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Jasmina Brankovich

Further information

About the author

Jasmina Brankovich is a doctoral student in the History Department at UWA. She is working on a dissertation about feminist politics in Western Australia since the 1970s, and teaches history at UWA.

Publication details

Volume 5, November 1999

Negotiating Feminism in the Western Australian Parliament:
An Exploration of Feminist Political Subjectivities

The relationship between women's social equality and the representation of women in Australian parliaments has engaged many scholars working in the area. In Australia, there is currently a solid body of relatively recent literature exploring women's participation in parliamentary politics and the articulation of 1970s feminist discourses in political parties and parliamentary sphere.1 However, despite the upsurge of scholarship about women, feminism and politics, there are several important issues that have not been considered to date. The developments in post-structuralist theories of power, resistance and subjective identity enable researchers to develop valuable insights into the ways in which feminism is articulated and negotiated in a masculine, patriarchal parliamentary space, in a manner which avoids taking feminism itself for granted. In this paper, I am particularly interested in the ways some Western Australian feminist parliamentarians negotiate their feminist political identities in the context of working within the State Parliament and their respective political parties.

At the outset, defining feminism would seem a priority; however, it has become pertinent in the course of my research to acknowledge that the sheer diversity of feminisms defies any universalising and exclusionary definition. To say that one needs to self-identify as a feminist in order to be 'truly' considered one would eclipse important processes of negotiation between feminist and other identities. This dilemma has led me to look at the construction of feminist political subjectivity and to recognise the circumstantial nature of its formation. Feminist political subjectivities are developed in specific cultural, political, social and economic contexts, across the potentially unlimited range of identifications such as class, 'race'/ethnicity and gender. For feminist women in the Western Australian parliament, as we shall see, feminism is always constructed in a process of negotiation between the women's political beliefs and values, party politics, priorities of legislative reform, and social and political circumstances.

I draw extensively on post-structuralist thought and adopt Michel Foucault's definition of subjectivity as 'the rationalization of a process, itself provisional, which results in a subject, or rather, in subjects'.2 This suggests that subjectivities are multiple rather than unified, and fluctuating rather than fixed. British feminist theorist Sasha Roseneil has produced a useful definition which defines subjectivity as an amalgam of consciousness and identity, where 'consciousness' represents ways of understanding one's relation to the world and 'identity' a sense of self. The claiming of an oppositional feminist identity rests to a varying extent on a development of a feminist oppositional consciousness.3 'Identity', 'consciousness' and 'subjectivity' are interrelated concepts. 'Identities are claimed as they are performed' through an exercise of power, where power is emancipatory rather than oppressive and is exercised rather than possessed.4

Although subjectivity is here understood as a socially constructed concept, our subjects are not passive dupes of the discourses which shape them. Foucault has written about a subject who is socially constituted but is also a 'permanent provocation' to the discourse that defines her subjectivity.5 Feminist scholars, meanwhile, remain deeply divided over the extent to which subjectivity is discursively constructed and the role of human action in its formation.6 Just as it is crucial to emphasise the discursive and material processes through which subjectivity is constructed, it is equally significant to identify the 'important strands of agency and resistance among groups and individuals who worked to shape and to retain their own meanings about themselves in the world.'7 The world of parliamentary politics – banished from many branches of Australian feminist scholarship until recently – provides a particularly interesting example of feminist resistance to an oppressive masculinist discourse.

Women with feminist leanings entered Western Australian Parliament for the first time in 1921 when Edith Cowan became the first woman in Australia to be elected into a legislature. The legacies of previous feminisms are hard to ignore in such a male-dominated space, and Cowan's name is today celebrated by feminists from all sides of politics. Parliamentarians such as Cowan may not be considered feminists using the more current definitions of feminism – or they may not have employed the feminist discourse as we know it today – but it is essential to the feminist history project to recognise the historical variability of 'feminist' politics. Feminism, as everything else, is a process contingent upon particular social and political contexts of the times. Parliamentary feminists employ or resist only those discourses that are available to them at a given moment.

The 'radicalisation' of resistive discourses, including the emergence of the 'feminist second wave' in the early 1970s, is often cited as having a significant impact on the politicisation of Western Australian feminist parliamentarians and their thinking about their place in politics. A plethora of Women's Liberation groups and lobbies formed in Perth and parliamentarians were often their members. For example, Lyla Elliott, Labor Member of the Legislative Council, was a member of the Abortion Law Repeal Association (ALRA, now known as the Association for the Legal Right to Abortion), and lobbied the state Labor Party (ALP) to adopt a policy of abortion law reform in the early 1970s. As a member of the Executive Council of the Family Planning Association, Elliott attempted to remedy difficulties of access to contraception for rural women by introducing a legislation to allow nurses in country areas to prescribe and fit contraceptive devices. As domestic violence came to be viewed through a radical feminist prism, Elliott called for more financial help for the women's refuges and better legal protection for the victims of domestic violence. However, Elliott was nonetheless negotiating her feminism with the constraints of being a member of a political party. In Elliott's parliamentary work, her adherence to the ALP platform was, in her opinion, often a site of struggle with feminists in the community: 'Women in the community I don't think appreciate the fact that this is the situation in Parliament that women are members of political parties.' Elliott has said that, had the opposition introduced the legislation to assist the refuges and her party was against it, she would have no other choice but to vote against it as well.

Elliott's contemporary, Margaret McAleer, a Liberal Member of the Upper House, also witnessed the resurgence of the feminist movement in the 1970s, although from a slightly different position. Based in the north-western town of Geraldton, McAleer has claimed that she overcame the isolation of the Western Australian 'bush' which prevented her from contact with the feminist movements in Perth through reading feminist literature. In particular, she has identified the writings of Simone deBeauvoir and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, calling it 'a bit of an eye-opener', as influential in her 'consciousness-raising'.8 As a member of the Liberal Party, however, McAleer was placed in a precarious situation, between her party loyalties on one hand and the feminist discourse on the other hand. While she has denied ever witnessing 'anti-woman feelings' in the Liberal Party, it was indeed problematic that Premier Charles Court 'had some difficulty in remembering that he had women members'.

Interestingly, McAleer has claimed that she made great friendships with the women 'on the other side' of politics, particularly Federal Labor Senator Pat Giles who, although described as 'heart and soul Labor', was McAleer's 'mentor' in feminist matters. McAleer described the friendship between the two seemingly very different women as 'a strange alliance … but she [Giles] was pretty good to me'. Although she has not considered herself a part of the women's movement, McAleer campaigned to see more women in politics, particularly in her own party, as a 'chairman' of its Women's Division. These activities do not suggest however that she accepted all the feminist principles of the time, principles mainly embedded in the politics of equality legislated in the 1980s. For example, she has admitted to feeling 'a certain anxiety' as to whether the Liberal Party was prepared to accept the 'controversial' and difficult affirmative-action clause in the parliamentary debates of the Equal Opportunity Bill in 1983. McAleer was forced to negotiate her own – and her party's – liberal individualist discourse with her belief that women as a group certainly were 'handicapped' with regards to their low numbers in the positions of power which the idea of equal opportunity has sought to change. For both McAleer and Elliott, the process of negotiating their feminism with other obligations has involved exploring a multiplicity of loyalties.

Issues which are seen as belonging to the wide umbrella of 'social justice' also mediate one's feminism. Giz Watson, a Legislative Council Member for the Greens (WA), fuses feminism with her party's focus on environmental preservation and ecological sustainability. Watson participated in the women's anti-nuclear base camp at the now-legendary Greenham Common in Great Britain, training women in non-violent direct action and drawing on the particularly strong anti-nuclear peace tradition of the British Women's Movement. Watson's concern about nuclear power 'goes right back through to a feminist framework on the whole structures that establish militarism or a militaristic society'.9 Her involvement in politics 'has been driven by a sense of urgency … We've mucked up the planet to the point where it's unlivable basically, let alone the issues of potential nuclear war, which haven't gone away, they just moved into a different phase'. Watson's example illustrates the interrelatedness of feminism and environmental issues by identifying militarism as an essentially masculinist mode of politics. What is also evident in Watson's example is the persistence of the feminist discourses of the 1970s and the 1980s, when the anti-nuclear peace movement had its own specific flavour in Western Australia, and their subsequent articulation in the Parliament.

There are other gendered differentiations constructed by feminist parliamentarians. Some feminist politicians construct their political subjectivities by positioning male and female political styles as opposites. Helen Hodgson, Member of the Legislative Council for the Australian Democrats, has said:

I do think that as more women come into politics you do see some blurring of some things like the issue of confrontation versus consensus. We're more likely to get a backing away from the very blokey atmosphere of hurling insults at each other across the chamber.10

Hodgson also has talked about the 'male behaviour patterns' in her own party: 'They'll get into that male bonding sort of behaviour that they have and you watch it, and you know you're not really a part of it, and yet they think you are a part of it because you are there with them as an equal. And yet you relate differently.' Her colleague Diana Warnock, Labor Member of the Legislative Assembly, would readily agree:

Sometimes the boys drive you mad with their behaviour, and sometimes the way they carry on yelling at each other at question time … That sort of boyish behaviour I just find pathetic, but after a while you need just get together with other women and say: "Oh shit, the boys are like pets today", and you just dismiss them as children and get on with it.11

The processes of differentiation between male and female experiences of parliaments and between male and female ways of 'doing' politics construct a specific feminist political subjectivity often cast as the opposite to a male identity. These constructions involve a negotiation of power, allowing feminist women to form resistance to discriminatory practices that have until very recently barred women from politics and denied feminist calls for equal representation in parliaments. The idea of 'doing politics differently' is often seen as the drive behind their achievements, such as, in Giz Watson's case, the change in community consciousness regarding environmental issues, where parliamentarians have certainly played their part. This is not to say that women are innately suitable to make 'better' and more responsive and responsible politicians. The discursive construction of different, gendered modes of 'doing' politics, and the privileging of the 'feminine' caring and socially responsible model over the aggressive masculinism of the male-dominated parliament, allows feminist politicians to explore alternative possibilities and avenues of social reform. As Christina Crosby has argued, feminists need to 'read the processes of differentiation, not look for differences' because 'difference is not a thing to be recognised but a process always underway'.12

Despite the great sense that women politicians 'do' politics differently, this is not to say that there are no differentiations between feminists from the different sides of politics. The parliamentarians' conceptions of their parliamentary jobs are a lot more complex than any sense of a shared 'sisterhood' would allow for, as Elliott's quotation has illustrated. This poses pertinent questions for the relationship between 'grass-roots' feminism and feminist politicians. As Joan Eveline and Michael Booth have argued convincingly, feminist calls for more feminist women in politics are difficult to translate into the pragmatic world of our parliaments: 'For who and what will determine just what the ideal of the feminist politician will be, given the variety of feminisms and their shape-shifting dynamics?'13 Demands for equal representation of women in public life have been a part of the Western Australian feminist discourse since the early decades of the twentieth century. The existence of not one feminism, but of its many different faces, certainly problematises the idea of feminist politicians' responsibilities and responsiveness to the wider women's movement. Just how do feminist parliamentarians juggle a wide array of their obligations?

In some cases the differences between feminism and social justice and party politics appear irreconcilable and involve making hard 'executive' decisions. When the Western Australian Labor Party, whose members are bound to support the party platform on all issues except abortion and euthanasia, proposed a legislation which would see a disproportionate number of the Aboriginal 'juveniles' imprisoned, Judyth Watson, who at the time was a Labor minister for Aboriginal affairs, absented herself from the State Parliament to avoid voting on the legislation. '[It] was a wimp's way out … It was such an issue about human rights and justice. Look where it's led us now, I mean it's "my legislation is harsher than your legislation". Dreadful, dreadful thing to do.' She has blamed the 'boys' in the party for introducing the legislation when the Premier, Carmen Lawrence, happened to be overseas.14

Watson's Labor colleague Cheryl Davenport MLC was a shadow spokesperson for women's interests during a preselection battle within the party:

I took a position, because a very good woman candidate was being supported by a range of women within the party. The men … chose to support a former state [male] MP, who'd been in the State Parliament for 15 years and who had left burnt out, not wanting to know the place 12 months earlier … What really angered me was the fact that lip-service was paid to more women coming into Parliament, and I wasn't prepared to go on using the rhetoric which wasn't being delivered in terms of the Labor Party being prepared to support and encourage more women into the political system.15

Watson and Davenport made the decisions which could have been unacceptable to their colleagues, even dangerous for their careers, and their language suggested this. The extent to which a feminist politician will remain 'faithful' to feminism and uncompromising when her position is challenged is always context-specific. It is also a very difficult decision to make which involves weighting a range of obligations and responsibilities. 'Doing politics differently' places a feminist politician into a position of conflict with her colleagues, exemplifying the ongoing discursive struggle in the parliamentary environment over the meanings of social, including feminist, justice and social reform.

A parliamentarian's positioning as member of a particular marginalised ethnic group also circumscribes her perceptions of feminism. Ljiljanna Ravlich, Labor Member of the Legislative Assembly, is the first and so far the only woman member of the Western Australian Parliament to have come from a non-English-speaking background. For Ravlich, as for many migrant women, feminism appears to provide a very 'limited political home':

I wouldn't consider myself a feminist, but as much as I would say that, somebody else might say in terms of practical example I am probably more of a feminist. I don't espouse anything along feminist lines, however, I don't have any qualms about playing the blokes at their own game, and playing it tougher than they would.16

Ravlich's negotiations between her working-class, non-Anglo-Australian background and her gender experience have placed her in a difficult relationship with what she has called 'Anglo-Saxon feminism':

The one difficulty I've always had with feminism is that I always saw it as being something which was structured by middle-class, Anglo-Saxon women for the promotion of middle-class, Anglo-Saxon women … My view is that they should have made a big difference for migrant women on the factory floors … I guess I probably don't have the regard for it because I don't think that the priorities have been right. I mean, if you are really talking about making a difference for women, then you start at the bottom and work your way up.

This does not mean, however, that gender does not play a role in Ravlich's subjective identity; it is just that 'gender' as defined in 'Anglo-Saxon' feminism has proven difficult to negotiate with the perceived cultural differences between Croatian and Australian culture: 'I don’t know whether you define it as feminism or a cultural thing … I look at within my own community and … there is a clear division of labour. Anything within the house was women's work, anything outside the house was men's work.' Ravlich has got the most complex situation to negotiate: her cultural background and the marginalisation of non-Anglo-Australian ethnic identities on one hand, and the gender-structured hierarchies in her own community on the other hand. She has maintained her unconditional concern for the welfare of migrant women: 'If you think migrant men have it hard in the workplace, migrant women have it ten times harder.' Ravlich's language suggests that formation of her 'feminist' politics is an on-going and difficult process. She has negotiated her feminism to the extent that she was prepared to go into the 'masculine' areas of work:

I often get up and make speeches about the housing industry, building and construction, because that's a passion of mine and I've done research in the industry. I do a lot of work in the areas that women don’t necessarily venture into.

Ravlich has been prepared to accept that male colleagues 'do have a habit of slotting women into "soft" options' and typically 'feminine' portfolios such as health or education, but she has found ways of resisting by opting for a male-dominated area of work. Ravlich's example confirms some of the conclusions reached by feminist scholar Mary Kalantzis: 'Whilst not speaking feminism, the language of criticism and re-assertion of power, the practical struggles of many immigrant women are akin in critical spirit and outcome to feminism itself'.17

Building strategic alliances with the feminists in parliaments has been one political site where the women's movement, especially since the 1970s, has repeatedly staked its claims. It is imperative for feminist politics, therefore, to insist on the contingency of the label 'feminist', as many scholars have already discussed. For example, Ann Millar has argued that 'the differences between feminist and non-feminist women parliamentarians sometimes appear to be more a matter of semantics than reality'.18 Feminist researcher Christine Griffin has noted helpfully that it is important not to treat feminism as a coherent social identity, nor to set clear distinctions between feminism and non-feminism, because of the complex processes involved in the constructions of a feminist identification.19 The political implications of such a discursive shift can be beneficial for feminist politics and our understanding of feminism. If we stop seeing women politicians as responsible solely to one part of the community, such as its feminist movement or its 'women', and recognise instead the multiple obligations they juggle, we can stage a more effective mode of doing politics. In her important work Living Feminism, Chilla Bulbeck has recognised this potential, especially where she has argued that, 'while women's politicians' feminism may be labeled "self-serving" [by their critics], their presence in parliaments in greater numbers helps change the discourse of parliaments'.20

It is precisely because of an impossibility to fix the borders of feminism that it is far more useful to look at the construction of feminist subjectivity in its context. Theorising feminist political subjectivity is essential to the feminist project 'to the extent that feminism involves empowering (female) subjects to enact a drama of social change'.21 The development of an alternative feminist identity is a process of empowerment for feminist parliamentarians because it allows them to perceive their interventions in the state as creating a more equitable society. To that extent, it can be said that feminism – however negotiated or defined – provides a powerful drive for women to challenge the rules of a masculine world which they feel are constantly thrust upon them in a discriminatory manner. For feminist theorists and historians, a focus on feminist political subjectivity provides a tool for an analysis of social discourses which directly subvert masculinist concepts of politics and political identity.22 For feminist politics, recognition of variability of feminist subjectivities and existence of multiple faces of feminism provides valuable insight to build on for the future.


Notes

1. For example, Anne Henderson, Getting Even: Women MPs on Life, Power and Politics, HarperCollins, Melbourne, 1999; Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, A Woman's Place: Women and Politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1993; S. Watson (ed.), Playing the State: Australian Feminist Interventions, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1990; J. Clarke & K. White, Women in Australian Politics, Fontana Books, Sydney, 1983. For some personal accounts see Susan Ryan, Catching the Waves: Life In and Out of Politics, HarperCollins, Melbourne, 1999, and Janine Haines, Suffrage to Sufferance: 100 Years of Women in Politics, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1992.

2. M. Foucault, 'Iran: The Spirit of a World Without Spirit' in L.D. Kritzman (ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture – Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, Routledge, New York, 1988, p.253.

3. S. Roseneil, 'Transgressions and Transformations: Experience, Consciousness and Identity at Greenham', in N. Charles and F. Hughes-Freeland (eds), Practising Feminism: Identity, Difference, Power, Routledge, London, 1996, p.87.

4. Terrell Carver, 'A Political Theory of Gender: Perspectives on the Universal Subject' in V. Randall and G. Waylen (eds), Gender, Politics and the State, Routledge, New York, 1998, p.19.

5. Susan J. Hekman, Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1990, p.73.

6. For different applications of Foucault's theories of subjectivity see, for example, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, New York, 1990; Kathi Weeks, Constituting Feminist Subjects, Cornell University Press, New York, 1998; Lois McNay, Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1992.

7. J. Long, J. Gothard and H. Brash, 'Introduction', in J. Long, J. Gothard and H. Brash (eds), Forging Identities: Bodies, Gender and Feminist History, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1997, p.8.

8. Interview with Margaret McAleer, by Erica Harvey, May 1992-May 1993, Battye Library OH 2581/8, and all subsequent references.

9. Interview with Giz Watson, by Jasmina Brankovich, 28 June 1999. All tapes and transcripts in possession of author unless indicated otherwise.

10. Interview with Helen Hodgson, by Jasmina Brankovich, 9 July 1999.

11. Interview with Diana Warnock, by Jasmina Brankovich, 27 January 1999.

12. C. Crosby, 'Dealing With Differences', in J. Butler & J. Scott (eds), Feminists Theorize the Political, Routledge, New York, 1992, p.140.

13. J. Eveline and M. Booth, 'Who Are You Really? Feminism and the Female Politician', Australian Feminist Studies, vol.12, 1997, p.116.

14. Interview with Judyth Watson, by Jasmina Brankovich, 4 January 1999.

15. Interview with Cheryl Davenport, by Jasmina Brankovich, 4 June 1999.

16. Interview with Ljiljanna Ravlich, by Jasmina Brankovich, 6 July 1999; also Ien Ang, '"I'm a Feminist, but …": "Other" Women and Postnational Feminism', in B. Caine and R. Pringle, (eds), Transitions: New Australian Feminisms, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995, p.73.

17. M. Kalantzis, 'Ethnicity Meets Gender Meets Class in Australia', in Watson, Playing the State, p.39.

18. A. Millar, 'Feminising the Senate', in H.Irving (ed.), A Woman's Constitution: Gender and History in the Australian Commonwealth, Hale & Iremonger Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1996, p.138.

19. C. Griffin, '"I'm not a Women's Libber, but …": Feminism, Consciousness and Identity', in S. Skevington and D. Baker (eds), The Social Identity of Women, Sage Publications, London, 1989, pp.173-193.

20. Chilla Bulbeck, Living Feminism: The Impact of the Women's Movement on Three Generations of Australian Women, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p.125.

21. J.K. Gibson-Graham, 'Beyond Patriarchy and Capitalism: Reflections on Political Subjectivity', in Caine and Pringle, Transitions, p.182.

22. See Marilyn Lake for a useful critique of 'masculinism' in the study of women and politics, 'Feminist History as National History: Writing the Political History of Women', Australian Historical Studies, vol.27, no.106, 1996, pp.154-169.


References

Ang, I., '"I'm a Feminist, but …": "Other" Women and Postnational Feminism', in B. Caine and R. Pringle, (eds), Transitions: New Australian Feminisms, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995.

Bulbeck, C., Living Feminism: The Impact of the Women's Movement on Three Generations of Australian Women, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

Carver, T., 'A Political Theory of Gender: Perspectives on the Universal Subject' in V. Randall and G. Waylen (eds), Gender, Politics and the State, Routledge, New York, 1998.

Crosby, C., 'Dealing With Differences', in J. Butler & J. Scott (eds), Feminists Theorize the Political, Routledge, New York, 1992.

Eveline, J. and Booth, M., 'Who Are You Really? Feminism and the Female Politician', Australian Feminist Studies, vol.12, 1997.

Foucault, M., 'Iran – The Spirit of a World Without Spirit', in L.D. Kritzman (ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture – Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, Routledge, New York, 1988.

Gibson-Graham, J-K., 'Beyond Patriarchy and Capitalism: Reflections on Political Subjectivity', in B. Caine and R. Pringle (eds), Transitions: New Australian Feminisms, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995.

Griffin, C., '"I'm not a Women’s Libber, but …": Feminism, Consciousness and Identity', in S. Skevington and D. Baker (eds), The Social Identity of Women, Sage Publications, London, 1989.

Hekman, S.J., Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1990.

Kalantzis, M., 'Ethnicity Meets Gender Meets Class in Australia', in S. Watson (ed.), Playing the State: Australian Feminist Interventions, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1990.

Lake, M., 'Feminist History as National History: Writing the Political History of Women', Australian Historical Studies, vol.27, no.106, 1996.

Long, J., Gothard, J. and Brash, H., 'Introduction', in J. Long, J. Gothard and H. Brash (eds), Forging Identities: Bodies, Gender and Feminist History, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1997.

Millar, A., 'Feminising the Senate', in H.Irving (ed.), A Woman's Constitution: Gender and History in the Australian Commonwealth, Hale & Iremonger Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1996.

Roseneil, S., 'Transgressions and Transformations: Experience, Consciousness and Identity at Greenham', in N. Charles and F. Hughes-Freeland (eds), Practising Feminism: Identity, Difference, Power, Routledge, London, 1996.


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