Joel Cosgrove conducted this interview after the recent Reclaim The Night march in Melbourne.
MARGARITA WINDISCH: Reclaim the Night originated in the US, with the first march held in 1973 in San Francisco. Reclaim the Night (RTN) was initially about re-claiming public space for women and protesting sexual violence against women. Over time many organising collectives broadened out the demands to reflect the many forms of violence women experience, of which the majority still occur in the home.
RTN used to be dominated by a more separatist feminist perspective, which essentially blames individual men for women’s oppression. This has changed somewhat to a more inclusive perspective that looks at systemic causes, allowing a broader participation, including men.
RTN mobilisations have always played a critical part in the women’s movement by keeping the issue of gender based violence in the public eye. With the ebb of the second wave of feminism in the 90′s we also saw a drop in RTN attendance as with other feminist activities around the country.
Numbers however started to grow again over the last few years, indicating a renewed interest in feminist ideas and activity. Feminist speakers have been attracting sell-out crowds at writer’s festivals and feminist collectives are springing up on university campuses.
We also have to give credit to the excellent Equal Pay campaign waged by the Australian Services Union over three years, for bringing gender based wage discrimination into public consciousness. The campaign demonstrated that gender was a key contributing factor for the massive pay gap for the social and community services workers in the non-profit sector.
The global ‘Slutwalk’ phenomena which started in Toronto in 2011 is another example of re-invigorated feminist action and protests rape and victim blaming. In Melbourne these protests attracted around 1000 people in 2011 and 2012.
RTN 2012 was big across Australia, and in Melbourne exceptionally large, with estimates ranging from 5000 – 8000 – making it the biggest ever in Melbourne.
The brutal rape and murder of 29 year old Jill Meagher, who walked home a couple of months ago from a night out in the trendy and hip Melbourne suburb Brunswick, traumatised an entire community and broke the silence and complacency around violence against women. Many women not only identified with Jill and started to publicly discuss their own experiences of threats and harassment and lack of police support around their complaints. A local resident organised a ‘peace march’ via facebook event after Jill’s body was found and a stunning 30.000 people turned up.
A small group of local women took the initiative and called for a Reclaim the Night (RTN) Rally along busy Sydney Rd, the place Jill M disappeared from. The group had three weeks to organise the protest.
The rally was diverse and included many families. There were a high percentage of young people and at least one in four people at the rally were men. Men had been invited to participate but were asked to march in the mixed section behind women who led the march. The vibe was fantastic and many of us wondered about ‘where to from here’
THE SPARK: You spoke at the Melbourne RtN, what is your history in regards to women’s liberation/feminism?
MARGARITA WINDISCH: My passion for women’s rights and justice started early in my life. I got involved with the women’s liberation movement in 1992 and helped organise International Women’s Day (IWD). This IWD collective exposed me to a range of feminist theories and perspectives, of which Marxist Feminism made most sense to me. I come from a working class background and was married to a great guy at the time. I didn’t see all men as my enemy nor did I believe that more women in power would solve our problem; by then we had already experienced Margaret Thatcher and the likes. A structural analysis that looked at class society as the key culprit for our second class citizen status and suggested a revolutionary way out of our oppression was what struck a chord with me.
I joined the DSP (Democratic Socialist Party), which had been very active in the women’s movement and had wonderful comrades involved in the 1992 IWD collective. The DSP merged into the Socialist Alliance, which like the DSP, is heavily involved in women’s rights campaigns. In my time as a socialist activist I was involved in and helped organise conferences, rallies and various campaigns including pro-choice, anti-violence, and equal pay.
I have also worked as an abortion counsellor and still work on a casual basis for a Sexual Assault service. I can support individual women and men to help them deal with the abuse and heal from it but that doesn’t address the gender oppression inherent in our system.
Doing this work re-emphasizes to me that unless we fight for structural change and a socialist future, individual women will continue to bear the brunt of a brutal gender biased class system with their freedom, happiness and their very own lives.
THE SPARK: Do you think any more permanent structures/movement will develop out of RTN 2012?
MARGARITA WINDISCH: A group called Melbourne Feminist Action, inspired by the increased interest in feminist activity and the massive RTN 2012, called a meeting and a whopping 120 people turned up. This new group doesn’t want t be simply a discussion group but wants to organise actions around women’s rights issues. So the first action will be a pro-choice rally on November 24 outside an abortion clinic in Melbourne, which is consistently picketed by religious anti-choice fanatics and there are plans to start preparing for a big International Women’s Day in 2013
THE SPARK: How did you end up speaking at the rally?
MARGARITA WINDISCH: I got asked to speak because I work for a Sexual Assault service and because of my long standing work in the women’s movement.
THE SPARK: There seems to be a big debate about the way to deal with this issue, the march has been accused of marching for CCTV cameras, what were the demands coming from the various sections of the march?
MARGARITA WINDISCH: The rumours, spread by some on the left, were completely false. Of course the corporate media and our right-wing politicians were trying to shape the public discourse on this issue away from prevention to a ‘surveillance’ and ‘law and order’ agenda. The collective was completely united on this issue and strongly opposed more CCTV cameras and increased policing of streets. The politics of the march were very radical -condemning the lack of police response to women’s complaints and the gender bias inherent in our judicial system. Speakers addressed the fact that most women experience gender based violence at the hands of somebody they know, often intimately. Speakers also discussed the role of the family -a key unit of class society where little boys and girls learn that women are the second sex. The march demanded an increase of funding for DV shelters and Sexual Assault services and anti-violence programs for schools. I also condemned the Federal government’s cuts to the sole parent’s pension which will put women at increased risk of violence
THE SPARK: Some socialist’s put forward that what looks like the Women’s movement from the 70′s in the 21st century is compromised and a “bourgeois tool”, what are your thoughts on this?
MARGARITA WINDISCH: Every movement is imbued with liberal ideology, the dominant ideology in capitalist societies, and the women’s movement is no exception. That’s why it is important for socialists to be involved. Our task is to inject a radical class analysis that develops consciousness beyond the limitations of our current system and fight’s for a society that is liberating for all humanity.
Gender oppression is the oldest and most entrenched oppression, hence difficult to fight. It is deeply woven into the fabric of our society and affects all or relationships, including sexually intimate ones. Building a strong women’s movement that is independent of bourgeois parties is critical in the fight for socialism. By demanding an end to women’s oppressions in all its many manifestations the movement directly challenges capitalist relations of production and re-production. Imagine if suddenly women were to charge professional wages for all the work they do currently for free to bring up the new generation of workers, caring for the elderly and sick and running the household? The whole capitalist economy would collapse.
Some people on the left have a very narrow interpretation of how to win women’s liberation. Their perspective implies that all we need is a revolution and that will sort it. History has already demonstrated that a change in economic relations alone is insufficient in addressing women’s oppression. This requires the complete transformation of all social relations, including social relations in the private sphere. The family is a critical economic unit for class society where unequal gender relations are reproduced. This needs to be challenged.
Working class men as a class don’t benefit from women’s oppression, it increases their exploitation. The complexities however lie in the fact that individual working class men are privileged under the current system – eg most housework is still done by women, even when both partners work full time. Women still take the bulk of responsibilities for child rearing and studies have found that it is overwhelmingly daughters, not sons that care for their infirm elderly parents. In other words, individual men benefit from gender oppression.
And the question is this “why should women wait for the revolution to deliver our liberation? We need to create our own. And to do so, we want to win as many battles on the gender front as possible even under capitalism” it does make life easier and more enjoyable, which surely is the point! Some wins, such as the legalisation of abortion save lives-literally. Experience has also shown that any victory can be snatched away again under our brutal class system.
This again highlights that women’s liberation needs a radical transformation of society, which allows all humans to fulfil their potential and where the concept of gender in itself has become redundant. And by changing society and social relations we transform ourselves, a critical element in human liberation. I call it revolutionary socialism.