IN 1974, AT THE AGE OF 31, Kathryn Martin was elected to the Senate of Australia, representing the state of Queensland, which is roughly a fifth the size of the United States. Martin was the youngest woman ever elected to the upper house of Australia's legislature, but she was not the first. There are now six women in the Senate, and, she says, there almost certainly will be eight after the next election, and possibly 10. There are none, however, in the House of Representatives, although a number are running in the Oct. 18 election.
Martin, who is currently representing Australia's Liberal government at the United Nations General Assembly, was in Washington recently for a fund-raiser for American women politicians. During an interview at the Northwest home of a friend, Martin talked about the impact of women on politics in Australia and about the changes in the lives of women and their families during the past decade.
Australia is a country that shares much of America's cultural and colonial heritage, and while there are similarities in the way the women's movement has affected both countries, there are striking developments there that have not taken place here.
Party endorsement, she says, is everything in Australian politics, which has made it easier for women to get seats in the Senate than it has been here, where women often have difficulty filling the large campaign coffers senatorial candidates need.
Once a woman candidate gets the endorsement of one of Australia's three parties, that party gives her to money to run her campaign, and candidates are not allowed to know where the money comes from. Women candidates have had trouble getting into the House, Martin says, because that is seen as a bastion of youth. Young women are still usually tied up with children and the home and don't get the opportunity to build a resume of political experience that would qualify them for party endorsement. That, she says, is changing.
"A lot of young women with families have started nominating for local government. That's what's going to fill the gap. The parties are looking for women candidates because they have been so successful politically as vote getters and as workers." What she describes as "a great burst of women candidates" has been happening in the states and local offices, which is where legislation affecting families was being passed. Women became active, she says, because they "just got irritated with what men were doing. They stood as much as anything to highlight the issues and they got overwhelming support." And, she says, it has made a difference.
An antiabortion amendment was recently tacked onto a human rights bill in the House and is passed the 123-member body by five votes. "The amendment was slaughtered in the Senate, 40 to 17. . . . Then it went back to the House and then back to the Senate and it went down by an even bigger margin. I think we, the women working against it, were able to talk very privately to [the men in the Senate] about it. It was very difficult for us to have that same influence in the House of Representatives."
Every candidates for national office is interviewed by Women's Electoral Lobby, which she says is the most significant feminist organization, and their scores are released to the voters. "Every candidate takes that interview very seriously," she says.
Australian women of Martin's generation generally stopped their formal education at the age of 13. Now they receive the same educational adventages that men do and it is causing difficulty, Martin says. "There is an extraordinary phenomenon of women deserting their families. It used to be one in ten [ratio of women to men deserters]. Now one in every three is a woman."
Women, she says, leave very young children, in some cases, "to find themselves. That's the term most used." Why this is happening is unclear, but Martin believes part of it is due to the higher level of education this generation of young Australian women has had. "They get bored, frustrated and without an outlet.
"We have a widow's pension that goes to separated women, too. A great howl went up because men wanted it. It's put men in a position women have been in for years, and done great things for the widow's pension."
It is still difficult for young Australian mothers to work because of the shortage of day care and preschool facilities in many states. "It's been a real battle getting the community to recognize the need. There's a very strong anti-feeling. Day care was painted as a means of giving women a way of abandoning their children and going off to pursue a career." Money became available for day care after scandalous conditions children were kept in were revealed in newspaper stories.
She says this is a "very unsettling time" for Australian women of all ages, and it is a time that has given rise to conservative organizations, such as Women Who Want to Be Women. "I can understand the enormous insecurity of women in their forties and fifties who don't have the training and the confidence to go out into the world. They are terrified of societal upheaval, and they're trying to entrench their positon in every way possible."
Under the Family Law Act, the economic contribution of women in the home is calculated into the Gross National Product, something governments throughout the world have balked at doing, she says. 'We have balked at doing, she says. 'We have calculated it in part to help that situation."
Australian working women still have to go up against male chauvinism in trade unions and corporations, Martin says, but trade unions are beginning to have to do things on behalf of women to get them to join. "On the whole," she says, Australian men have "reacted very well." to the dramatic social changes the women's movement has brought to that country. But, says Martin, "The greatest bastion of conservatism on this is the media. Sexist reporting is still the order of the day. The most active male chauvinists I know are newspaper editors."