Q & A with Michelle Arrow

*Lyndon Megarrity talks to Michelle Arrow about her newly released book – The Seventies: The Personal, the Political and the Making of Modern Australia

How did working with archival sources influence the shape and direction of your narrative? 

The initial idea for the book came from finding the records of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the (sadly, now defunct) Frederick Watson Fellowship from the National Archives of Australia, which meant that I was able to spend a semester reading all the submissions made to the Royal Commission, as well as the research reports, transcripts and other records generated by the Commission. These records offered a different perspective on the 1970s than you might get from focusing on the archives of social movements, or of the Whitlam government itself: they were a record of the ways in which some people (mostly non-activists) were attempting to come to terms with the social and cultural changes of the decade. I wanted to produce an account of the decade which amplified some of these voices, alongside the better-known activist voices. The Royal Commission records also raised questions for me about the ways that some people actively challenged or undermined the emerging social norms, especially around questions like abortion. So the archival sources encouraged me to look at conservative and anti-feminist groups more broadly, as well as the better-studied activists in the women’s and gay and lesbian movements.

Your book shows that 1970s feminist activism helped bring about unprecedented government attention within Australia to the issues of childcare, women’s refuges and female participation in the workforce, even if policy development and adequate funding were lacking. What was it about the historical context of the 1970s which made the wider canvassing of the state’s role in women’s issues more pressing and vital?

There are a couple of aspects to this. Firstly, women’s workforce participation had been growing since the 1960s, but the structures that might support this participation like childcare (and equal pay) were yet to catch up. So there is a significant constituency of women who have urgent policy needs which are not being addressed by government. Second, the emergence of the women’s movement in the late 1960s, with a compelling analysis of women’s problems (i.e. that the dissatisfaction and unhappiness many women experienced was not theirs alone, but produced by capitalism and patriarchy), gave women a new language, and a new way to understand their problems. The Women’s Electoral Lobby (a more moderate, reformist group than women’s liberation) intervened directly in the 1972 Federal election, rating political candidates on their views on women and the issues women were concerned about, and this had a significant impact on the 1972 election in that it identified women as a distinctive electoral constituency, rather than as adjuncts to their husbands. I was fascinated, reading election ephemera at the National Library of Australia, to trace the ways that the political parties addressed women during this period. In the late 1960s, very few messages from any party were addressed directly to women. The Liberals sometimes addressed women as mothers and wives, if at all, but by 1974, the ALP had produced a four-page pamphlet outlining its achievements for women. It’s a remarkable change in a few years.

One of the themes explored in your book is the ‘personal is the political’. Your work chronicles a growing sense of confidence within marginalised groups that their voices and their private concerns should be heard by the wider community. How did the increased diversity and assertiveness of these groups within the feminist movement affect the way in which official policies for women were developed and perceived?

I guess the first thing to say is that the ethos of ‘the personal is political’ challenged the idea that these problems or concerns were, in fact, ‘private’ – they were suggesting that they were produced by an idea of politics which separated public and private rather than seeing them as integrated. That said, one of the challenges of devising policy for women in the 1970s was ‘which policies?’, but also ‘which women?’ Elizabeth Reid, who was in charge of developing the Whitlam government’s policy for women, was at pains to stress that she could not represent all women (because, as she pointed out, she was white and middle class) and she worked hard to show that she was listening to lots of different groups of women. Child care was the policy she settled on because it seemed to promise the most wide-ranging impact, but for several reasons (a better-organised preschool lobby, politicians who didn’t understand the difference between preschool and long day care), child care policy as it emerged under Whitlam didn’t quite deliver uniform outcomes for all women – migrant and working class women did not fare as well as some other groups, at least initially.

You had access to some great magazines, journals and newsletters associated with both the feminist movement and the gay and lesbian movement. What was the contribution of such periodicals to the nature of transforming government and community attitudes towards socially progressive issues?

The periodicals produced by social movements (like CAMP Ink, Vashti’s Voice, and Mejane) are a terrific window onto the ways that people within the movements were working through the big questions their movements were grappling with. It’s hard to know who precisely was reading these kinds of periodicals, but they can help us understand the ways activists were thinking about issues and how they were then communicating these issues to a broader public. However, coverage of feminist and gay and lesbian issues in large circulation magazines and newspapers – especially The Australian Women’s Weekly and Cleo – was breaking new ground in the 1970s. Cleo ran articles about domestic violence, contraception and rape alongside fashion and cooking stories; the Australian Women’s Weekly ran a number of sympathetic and engaged articles on the women’s movement (as well as some that were less sympathetic, a strain that can also be traced in reader letters to the magazine). These publications were clearly speaking to audiences beyond social movements, and their coverage of women’s issues, in particular, demonstrates the ways the women’s movement struck a chord for women who would never have described themselves as women’s liberationists.

Alongside a sense of optimism within the feminist movement about the transformative power of collaborating with the state on women’s policies, there was also a fear among elements of the feminist movement that their ideals would be blurred as a result of being part of the government system. To what extent were their fears legitimate?

This is a great question! Historians like Marilyn Lake have demonstrated that one of the things that has made the Australian women’s movement distinctive was its relationship to the state, its willingness to engage with the state and make claims for rights and protections. The convergence between the election of the Whitlam government and an active and energised women’s movement initially promised real gains for women, though of course they came with trade-offs – Elizabeth Reid, Whitlam’s women’s affairs advisor, was keenly aware of the need to balance the demands of the women’s movement on government with women’s broader interests (this was the source of the tension between Reid and the women’s movement over International Women’s Year funding, too). I think working closely with government did achieve concrete gains for many women. There were things that the women’s movement could not deliver on their own, like widespread childcare services, or the ongoing funding of women’s refuges – and the movement made persuasive arguments for state funding of those services. Yet the kinds of arguments that worked changed as governments (and the overall state of the economy) changed: making arguments for women to access childcare on the grounds that such care would increase their efficiency or reduce their ‘burden’ on the taxpayer, for example, set uncomfortable precedents that might prove difficult to undo later on.

What was the legacy of Elizabeth Reid as women’s affairs advisor to Gough Whitlam?

Elizabeth Reid was a crucial figure in this history, because she dramatised the perils and opportunities inherent in the feminist ‘fandango’ with the state so nicely. When you’re writing a trade history, you are especially alert to these kinds of figures, who can connect a reader with the broader issues at play. I think Reid’s legacy is that she was an idealist and a pragmatist at the same time – she was passionately motivated to make a difference in the lives of Australian women, but alert to how difficult it would be to create reforms that would, in fact, make a difference for women. She established a precedent for the group of women called ‘femocrats’ – feminist bureaucrats who worked inside state and federal governments to affect feminist reforms, with considerable success. Perhaps now that there are considerable numbers of women in parliament, the idea of a women’s advisor is less important. But when she was first appointed advisor to Whitlam, there were no women in federal parliament. Her most important legacy was to remind politicians that women were a distinctive voting constituency with particular needs, and to give voice to women’s issues when there were no other women around to articulate them.

In the seventies, there was an assumption among many feminist and gay/lesbian activists that public protest and confrontation could transform community views. Were they correct?

Again, this is a really interesting question. If anything, I think the book shows that transforming community views on issues takes decades – but getting them on the political and cultural agenda is the first step. Perhaps considering two different (and in their own way, confrontational) protest events might help answer this question. First, the Women and Violence forum in 1974. This forum was organised by Sydney Women’s Liberation after the success of a similar event, the Women’s Commission, the previous year. The Women and Violence forum – a kind of mass consciousness raising event – really put the issue of violence against women on the agenda of the women’s movement, and it helped drive the creation of the first women’s refuge in Australia, which in turn changed the conversation around domestic violence, in particular. However, in the case of the Women Against Rape (WAR) protests in the early 1980s, I suspect the protest had an effect opposite to what was intended. These protests, in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, on Anzac Day, highlighted the impact of rape in war – the protesters, in a way, were implying that some of the soldiers who marched had themselves raped women. In the book I suggest that the WAR protests marked a limit point of the impact of personal politics in public life – Australians embraced the Anzac revival with even more fervour after these protests than they did before. Of course, the protests themselves were not the only reason for this, but I think they played a part. Yet in the case of the gay and lesbian movement, courting sympathetic public opinion by stressing ‘ordinariness’, as gay and lesbian activists did in the early 1970s, does seem to have started a slow transformation of attitudes that we saw culminate in the successful postal survey on same sex marriage.

Can the Commonwealth and State Governments still learn something from the way in which Whitlam, and to a lesser extent Fraser, dealt with the social reforms highlighted in The Seventies?  

 I think what is most remarkable, looking back at the policy work in the 1970s on issues relating to women in particular, is how difficult it was to make ‘women’s issues’ fit into pre-existing bureaucratic structures and funding envelopes. Take for example the funding for women’s refuges. The group running Elsie applied for special funding for International Women’s Year, which they did not receive. The application was referred onto at least three other government departments, none of whom saw it as their responsibility, before women’s refuges were finally given special Commonwealth funding in late 1975. The rigidity of policy structures made them ill-equipped to respond to these new claims on state funding.

The other aspect of the Whitlam period that resonates today is the use of the Royal Commission as a response to social change or policy problems. The Royal Commission on Human Relationships was in part, a ‘consolation prize’ to the women’s movement for the parliament’s failure to achieve abortion law reform. Perhaps it’s greatest value – apart from the research it generated on a range of issues, which in turn informed policy in many different and hard to trace ways – was the sense it conveyed that the government was listening to people and was willing to hear their problems, and take them seriously. The Royal Commission, as a body that is of the state but not of party politics, has proven to be a potent site for public discussion of difficult and intractable social issues. While the recommendations Royal Commissions make are not always taken up by government, they have been valuable for the attention they have brought to complex problems like child sexual abuse or Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Associate Professor Michelle Arrow is a historian at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her research interests include the history of popular culture in Australia, feminist history, and representations of history in the media, especially television. You can also hear Michelle discussing her book on ABC Radio Late Night Live.

 

 

 

 

*Dr Lyndon Megarrity completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer. 

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