It’s Time: Writing a Feminist History of 1970s Australia

Michelle Arrow reflects on the process for writing a book that takes in a decade of rich social, cultural and feminist history: the 1970s. 

Decades are artificial constructs, as anyone who has been to a ‘fifties fair’ or ‘sixties party’ would surely know. Over time, our culture whittles the popular memory of particular decades down to a narrow set of signifiers: leg warmers and greedy stockbrokers in braces for the 1980s; desperate housewives and men in grey flannel suits for the 1950s. Historians stress that history doesn’t ‘happen’ in neat, ten-year blocks.

Yet many of us would agree that the concept of the decade remains useful for writing and teaching history. Decades are useful shorthand. They can neatly encapsulate a set of social, cultural and political changes (‘it was the sixties, man!’). Decades are often used to structure longer historical accounts. They also form manageable frames for books. In Australia, the postwar period has been apprehended a series of decade studies: John Murphy’s Imagining the Fifties, Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett’s Seizures of Youth: ‘The Sixties’ and Australia, Frank Crowley’s Tough Times: Australia in the Seventies, Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty: The Story of the 1980s, and Frank Bongiorno’s prize-winning The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia, while journalist George Megalogenis covered the 1990s and 2000s with The Longest Decade.

Each of these histories are diverse and broad-ranging in their scope, but most share a focus on a national, rather than a local or transnational, frame. This has produced a set of histories which have are largely (but not exclusively) preoccupied with federal politics, national affairs, and the economy. With the exception of Bassett, these histories have also largely been produced by men. This is not to say that these historians have disregarded gender as a category of analysis. Murphy’s Imagining the Fifties pays equal attention to the private lives of men and women in the 1950s as it does to the public world of politics and ideology. Bongiorno’s The Eighties takes stock of the enormous economic and political changes Australia experienced in the 1980s, but it also offers (among other insights) a thoughtful examination of the ways mateship and conceptions of masculinity impacted on Australian public life in the 1980s. Bongiorno’s book charts the ways that economic growth and reform became the primary measure of national progress during the decade. This economic framing of nation shaped Kelly and Megalogenis’s journalistic histories of the 1980s and 1990s (written in 1992 and 2006 respectively). These books focused on the drama of economic reform. This economic understanding of the 1980s has, in turn, shaped our perception of the 1970s: as a gloomy decade of economic downturn and political chaos, as the problem for which the policy prescriptions of the 1980s were the solution.

The majority of these decade-oriented histories do not take gender as a primary category of analysis. When I set out to write The Seventies: The Personal, The Political and the Making of Modern Australia, I wanted to write a national history, centred on a single decade, through the lens of gender and sexuality. Considered in this light, the history of the 1970s looks different: a decade which challenged longstanding ideas about citizenship and national belonging. It enlarges our perspective of the decade beyond one of political and economic dysfunction. In The Seventies, I argue that in the 1970s, the boundary between what was ‘public’ and what was ‘private’ began to change, a shift captured in the popular women’s liberation slogan, ‘the personal is political’. Women’s liberation and the gay and lesbian rights movement criticised the idea that things that happened in private were beyond the realm of politics. Establishing women’s refuges, and demanding that governments fund them, is one of the best examples of this politics in action, but it also forced other issues onto the political agenda, including abortion law reform, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the provision of child care. These issues, activists insisted, were not individual problems for individuals to solve; they were structural, social, and deeply political.

The Seventies examines not just how activists made the personal political, but it also considers how this idea reshaped Australian politics, in the 1970s and beyond. It also investigates how, by the late 1970s, the emerging orthodoxies of competition and deregulation changed the framework of possibility for revolutionary gender and sexual politics. It also considers how ideas like ‘the personal is political’ were taken up by those who sought to challenge the new social movements, like the members of the anti-feminist group Women Who Want to Be Women.

Of course, many of these subjects have extensive historiographies, and The Seventies builds on this work. The women’s and gay and lesbian movements of the late twentieth century have been the subject of many studies, including Verity Burgmann’s Power, Profit and Protest, Graham Willett’s Living Out Loud, Robert Reynolds’ From Camp to Queer, and Rebecca Jennings’ Unnamed Desires. As yet, there is no single-volume, comprehensive history of the Australian women’s movement in the 1970s, though several histories consider the decade at length, including Marilyn Lake’s Getting Equal, Gisela Kaplan’s The Meagre Harvest, Susan Magarey’s Dangerous Ideas, and Marian Sawer and Gail Radford’s Making Women Count, among many others. What I aimed to do in The Seventies was to draw the histories of these movements together and to locate them within a national frame. Placing these movements alongside each other, in the same frame, can raise new questions (about shared strategies, for example) or highlight similarities (such as the fraught ways in which ‘privacy’ could reinforce oppression for both women and homosexual men). It can also show the ways that these movements impacted on Australian society more broadly, and how the language and ideas of progressive social movements might also be adopted (and adapted) by their conservative opponents.

While much of the historiography covering the 1970s in Australia focuses on the emergence of challenging ideas about gender and sexuality, what was new about my approach was that I was framing this a history as a trade book, for a broader audience. The popular market for history in Australia is dominated by military history, at least if the front tables of bookshops are anything to go by. (Historian Claire Wright refers to this as the ‘dick table’, full of books by and about men.) In trying to reach a broader audience, I needed to find ways to narrate historical moments to underline my arguments, focus on individuals who could help my readers relate to the past, and find stories that could illuminate the book’s key themes. For example, Elizabeth Reid is a key figure in the book because she personified the challenges faced by the women’s movement as it sought to engage with the state to achieve positive reforms for women. The Royal Commission on Human Relationships is at the heart of the book, because it acted as a stage on which Australians could make a case for national inclusion on the basis of their distinctive needs and rights, in the middle of a decade of exciting change and unsettling possibilities.

The seventies is a tricky decade for historians: overwhelmed with mythology and nostalgia, an historian who ‘wasn’t there’ risks the easy accusation that they just ‘don’t understand’ the era. On the other hand, the intense identification many feel with the 1970s is a form of recognition: I’m hoping to build on that by showing them something new, to challenge some of the accepted wisdom, and to raise some new questions. As we grapple with the legacies and unfinished business of the social movements of the 1970s, it is important that we understand their complex history, and their successes and failures. It is my hope that The Seventies can offer a new perspective on this decade in public debate, building on the work of feminist historians over many years.


Michelle Arrow is an Associate Professor in Modern History at Macquarie University. In 2014, together with Catherine Freyne and Timothy Nicastri, Michelle won the NSW Premier’s Multimedia History Prize for the radio feature “Public Intimacies: the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, 1974-1977.” Michelle researched in Elizabeth Reid’s papers as part of her 2016 Fellowship at the National Library of Australia.

Follow Michelle on Twitter @MichelleArrow1.

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