Identity and Social Movements

Can social movements change public policy? If so, how?

By Rosemary Dryley

Social movements have the ability to influence the government to make change in public policy.  These influences can be in the forms of petitions, dramatic actions and rallies.  The women’s social movement focussed on issues such as the right to vote, equal pay and discrimination within the workplace and home life.  The women who participated in this movement were generally identified as feminists.  Feminists within this social movement were politically active and extremely committed in changing public policy.  Particular political issues raised by feminists were the Right to Vote policy and the Equal Pay policy.  

This movement was one of the most important movements in Australia’s history.  From its foundation women have not been considered as equals whether in their home life or in the workplace.  Feminists believed equality was a very broad term which consisted factors such as gender politics, equality in morality bodily harm and ensuring all women were treated fairly within their marriage (Lyons, M. & P. Russell, 2005).  Women required the same rights as men in order to protect themselves, particularly as in the early days of ‘Old Australia’ women were constantly harassed by their husbands and received little respect in other aspects of their lives, so, they required the right to vote (Lyons, M. & P. Russell, 2005).  During the early-18000’s, ‘The Womanhood’s Suffrage League’ organised a petition which was to be signed by supporters for the right to vote and given to the government (Burgmann, V., 2003).  This petition was signed by the WSL executive and Nellie Alma Martel which influenced this public policy to be changed (Nugent, A., 2005), but not until 1894 (Nugent, A., 2005).  By 1908 other states in Australia had allowed women to vote in both all elections.  Obtaining the right to vote was just the first step in equality.  As feminists had discovered how they were able to influence the government, they decided that something needed to be done with how they were treated at work and their pay, particularly as it was considerably lower than men.

In the workplace, men were in charge and paid considerably more than women, even if they were performing the same job and had the same skills.  Women also dealt with considerable discrimination when applying for a job or dealing with difficult issues within the workplace.  Feminists were keen to see change in the equal pay policy but were at a loss as they were failing.  In order to gain the government and the media’s attentions they would often take drastic action.  Some examples of drastic actions were chaining themselves to public buildings (Burgmann, V., 2003) and harassing local business that had a strict anti-women policy (Burgmann, V., 2003), which would do nothing but disrupt the public and gain unnecessary attention.  Though the government was able to see their desperate cries for change, they would not reward them with equal pay.  After World War 2, women were required to replace men and work in factories, farms and hospitals, yet women were still paid considerably lower (Burgmann, V., 2003).  They needed the equal pay so they could provide food and clothing to their children, particularly as they were living on one salary while their husbands were fighting in the war.  In 1969, there was an ‘Equal Pay Case’ hearing in the courtroom where women were informed they would not be paid equally, no matter if they were doing the same role as a man (Burgmann, V., 2003, P. 116).”  Angered by this blatant case of inequality, women in the Melbourne Women’s Action Committee (WMAC) “organised a massive tram ride where women insisted on only paying 75 per cent of the fare, ‘as a protest against women receiving lower salaries and paying full service for all commodities and services’ (Burgmann, V., 2003, P. 116).”  As a result of this protest, among many others that took place, changes were not implemented until the years between 1972 and 1974.  An ‘equal pay for equal work’ policy (Burgmann, V., 2003, P. 116) was allocated to women who were dominating in female industries (Burgmann, V., 2003) such as textiles, administration/secretarial services and care.  In 1974, a man’s basic rate of pay was substituted to be the same as an adult’s rate of pay (Burgmann, V., 2003).  While this change in policy was considered to be a positive impact, it was still not enough.  Women were not only suffering inequality in pay but this was a blatant case of discrimination.  Equality in pay and discrimination are still policies which are being amended today.  Alongside inequalities in pay rates, women also have to deal with discrimination while applying for a job or handling harassment in the workplace.

During the ‘second wave’ feminist social movement in the 1980’s, discrimination in the workplace was a key factor.  Women were upset they still had to deal with issues that men did not.  Women were being discriminated against based on their sex and if they had a child.  This was becoming such an issue that in 1984, the government established ‘the Sex Discrimination Act’ policy.  This policy act made it illegal for any employer to discriminate a woman or man from being employed in their company no matter their age, sex, religion or their status (financially and marital) (Fenna, Alana, 2004).  This act was meant to create unity and fairness within the workplace.  Later, in 1987, the government established the Equal Employment Opportunities (Hutchinson, J, & Eveline, J, 2010) to ensure there was no discrimination in the workplace not just for women, but for the disabled and Indigenous Australians.  Though this was in place, studies have found that discrimination and harassment still exists and not just within the workplace, but to women in general.  These studies have been reported in the paper ‘Workplace Bullying Policy in the Australian Public Sector: Why Has Gender Been Ignored?’ by Hutchinson, J. & Eveline, J. They make considerable references that harassment in the workplace is aimed at both men and women, just in different ways.  Women were appointed terms of endearment such as ‘love’, which can be considered belittling and is inappropriate, particularly in a workplace (Hutchinson, J, & Eveline, J, 2010).  Men also suffer harassment but in different ways to women (Hutchinson, J, & Eveline, J, 2010).  Though they are harassed, it is not nearly to the measures that women are.

In Melbourne, women in the second wave movement organised a rally to attempt change in discrimination against their sex.  This rally was named ‘Reclaim the Night’, and in some aspects, while very similar to the recent ‘SlutWalk’s’ that have appeared across the globe over the past year, both are vastly different.  Reclaim the Night was a rally which protested against sexual violence and the threats that came along with how women were dressed.  This rally was women’s-only and “strictly dress-down affair” (Rundle, G., 2011) whose message was strictly about gender politics.  The way the Reclaim the Night protestors made their point was by dressing provocatively (for their time) and they bombarded the seedy streets of Melbourne.  The SlutWalk’s rally, however, while still about gender politics appeared to receive more attention on their provocative dress code, which was anything goes, and men were allowed to join in.  The SlutWalk rally began from a statement made by a Canadian police officer who accidentally made the remark that if women were scantily clad, they should expect whatever sexual harassment they get from men (SlutWalk Melbourne, 2011).  The reason why this rally did not work was due to the media’s focus on their dress code and the fact that they were thinking too broadly about their rally’s concept – they were not direct enough.  When shifting through the media coverage on the SlutWalk, the majority of it is thousands of images of the costumes.  Because there were no rules on the dress-code of this rally, when watching it, it did not look like a political protest at all. They gained attention certainly, but not for the appropriate reasons.  These rallies are examples of social movements that have not changed any public policies in any way.  While the public has the ability to influence the government to change public policies, the Prime Ministers and the government have the ability to make change themselves.  

During the 1970’s Gough Whitlam was determined to make changes in the various public policies as he was aware the values and concerns of the Australian public were constantly evolving.  He made significant change in regards to the conscription, particular women’s issues, such as the contraceptive pill and equal pay rights (Time, 2012).  Whitlam changed the conscription policy so it no longer allowed children to be forcibly sent to fight in the war.  From Whitlam’s actions towards the issues in the women’s movement, one might consider him to be somewhat of a ‘feminist’.  He strongly encouraged the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to implement the equal pay of women (Time, 2012).  Even though this was implemented, the difference of men and women’s pay rates are still not equal – but it is still a vast improvement and can only improve in the years to come. While he did not support or approve of the legalization of women’s right to Abortion, he did support the use of the contraceptive pill and discontinued the 27 per cent sales tax, which enabled the contraceptive pill to be available for purchase at affordable amounts within the National Health Scheme (Time, 2012).  By giving women the ability to have easier access to the contraceptive pill, they were able to have more control over their life.  They had the ability to choose when was the right time to start a family so that it would not disrupt education or career paths.

As mentioned earlier in this essay, the Equal Employment Opportunities policy was established to make it immoral to discriminate a woman from being employed, and to help encourage women to find employment (Hutchinson, J, & Eveline, J, 2010).  Since then, women have fully embraced the concept of working and having a career.  This is seen in the workplace – in some industries there are more women than men.  Whilst John Howard was Prime Minister (1996-2007), in 1999, he and his party established the ‘Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999’ (Hutchinson, J, & Eveline, J, 2010).  This policy was to ensure women would not be discriminated against when applying for a job or for educational services to update their skills to give them a fulfilling career (Hutchinson, J, & Eveline, J, 2010).  Due to this policy, women were becoming more interested in securing a career rather than having children.  However, just as Howard established this policy, he created another policy which seemed to be hypocritical of his original intentions.  He established the ‘baby bonus’, as a way to gain the vote of women.  The baby bonus was a payment offer from $500 to $2500 that was paid on the condition that the woman who accepted it was to be housebound when she had children, for 5 years (Megalogenis, G., 2003).  Those who would do this would receive the $2500 payment were women who were earning more than $55,000 each year (Megalogenis, G., 2003).  This policy was ultimately unsuccessful as the majority of women wanted to be able to return to work within 6 months of the birth of their new child.  It was unrealistic of John Howard to suggest women would want to stay at home for such a long period of time, especially considering the expenses that a newborn will bring.  This would also mean that mortgage and utility bills would increase heavily during that time (Megalogenis, G., 2003).  This policy completely missed the point and the government’s policy was not consistent with the social movement as he did not realise that today, most women want to have a career of their own as well as having a family.  If women were to stay at home for the first 5 years after giving birth, they would have a high risk of losing their job or their skills would not be useful when they return to work.

To conclude, the policies for these issues are the results of the actions taken place within the women’s social movement.  As the examples in this essay have demonstrated, there are proper ways of gaining the support of the government and the public to change policies.  While some actions and protests are attention-grabbing, they have demonstrated that there are appropriate ways to do this.  While the public has attempted to do what they can to make change it ultimately comes down to what the government is willing to do.  Whitlam has demonstrated to us that he did want to make positive changes for women and believed in equal pay for all.  Howard’s approach however, was not the appropriate way.  All of the examples discussed are evidence that there is room for change in public policies within the Australian Government.

Reference List
Burgmann, Verity, 2003, Power, Profit and Protest: Australian Social Movements and Globalisation, e-book, accessed 26 May 2012.

Fenna, Alan, 2004, Australian Public Policy, 2nd edition, Sydney, Pearson Longman, chapters 13-14.

Hutchinson, J., & Eveline, J., 2010, ‘Workplace Bullying Policy in the Australian Public Sector: Why Has Gender Been Ignored?’ In The Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 47–60.

Lyons, Martyn & P. Russell, 2005, Australia’s History: themes and debates, UNSW PRESS, chapter 9.

Megalogenis, George, 2003, Faultlines: race, work and the politics of changing Australia, SCRIBE, Chapter 2: Women and Work.

Nugent, A, 2005, 'Nellie Alma Martel and the Women's Social and Political Union, 1905-09', Hecate, 31, 1, pp. 142-159, Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost, viewed 26 May 2012.

Rundle, Guy, 2011, Crikey, ‘The Phones are manned, vote now on SlutWalk’,
‘SlutWalk’ Melbourne, 2011,

'The Whitlam Whirlwind', 1972, Time, 100, 26, p. 32, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 24 May 2012.

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