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Speech by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

The book launch of ‘Women, Love and Learning’ by Alison Mackinnon – University of South Australia

Speech delivery location: Adelaide

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It is with great pleasure to be invited here tonight to launch the latest work of talented writer and researcher, Alison Mackinnon.

The book – Women, Love and Learning: The Double Bind – is an illustration of the trailblazers who defied social trends, and the advice of their parents, husbands and friends to pursue an education in the 1950s and 60s.

This book tells these women’s stories – from the West Coast of the USA, to Canada, and in the Sandstone Universities of Australia – but it also paints us a vivid picture of a largely unknown period in the history of women and in the history of this country.

As we all know, there has been a lot written about the women’s movement in the late sixties and early 70s – with stories of burning bras, The Pill and the sexual revolution.

But there has been very little written about the women of the 50s and early 60s, who fundamentally changed the way women were defined: from simply wives and mothers to educated professionals.

As Alison says in her book, it is these women in the 50s and early 60s who were “already undertaking the revolution that was to burst onto the English-speaking world in the 1970s”.

We know a lot of the names in this book: Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Sylvia Plath – but there are a few names that may be new for some readers – Jill Ker Conway, Ruth Dobson, Virginia Beaver and Charlotte Painter – whose stories are equally compelling.

This book fills an important gap in our knowledge about this period – which is why I am so delighted to be launching Alison’s book here tonight.
Women balancing education, work and care today

In her book, Alison eloquently defines the challenges that women face in combining care and work, and how it impacts on their personal and professional fulfilment:

“In both Australia and the US, the combination of career and child rearing presents insurmountable barriers for women. It is these barriers, in part, that send highly educated middle-class women back to the role of housewife, exhausted by the struggle to be both workers and mothers.”

The Australian Work and Life Index 2010 tells us that for women today, expectations of combining career and continuing motherhood mean women have less leisure time and feel more time stressed than men.

And we know that, despite graduating in equal numbers, women are not reaching key decision-making roles in business, earn 18 per cent less than men, and continue to battle sexual harassment and archaic views about their ability and value.

Even with the unparalleled opportunity to pursue education, many women today continue to be faced with what Alison has called a “double bind” that faced their mothers and grandmothers: how to balance a fulfilling working life with a fulfilling personal or family life.
What we are doing

It is this sense of déjà vu that makes Alison’s book, not so much a historical account, but a Call to Action.

Alison’s book, through a historical lens, captures one of the biggest issues confronting contemporary women – the balance of work and family life.

Today, I find that we talk so much about equality between genders in the workplace but rarely talk about equality when it comes to caring responsibilities.

For me, it is two sides of the same coin: we must support both women’s participation in the workforce and men’s participation in caring and unpaid domestic work.

Helping people to manage their work and family responsibilities in an equitable way is the best path to ensuring that women and men are on the same footing economically and socially.

The Government has recognised this and introduced new National Employment Standards under the Fair Work Act which provide parents of both genders with the right to request a flexible work pattern from their employer.

And, as you will know, the Government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme begins on 1 January 2011. Around 220,000 partners of new mothers are expected to be eligible for Paid Paternity Leave in the scheme’s first year.

Better sharing of care between both parents will enable women and men to participate more equally in balancing family and work life.

I hope that we can continue to work towards achieving this balance for men and women so that young women are not faced with a double bind like the women in the book, but have the freedom and support to successfully balance work and family commitments – and ultimately achieve their life aspirations.
Alison Mackinnon

Alison’s long commitment to the history of women’s education and women’s full participation in public life is something I know is not just reflected in her book but in her own participation in academic and civic life, and in particular her dedication to the Hawke Centre.

Alison’s book shows us that we have come a long way from the days when women were automatically entered into beauty contests upon enrolment in law school, or when having a child while studying was simply incompatible – but we still have a long way to go on the path to equality for men and women.

We have a lot to learn from the women of the 50 and 60s. Alison’s book is deeply relevant for today’s reformers – both as a lesson and as a wake up call. We can’t be afford to be ignorant of this history or complacent about what lies ahead.

As Alison says:

“Today’s young women need to look back as well as forward. They might recognise in the past the pitfalls of accepting demands for impossible versions of femininity. They may need another revolution, another turn of the social clock, perhaps another 1965.”

I would like to thank Alison for undertaking this important work and providing today’s reformers with valuable insight into what is possible or in fact what might be required.

I am delighted to commend this work to you.