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Reaching for Health

Reaching for Health: The Australian women's health movement and public policy

Gwendolyn Gray Jamieson
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Reaching for Health
    Book Description:

    The women's health movement shocked and scandalised when it burst into Australian politics in the early 1970s. It cast the light of day onto taboo subjects such as sexual assault, abortion and domestic violence, provoking outrage and condemnation. Some of the services women created for themselves were subjected to police raids; sex education material was branded 'indecent'. Moreover, women dared to criticise revered institutions, such as the medical system. Yet for all its perceived radicalism, the movement was part of a much broader and relatively conventional international health reform push,  which included the 'new' public health movement, the community health centre movement and, in Australia, the Aboriginal health movement, all of which were critical of the way medical systems had been organised during the 20th century. The women who joined the movement came from diverse backgrounds and included immigrant and refugee women, Aboriginal women and Anglo women. Initially, groups worked separately for the most part but as time went on, they found ways to cooperate and collaborate. This book presents an account of the ideas, the diverse and shared efforts and the enduring hard work of women's health activists, drawn together in one volume for the first time. This relentless activism gradually had an impact on public policy and slowly brought forth major attitudinal changes. The book also identifies the opportunities for health reform that were created along the way, opportunities which deserve to be more fully embraced.

    eISBN: 978-1-921862-68-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    When the womenʹs health movement burst onto the Australian political scene as part of the resurgent womenʹs movement, resentment about social arrangements was intense. Women knew how it felt to be trivialised, disbelieved and dismissed. They had experienced frustration, indignity and stigmatisation in their daily lives. For many, encounters with the health system were unsatisfactory and often humiliating and traumatising. In the early 1970s, the gatherings organised by mobilising feminists provided an opportunity for women to ventilate their concerns, often for the first time. The gender order would never be quite the same again.

    At a packed public ʹspeak-outʹ organised...

  7. 1. Concepts, Concerns, Critiques
    (pp. 23-56)

    The driving ideas and principles underpinning the Australian womenʹs health movement have remained remarkably stable over time, which is counterintuitive given that the movement has always included women with a range of perspectives. As Stevens (1995:26) has argued, the context of the early years was not ʹquiet conformity to an overarching ideologyʹ but rather a time of ʹgreat turbulence in the development of new ideas, forms of organisation and in the ways in which women related to each otherʹ. Ideas were developed, changed and reformulated in line with experience and changing circumstances. For example, among those setting up early centres...

  8. 2. With Only Their Bare Hands
    (pp. 57-88)

    The Australian womenʹs health movement embarked on a journey of discovery in the early 1970s, knowing little more than that the existing system was causing deep pain and was not meeting womenʹs needs. Members had scarcely any money and often knew little about health, the health system or how government worked. However, as they listened to each otherʹs experiences and formulated their critiques, they developed two aims: first, they wanted to change the power relations of society that placed women in a vulnerable, subordinate position, and second, they wanted to support the women they were hearing from, many of whom...

  9. 3. Infrastructure Expansion: 1980s onwards
    (pp. 89-126)

    The two decades after the fall of the Whitlam Government can be seen as the high point of the womenʹs health movement. A momentum had been generated that even unenthusiastic governments could not afford to ignore. The 1980s in particular was a period of intense policy development as the political advocacy of the previous decade began to bear fruit. Inquiries into womenʹs health were held in most States and Territories and all produced womenʹs health policies, plans or strategies. Similarly, in several jurisdictions, the first policies in relation to domestic violence and sexual assault were formulated. All governments set up...

  10. 4. Group Proliferation and Formal Networks
    (pp. 127-154)

    Like the womenʹs movement, which has been described as ʹbroad-basedʹ and ʹsomewhat proteanʹ, ʹloosely made up of many disparate partsʹ (Dowse 1988:207), the womenʹs health movement has always encompassed groups with different views and priorities. From the 1980s onwards, however, it became even more diverse as groups proliferated and the movement took on the appearance of a variegated array of assemblages, some of them tiny. Most of the new health groups were concerned with specific issues, such as maternity services or breast cancer treatment, but some focused on the health of particular groups, such as women with disabilities or sex...

  11. 5. Working Together for Health
    (pp. 155-178)

    The value of a collaborative approach to health care, pioneered in the community sector,¹ is now widely accepted among public health experts. Collaboration between team members and with outside services and agencies is considered a foundational element of effective, comprehensive primary health care. Collaborative ventures are undertaken between governments and non-governmental agencies and between agencies in the health sector itself. Health workers collaborate with local governments and social and community services, including housing, income security, child services and services responsible for safety from violence (Keleher 2001:59). Partnerships between government, non-governmental agencies and communities are now considered indispensable when addressing health...

  12. 6. Womenʹs Reproductive Rights: Confronting power
    (pp. 179-214)

    No book about the modern womenʹs health movement and its impact on public policy in Australia would be complete without including the work of the maternity-care reform movement and the abortion rights or pro-choice movement. These two groupings have laboured long and hard to establish womenʹs reproductive health rights and to ensure womenʹs access to a full range of options. Both have campaigned for womenʹs rights to control their own bodies and for rights to the information necessary to participate in decisions about their own care. Both have worked to undermine patronising attitudes, to change public opinion and to counter...

  13. 7. Policy Responses: States and Territories
    (pp. 215-244)

    If setting up separate services for women was difficult, the objective of influencing public policy was probably even harder. Consider the circumstances: groups of feminists, easily dismissed as part of a lunatic fringe, spoke about taboo subjects in public and circulated a radical critique of an esteemed institution—namely, the medical-care system. Persuading people of the validity of their claims was not easy. First, issues and concerns had to be identified and articulated. Sometimes a new language had to be developed with which to discuss issues previously hidden from view. Explanations had to be developed about why things were as...

  14. 8. Commonwealth Policy Responses
    (pp. 245-278)

    Commonwealth receptiveness to the claims of the womenʹs health movement has waxed and waned, depending on the political leanings of the party in power. Support under the Whitlam Government was replaced with withdrawal of funding and abnegation of policy responsibility under the Fraser Government. Renewed support during the period of the Hawke and Keating Governments (1983–96) saw womenʹs health again recognised as a legitimate national policy sphere. The next Commonwealth Government, the Liberal-National Coalition led by John Howard (1996–2007), was hostile to feminism and completely withdrew from a womenʹs health policy role in 1997. Labor returned under the...

  15. 9. Explaining Australiaʹs Policy Responses
    (pp. 279-304)

    Having surveyed the history of womenʹs health policy development since the 1970s, it is now time to return to the questions posed in the introduction. Why is Australia the only country to have enacted two national womenʹs health policies? Why is it also the only country to have attempted to establish a national network of community health centres? Why is it a leader, internationally, in developing public responses to domestic violence? And what are the conditions that have come together at different times to create windows of opportunity for structural health reform? As in most areas of public policy, the...

  16. 10. A Glass Half Full…
    (pp. 305-326)

    Australian womenʹs health activists, in their long quest for the changes that will improve womenʹs health—and the health of the whole population—have reason to feel both gratification and disappointment. For although they can lay claim to remarkable achievements, some of the most important goals are yet to be achieved. Moreover, along the way, crucially important opportunities for structural health reform have been missed. In the early days, movement members identified a set of problems, many of them rarely discussed in public, and then worked persistently until community attitudes shifted, decision makers took notice and policy responses were made....

  17. Appendix 1: Time line of key events, 1960–2011
    (pp. 327-340)
  18. Appendix 2: Women interviewed for this book
    (pp. 341-342)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-388)
  20. Index
    (pp. 389-394)