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Decline in feminism? The backlash myth

By Paul Norton - posted Friday, 19 August 2005

A recurring theme in much political and social commentary is that Australians are conservative, and becoming more so, on socio-cultural issues. It has been asserted recently in the quality press that sexist attitudes are on the rise in society, young women are retreating from feminist values, and a study finding that one-third of Australians consider homosexuality “immoral” is evidence of an anti-queer backlash driven by the Federal Government’s family values agenda.

These claims don’t come from any particular political camp - they are expressed fearfully by feminists, leftists and queer rights activists, and triumphantly by family values conservatives in both major political parties and by socially conservative elements of the trade union movement, such as the author(s) of the Brompton Report (pdf file 215KB).

Readers may therefore be surprised to learn that Australians’ attitudes to issues of gender, family and sexuality have become less conservative, not more so, over the past two decades.


Good survey data on Australians’ changing attitudes to social issues is available from successive Australian Election Studies (AES) and Australian Surveys of Social Attitudes (ASSA). Further, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics enables us to track changes in Australians’ work and family choices and young women’s life choices. What do they tell us?

One question asked in every AES since 1987 is whether respondents think social changes intended to provide equal opportunity for women have gone “too far”, are “about right” or have “not gone far enough”. The percentage answering “too far” has declined consistently from 25.8 per cent in 1987 to 9.5 per cent in 2004. The percentage answering “not far enough” has risen from 19.5 per cent in 1987 to 40.2 per cent in 2004.

On the issue of abortion, the AES asks respondents which of the following options they support: “Women should be able to obtain an abortion readily when they want one”, “Abortion should be allowed only in special circumstances”, “Abortion should not be allowed under any circumstances” and “Don’t know”. The percentage answering “obtain abortion readily” jumped from 38.6 per cent in 1987 to 50.3 per cent in 1990 and 56.1 per cent in 1993, and has since fluctuated above 50 per cent, peaking at 57.6 per cent in 2001. It was 54.2 per cent in 2004. Those supporting access to abortion “only in special circumstances” declined from 65.0 per cent in 1987 to 39.5 per cent in 1990, and fluctuated in the 30 per cent range to 34.7 per cent in 2004. The proportion supporting a total ban on abortion has dwindled steadily from 6.4 per cent in 1987 to 4.0 per cent in 2004.

These figures do not suggest that Australian public opinion has become more conservative on gender issues in recent times - quite the reverse. The “hard” anti-feminist positions have become increasingly marginal. The figures also discredit the frequent claim that a backlash against socially progressive policies on gender, family and sexuality at the time of the 1996 federal election contributed significantly to Labor losing office. Insofar as these figures lend themselves to conclusions about assertions of a rise in sexist attitudes in society and a loss of feminist ideals and consciousness among young women, they suggest that such assertions are not well founded.

And is there a backlash against gays? Again, one has to look at how measured attitudes change over time. The poll conducted by Morgan Research for the Australia Institute in 2004, found that 35 per cent of those surveyed considered homosexuality “immoral”. In a similar special Morgan poll in 2001, the figure was 36 per cent. In both polls, this figure was lowest amongst the youngest adult cohorts, and rose with age. Other polls during the 1990s also showed a slight decline in homophobic sentiment. None of the polling shows evidence of a homophobic backlash in public opinion over the past decade, and suggest that homophobia is on the way out due to generational change.

So much for attitudes. What about behaviour? I have analysed ABS data series on family structures and workforce participation by age and gender from 1979 to 2005. The figures show that the dominant trends among women in the 25-34 age group since the 1970s - greater workforce participation, later and less frequent childbearing, decline of stay-at-home motherhood - have continued more or less unabated despite federal government policies since 1996 which were arguably designed to reverse these trends. The percentage of this age cohort in the workforce rose from 67.7 per cent in June 1996 to 73.4 per cent in June 2005. In the same period the percentage of stay-at-home mothers in the cohort declined from 28.1 per cent to 21.4 per cent. The incidence of childlessness rose from 42 per cent in 1996 to 50.7 per cent in 2005 - for the first time a majority of women in this age group are not mothers.


While the decade from 25 to 34 is when women make most of their existentially significant decisions about childbearing, career-family balance and so on, these decisions are the fruits of values formed and commitments made during the previous decade of their lives. So there is no retreat from existentially feminist life-choices among women who were teenage or 20-something in the 1990s when feminist writers such as Helen Garner, Virginia Trioli, Catharine Lumby, Kathy Bail, Jenna Mead and Anne Summers began to argue about what young women thought and where they were going. As for women currently in the 15-24 age cohort, they are outperforming young men at school, and committing to higher education and professional qualifications in greater numbers than the lads, suggesting that the trends of three decades will continue for the foreseeable future.

The question then remains. Why, when the actual trend is for public opinion and personal behaviour on gender, family and sexuality issues to become more progressive, do commentators across the ideological spectrum concur in wrongly claiming that the trend is towards conservatism? This is a fascinating question, but it will have to wait for another article.

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About the Author

Dr Paul Norton teaches and researches in the Department of Politics & Public Policy and the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University.

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