Rally for Abortion Rights: Mary Merkenich

I’m going to start with a short timeline that describes some of the achievements that female unionists, in particular teachers have made.

1884 Victorian Lady Teachers’ Association (VLTA) formed — platform includes equal pay for women teachers

1939-1945 Married women allowed to teach. Prior to this they had to resign when they married. However in this period they can only teach on a temporary basis.

1956 Permanency granted to married women (no superannuation).

1958 A Married Women’s Pension Fund introduced

1968 Women teachers win equal pay!

1975 Married women win right to join the Superannuation Fund.

1976 Teachers win 12 weeks’ paid maternity leave and 5 days paternity leave;
1984 Permanent part-time work introduced; family leave for 7 years achieved; Federal Sex Discrimination Act passed; Victorian EO Act amended to include sexual harassment; Victorian Govt appoints Women’s Policy Co-ordinator.

1998 AEU Vic elects first woman president

2004 Victorian teachers win two extra weeks Paid Maternity Leave and 35 hours prenatal leave.

2009 Paid parental leave (18 weeks) announced by Federal Government for all women workers.

Victorian teacher unions won (and continue to have) the best family friendly entitlements in Australia.

Obviously a union made up largely of women should be one that fights for women’s rights.

However the rights of women are important concerns for the entire union movement. We have seen time and again through out history if one section of society, in particular one section of the working class is discriminated against then this is used to divide and weaken the whole working class. The advancement of rights for one group of workers only serves to strengthen us all, whether by example, by flow-ons or by bolstering groups, which may have been in a weaker position.

This is why the trade union movement must support all issues of concern to women, including the right of women to control their own reproductive lives.

The issue of having control over our bodies is rightly linked to the right to control our lives, because the one cannot be separated from the other.

In fact the right to be able to decide if and when to have children is a precondition for achieving other rights, such as equal pay, equal job and education opportunities, promotion opportunities and job permanency.

When the right to equal job opportunities was being debated in Australia, one common argument used against this right was that hiring women was risky for employers because women just get pregnant and so there is no stability for the employer.

Frequently there is reference to the glass ceiling in Australia. This of course means the seen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps women from rising to the upper levels in their field of work. Apart from other factors, such as male attitudes to their female co-workers, this barrier will continue to exist if women do not have control over their bodies.

Married women were not allowed to teach until the late 1930s in Australia and weren’t given permanency until 1956. The reason was that a married woman’s role was considered to be first and foremost to take care of her husband and his home. Married women would not be able to carry out their role as a housewife adequately if they also had a job.

I believe that the prospect of married women becoming pregnant at some point in their marriage, and the education dept. not wanting to pay them for maternity leave, and having to find another teacher, perhaps at inconvenient times for the education department probably played a role as well.

To exercise some control over our destiny we must have access to safe and effective contraception, to up to date and non-judgmental sex education, and the right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. It is also important to state that no woman should be pressured into having or forced into being sterilized. To be seen as equal to and not merely as servants to men, or as breeders often against our will, women must be able to control our own fertility.

Without this right, women are very vulnerable. Frequently our family responsibilities are the reason for casual employment or interrupted or shortened careers. Even today many women, who leave the workforce to care for children and families end up living in poverty because they have meagre superannuation benefits and perhaps no savings. The many women who are in low paid jobs or in casual employment end up experiencing hardship.

Imagine that you cannot control if or when you will have children. And imagine that the timing and spacing of when to have children is not under your control, that would mean that you could not hold down a stable on-going job or plan a career, especially when childcare services are still not plentiful and not inexpensive.

If you become a single mum in Australia, then you will most likely be condemned to poverty.

Sole-parent pensioners working part- time can find that their jobs provide little if any financial improvement because of the combined effect of taxation and the social security income test, coupled with the work-related costs of travel and child care. Imagine that you have a seriously ill child and you can see that this situation would be even more difficult. And any thought of a career would have to be discarded.

I am a feminist because these questions matter to me. I cannot live in a society that condemns my sisters to poverty or to limited choices, simply because they are women or black women or because they are poor women.

We – all women – must have the right to choose and the right to have access to the information and means needed to exercise voluntary choice.

And contraception and abortions must be free and easily available, otherwise only some women will have access to them and therefore to the essentials that make it easier for us to have jobs, to plan careers and consequently to be independent.

The women’s movement wants to smash the walls that have kept us from fully participating in the workforce and from participating in Australian society in every way possible. That means having the ability to control our own bodies because it is a precondition for being able to fight for and exercise equal rights in all other spheres of life.

Mary Merkenich is a member of the Teacher & ES Alliance, a rank-and-file activist group in the Australian Education Union, and a member of Socialist Alliance.


One thought on “Rally for Abortion Rights: Mary Merkenich

  1. Pingback: Rally for Abortion Rights – Speeches | Campaign for Women's Reproductive Rights

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