Feminism has failed and needs a radical rethink

Women need to recalibrate feminist action so that it’s not just about them advancing in society on men’s terms. Shutterstock

There was a 1970s badge that declared:

Women who want equality with men lack ambition.

This statement neatly sums up the broad intentions of second-wave feminists to create radical shifts of gender power. On International Women’s Day 2016, looking back, I suggest we failed to pursue that agenda and settled for much less. We achieved formal legal equality over the subsequent decade, but moving past that into wider social equity changes seems definitely to have stalled.

What went wrong?

We knew then that legal equality was only the starting point. We understood that real gender equity would require radical changes to macho cultural power structures. So we planned and discussed the ways we could revalue what matters and eliminate gender-biased, macho-designed cultural dominance.

Despite fixing most of the legal barriers, the cultural changes failed to follow. There were other changes happening. By the 1980s the arrival of neoliberalism as the dominant political paradigm slowed most social progress, as market models took over. These changed the political focus from progressive social change to market choices and individualised material success.

This approach also emphasised machismo and reinforced gender inequities, because market competition rewards materialist views of what matters. The more collectivist social roles that are part of our social infrastructure – and often heavily feminised – are devalued and considered private concerns.

Our early support for increasing the proportion of women in positions of power was not driven by wanting more women sharing male privilege, but a belief that feminists could infiltrate and make the social and cultural changes we wanted. Now, the increasing numbers of women allowed to join men in positions of power and influence are mostly prepared to support the status quo, not to seriously increase gender equity.

So 41 years after International Women’s Year, Australian women are still the very much the second sex, insofar as we are permitted limited share of power and resources in the public sphere, but on macho market terms.

What is the second sex? It was neatly defined in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex analysis of how gender roles were socially designed:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.


She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.

Still the second sex

In Australia, women are still clearly the “other”. Our once radical social movement has been diverted into good works such as women’s refuges, counting female victims of violence and calling out sexism. While all these are necessary, there is little focus on offering serious alternatives.

Too many women’s groups are plaintively asking for better access to the options open to men, on men’s terms. The current groups seem to have lost the necessary optimism to identify and lead serious changes to the nasty, inequitable and fading market model which not only excludes the social but is showing serious flaws.

The damage to social well-being that results from the reliance on unfettered markets is much wider than just the continued poor status of women. There are clear indications of social distress in many developed countries whose austerity cuts have created serious inequality.

A review of current public policy priorities at the local level shows few social goals and policies that indicate any serious efforts to make Australia fairer and create better social well-being. The long-term over-emphasis on GDP and financial growth is exacerbating inequalities, with changes focused mainly on punishing the unemployed.

The market model stresses paid work only, completely ignoring feminised unpaid, underpaid, often uncounted roles and tasks, most notably the raising of children. These are not included in GDP, but are essential to good social functioning.

This shift is clearly illustrated by proposed changes to the funding of children’s services, whose role will move from complementing community/family to servicing GDP growth. In the process, “progress for women” has been reduced to increasing their participation in paid work.

This pattern appears in parenting payments and other areas where unpaid contributions are ignored. Similar issues arise in Closing the Gap failures, which emphasise white male models and ignore the value of good social relationships that were once also more important in Western societies.

Time for a radical rethink

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, voters increasingly distrust the major parties, whose economic emphasis turns them off. Rather than leave solutions to the current holders of power, or some populist alternatives, we need feminist-led setting of social equity goals.

Can some good feminist ideas reignite the light on the hill to find ways out of current political dilemmas? Let’s commemorate International Women’s Day this year by offering some bold initiatives that show our concerns are universal, albeit from feminist standpoint. Here are some starting points:

  • devise and discuss good social policy goals, which prioritise gender and other equity outcomes, and make them central to the coming election;

  • revalue the rewarding the skills and time put into care, relationships, feelings and other social needs that require attention and commitment;

  • broaden the agenda and revise our assumptions about what matters to make sure that gender biases are removed from roles such as caring;

  • ensure that men recognise their need to be liberated from the limited assumptions about masculinity that also limit their choices and lives;

  • abolish the term “women’s issues”: these are social issues that affect everyone, and the label stereotypes women as the second sex who have special interests; and

  • acknowledge that women cannot “have it all” because men can’t either, but ensure that both can take on fairly shared responsibilities for essential paid and unpaid roles.

These are starting points for addressing deficits in mainstream politics and putting social well-being high on political agendas. We require feminist perspectives to set social goals that are sustainable, and create social resilience.

These necessary strengths are undermined by the macho tendencies in current political directions. We need to recognise the importance of social connections, cultural needs and care of others that economics doesn’t cover; to balance material and social stability.

And, as de Beauvoir said, women need to decline to be the “other”, to refuse to be a party to the deal. This would mean for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste. That’s feminism.

Eva will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 3:30 and 4:30pm AEDT on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.