Feminism, Tanya and the ALP

Feb 21, 2021

As a long-term feminist I’m concerned that Second Wave radical goals of real gender equity, not just equality on masculine-established criteria, have still not been achieved. One area that requires serious change is to the criteria for leadership.

The current debates about ALP leadership, and the absence of Tanya Plibersek from discussions, offers some interesting evidence of our failures. I’ve been looking at three books that show how this works. The first is Upturn: A Better Normal after Covid-19, edited by Tanya Plibersek of the Labor left, the second The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity On Labor’s Future, edited by Nick Dyrenfurth and Misha Zelinsky, from the ALP Right faction (which I accidentally bought, after confusing the two titles), and the third is Women of a Certain Rage, edited by Liz Byrski, which arrived last week from the publisher, Fremantle Press, as I have a chapter in it. The three books jostle against each other, figuratively as well as physically on my desk.

The two volumes of essays from the Labor factions appear at a time when effective social policy and leadership is so desperately needed, and when the media is raising issues about Albanese’s hold on that leadership. Both are obviously designed to offer voters useful short pieces on areas of policy and the direction the ALP will offer at the next election. The various blokes being discussed as alternative leaders have essays in the books. One of these, Jim Chalmers, is in both books with somewhat different pitches. Albanese, interestingly, has no chapter in either.

Upturn seems particularly significant at this time as Plibersek is the only woman ever mentioned as an alternative to Albanese. Her recent decision not to run as for his deputy appeared to take her out of leadership contention, but the lack of clear candidates means her name is coming up again. Given the times, it is appropriate to look at her vision via the book and see how it would support her leadership relevance. Her editorial and choice of contributed essays show a broad interest in social, rather than economic, policy, a contrast to The Write Stuff’s focus on party history, working people and the need to attract traditional voters back to Labor. Both offer 30 chapters, Tanya’s has 16 written by women, the other book 13.

Numbers count in the ALP, so in putting this piece together, I looked at the question of women’s progress to ‘equality’ in the ALP in these terms. We second-wavers have held on to the one hope that greater numbers of women in power would create the changes we wanted. In the current Federal ALP caucus there is claimed to be equality of men and women. Penny Wong is the leader in the Senate and her deputy is also female. Overall, there are nine women and 13 men in the shadow cabinet, and eight women and 15 men in the outer cabinet and assistant ministries. Impressive, not far short of equality, so why are no other potential female leaders being discussed?

Women of a Certain Rage offers a rare commentary on anger, which is still judged as ‘unacceptable behaviour’ in women, particularly those in public roles, and offers some insights into the exclusion of angry women from power. Tanya’s recent clash with Craig Kelly on his ‘advice’ was well covered by the media as a rare example of her anger, suggesting that control by a woman such as Tanya Plibersek is obviously subject to sexist constraints.

So how does feminist rage enter these debates? The effects of women’s visible rage are described in the essays, including mine. Many relate the frustration at the slow or non-existent progress being made on feminist issues and, interestingly, how public female anger is discouraged or seen as the reason why some women fail. While male leaders are permitted to show rage, too often women activists are expected to be nice and not angry. How far have these gender stereotypes undermined legitimate feminist candidates and stopped the progress, while macho neoliberalism took over?

More importantly, why hasn’t this near gender equity affected the policies being discussed? Yes, child-care costs are on the agenda, but not as social policy, but rather to increase women in paid work to increase GDP. What about the dismal gender pay gap, clearly identified in the work that underpaid and unpaid women have contributed during Covid-19? Where is reform of welfare and clear rejection of the toxic conditionality of cashless welfare models? Why aren’t there policies looking at ways to pay women for their unpaid contributions that are ignored in GDP?

Plibersek has chosen some effective contributions in Upturn. Her selection covers social issues that need to be resolved and authors like Annabel Crabb and Rebecca Huntley recognise broader social needs. The range is eclectic and interesting, even if Michael Keating’s review in this publication praises her recognition of the need for changes but is critical of a failure to offer ‘a coherent and comprehensive reform agenda’ describing it as ‘an eclectic set of essays with only limited coordination’.

Yes, it could have been better sold as coherent pitch, which leads me to wonder why it hasn’t? Plibersek has been seen as a potential leader for some years now, but she hasn’t manifested the pushiness that the men touting for the top job have. How much of this is due to assumptions that women who push are threatening rather than exhibiting leadership qualities?

Plibersek, in her long career, has been very competent and has behaved well. Maybe this is the problem: being well regarded and loyal in her faction, she has not been able to indicate the more risk-taking leadership qualities. So her potential for leadership has not been widely seen or promoted. Even this book’s presentation is designed as a very modest exercise in building her image, not just ideas.

Her absence raises my concern. Despite the increasing numbers of women (feminists even!) in positions of power, we are unable to shift the failing macho individualised homo economicus mode of market-based governance. Covid-19 has shown us that the move from public social democracy to extreme liberal versions has serious flaws. The rising distrust of governments, the moves to conspiracy beliefs and odd strong-men rule that echo the pre-World War 2 Weimar republic are just a few that have been uncovered.

So were we wrong in second-wave women’s liberation, when we promoted that more women in power would change things? We thought that more women meant the inequities would be fixed. Women’s roles and skills would be appropriately valued and we would create a fairer, more functional world. We built on the changes that were occurring during the post-war social democracy paradigm of the welfare state model. This had been part of post-war reconstruction, as it was deemed necessary to validate democracy and avoid re-growths of fascism or spread of authoritarian communism.

Unfortunately, shifts were occurring in the 1970s and ‘80s, as the arrival of Neoliberalism via Thatcher and Reagan offered a masculinised regression to reducing governance power in favour of a market-based self-correcting model. The debates about social needs and the importance of interdependence disappeared and the broad changes of communal values were undermined. Getting women into power didn’t stop this happening.

There are gender-based issues of power and influence that need to be addressed urgently as the current pandemic has thrown up shifts in the roles of governments and powerbrokers. The pandemic has raised interesting gender issues, both because of the need for essential workers with the feminised skills of care, nursing, cleaning and feeding other workers and the patients. All feminised skills are deemed as related to unpaid roles, therefore undervalued and consequently underpaid.

These are the changes we would expect to come from a Labor push in the Australian context. The privatisation of essential services and production of health and other related goods and services have shown serious flaws. Instead we are met with an overemphasis on growth and paid work as the solution.

So I support the possibility of Tanya’s leadership candidacy, she has values we need to encourage and elect. She needs a level of acceptable rage to push the ideas that are not necessarily popular in the male spheres so she can help counter the mess we are in, and initiate the upturn.

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