How the personal became political

Chelsea Barnett reviews a recent symposium re-assessing Australia’s revolutions in gender and sexuality in the 1970s.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, it was a great pleasure to spend two days at the Australian National University for a symposium exploring Australia’s revolutions in gender and sexuality. Organised by Professor Angela Woollacott and Associate Professor Michelle Arrow, and supported by the ANU Gender Institute, the symposium aimed to focus on the 1970s, so commonly remembered as a time of widespread social, political, and cultural transformation. But what was the scope and lived experience of these changes? Did the legislative reform of the era truly reflect the demands made around issues of gender and race? And how was it that the personal became political in this moment? Bringing together historians, activists, policy-makers and filmmakers, the symposium enabled lively discussion as these questions were interrogated.

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L-R: Sarah Dowse, Elizabeth Reid, and Lyndall Ryan. Photo by Michelle Arrow.

The keynote address was delivered by Elizabeth Reid AO, appointed the world’s first advisor on women’s affairs to a head of government under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1973. Reid reflected on her own feminist awakening, her experiences as a member of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and her time working with Whitlam. She noted that sexism was and is a “crippling constancy” in the lives of women and reminded us that feminism has shown that the distinction between the personal and the political does not exist, that ostensibly “private” spaces like the bathroom and the bedroom have been, for many women, the site of violence and regulation. Listening to Reid’s address, I found myself especially aware of the difficulties second-wave feminists and activists faced in bringing women’s issues to the forefront of the public agenda, particularly in contrast to today, when politicians and celebrities are openly and even aggressively queried about their feminist credentials. It was, for me, a timely reminder of the debt that today’s feminists owe to Reid and other women of her ilk.

The mark of a strong symposium is surely the difficulty in choosing between fascinating panels running simultaneously, and this was certainly the case across the two days. In the first session following the keynote address, Carroll Pursell spoke about the “back-to-earth” movements in the Australian 1970s, in which men and women escaped city life by moving to rural estates and living off the land. Entangled with this was a desire to transcend the gendered division of labour, although Pursell reminded us that men were seen as dominating the movement. Kerreen Reiger explored birth rights and the explosion of maternal activism in the 1970s, as pregnant women and mothers posed a radical challenge to established institutions and the vested interests of medical professionals.

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Elizabeth Reid: The Women’s Liberation symbol was a talisman that could and would protect us. Photo by Chelsea Barnett.

The first plenary session of the symposium was centred on challenging gendered structures, and the speakers demonstrated the variety of ways this questioning unfolded. Amanda Laugesen revealed the debates that took place around gendered language in the seventies, explaining that Australian feminists embraced campaigns to change language as a means of engendering change. Julie McLeod traced the shifts in education in the decade, as education was a crucial site of feminism, while Georgine Clarsen drew on her own experiences as a mechanic in the seventies to explore the often-overlooked tradeswomen. The slogan “Give a girl a spanner” not only literally encouraged women to become involved in the male-dominated trades but also, Clarsen explained, functioned as a politics of representation and a politics of women’s empowerment.

The final session of the first day reminded us that the interrogation of masculinities remains essential to destabilising men (and masculinity) as “natural” historical agents. My own paper explored the representation of single men in Pix and then Pix/People magazine, which encouraged single men to proudly identify as “male chauvinists” in response to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Bethany Phillips-Peddlesden examined gendered embodiment and claims to political authority in relation to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his wife, Margaret. Nicole Moore introduced us to the only successful defamation case about poetry in Australia, between the poet Dorothy Hewett and her first husband, Lloyd Davies, and in doing so asked questions about the tension between public and private, feminist cultural production, and the limits – if any – of art.

The second day opened with a plenary session on 1970s campaigns for bodily autonomy, and provided an astute reminder of the longstanding – and still ongoing – debates about women’s bodies. Barbara Baird traced the liberalisation of abortion services in the 1970s across the states and territories. Clare Parker pondered whether South Australia’s reformation of both abortion and homosexual laws before any other Australian state was a case of its exceptionalism, before arguing that a wider shift in contemporary cultural and social values produced these reforms. Susan Currie introduced us to the late Dr Janet Irwin (1923-2009), whom Currie described as an “activist doctor” for her work as Director of Health Services at the University of Queensland in the 1970s.

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Angela Woollacott and the Women’s Lib protests of the 1970s. Photo by Chelsea Barnett.

Interesting and important research continued as the day progressed. Emma Sarian explored the ways in which the Women’s Liberation Movement and human rights activists engaged with the concept of “rights” in the 1970s, while Kim Rubenstein drew on her work in The Trailblazing Women and the Law Project to explain that in choosing legal careers, women were able to navigate and perhaps even control legal structures. Angela Woollacott examined the relationship between South Australian premier Don Dunstan and Deborah McCulloch, whom Dunstan appointed as his women’s adviser in 1976. The next session saw Susan Magarey examine the beauty-based roots of the Women’s Liberation Movement, as Magarey looked at American protests against the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968 and then protests against the Miss Fresher pageant at the University of Adelaide in 1970. Evan Smith looked at ASIO’s monitoring of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, which reveal not only the actions of those being watched, but the state’s attitude to Women’s Lib, while Kate Laing looked at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the concept of “peace” in the 1970s.

The second day closed with a plenary session on enacting and remembering liberation. Jon Piccini examined the meaning of liberation in Dennis Altman’s Homosexual, first published in America in 1971. For Altman, Piccini argued, liberation meant not the absence of oppression, but revolution. Carolyn D’Cruz reminded us of the philosophy department’s strike at the University of Sydney in 1973, caused by a proposal to teach a course entitled “Philosophical aspects of Feminist thought.” The session ended with filmmaker Catherine Dwyer, who has previously worked on She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a documentary tracing the American Women’s Liberation Movement. Dwyer is now attempting to raise money to make Brazen Hussies, a documentary that would explore Women’s Liberation in the Australian context. Treating us to a rough-cut first trailer of the project, it was an energising and inspiring way to close the symposium.

Congratulations and thanks to the convenors and the ANU Gender Institute for what was an amazing and insightful two days. The symposium assured me that Australian feminist history continues to be a strong and complex field of inquiry. It was exciting to see so many Ph.D. students and ECRs have their work embraced by established academics and second-wave feminist activists, suggesting that this moment in Australian history remains rich with potential. Moreover, the attention that all the presenters brought to the campaigns, protests, and reforms of the 1970s showed not only how much feminism in this country has achieved, but also how much work there is still to do.


Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 6.37.15 PMChelsea Barnett is based at Macquarie University, where she received her Ph.D. in 2016. Her research interests include Australian twentieth-century history, masculinities, gender history, and the history of popular culture. She is co-convenor of the 2017 AWHN Symposium “Symbiotic Histories,” held in conjunction with the Australian Historical Association’s national conference.

Follow Chelsea on Twitter @chelseambarnett

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