Outskirts online journal

Sarah Maddison

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Volume 10, November 2002

Bombing the Patriarchy, or Just Trying to Get a Cab:
Challenges Facing the Next Generation of Feminist Activists1

In June 2002 Australia celebrated the centenary of white women's suffrage.2 At the various events that were organised around the country to mark this most significant birthday, women had the opportunity to reflect on the many gains for women over the last one hundred years. The transformation in women's status in this country, as in most of the western world, has been hard fought for, and won only through the struggles of feminists over several generations. However, there is still much that needs to change for Australian women to achieve the kinds of equality that they have hoped and worked for. Of concern to many feminists and other women is the question of who will fight these remaining battles. Many believe that there is no 'next generation' of Australian feminists and that the women's movement has lost its impetus and influence. While this is inarguably true if we look solely at instrumental policy outcomes that can be directly attributed to feminists, that analysis is only a part of the story of the contemporary Australia women's movement. To suggest that young women are not active, or to argue that the actions of contemporary young feminists are not important or not the right kinds of feminism, overlooks the importance of the work that young Australian feminists are doing. Young women are indeed active as feminists within a broadly conceived women's movement. However their activism is rarely acknowledged and poorly understood. This article offers an acknowledgement of the presence of young women in the Australian women's movement and provides some discussion of the old and new challenges that they face. In conclusion, I argue that older feminists could be working more effectively to provide these young women with much needed support.

Two very different groups of young women took part in the fieldwork for this project during 2001. The first is the Cross Campus Women's Network (CCWN), a network of feminist students in women's collectives across the state of NSW. The second is the Young Women Who Are Parents Network (YWWAPN), based in a women's health centre in Campbelltown, a socio-economically depressed suburb in the Macarthur region on the south-western outskirts of Sydney. The title of this paper alludes to the different challenges that the two groups face. The CCWN's engagement with the global anti-capital movement and their revolutionary focus leads to their satirical call to "bomb the patriarchy!" In stark contrast the YWWAPN have been working locally to increase the availability of 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 there are a lot of poor women with small children unable to find transport home with their week's shopping.

The theoretical framework of this study has included an analysis of the processes of collective identity (Melucci 1989, 1995, 1996) that these young feminists are engaging in. This work is situated within an understanding of the discursive nature of contemporary activism and is extended by a focus on what Nancy Fraser (1997) calls the "postsocialist" condition. This theoretical approach, which is outlined in more detail below, allows me to highlight both the ways in which contemporary young women are active, and the challenges they face. The context for this research has been a regressive political climate in which the resurgent forces of conservatism in this country are seeking to roll back the achievements of feminism, and are successfully regaining cultural ground with a discourse of backlash that derides and damages 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 the goods and services tax to tampons and breast pads in 2000,3 the devastating changes to child care funding4 and the Prime Minister's current efforts to undermine and diminish our federal sex discrimination laws 5 could have the potential to provoke another wave of large scale feminist protest.

And yet the resurgence of high profile feminist activism that one could hope for in response to these significant blows to women's rights has not manifested itself. Instead we see women's non-government organisations struggling to sustain membership and maintain their organisational structures and processes. It is difficult to comprehend, and yet this is the reality: as women's rights continue to be dismantled, feminist organisations are struggling to survive without funding and, despite continued efforts from feminists on a number of these issues, they are unable to rally the political energy to fight on the many policy fronts that are sustaining collateral damage.

Australian generational debates

While it is clear that young women are indeed active as feminists in contemporary Australian society and politics, it is equally clear that young women's activism bears little resemblance to 1970s feminist activism. The tendency to date has been either to dismiss young women's feminism for lacking instrumental aims (Summers 1993), or to exalt it for its supposedly creative individualism (Bail 1996). As in the United States and Britain, Australian feminists engaged in a high-profile 'generational debate', which, as Jane Long (2001) recalls, was "hard to avoid" during the 1990s due to the "steady stream of writing which debated the extent to which feminism was allegedly unravelling along the seams of youth and age" (2001:8). After some fruitful exchanges, however, the media and publishing houses grew tired of encouraging feminists to cannibalise one another and moved on, leaving young feminists to battle on in a void. With the notable exception of scholars such as Chilla Bulbeck (1997, 1999, 2000, 2001) and Anita Harris (1998, 1999a, 1999b, 2001), the issue of generationalism in the Australian women's movement has been largely abandoned as an area of scholarship and media interest.

The debates that occurred during the 1990s have been influential, however, particularly in manipulating public perceptions regarding the 'health' or otherwise of the Australian women's movement. In these debates, as with second wave Australian feminism, there were both international influences and local factors that combined to produce a unique strain of feminist discourse. The international influence was driven by texts from writers who Catherine Orr (1997) describes as "feminist dissenters" in the United States (1997:34), namely Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire (1993), Katie Roiphe's The morning after (1993) and Rene Denfeld's The New Victorians (1995). These texts, which posited a monolithic "old feminism" that is preoccupied with sex and women's status as victims, received much media attention both here and overseas. Less well known in Australia were the edited collections by young American feminists who situated themselves in the 'third wave' such as Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake's Third wave agenda (1997), Rebecca Walker's To be real: telling the truth and changing the face of feminism (1995) and Barbara Findlen's Listen up: voices from the next feminist generation (1995). These texts all engaged with similar themes: young women were doing feminism differently and their differences need to be acknowledged; young women are not victims like their mothers and older sisters in the movement; young women reject the institutionalised feminism of the older generation; young women reject notions of an "homogenous womanhood"; and young women are "'pro-sex' claiming (hetero)sexuality is at least as much about pleasure as danger" (Bulbeck 2001:1).

At the same time as these debates were occurring in the United States, here in Australia the flames were being fanned by criticism of young women by well-known second wave feminists. In 1993 renowned feminist and journalist Anne Summers published her "Letter to the Next Generation" 6, in which she expressed her dismay that the "I'm not a feminist, butä" generation were not "reach[ing] out for the torch" in the way that she had hoped (1993:197). This was followed in 1995 by well-known novelist Helen Garner's The First Stone, which investigated a case of sexual harassment at a residential university college. The young women concerned took the complaint against the master of the college to the police, which resulted in the perpetrator's dismissal from his position and the end of his career. Garner complained that the young women in this case were unaware of their own power and beauty, and expressed the view that they could have resolved the incident at the time with a swift knee to the groin, rather than running to the authorities. These two publications provoked outrage from young women who responded in publications such as Kathy Bail's (1996) edited collection DIY Feminism, Virginia Trioli's (1996) Generation f and Rosamund Else-Mitchell and Naomi Flutter's (1998) edited collection Talking Up. This rapidly developing body of literature was quickly labelled 'the generation debate', in which, as Chilla Bulbeck (2000) points out, two homogenous, anonymous and universalised masses of women were divided into camps determined primarily by age, thus erasing other differences between women based on location, class or ethnicity. In the media beat-up that accompanied these publications, the essayists' work was reduced to "trashing, countertrashing and metatrashing" (2000:7) and the real significance of inter-generational feminist discourse was lost. Also lost was the actual work that young women are doing in maintaining the Australian women's movement and creating its future.

I want to suggest some ways in which we can recover the work of young feminists and understand it as a part of the contemporary Australian women's movement. Although contemporary young women's activism is less visible to the general public than the feminist activism of previous generations, I am arguing that young activists are performing an essential task for the movement's maintenance by sustaining the ideologies and networks that will be necessary for another strong wave of feminist activism to emerge in Australian society. To understand this work, there needs to be a consideration of its discursive nature. In her study of feminist activism within institutions in the United States, Mary Katzenstein (1998) defines two types of politics, namely interest group politics, which many see as 'politics-as-usual,' and discursive politics. Although she acknowledges that there is 'no neat line' between the two ideal types, she distinguishes discursive politics as "the politics of meaning makingä[involving] the effort to reinterpret, reformulate, rethink and rewrite the norms and practices of society and the state. ä Its premise is that conceptual changes directly bear on material ones" (1998:17, 1995:35). This concept articulates with processes of collective identity in which the apparent unity of collective action is discursively constructed through movement participants' reflexive discussion and contestation over ends, means and field of action. In other words, movement participants discursively create the movement itself (for example in feminist groups, networks and organizations) from the bottom up (Mansbridge 1995:28-31). These groups, networks and organizations come to embody this discourse in a process of continually making and remaking 'the women's movement' in word, text and action.

In what can be seen as a 'between the waves' moment in the Australian women's movement, opportunities for instrumental activism are relatively rare. Certainly, the present social and political context is not conducive to what might be described as more 'traditional' forms of activism. While young women do, at times, employ policy oriented strategies, as well as engaging in forms of activism that use popular culture as a site of resistance, their work should also be understood as having deep symbolic importance. One of their most significant achievements is that they are keeping open a political space that 'belongs' to feminism and that could be repopulated at such time as the political opportunity structure 7 becomes more favourable for other forms of feminist activism.

Second wave legacies

Among other factors, early second wave Australian feminists were strongly influenced by the ideas that came from the North American and British Women's Liberation movements. Many women in the New Left were inspired by the theories and activism of the growing women's movements overseas (Reade 1994). They increasingly demanded the specific insights of feminist theory rather than a purely Marxist analysis to explain their oppression and to propose revolutionary actions to end it. Feminist writing, including texts by de Beauvoir (1953), Friedan (1963) Millett (1972), Greer (1970), Firestone (1970) and Mitchell (1974), provided a new analytic framework for Australian feminists. These ideas "bound the women's movement together, across Australia and around the world" (Lake 1999:233) and these new discourses were spread through the Australian women's movement via discussions, newsletters and journals. The dissemination of these ideas began the process of determining the shared cognitive definitions that tentatively and contestedly became part of an evolving second wave Australian feminist collective identity. Even in these early days, there was no real consensus in these processes. Instead ideas were argued and debated in the dynamic and passionate style that has become one of the hallmarks of the processes of contemporary feminist collective identity.

The language and aims of 'liberation' were features that distinguished the processes of collective identity within second wave feminism from the feminism that was practised up until the late 1960s. Gisela Kaplan (1994:34) notes that the Australian women's liberation groups of the 1970s spurned the word 'feminist' as insulting and old-fashioned, something "inherited from emancipationist predecessors". Anne Summers recalls that in the mid-1970s:

To our consternation the term 'feminist' was starting to appear more and more in the American publications. It was not one we could identify with. We were liberationists. ä 'Feminist' was so old-fashioned: to us it conjured up elderly ladies with umbrellas who had fought for the vote and then campaigned to close the pubs. In our ignorance we believed that they were all wowsers and puritans, nothing like us (1999:265).

This is particularly interesting given that much criticism of contemporary young women is directed towards their use of the phrase "I'm not a feminist but". Nevertheless, in the early 1970s, the women's movement was the women's liberation movement and not the feminist movement. It was a sign of the significant changes occurring in the processes of collective identity in the movement that "the more comprehensive and less left-influenced term 'feminism'" (Curthoys 1992:441) came to replace 'women's liberation' in the second half of the 1970s. Again the ramifications of this are being felt by the current generation of feminist activists, evident in the fact that one of the groups of young women who participated in this study emphatically describe themselves as belonging to the women's liberation movement, not just the women's movement.

These dilemmas about strategy and ideology were, and should have remained, an important part of the discourses and debates that are constitutive of the processes of collective identity in contemporary feminism. Central to these debates were the divisions over whether or not to enter into a relationship with the state. Elizabeth Reid, the woman appointed amid much controversy in 1973 as the first adviser on women's issues to the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, notes that the opposition to her appointment, and indeed to state engagement as a whole, stemmed in part from concerns from women in Women's Liberation groups that there was a "lack of awareness" in the movement about the possible impact of this relationship. Reid (1987) argues that:

History has proven this concern to be justified. The invitation to storm the political arena came at too early a stage of our formation. We had not formulated the details of our program and had certainly not come to grips with the question of acceptable and appropriate means of achieving it (1987:12-13).

In other words, the movement's processes of collective identity were not sufficiently developed at the point when the movement chose to engage with the state to withstand the pressures that came with this relationship. The reformist strand of the movement came to dominate the discourse of the women's movement as a whole, over time virtually silencing the more revolutionary liberationists. Jean Curthoys (1997:5) argues that liberation theory and ideas were repressed in the movement because it became an unconscious and unreasoned requirement that they "not be articulated" as the movement's relationship with the state developed. The effects of this narrowing of focus, to the state and a politics of representation, are still felt by young feminist activists today.

Issues of differences between women were also significant in the movement's processes of collective identity and forced second wave feminists to put aside its early ideal of sisterhood. There is considerable evidence to suggest that the issue of 'race' and cultural difference in the second wave Australian women's movement has been profoundly divisive and has significantly impeded the movement's processes of collective identity. The feminist commitment to developing new understandings of the nature of women's oppression as women often led to a distinct colour blindness regarding the ways in which groups like Aboriginal women and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were oppressed, excluded and discriminated against on the basis of their racial or cultural backgrounds. The membership of both WEL and Women's Liberation was predominantly Anglo-Celtic (Reade 1994:217) and many women who had just learned how to articulate their own status as the oppressed were unable to see themselves in the role of oppressors to other groups of women. While Marilyn Lake (1999:248) maintains that "those in the 1970s women's movement agonised about their own privilege and the clear differences in condition between women ä and they were always keen to bring them into their ranks", she, like many others, goes on to acknowledge that the women's movement was simply irrelevant for many women who were "more interested in liberating their own people" (Lake 1999:250).

Feminist processes of collective identity have fundamentally failed to incorporate the challenges posed by differences between women. While it is essential that women in "different cultural locations" continue to discuss and debate their differences, this will continue to be difficult even as it is potentially productive (Bulbeck 1997:156). While significant work has been done in this area within academic feminisms (see for example Ang 1995), the difficulties for women who are active in the movement remain tangible. Women must continue to create the political entity known as 'the women's movement' through their own discursive practices. But they must also understand that a useful strategic unity can only come from processes of collective identity that incorporate an understanding both of its own partiality and of the ways in which differences among women create different oppressions and disadvantages that require different solutions.

These second wave legacies are continuing to affect the processes of collective identity of contemporary young Australian feminists. Although they have three decades of feminist collective identity to build upon, there is also a lot of unravelling and reconstructing of these processes that needs to occur. Understood as essential parts of feminist processes of collective identity, it is clear that the conflicts and dilemmas over theory, ideology, strategy and difference have not and cannot ever be finished. They are continual processes that should be seen both as essential to the women's movement's future and as a sign of its current vitality. For contemporary young Australian feminists these processes are further complicated by the challenges posed by "postsocialism".

"Postsocialist" challenges

To consider the new challenges faced by contemporary young feminist activists, it is important to also take into account the changing social and political context in which their lives and activism are situated. An understanding of this context can be enhanced by attention to the type of feminist critical theory proposed by Nancy Fraser (1997), in her analysis of the ""postsocialist" condition". Therefore, whilst I disagree with Stacey Young's (1997:169) claim that social movement theory can do little to help "articulate and understand feminist analyses of subjectivity and identity and their relationship to feminist politics", I agree that an extension of this theory will allow for a deeper understanding of "the kinds of domination and resistance that preoccupy some major constituencies within the women's movement". In particular, the incorporation of Fraser's work allows for contemporary feminist activism to be placed at the centre of a broader understanding of the role of social movements in complex, postindustrial, globalised societies.

Alain Touraine (2000:94) suggests that the 'new' social movements of the 1970s have been shown to have a profound "weakness and failure" with regard to their preparedness to accept "the authority of a political ideology and a political strategy", and this eventually "smother[ed] the novel aspects" of those movements. Social movements today, he suggests, cannot be a part of this same project. Societies, cultures and the global economy have so fundamentally changed that the task of social movements can no longer be utopian in intent. In complex, postindustrial societies a social movement is always "fragmentary and full of contradictionsäa changing set of debates, tensions and internal rifts" (2000:94). While it is true that, in part, it is these debates that constitute the discursively and reflexively constructed collective identity of contemporary movements, for many movement participants there is a longing for a time when goals and strategy were clearly and more simply political. This longing has been named 'left melancholy' (following the work of Walter Benjamin) by Hall (1988) and Brown (1999) and is aligned with the apparent 'crisis of the left' in confronting the current social order.

Nancy Fraser (1997) calls this the "postsocialist" condition, which she defines as the absence of a credible, progressive alternative to the current order, marked by a false antithesis between claims for recognition and the need for redistribution. This condition occurs within the context of an economic liberalism that is "marketizing social relations, eroding social protections, and worsening the life-chances of billions" (Fraser 1997:3). Central to Fraser's argument is the notion that what has essentially been constructed as an either/or choice between a social politics of class or equality and a cultural politics of identity or difference is not only unnecessary but also evades the "postsocialist" tasks of understanding how culture and economy work together to produce injustices. She further argues that developing a critical theory that integrates recognition and redistribution in political claims-making is an essential and urgent task. For feminist organising this means continued efforts to combine struggles for redistribution remedies with the pursuit of recognition remedies, or, in other words, the problematic of equality and difference that has dominated many a feminist text, meeting, conference or committee in recent years.

The context for these theoretical debates and current forms of activism is the omnipresent force of globalising capital. In her bestselling work of investigative journalism Naomi Klein (2001) argues that the focus on identity politics in the 1980s did little more than allow global corporations to move into the niche markets created by representations of diversity. Similarly Touraine (2000:12) suggests that "the place that was once occupied by institutions has been taken over by the strategies of the great financial, technological and media organizations". As Anita Harris (2001:2) suggests, the so-called 'generation debate' itself can, at least in part, be seen as resulting from a combination of "well-intentioned young women themselves, good marketing by publishing companies, and international corporations piggy-backing on new images of girlhood to gain access to potential consumers". Growing up and becoming politically active in this era of social change and upheaval, with the challenges of a new world economic order has had a considerable impact on the networks of young Australian feminists who participated in this research. Whether it be in the frustration of continuing to try to engage with a state more concerned with its position on the global stage than the life chances of disadvantaged young women, or in the moral dilemma posed by some of the tactics of the anti-globalisation movement, the fact of globalisation is significant for young feminists' collective identities and strategic choices.

Two models of activism

The two groups of young women who participated in this study suggest two very different models of feminist organising and activism. The first group, the Young Women Who Are Parents Network, are part of a unique program in which the staff who work with the network recognise that, if these extremely disadvantaged young women tried to take on the world as activists without any training or support, they would be setting them up to fail. Therefore the work of the Network takes place within the context of a training program and ongoing, structured support. By 1995, the Network developed from the Young Women with Kids Action Group had become the Young Women Who Are Parents Program. New members of the program must complete the first unit of training, Opportunities and Choices 1, before joining the Network itself.

It is the Opportunities and Choices training that makes the YWWAPP truly unique. The course offers the young women many benefits, including the opportunity to spend time each week with other women who share their experiences. For many of the participants this is a life-changing experience. It is in this process that they realise that their experiences are not unique to them and start to identify the structural elements of their disadvantage. The young women are also introduced to a range of skills involved in activism and advocacy, as well as involving their own self care. They are given new information about gender, discrimination, domestic violence and so on that fundamentally changes their world-view. Importantly, the training is also project based, allowing them to develop and practice their new skills before taking them out to the community. For many, the process is transformative, as Suszy, a long-term network member describes:

In a lot of the young women's cases it's the first time any of them have been in a supporting environment full of intelligent supportive women who are willing to listen to what they say and willing to support them on action to follow through on what it is that they want. It's amazing to watch new young women grow and turn into these people who want to do something for the community and want to make a difference for themselves and for their kids in the future.

The other group in the study is the Cross Campus Women's Network (CCWN), a network of women's officers and members of university women's collectives from campuses across New South Wales (NSW). The CCWN operates as an open collective with the aim of organizing campus based feminist campaigns at a state level. The network is strongly tied to the student union movement, and is in fact convened by the elected NSW state women's officer of the National Union of Students. The Network also has links to many broad left organizations.

The two groups approach questions of recognition and redistribution quite differently. Despite the fundamental material disadvantage experienced by the young women in Campbelltown, the YWWAPN deals primarily with issues of representation and practical concerns such as the availability of child restraints in taxis, rather than more transformative calls for redistribution. The young women identify their primary goal as being about changing stereotypical attitudes to young parents. The negative attitudes that they encounter include the view that they are having children in order to receive social welfare payments, that they are drug users, that each of their children has a different father and so on. For these young women these attitudes mean that their competency as parents is constantly questioned and they face a hostile world each day when they leave the house, as Kerry describes her experiences:

I think one of the biggest issues is that people can't overcome the fact that yes we're young but that doesn't mean we're bad parents. A lot of people will focus on our age and because of that they think that we're less capable. And also the way that we're treated when we're just trying to do our normal everyday things - like get milk and bread for the kids, look after them. I guess the way that people are responding to us or acting means the difference between whether you have the energy to face that when you walk out the door or whether you'd rather just stay home and close yourself up and never be [criticised].

So in some very real ways the issue of representation has a direct impact upon these women's material circumstances. They believe that if they were able to change community attitudes towards young women who are parents they would subsequently achieve better access to housing and greater opportunities for education and employment. However, in many other ways, the network does not address the material issues that regulate their lives. In choosing not to engage in a more direct politics of redistribution and by continuing to avoid the issues of the political economy of young mothers, the Network cannot hope to address the structural concerns that operate to keep these women marginalised, disadvantaged and poor. Campaigns that addressed the rate of social security support or the availability and quality of public housing would articulate more clearly the need for a transformative politics of redistribution rather than a politics of representation that seeks to reposition this group in the social scale of disadvantage, no matter how keenly the Network members feel this need to be.

Nevertheless, as actors engaged in a politics of representation, the YWWAPN are successful in articulating the specificity of their experience and attempting to redefine constructions of young mothers as merely a 'welfare problem'. In part they are successful because they speak with the authority that comes from their own experiences, a hallmark of feminist activism since the 1970s. And unlike other groups of feminists who may be trying to be active 'on behalf of' a broader category of women, the YWWAPN speaks only for young women who are parents in the Macarthur region. Whilst respecting the fact that there remain differences even within this group, their processes of collective identity are strong and allow them to speak with a unified political voice.

For the CCWN, however, a politics of recognition poses an almost paralysing challenge. Despite the fact that its members are all students and feminists, they do not necessarily speak on behalf of this specific group. Instead they focus their attention far more widely, from campaigns for all women students (such as to improve safety on campus) to women outworkers in developing countries. In this context issues of difference keep manifesting themselves and, for many women in the group, prove to be quite deeply personal and confronting, provoking complex emotional responses including guilt and anxiety. The question of voice, a dilemma that has been a part of a reflexive feminism since the 1970s, remains far from resolved for these young activists and their processes of collective identity stall when dealing with the tensions in feminist praxis to do with 'race', whiteness, class and privilege. My experience of these young women is that they have a high degree of personal integrity? they desperately want to do the right thing. But, without the support and authority that would come from either a broader women's movement or more experience of their own, they are often silenced on issues where they are uncertain of the 'correct' position.

The two groups also demonstrate significant differences in their approach to a politics of redistribution, particularly in relation to the question of state engagement. The YWWAPN is engaged with the state in two different relationships. The first involves their funding as, almost from their inception, the Network has relied on government funding to some extent. For any group or organization involved in working for social change this funding relationship poses an element of risk, as the danger of state cooption is high. Indeed, over the past three years the conservative federal government has attempted to make this risk a reality for all social welfare organizations it funds by tying their funding agreements to a right to veto any public statement the organization wants to make. While the YWWAPN has not felt itself to be restricted in this way, they are nevertheless restricted in their direction and focus according to their source of funding. For example, their funding during 2001 was through the Young Women and Tobacco Project of the NSW Health Department, thus requiring of the Network a focus on women and tobacco that it would not otherwise have taken. The other relationship with the state involves the Network as consultants for a range of state agencies who provide services to young women who are parents. This relationship has proven to be a powerful and empowering experience for the Network members. They have a reputation among service providers for being articulate advocates for young women who are parents and in several instances they have changed the ways in which services are provided to this group.

In contrast the CCWN is strongly opposed to state engagement and more closely aligns itself with the anti-capital movement. As one member, Pru, explains:

I think that one thing that the anti-capitalist movement has shown is the preparedness of the state to undertake quite violent suppression. And also with the war [in Afghanistan] now, that's going to be escalated pretty significantly. So what's the answer to that? It's really hard to see how the state at this current point is something which is likely to grant anything to us. ä It's taken a side pretty clearly as far as I'm concerned and its really quite difficult to engage with the state when its preparedness to make concessions to movements is much less.

For some participants the more important goal is to politicise women in the community rather than lobby governments for specific reforms. Other student feminists are not necessarily comfortable with the strategies that the anti-capital movement employs, some of which they see as being decidedly anti-feminist. They find the 'fight' mentality quite alienating and are disturbed by what they see as an unnecessary focus on violence at the expense of feminist commitments to pacifism and non-violent protest. Other dilemmas include whether feminists organise autonomously or simply join in with the bigger socialist organizations that are leading the charge. But this runs the risk that women will be ignored, due to the entrenched sexism in broad left organizations that are not specifically feminist, as Mari suggests:

In the context of the anti-capitalist movement one of the reasons why we want to organise autonomously is because there is great danger of women being forgotten. You could just say that if women are involved in the anti-capitalist movement then it will be alright, but we've experienced that and it's not the case.

One young woman said to me hopefully that she thought perhaps women's involvement in the anti-capitalist movement would be a precursor for a third wave of activism because, as with the anti-Vietnam war movement from which 1970s feminism sprang, women would begin to realise that men on the left were as sexist as ever.

This particular form of a politics of redistribution as practised by the CCWN, which is neither local nor specific, and has goals that are both overarching and diffuse, highlights the unresolved dilemmas that these young women have inherited from earlier feminist generations. Without guidance or support in (re)negotiating these dilemmas, however, it often seems very much as if contemporary young activists have to reinvent the wheel in determining how to be active.

Supporting young feminist activists

The young women in these two very different networks are engaged in important work for the Australian women's movement, both in the present and for the continued life of the movement. As they grapple with the "postsocialist" dilemmas of recognition and redistribution they maintain a political space for feminist activism in this country. As they continue the ongoing processes of negotiating their collective identities as feminists 8, they discursively create and maintain the entity we refer to as 'the women's movement'. Of course they are not the only women engaged in these tasks; many other women's groups, networks and organizations continue to promote and develop feminist agendas that influence, with varying degrees of success, the policy process and social and cultural practices. However, the roles that these young women play are vital for the future of the Australian women's movement and, more generally, tell us a great deal about the ways in which contemporary social movements are functioning.

The spate of publishing in the 1990s that attempted to articulate and define what feminism means to contemporary young women can be seen as an example of what Stacey Young (1997) calls the "feminist strategy of discursive struggle". These authors "[p]ublish their work in an effort to bring their insights to bear on other women's lives, and on the women's movement's analyses and agendas" (1997:13). Discursive struggle is as important to feminist activism as policy oriented or electoral politics is in the struggle to transform power relations and social structures. As Young (1997:23) argues:

discursive production is ä an especially important site in struggles to expand our understanding of differences among women, their relationship to the construction of women's subjectivity and identity, and their relationship to feminist resistance (1997:23).

This emphasis on "how to practice feminism differently" means that the work of contemporary young feminists "places differences among women at the centre of the project" (Siegel 1997:69) and can thus be seen to stand in contrast to second wave emphasis on unity and sisterhood.

This important emphasis on difference also helps to articulate the "postsocialist" context in which contemporary young feminists are working. In their desire to express their individualism, their difference from previous forms of feminist activism and their attention to difference and multiplicity, young feminists risk obscuring their fundamental commitment to achieving social, cultural and political change. They are grappling with the "postsocialist" struggle to avoid an either/or choice between a social politics of class or equality and a cultural politics of identity or difference and are working to understand how culture and economy work together to produce injustices (Fraser 1997). Therefore any analysis of contemporary young feminist activism must not focus on discursive struggles and articulations of difference alone, but must also acknowledge that contemporary feminism has orientations that are materialist (Walter 1999) and strategic (Schubert 1998).

An understanding of contemporary young feminists' processes of collective identity is important at this point in time. An examination of young feminists' cognitive definitions concerning the ends, means, and field of action; the networks of active relationships among young feminists; and their emotional investment in their activism (Melucci 1995: 44-45) makes it possible to avoid falling into the reductive noose of generationalism. Analysing processes of collective identity provide a guide for tracing specific trajectories and capturing the diversity of activism being practised by contemporary young feminists without resorting to generalisations based on monolithic, universalised generations. This approach also allows for an exploration of Australian debates between different groups of feminists that does not get "beached on the need to find fault" (Trioli 1996:51) as the debates in the 1990s did. The concept of generations may still be usefully deployed, however, in developing a model of what D'Arcens calls "intergenerational reciprocity" (1998:113) to replace the concept of conflict between generations. While the differences between (and among) contemporary generations of Australian feminists may be significant, understanding the processes of collective identity for both diverse groups may allow for a model of "conflictual sisterhood" that D'Arcens (1998:114-5) proposes as a replacement for the generational model. This suggestion recognises the necessity for conflict to occur between feminists in the women's movement as a part of their ongoing processes of collective identity, by acknowledging that "conflict is as much a part of sisterhood as harmony or shared interests" (D'Arcens 1998:114).

A key to facilitating a 'third wave' of feminist activism must be supporting those young women who are struggling to be active in a time that is hardly conducive to their success. Contemporary young feminist activists are managing a multi-layered struggle; an inheritance of complex feminist theory and a sophisticated understanding of the need to respect difference; continuing and unresolved tensions about strategy; new challenges to old questions of redistribution brought about by globalisation; and the need to bring these concerns together in a way that facilitates both instrumental material goals and expressive cultural demands for the recognition of the many worlds and ways of being that women and girls inhabit. Older, more experienced activists have a role to play in smoothing the way for their younger counterparts, without attempting to patronise or take over.

The model of structured support provided for the YWWAPN is one example of such facilitation. This model allows for these young women's experience of activism to feel and in fact be successful in these terms, even though it is focussed on representation and recognition rather than some other perhaps more pressing material concerns. I am left with a sense that many of these young women will grow and develop as activists, perhaps having opportunities in the future to use the skills they have learnt in the network to be active in other areas that concern them. They will not always be young women who are parents, but as the program coordinator points out, the skills, knowledge and resources that have gained with the network are things they will 'never not have again'.

In contrast, the young women in the CCWN often experience their activism to be frustrating, paralysing and full of conflict. They battle continuously with ideological and strategic dilemmas, many of which would sound very familiar to feminists of a generation ago. Without support they struggle to find ways of making their actions seem meaningful to a broad category of women, whilst their heightened awareness of debates around difference, and inclusion and exclusion sometimes threaten to silence them altogether. My fear is that, were I to come back in ten years time, I would not find that many of these young women had continued to be politically active, that they will burn out with the sheer frustration of it all or not find any pathways available to them when they leave university.

There is a clear challenge here for older, more experienced activists to find ways of supporting the activism being practised by contemporary young women. It is an unfortunate reality that many older feminists are unaware of the existence of groups such as the CCWN, thus contributing to their feelings of isolation. Yet there is no simple model that would allow for this support to occur without being understood as a lack of confidence in the younger activists' abilities. For the 'older sisters' the test will be whether they can listen to concerns that may be different to their own and provide support in ways that meet the real and expressed needs of younger activists. The false generational antitheses that were constructed in the 1990s do not reflect the realities of young women's activism. Setting up one group as radically and dichotomously opposed to the other does little more than generate a load of media rhetoric. The fact that younger and older women are engaged in a wide variety of activism is sign of the women's movement's health. Understanding their processes of collective identity as providing space in which to discuss these differences does not mean that the movement is on the verge of self-destruction. Looking for these differences, and embracing them when we find them, will ensure that young women's engagement with the broader women's movements is valued rather than overlooked.


1. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the conference 'A New Girl Order: Young women and the future of feminist inquiry', King's College London, 14-16 November 2001 and at the XV ISA World Congress of Sociology, Brisbane, Australia, July 7-13, 2002. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers at Outskirts for their constructive feedback, which helped me through the revision process.

2. The Commonwealth Franchise Act came into force on 12 June 1902, giving all women the right to vote in federal elections but excluding 'aboriginal natives of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand' unless they already had the vote at State level (as stipulated in s41 of the Constitution). It was not until 1962 that the federal franchise was extended to Indigenous Australians although their enrolment was not made compulsory (Sawer 2002).

3. The Howard government introduced its controversial goods and services tax on 1 July 2000. Along with widespread opposition to the tax as a whole, was a specific concern about the imposition of a consumption tax on tampons and breast pads, which many women felt were a health product and should therefore qualify for an exemption from the tax. Despite surveys that showed that up to 73 per cent of women felt that these products should be exempted (Metherell 2000), the Howard government refused to compromise and the cost of these products rose by around ten per cent.

4. In 1997, the Howard government removed the operational subsidy from community based childcare centres, forcing centres to increase their fees in order to continue in operation. In low-income areas where families were unable to afford an increase in fees, childcare centres were forced to close and, in some areas, women subsequently lost their access to the labour force. A comprehensive report by the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), released in 2001, found that in two socio-economically disadvantaged suburbs of Sydney an estimated 1547 women had been forced to leave their jobs or were prevented from seeking fulltime work due to rising childcare costs following the change in funding arrangements (WSROC 2001).

5. The federal Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill had its second reading in parliament on 28 June 2002. The amendment Bill was announced on 1 August 2000, shortly after the Federal Court decision McBain v State of Victoria [2000] FCA 109 (28 July 2000). This case concerned the Infertility Treatment Act 1995 (Vic), which restricted access to Assisted Reproductive Technology to women who were married or in heterosexual de facto relationships. A subsequent appeal to the High Court of Australia by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (who were granted a special fiat by the federal Attorney-General to make the appeal) was dismissed; the High Court ruled that the Bishops had no standing in the matter. If passed, the amendment Bill will allow states to discriminate against single women and lesbians in the provision of IVF and other fertility services. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has been vocal in his support of the amendment Bill.

6. This text first appeared in Refracting Voices: feminist perspectives from Refractory Girl (1993), and was subsequently reprinted in the second and third editions of Anne Summers (1994, 2002 [1974]) Damned whores and God's police, Penguin, Victoria. Its widespread notoriety, however, results from its inclusion in the (then) annual women's issue (to coincide with International Women's Day) of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Magazine in March 1995, at which time Summers was editor of this publication.

7. This useful term, developed by Tilly (1978) and Tarrow (1989, 2000), refers to the external opportunities and constraints that encourage or discourage movement actors in engagement in contentious politics, and thus provide a "set of clues for when contentious politics will emerge" (Tarrow 2000:20). It is used in this sense in this article, despite the fact that, taken on its own, it is inadequate as a predictor of social movement activity because it ignores all levels of action that are not publicly visible.

8. Not all members of both networks of young women would identify themselves as feminists ? or at least not without some qualification. Some members of the CCWN, for example, prefer the term "libertarian socialist feminist". Members of the YYWPN, on the other hand, tend to be hesitant about the term due to their exposure to negative media stereotypes. While I would argue that it is irrelevant whether a woman who is engaged in what I call "feminist activism" chooses to identify herself as a feminist, there is not scope in this article to address this issue in any depth.


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