The Guardian • Issue #2089

International Women’s Day, 8 March

A history of struggle

Etching of woman with flag.

Etching by Rini Templeton

More than half of all workers are employed in industries that are dominated by one gender. The lowest paying ones are female-dominated industries, such as aged care, community work, early childhood education, primary school teaching, office work, and nursing. Women’s work is more likely to be precarious and subject to vulnerabilities such as sexual harassment.

The average annual pay difference between men and women is $26,393. Women’s participation in the workforce has increased to 62.2 per cent but still lags that of men at 71.1 per cent.

Women have come a long way over the past century or so but still have far to go in achieving equality with men, let alone full emancipation. Just under 100 years ago an ACTU Congress was debating whether men should let their wives work! In the mid-1970s, in the debate at an ACTU Congress on the adoption of a Working’ Women’s Charter, an amendment supporting the right of married women to unemployment benefits and abortion rights was defeated.

The struggle for women’s rights dates back to the early 20th century and before that in the penal colonies. South Australia was the first colony where women won the right to vote in 1894 after a 10-year struggle led by the suffragettes.

Justice Higgins of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court, in what is known as the Harvester Decision, set a ‘living’ or ‘family’ wage in 1907. It was supposed to provide an unskilled labourer with the means to support his wife and three children, to feed, house, and clothe them. This became the basis of the national minimum wage system in Australia. In the same decision the female basic wage was set at 54 per cent of the male’s.


Until World War II, assumptions of a male bread winner and female domestic carer subjected women to economic dependence and to male authority. The idea that a wife was a husband’s property was reinforced by the church.

During World War II, women replaced the soldiers going to war, performing ‘men’s work.’ Their wages were kept down to 60-90 per cent of the male wage for performing the same job. They were only paid equal wages if their work threatened the position of men.

In 1941, the ACTU adopted a policy affirming “the right of women to earn their living in industry, the professions, and the public services, and … the legal right to equal occupational rates based on the nature of their work, and not on the sex of the worker.”

When the men returned after the war, most of the women were forced to either return to low-paid ‘women’s work’ or leave the workforce.


In the public service married women could only be employed as temporary staff, which restricted their promotion opportunities. Women were forced to step down or become temporary when they got married. This did not change until 1966.

Married women were also discriminated against in superannuation. Permanent staff in the public sector could not join the same scheme as other permanent employees. They had to access an inferior scheme that was not much more than a savings account – minus interest if they quit before retirement age.

This discrimination continued until former Treasurer Paul Keating introduced the Superannuation Guarantee in 1992.


The International Labour Organisation’s Equal Remuneration Convention came into force in May 1953. It stated that men and women were entitled to “equal remuneration … for work of equal value … with a view to providing a classification of jobs without regard to sex.”

During the 1950s and ‘60s both men and women in Australia participated in protests calling on the government to ratify the Convention and make equal pay the law in Australia. Employer bodies, the Coalition, and right-wing groups who thought a woman’s place was in the home, fought hard to prevent equal pay or ratification.

The Whitlam Labor government ratified the Convention s well as the UN Convention on the Political Rights of Women in December 1974.

The Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (ACAC), which applied nationally, set the general female award minimum wage at 85 per cent of the male wage in 1969 in a case brought by the Meat Employees’ Union. The ‘breadwinner’ component of the male wage remained.

A review in 1972 noted that only 18 per cent of working women were assessed as performing work equal to that of a man, meaning the majority of working women did not benefit from the 1969 decision.

In 1973 the Commission eventually granted an equal minimum wage to all Australians, regardless of their sex, and in 1974 the ‘breadwinner’ component of a male wage was removed in recognition of the fact that more Australian women were providing for their families.

Since then, the struggle has continued with further decisions still failing many working women. Adding to discrimination is Australia’s highly segregated workforce, with ‘men’s’ work on average higher paid and more likely to offer overtime.

There are a number of barriers holding women back from entering the workforce or working longer hours. One is the lack of affordable early childhood education and childcare. Another is that caring responsibilities, such as children, parents, or partners, tend to fall on the shoulders of women. 


Legal services, refuges and other women’s services had their funding slashed under the Coalition and the situation has hardly improved under Labor which is pruning social spending to fund war preparations.

Women fleeing domestic violence with their children are all too often turned away from refuges because of lack of funding and accommodation. Some return to danger, others end up homeless.

Guardian Australia’s recent investigation found that suicide and overdose are major drivers of deaths among those experiencing homelessness. They accounted for one-fifth and one-third of deaths respectively.

Hundreds of women experiencing homelessness have died – at an average age of 40.1 years for women (45.2 for men) – over the period of 2010-2020.

Homelessness services describe older women as the “new face of homelessness.”

For single women, these issues are compounded. The maximum social security payment for a full-time carer is $1,096.70.

Today, shockingly, one woman a week on average is murdered by her current or former partner, thousands are subjected domestic and family violence. An average of 13 women a day are hospitalised due to family and domestic violence.

The Fair Work Commission is now required to base its wage decisions on ‘equal pay for work of equal value.’ In an aged care work value case last year under the new provisions, with the support of the Labor government, the Health Services Union and the Nurses and Midwifery Federation, aged care workers received a 15 per cent wage rise.

The first IWD was held in 1911 with demands for women’s rights such as to work and vote, peace and socialism. Peace and socialism have dropped from the agenda in countries such as Australia.

Women have come a long way but there is still much further to go if they are to achieve economic equality with men, physical security, and empowerment.

Mere equality with men, equality in exploitation by capitalists, will not alone achieve emancipation. That requires changing the socio-economic system to socialism – a struggle that can only be won by women and men fighting alongside each other.

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