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The 'gentle invaders'

By Angela Barns and Alison Preston - posted Wednesday, 22 October 2008

At this year’s “May Day” March in Perth, ACTU President Sharon Burrows called for a publicly-funded paid maternity leave scheme, demanding that the Rudd Government demonstrate its support of women in paid employment and “working families”.

Despite the potency of this “call” Ms Burrow’s declaration received little attention from the May Day crowd. Still carrying banners and placards asserting solidarity, equality and justice, many of the marchers had turned their attention to the food vans and stalls lining the crowd.

The incident, although seemingly innocuous, can be read as a metaphor for the relatively tenuous position that women and feminism occupy within the landscape of Australian unions. While many Australian unions have successfully campaigned alongside feminists in support of women’s rights, these collaborations have often been created within an uneasy alliance, characterised by competing interests and conflicting agendas relating to women, men and economic security. This latest event reminds us that such tensions continue.


Within the current context in which both “movements” are at crossroads in their histories, the uneasy relationship between unions and feminism holds a particular irony. While each side accuses the other of bias, nepotism and inadequacy, neither’s future is secure. The survival of both feminism and the union movement is threatened by decreases in “membership” and allegations of irrelevancy.

Despite this perception we suggest that the end is not “nigh” for either or both movements. Rather, the uncertainty provides a space for critical reflection and, as has occurred in Canada, a time for renewal.

In this essay we briefly explore the relationship between unions and feminism, taking account of past ambiguities while identifying important lessons for the present and future. We also reflect upon the capacity of unions to engage with feminist principles and practices as a means of better representing women’s diverse experiences and facilitating their ongoing participation in masculinised labour markets and union settings.

We propose that greater collaboration between the union movement and feminism, based upon informed understandings and an appreciation of difference, could engender a renewal in both membership, participation and engagement in this country.


From the outset it is important to acknowledge that neither the union movement nor feminism are homogenous entities with a single narrative. Context is crucial in any telling and every reading. Like feminism the union movement is discursively produced, shaped by broader social, political, cultural and economic contexts. Both have long histories and connections with other social and political movements across time and place. Their commonality however, can be described as their commitment to creating a “better” world; a world in which equality, equity, fairness and justice mediates the everyday.

Representations of women as workers: tensions and differences

Whether marginalised because of gender or class, the feminist and union movements were established in the context of white Australia, to provide a formal public voice for what were considered to be private troubles; the domestic slavery of women and the exploitation and alienation of (male) workers. While populist politics throughout Australia’s history have sought to undermine the efficacy and value of unions and feminism, both movements have repeatedly proved to be necessary stalwarts against the excesses of capitalism and patriarchy.


Despite their positioning as “defenders” of margainalised populations, this commonality did not always produce harmonious alliances. From their localised beginnings in the harsh, masculinised landscape of the white Australian colonies, relationships between the union movement and feminism have been fractious and complex.

Much of this uneasiness has stemmed from what feminist’s consider has been the unions’ hostility to women’s rights, and their assiduous exclusion of women, and “other” workers, predominately those who were not “white” or heterosexual. This exclusion can be traced to the burgeoning capitalist economy of the 1830s, and continuing throughout the 20th century. Paid less than men, women have often been cast by unions as “gentle invaders”; women who stealthily undermined men’s rightful position in the workforce. This image of women as “invaders” became the hallmark of many union campaigns calling for better work and remuneration conditions for male workers, particularly in times of economic hardship and high unemployment.

The often hostile relationship between feminist demands for economic independence and union campaigns for better pay and working conditions for men, pinnacled with the 1907 Harvester Judgement. It can be said that the privileging of the “male-as-breadwinner” model institutionalised within this ruling from the newly established Commonwealth Arbitration and Conciliation Commission set the parameters of conflict for decades to come.

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About the Authors

Dr Angela Barns is a Research Fellow at Women in Social & Economic Research (WiSER) at the Graduate School of Business, Curtin University of Technology.

Alison Preston is a Professor of Economics and co-director of the Women in Social & Economic Research (WiSER) at the Graduate School of Business, Curtin University of Technology.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Angela Barns
All articles by Alison Preston

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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