March 8, 2008
The Canberra Times

Littlejohn still driving women to strive for more

Every year on International Women’s Day, Linda Littlejohn and I have a bit of a sparring match. It began as a polite thing, when we didn’t really know each other. We’d just skirt around the periphery. But of recent years, Littlejohn has got a bit ballsy. And maybe so have I. Either way, we both get a bit ”edgy” at this time of year, and by the time the day comes around we’re both rattled. Inevitably, there’s a bit of a dust-up.

Although today is International Women’s Day, Littlejohn and I have already done a few rounds. There’s been plenty of opportunity this week, as Canberra has hosted a number of women’s gatherings to mark the day before the big day today. Without fail, at every event I’ve attended Littlejohn has been lurking in the background.

On Thursday there were more than 900 women at the Convention Centre for a UNIFEM lunch. Enough people, I would have thought, for me to give Littlejohn the slip. But she’s becoming increasingly hard to avoid. And that’s the point. Linda Littlejohn is dead. She died 59 years ago. But her ghost is getting bigger, louder, and I think crankier. And not without cause. She is not a household name now, but in the 1930s she certainly was. As an energetic journalist, author, mother of four, and a leading radio broadcaster on 2UE and across Britain via the BBC, Littlejohn’s view on ”women’s issues” was widely sought, and heard. In 1935 the Melbourne Herald described her as ”Australia’s leading feminist”.

An ardent advocate for feminist reforms and the push to get women into public office, Littlejohn travelled the world addressing women’s forums. In 1937 she was made president of the Geneva-based Equal Rights International. As a fierce debater and a striking woman with the talent to command attention, Littlejohn was relentless in pushing for a better, fairer and equitable deal for women the world over, with Australia as her starting point.

And that’s why Littlejohn’s ghost is looming larger than life with each passing International Women’s Day. As much as I try to drown out the disquiet, and repeatedly tell audiences that we all have plenty to celebrate, we’ve come a long way, women’s achievements are immense and that equal rights are enshrined, there is nevertheless a nagging noise at the back of my head. I’m convinced it’s from Linda Littlejohn.

Initially it was just a bit of a ”tut- tut”. Then it became more of an exasperation, ”Oh, what a load of bollocks”. Then yesterday, during an International Women’s Day breakfast for about 300 women, I had just finished telling a group of young schoolgirls how lucky they were and what brilliant career opportunities they all had ahead of them, when I’m sure I heard someone muttering from the stage wings, ”What a load of crap.” Littlejohn again, no doubt.

But she’s got a point. Never before in Australian history has the mismatch between women’s expectations and the daily reality of their lives been as stark as it is now. Never has the juggle between being a mother and a worker been as complex and demanding as it is now.

My mother was born in the 1930s. Her generation of women grew up with the shared expectation of becoming wives and mothers. Back then, a woman’s singular role as homemaker was so entrenched that women were barred from working in the public service the moment they got married. The message that sort of government policy sent to women was unequivocal: you have no place in public life, your role is in the domestic sphere.

By the time I was growing up, the world was an entirely different place for women. Or so it seemed. As a Generation X woman, I was encouraged to assume that I could be and do anything. University study, career, marriage, travel, achievement, children, promotion, success, financial independence – all of it was available to my generation, and the next. We gobbled up the idea that we could ”have it all”. In fact, we were convinced we must have it all, do it all, and be it all.

Needless to say, many, if not most, Gen X woman have woken up – or are still awakening – to the stark reality that something has got to give. And that taking up some choices means closing off others. These may seem like obvious lessons in reality, but for women brought up to believe the world’s myriad opportunities were theirs for the taking, they can be very painful lessons indeed. The truth is, we don’t really want to know that the ”have it all” world for women is a hoax.

It really shouldn’t come as any surprise, but an increasing number of women are admitting that their lives are too ”hectic and stressful”. A report out this week, Women, Rights and Equality: What do they want now? – produced by Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Commission – provides sobering, if not sad, reading. In summary, the demands on women, ”particularly the constant juggling”, are reportedly leaving many women ”feeling depleted of energy and stressed”. And opting for part-time work, to allow more family/children time, isn’t working well either. A dearth of meaningful part-time jobs means women are forced to downgrade their expectations. Consequently, their future career options take a pounding: as does their confidence, self-esteem and work enthusiasm.

So, why do Linda Littlejohn and I have a brush-up around this time every year? Perhaps it’s because I can’t get her, and all she fought for, out of my head when I raise my glass to celebrate International Women’s Day. I’m sure I can feel her prodding: ”Come on, there’s work to do. We’re not done yet”.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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