Labor senator says rejecting the term feminist is a political manoeuvre aimed at undermining gender equality policies
Penny Wong has appealed to conservatives and progressives to “own” the “f-word” – feminist – in the name of women’s freedom of choice and because equality of opportunity has not been achieved.
Wong took direct aim at Senator Michaelia Cash, the minister assisting the prime minister Tony Abbott on women’s issues, and who recently rejected the feminist label because, while she believed in gender equality, she considered feminism to be “a set of ideologies from many decades ago”.
“Rejecting the term ‘feminist’ is a political decision,” Wong said, in the Sydney lecture to commemorate the achievements of suffragette and feminist Jessie Street.
“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.
“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 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.”
And she warned those who took Cash’s view that it was “a trap to think that feminists’ work is done, that the revolution for gender equality has been won, and its gains cannot be reversed”.
She conceded concern about gender equality is not “an exclusive preserve of the left” and nominated rightwing feminists such as the UK home secretary, Theresa May, former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and NSW minister Pru Goward.
And she conceded that Abbott himself had said, at an International Women’s Day breakfast, that his three daughters had – in the words of his wife – turned “unreconstructed bloke into a feminist”.
In that speech Abbott focused on the gains women had made in Australian life.
“Anyone who is in Australia has won the lottery of life and if you look at our country and the deal that it gives to women, it is obviously pretty good. It wasn’t so long ago, as a Sydneysider, that there was a female lord mayor, a female premier, a female prime minister, a female head of state in our governor general, a female monarch, obviously, and indeed the richest person in our country was female … So this is a nation which has smashed just about every glass ceiling, but we need to do more – we need to do more,” he said.
But despite her appeal to conservative feminists, Wong made the case that, in her view, the government was proposing policies running counter to the interests of women.
“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,” she said.
Wong pointed to decisions taken by the government in its first six months that hit lower income workers who are predominantly women – mostly decisions taken in the interests of cutting expenditure or to undo programs the government associated with Labor’s industrial relations agenda.
Listing the axing of a program which delivered pay increases to some childcare workers, cutting the wages of cleaners employed on government contracts, abolishing the low income superannuation contribution, and the paid parental leave scheme which disproportionately benefits high-income women, Wong concluded: “I really don’t think Tony has thought this feminism thing through.”
And she pointed to the continuing gender pay gap, continuing unacceptable levels of violence against women, continuing under-representation of women on company boards and as partners in law firms, the fact that women make up only one third of all federal, state and territory MPs and the fact that the Abbott government could find only one woman to include in its cabinet as evidence that the work of feminism is not done, and that “we should own this label. Wear it with pride. And put it into action.”