Women's status in Australia is paradoxical.

Visit any small store: Men are making sales while "girls" make coffee and answer phones. Women still are fired for being pregnant. The "ceiling" that keeps women from rising to corporate board rooms is more cement than glass.

On the other hand, Australian women won the right to vote before American women. Women make up 12 percent of Parliament, vs. 6 percent of Congress. Women here have had equal-pay legislation and federally subsidized day care for years.

Anne Summers, special adviser to the prime minister, attributes such progress on the national-legislation front to Australia's traditional dependence on government.

"When we want something changed," she says, "we expect government to do it. So Australian women have made the same sort of push onto government that American women have made in ... private employment."

Australian feminists also may be more pragmatic than those in the States - or perhaps they just learn from history. About the time America's Equal Rights Amendment drive was dying, Australia's Sex Discrimination Act was passed. As Summers sees it, US feminists refused to compromise, and it cost them.

There was similar opposition to the proposals in both countries, Summers says. But Australian proponents took such pragmatic steps as exempting the insurance industry (a strong ERA opponent in the US) as well as the Australian Defence Forces in the case of combat. Australia's Act passed in 1983, and today, some of the exemptions have been removed. The military now says it is willing to permit women to occupy jobs that are "combat-related."

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