A fish on a bicycle

8 December 2020 | Posted In: #137 Summer 2020,

In September 1992, as part of a Senate series of occasional lectures, Susan Ryan delivered the following address. 

A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. Did the slogan that adorned many of the doors and walls of women’s liberationists in the 1970s imply anything about women and politics? Women in Parliament are not women without men, they are women surrounded by them. But in making their way through the congestion of legislation, policy, scrutiny, representation, electioneering and leadership, are women as unnatural and unlikely as fishes on bicycles? When I went into Parliament women parliamentarians were not quite as rare a sight as a fish on a bicycle: they actually did exist.

After being elected in 1975, I joined four women who had already been in the Senate for a short period: Liberal senators Guilfoyle and Martin, and Labor senators Coleman and Melzer. Senator Walters from Tasmania was also elected in 1975. So there were six: a small but noticeable number. In the House of Representatives there were no women. My election was greeted with many media comments and profiles emphasising my gender, age, hair colour, marital status, physical size, and motherhood. About my political agenda they were less informative.

Being female evoked comment, but even more remarkable than my female presence in the Senate, I was a feminist. Most people, including senators and members of my own caucus room, did not quite know what that meant. I did. I had formed my political aspirations and drawn my political energy from feminism, that movement for gender equality beginning at the end of the 1960s, called, in retrospect, Second Wave Feminism and at the time, Women’s Liberation. It was my first political involvement, and I did not linger very long. I was interested in the questions being explored within Women’s Liberation: the nature of the female; the operation of oppression; defining the patriarchy; the possibility of a “women’s culture”.

But there were more urgent and important questions for me. Along with other activists, I moved straight from the basic assumption of feminism — that women were unfairly treated by society (all societies) — to the conclusion that the remedy for this unfairness was in the hands of women themselves. This was a political solution — one that required the exercise of political power.

As I conducted my analysis of the obstacles to equality and fairness for women, I was drawn again and again to the political system. External obstacles to equality for women abounded. Many of them were rooted in legislation and public policy created in the parliaments of Australia: practices such as denying permanency of employment to married women; limiting women’s education; restricting them to a narrow range of training and employment; wages policies that refused to accept the reality of female economic independence and failed to note that many women supported dependents; refusal to acknowledge the consequences for women of women’s fertility.

Considering these policy failures, and examining the way in which Parliament made laws and budgets, I came to believe that not only was a woman’s place in the House and in the Senate — as my first campaign slogan proclaimed — but a feminist’s place was in politics.

In our kind of democracy, particular groups seek to impact on political decision makers through the formation of lobbies. It occurred to some of us very early on that a women’s lobby should be established to influence the content of laws and the performance of politicians. We formed the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in the year leading up to the election of the Whitlam Government in December 1972.

WEL utilised shock tactics, the media, persuasion, and a bit of psychological terrorism, to get issues like childcare, equal pay, reproductive control, and access to education and training, on to the agenda of the newly elected Whitlam Government. From my feminist perspective, this lobbying was necessary but not sufficient. It left women on the outside of political power, waiting, persuading, threatening, but not acting directly to achieve change.

That short and intense period where the Women’s Electoral Lobby became an effective part of the 1972 election campaign determined my parliamentary career. How much more efficient, I thought, how much more effective, if we were in there making the decisions, instead of knocking on the doors trying to attract support. Debate on the ill-fated Abortion Reform Bill in 1973 exemplified the problem: the debate was conducted in an all-male chamber; the women were outside rallying, organising, shouting through loud hailers, preparing for disappointment.
I decided that next time we should be in there making the laws.

I set about organising a preselection base throughout the Labor Party branches in the ACT. I worked with other Labor Party feminists and progressive male members to try to ensure that the branches reflected this new and dynamic commitment to gender equality. This strategy — to the amazement and annoyance of seasoned political commentators — succeeded: I was endorsed and won a Senate seat in 1975.

I was often asked at the time what I expected, what misgivings I had. It is hard to say whether my expectations were too modest or totally extravagant. I did expect that I would be able to make changes. It was both better and worse than I anticipated. I found many supporters, but so much that seemed to me to be logical, sensible, fair, and of general benefit to the community, seemed to others to be radical, eccentric, and impractical.

In my early attempts at women’s policy there were times when I felt like a fish on a bicycle. But the work of a parliamentarian, even one with special commitments, can never relate to one set of issues only. I had two broad objectives when I entered Parliament. One was to bring into consideration matters of vital importance to women which had been neglected; the other was to establish, through my work and by supporting the work of other women in the Parliament, recognition that women were capable parliamentary performers. I wanted to demonstrate that the neglect of female candidates by the major political parties had been an error and had deprived the nation of a great deal of capacity.

My central objective in Parliament was economic independence for all, including women. Economic independence means the capacity to provide for your own needs and for the needs of those for whom you are directly responsible. How were women to achieve economic independence?

The answer involved a logical series of policy initiatives. Women needed to be able to compete on merit for permanent and rewarding jobs. I never believed that such jobs should simply be handed out according to some numerical concept of fairness, nor that others, in this case men, should be deprived of their economic independence in order to make way for women.

So, the next logical step involved education and training. If women were to compete on merit for good jobs, then they had to have access to the fullest and widest range of education. That meant reforming schools, changing the universities, and giving women access to apprenticeship and technical training. Further, I never expected that as a result of the reforms I was advocating, women as a group would lose interest in bearing children. While I respected individual choice in these matters, I thought it likely that the majority of women would, like myself, have children and seek employment. The logical consequence of that prediction was better provision by society for support and assistance in the rearing of children, particularly very young children, hence the policy of childcare.

In developing a logical policy framework, it had to be acknowledged that contraception and family planning techniques were — to sum up in one word — unreliable. That is they did not work for all of the people all of the time. While the unplanned pregnancy often became the wanted and much-loved child, there were cases in which it could be a personal catastrophe. The choice of termination should be available to women.

I still find it hard to believe that the objectives that I had at that time — equal opportunity in employment; access to education and training; childcare services; fertility control — were radical enough to upset and destabilise the parliamentary system and the community it represented. But enormous resistance was organised to these objectives. There was resistance within the Labor Party and inside the federal caucus.

My advocacy for childcare, reproductive control, or equal pay, was often met by my own colleagues expressing fear at the electoral danger I was creating with such views. Some notable Labor figures complained that I was taking up the cause of a tiny majority of over-educated women, a cause that would be unsettling and unwelcome to the vast majority of Australian women who (I could only infer from the comments of my colleagues) were totally satisfied with their lot.

That resistance was overcome. The Labor Party — despite being in many respects a reflection of the conservative society it inhabits — does have a central core of commitment to equality, and therefore to change that will create better opportunities. Slowly, the Labor Party started to build policies to address the inequalities suffered by women.

I must also acknowledge the support of somewhat unlikely figures: Bob Hawke, as Prime Minister, fully comprehended the issue of structural discrimination in the workforce and put his weight behind the package of equal opportunity measures. Keating, when Treasurer, never dismissed my budgetary proposals aimed at assisting disadvantaged women, particularly single mothers and older women. I had powerful opponents in cabinet as well as outside and the extensive program of reform for women I was able to secure would not have succeeded without the support of the most powerful figures of the Government.

Outside, things were harder. Administrators in TAFE and universities, employer organisations and even unions, produced reason after reason why women could not, without disaster, be admitted to apprenticeships, managerial jobs, professorships or crane driving. I also met resistance in Parliament on the other side, as one would expect. Many of my earlier contributions to parliamentary debates were greeted with groans of scorn and derision by senators on the opposite side. But to be fair, the groaning was not universal and, as time passed, I realised that there were Liberal senators who were prepared to acknowledge female disadvantage and use the powers and processes of the Parliament to make some improvements.

I did, however, have some fairly torrid times in my early years in Parliament, none more so than during the debate on the motion that I brought into the Senate to disallow the termination of pregnancy ordinance introduced into the Australian Capital Territory by the Fraser Government. The opposition to my 1978 abortion initiative reverberated several years later during the debate on the Sex Discrimination Bill.

When one runs into difficulties, it is too easy to say “the boys stopped me; I experienced this failure because I am a woman”. I am not decrying the personal experience of women who say that is how they felt; I am not saying that I have never been the victim of sexism or the double standard. But I am loath to support the thesis that life in Parliament is really too hard for women. It must be remembered that men have their policy failures, experience factional treacheries, and lose cabinet debates.

When I and my colleagues who had worked hard to rebuild Labor’s electoral fortunes after the terrible defeats of 1975 and 1977 came into office in 1983, each and every one of us in cabinet was sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. I was not the only minister who felt torn between the ideals in our platform and the reality of Government, who felt miserable at failing to persuade my colleagues to a particular policy. These were experiences we shared.

Look at prime ministers and opposition leaders. At the pinnacle of parliamentary power, there is no ivory tower, no shelter from the storm, and ultimately no buffer against ambition, disaffection, treachery or failure. Everyone in Parliament has to endure such experiences, women included. It is important to acknowledge the difficulties that are universal in order to deal with those that do arise from discriminatory attitudes to women.

Looking back on my time in Parliament, I can identify issues and actions that typify the parliamentarian anxious to achieve social change. All who have embarked on such a course — the many men and the few women — have had turbulent times. My involvement with reforms for women made my parliamentary work even more turbulent and controversial. The presence of a newcomer in the citadels of power is always a challenge, whether the novelty is to do with a person’s gender or the person’s race. There is no avoiding that extra dimension of controversy. Only when a critical mass of women parliamentarians is achieved, will gender cease to be an issue.

I hope we see many more fish on bicycles.

The above is an edited extract. Source: Parliament of Australia

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