I was interested
in doing Arts/Law but I did Arts as the scholarship people said that Law
was not appropriate for a woman. At that stage, in
the sixties, I didn't have the confidence to do it. It wasn't until I
had children and was influenced by the women's movement that I started
a law degree. When I completed it and was thinking about what to do, it
was rather a shock to be told that I was the best qualified but the wrong
sex, so I became an academic, which allowed me to critique the system.
I did activist things
as well. At one stage in the early 1980's, I remember I belonged simultaneously
to organisations called WAM, WAC and WITI - which sound rather aggressive.
WAM was Women at Macquarie, WAC was the Women's Advisory Council to the
Premier and WITI was Women in Tertiary Institutions. I was founder of
the Feminist Legal Action Group (FLAG), where we wanted to use the law
to run test cases and things like that.
We made submissions and lobbied
for changes to laws affecting women. For example, we sponsored
the first research on women convicted of the murder of their husbands
after years of domestic violence. This work was instrumental in having
the law on provocation changed in New South Wales.
Subsequently, I went
on television with Helen Coonan to talk about FLAG's work. Helen said
that FLAG would love to hear from women with problems in family law, etc.
The next thing we were inundated with letters from all around Australia.
It was just impossible. We virtually sank under the weight of that.
I came to Melbourne
in 1990 to take up a Chair in the Department of Legal Studies at La Trobe
University, continuing to work on similar issues.
There was a strong group
of feminist scholars at Latrobe University and a particular emphasis on
social justice. I felt happy about working there. I did a book on anti-discrimination
legislation in Australia called The Liberal Promise (Oxford University
Press 1990), then a study on women in the legal profession called Dissonance and Distrust (Oxford University Press 1996).
There is still enormous
suspicion and antipathy towards women in authority. Only last week when
we had a woman appointed to the High Court (only the second), the front-page
and lead-story headline in The Australian was 'WOMAN
"OF MERIT" JOINS HIGH COURT' (21 Sept 2005)
Once again, we see
the suspicion about women in authority: that you can't quite trust them,
that they are somehow not going to be as good or as meritorious, that
they have been appointed only because of their sex. Working as a professor
I have been interested in this question of the gender of authority.
you adopt a more collaborative style as a woman, there is a suspicion
that you are weak, but on the other hand, if you act like the stereotypical
male manager who orders people about, that is inappropriate too. You are
a 'balls-breaker'. Authority is an ongoing
dilemma for feminists. I think in the present climate we are seeing a
reversion back to more authoritarian styles of leadership, which seems
to fit in with neo-liberalism.
The social liberalism of the 1970's and
1980's did begin to tolerate women in positions of authority, and, of
course, there was a commitment to equal opportunity, and it was more open,
despite the sexism. Today, we never hear
of 'femocrats' (feminists in the bureaucracy), a significant Australian
innovation. Now, with the focus upon employers and what is good for business,
we see that the type of leadership style is much more authoritarian -
someone who can 'kick heads', order people around rather than consult
and if they refuse to co-operate sack them.
It really struck
me just how disjointed even our recent path has become when I attended
a Reclaim the Night collective meeting some time ago and one young woman
read out the collective's statement. It said something to the effect of:
"For Reclaim the Night this year, this is our statement: women will be
liberated through the liberation of working class men". She then proceeded
to explain the herstory of feminism since about the nineteen sixties which
really didn't seem to match my memory of things or recorded events.
I found myself saying
"I don't think that is quite right" but she knew differently. And this
is only over one generation: she was of an age where she could have been
my daughter. I was troubled by her understanding of Reclaim the Night. Another thing that
is imperative to bring about change for women and the community as a whole
is for males to be actively campaigning to change male attitudes and behaviour.
The feminism we now
have, which puts the onus on women to make demands that women have rights
and expect to be treated accordingly, is not enough. Men have been given
this information for decades but information about the rights of women
doesn't change the male belief system and men acting as agents of this