Magazine article Women in Action

Bombing the Patriarchy or Outfitting a Cab: Challenges Facing the Next Generation of Feminist Activists (1)

Magazine article Women in Action

Bombing the Patriarchy or Outfitting a Cab: Challenges Facing the Next Generation of Feminist Activists (1)

Article excerpt

The very different concerns of two young women's groups in Australia today are the focus of this article. The first group is the Cross Campus Women's Network (CCWN), a network of feminist students belonging to women's collectives across the state of New South Wales. The second is the Young Women Who Are Parents Network (YWWAPN) operating in Campbelltown, a low-income suburb in Macarthur region south-west of Sydney. The two groups illustrate the dilemmas of ideology, strategy and the practice of feminism that are challenging the women's movement, not only in Australia, but around the world.

As a result of its engagement with the global anti-capital movement and its revolutionary focus, the CCWN's call is to "bomb the patriarchy!" In stark contrast, the YWWAPN is calling for the increase in taxis fitted with child restraints in the Macarthur region. At present there are only two such taxis, which means that on social security payment day, many poor women, their small children and the week's shopping in tow, are unable to find transport home.

In June 2002, Australia celebrated the centenary of white women's suffrage. (2) The transformation in the status of women in Australia, as in most of the western world, has been hard fought, won only through the struggles of feminists over several generations. But much still needs to change for Australian women to achieve gender equality.

The contemporary context of the women's movement in Australia is a political climate where conservatism has been successful in setting back the achievements of feminism combined with a discourse of backlash that derides the collectivity of Australian feminist activists. Policy changes such as the 1999 de-funding of the majority of Australian women's organisations by the federal Office of the Status of Women, the application of a consumption tax on tampons and breast pads in 2000, (3) devastating changes in child care funding (4) and Prime Minister John Howard's efforts to undermine federal sex discrimination laws (5) have made many women angry. But a resurgence of feminist activism appears remote, with women's non-government organisations struggling to sustain membership and maintain their organisational structures and processes.

Of concern to many feminists, too, is the question of who will continue the struggle because many believe that the women's movement has lost its impetus, and that there is no 'next generation' of Australian feminists. But the suggestion that young women are not active, or that the actions of contemporary young feminists are not important or not the right kind of feminism overlooks the importance of the work of young feminists, such as those in the CCWN and the YWWAPN.

While it is clear that the activism of young women today bears little resemblance to 1970s feminist activism, the tendency has been either to dismiss young women's feminism for lacking instrumental aims (Summers 1993), or to exalt it for its creative individualism (Bail 1996). As in the United States and Britain, Australian feminists engaged in a high-profile "generational debate" in the 1990s that produced two apparently homogenous, anonymous and universalised camps, determined primarily by age, and eclipsing other differences such as location, class or ethnicity. The accompanying media beat-up reduced debates between women of different ages to "trashing, countertrashing and metatrashing" (Bulbeck 2000:7), and the real significance of inter-generational feminist discourse was lost. Also lost was the actual work that young women were doing in maintaining the Australian women's movement and creating its future.

Second-wave Legacies

As in other parts of the world, the second wave of feminism in Australia that began in the 1970s was inspired by the theories and activism of the women's movements in the United States and Britain (Reade 1994). Many women responded to the specific insights of feminist theory, rather than a purely Marxist analysis, to explain the oppression of women and to propose revolutionary actions to bring about its end. …

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