optimism back on the agenda because that’s what’s missing.

In the 1970s we were expecting World War 3, we were expecting atom bombs, we were expecting destruction. In many ways, it could have been very gloomy.  But in the 1970s we thought we could change the world. We had a vision splendid. We had some utopian idea about the changes that were possible.  Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that.

The progressive movements have become very unprogressive.  They’ve lost their soul.  They’ve lost their sense of the possibilities.

We need to set up a debate. Feminists need to be the ones to start setting up that debate because most blokes are too tied up in [the system] to do it. The men can come in with us, I hope they do.  But I just think we need to provide the leadership, we need to stick our necks out, we need to think up the new ideas. There’s not an awful lot happening out there that makes us feel good about who we are, and what we are, and what we want to be. I think we’ve got to put that back on the agenda and I think feminism has some responsibility for doing so.