Tuesday, March 08, 2011

One hundred years of platitudes

Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst by Pants

Today is the 100th International Women's Day. IWD rates a public holiday in Afghanistan, a place where women are afforded the highest possible respect, as we know. Also Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, Uzbekistan and Vietnam if Wikipedia is to be believed.

Forgive me if I don't immediately start roaring in numbers too big to ignore, but I'm wondering in what sense genuine progress has been made in advancing the international status of women over one whole century, which is a lot of time in anyone's money. To put things into perspective, the Animal Cruelty Act (UK, 1911) is also 100 years old this year and the ill-treatment of animals is so rare as to cause front-page consternation in that country, unlike domestic violence.

Here in Australia, we recently bagged a head-of-state trifecta. Our titular head is still the Queen of England, who has been in situ since 1953. In August 2010, we elected our first-ever female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The constitutional conduit that makes this remote monarchy functional is our first-ever female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, who took office in 2008.

Hoorah! you might conclude. But, actually, Julia Gillard's government was elected with such a grudging margin that it requires the co-operation of two men who would normally vote with the other side, and might well do so in the future if the opposition comes to its senses and ditches the clown it has fronting it now.

We have in this country a long history of tossing in a woman to oversee a disaster end-game at state government level. The political plight of Kristina Keneally, Premier of New South Wales, is instructive. She was recently given the job of leading an aged and corrupt government into certain defeat. And probably she took it because it was the only chance she was ever going to get to lead any government. And maybe that will look good on her curriculum vitae, but it sure doesn't send a great message to young women who are thinking about entering politics.

Today, coincidentally, a national survey shows the Gillard Government at a record low in popularity for a Labor government. This is supposedly because it is trying to introduce a carbon-pricing mechanism. Most Australians believe that no other country has one of these*, and although we love nothing more than to be world leaders, we are less keen when actual risk is involved. We would do almost anything to stop climate change, because we are such a caring and lovely nation, but paying a little more for electricity and petrol is an ask too far. This is not an intellectual environment in which advanced ideas like gender equality could really thrive.

It is painful to watch Julia Gillard struggling to find a workable persona in which to function in a job she could do in her sleep if it wasn't predominantly about sustaining a marketable image and answering stupid questions. Unfortunately for her, her predecessor's lack of a credible personality created a pressing need to prove she was not of the same mould. Little did we know the branded Kevin-07 was a model number when we elected him, er, it.** Julia needs to watch out for the Kevin-11 upgrade. I'm thinking its future ambitions do not lie in the after-hours grocery sector.

Queen Elizabeth II has been on the English throne since before I was born so I have no concept of how a male monarchy might look. Having spent nearly half my life in England, I can guess there isn't a lot in it. 'Monarch' would appear to be a genderless role. We still did Kings and Queens of England when I was at school and, in any case, I have Antonia Fraser's definitive work if I need reminding. Three English Queens have dominated the last half-millennium and all of them have wasted an inordinate amount of time on men's business, i.e. the gaining and protecting of territory.

I was living in England for most of the Thatcher years and I seem to recall that there wasn't much sisterliness involved in her long tenure. Spitting Image depicted Thatcher in a pin-striped suit. It's the same memory I have of her, even though her actual style was much more pussy-bow. There simply wasn't any personality to Thatcher, which is, I guess, why no one ever uses her first name.

The role of Governor-General in Australia is, basically, to be on permanent high-tea alert, unless the government of the day looks irretrievably shaky, in which case you can get drunk and sack it. Quentin Bryce seems like a neat and charming safe pair of hands, and probably not someone who would dissolve parliament in a claret-fuelled fit of pique or cover up for child molesters, or even speak her mind in an unladylike manner. And she doesn't appear to be very effective as a female role model. Given that power brokers were apparently very keen to see a woman in the job, where is the distinction that would have lent that ambition meaning? Or maybe it's simply a typically Australian hollow gesture based on nothing more than a desire to appear to be doing what is right and proper.

I didn't serve my own cause at all well by returning to Australia. Political activism peaked here in the 1970s and has been on a relentless road back to 1959 ever since. Today, the most-mentioned IWD event has been the setting up of a Women's Chamber of Commerce to benefit our tiny number of captainettes of industry. Presumably they'll be meeting in a Starbucks of their choice. Maybe they'll even set themselves to working out why it is that although women comprise more than fifty per cent of university graduates in this country, less than two per cent of CEOs in the top tier of businesses are female.

It's all very easy to get caught up in endlessly discussing whether or not there should be quotas introduced for female representation on the boards of blue-chip companies. The reality is that having a few women perched on rosewood sipping Evian doesn't seem to have much of an impact on how these companies operate. Gender wage inequity is getting worse, rather than better. There are more and more women living alone into old age and, because most of us have an inconsistent employment history, often at seventy per cent or less of the male wage, our retirement income tends to be much lower than that of the average man's. No one is seriously talking about the unfairness of that situation - even in the country that claims 'fairness' as the foundation of its nationhood.

So, is IWD really all about token gestures and self-congratulation now? What about the rest of us? At least 1970s feminism aimed to improve the lives of all women.

* Jill Duggan, a carbon-price expert from the EU's Directorate-General for Climate Action was placed in the unfortunate position of having to break it to Australia that we have not, in fact, invented everything.
** I've taken liberties with the metaphorical 'we' here. I was not actually living in Australia when Kevin Rudd was elected - but I would have voted Labor and supported him as PM.