Jacquelyn Baker interviews Isobelle Barrett Meyering about her new book, Feminism and the Making of a Child Rights Revolution, 1969-1979, which examines the way in which women’s liberationists spearheaded the new wave of child rights activism in the 1970s.
Congratulations on the publication of your book, Isobelle! It makes a significant contribution to the study of the Australian second-wave women’s movement as feminists’ concerns for children’s rights have often been underrepresented in historical accounts. Why do you think this area has thus far been overlooked?
It seems to me that there are a few reasons for this neglect. At the time, feminist demands for childcare, safe contraception and abortion, along with their critical assessments of motherhood as an obstacle to women’s autonomy, saw them accused of being anti-mother and anti-child. While this caricature did not go unchallenged, it has cast a long shadow over the movement and feminist memory itself. One of things I hope this book does is to offer a corrective to this stereotype – indeed, a key point I make is that it was this very ambivalence about motherhood that prompted feminists to query adults’ power over children, including in the context of the nuclear family, and to articulate a new, radical vision of children’s liberation. In the introduction to the book, I also suggest that this neglect represents part of a wider ‘feminist amnesia’ regarding the liberationist politics of this period, tied to what historian Susan Magarey, amongst others, has described as the ‘ascendence’ of liberal feminism in subsequent years. Lastly, it’s important to note that it’s not just feminist activism in the name of children’s liberation that has been overlooked. The fact that these concerns haven’t featured prominently in previous accounts of women’s liberation is also telling of the marginal position that children and young people occupy in histories of the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s more generally – which is somewhat surprising given the period is so often described as one of youthful unrest and generational conflict.
Feminism and the Making of a Child Rights Revolution is based on your PhD research. In the interest of shedding light on this process, what was the most challenging aspect of adapting your thesis into a monograph?
Adapting a thesis into a book inevitably means letting go of much of the material you’ve spent years collecting. In the first stages of revising the work, I found this quite difficult – like most people, I was attached to many of the examples I’d unearthed. Once I started the process of paring it back, the opposite became a problem! I cut out too much of the detail and had to remind myself that, while the events and individuals I was discussing were familiar to me, many of my readers would be encountering them for the first time. But I think the hardest part was just maintaining the stamina that this task required – it’s no easy feat bringing new energy to a text that you’ve already spent so much time labouring over. Doing so in the context of the pandemic and, in my case, after taking time out to have a baby, added another element of challenge too, although it also brought a different perspective to the work.
I enjoyed reading the voices of children in your book, but I can imagine that finding these perspectives would have been difficult. Can you explain to our readers how you found the voices of children in the process of your research?
Foregrounding children’s voices where possible was one of my main aims – although it’s fair to say that the book ultimately privileges the experiences of women who saw themselves as advancing an agenda of children’s liberation on behalf of children, an irony that was not lost on activists at the time. While I was researching the topic, I looked out for children’s contributions in feminist newsletters and journals, which were a crucial source for the book more generally, and had some success locating examples of letters, short stories and artworks that had been submitted by young people, especially girls. I also discovered several feminist high school groups, some of whom left behind significant records. In addition, I tried to think more broadly about how I could capture children’s presence within the women’s movement (if not always their voices). I found some great photographs of children at protests and social events, but their presence was also reflected in more mundane sources; for example, grant applications for women’s centres and refuges frequently included funding requests for child care, as well as basic supplies such as nappies and children’s clothing. Together these sources helped me piece together a clearer picture of children and young people’s impact on feminist organising in this period.
Your book considers feminism and child rights activism on a national scale. I appreciated the inclusion of feminist activity in Hobart, Perth and Brisbane, which tend to be underrepresented in national histories of the second-wave women’s movement. I’m curious about whether there were any state-based or local differences in feminists’ approach to children’s liberation that stood out to you or that you were surprised by?
You’re right that many of the initiatives I trace in the book had a local focus. This is, of course, a reflection of the politics of women’s liberation itself – the movement was distinguished, amongst other things, by its commitment to collective action and decentralised forms of power, and this resulted in some notable differences in political focus across the country. Often these were a product of individuals’ interests and skills, rather than ideology. For example, one of my early archival finds was a collection for the Melbourne-based Women’s Movement Children’s Literature Cooperative (later Sugar and Snails Press), the country’s first dedicated feminist children’s publisher. It attracted mothers, teachers and librarians, along with aspiring children’s writers and illustrators, and proved very successful in its early years at obtaining government grants to support its work. No other comparable group emerged elsewhere, although its ‘counter-sexist’ resources were certainly greeted with enthusiasm by activists in other parts of the country. The broader political context in which local women’s liberation groups operated also made a difference. Activists in Queensland, for example, faced a particularly hostile climate under the Bjelke-Petersen Government. The police response to a pamphlet on sex education that was distributed by Brisbane women’s liberationists outside school gates in October 1971 is telling – the group’s post box number was revoked and one member was prosecuted the following year for distributing obscene material. Around the same time, activists in Sydney were also fighting a police investigation following a similar initiative, but no charges were ever laid. These differences did not go unnoticed – indeed, Brisbane activists wrote to their Sydney counterparts reminding them that, while it might not always seem like that way, the situation in New South Wales was significantly better than in Queensland.
Can you explain to our readers what were some of the ways in which feminists and women’s liberationists tried to recognise the agency and autonomy of children?
Recognising children’s agency and autonomy were central to the rights revolution I trace in the book. Women’s liberationists weren’t satisfied with advocating for basic protections for children, but rather argued for their liberation – a central proposition of which was that children could and should be given the opportunity to articulate their own interests and make their own decisions. These principles were put into practice in wide-ranging ways, starting with a commitment to facilitating children’s participation in the movement itself. Feminist mothers brought their children to meetings, conferences and protests, women’s centres were rearranged to include children’s spaces, and children’s representation in the movement was fostered: women encouraged children to speak at conferences and other public events, and actively recruited high school students to the movement. Feminists’ commitment to recognising children’s agency and autonomy was also reflected more broadly in the movement’s political platforms and campaigns. Children’s bodily autonomy was, for example, a central theme in campaigns around sex education and teenage girls’ reproductive rights; likewise, it informed the work of activists in women’s refuges and rape crisis centres. Finally, these principles inspired many feminists to reflect deeply on their relationships with their own and other women’s children, and many went to considerable lengths to apply them in their personal lives, for example, pursuing communal living arrangements that gave their children more personal freedom. These efforts weren’t always successful, but feminists’ aspiration to recognise children’s agency and autonomy is unmistakable.
In your conclusion you point to contemporary children’s activism, such as the School Strike 4 Climate, campaigns to defend the Safe Schools Program— an important precursor to more recent mobilisations around the rights of LGBTQI students—and the role Indigenous young people played in exposing abuse in the juvenile justice system, which shows that children and young people are politically savvy and are active participants in social and political activism. In looking to children’s rights activism of the past, how can we better recognise the autonomy and agency of children and young people in the present?
I think there are a few valuable insights we can draw from the period I examine in my book. First, it’s clear that children and young people’s demands for a greater say in decision-making – whether that be in formal politics or in the institutions that govern their everyday lives, such as schools – are not new; nor, for that matter, are conservative responses that characterise their social and political activism as naïve or the product of adult manipulation. These respective positions and the assumptions about children’s capacity that underpin them have a longer history. Being aware of this legacy can, in turn, help us better understand the different interests at stake in more recent debates about their political participation. Second, while assertions of adult manipulation are often simply a means of dismissing children and young people’s demands, we also need to acknowledge that their opportunities to take political action are inevitably shaped by their wider context. The eruption of a range of social movements in the late 1960s and 1970s provided new openings for at least some children and young people to assert their own political agendas, but to do so, they often had to rely on support from sympathetic adults, including parents and teachers. Such support brought its own challenges; as I’ve already hinted, women’s liberationists and other radicals often still found themselves speaking on children and young people’s behalf. These tensions are not easily resolved, but one crucial insight we might draw from the era’s campaigns is that they are better recognised than ignored.
If there was one lesson or takeaway that you would like policy-makers to walk away with after reading your book, what would it be?
Given women’s liberationists’ deep scepticism about the politics of ‘reformism’, it seems somewhat incongruous to even be discussing policy implications! But of course, women’s liberation did have a significant impact on a wide range of social reforms in the 1970s, from education and health to homelessness and welfare policy – and while many activists had significant reservations about state co-option of their agendas, others went on to exert significant influence as ‘femocrats’ working ‘inside’ the system. So, while the book mainly deals with activist campaigns and initiatives that looked beyond the state, the history I trace does attest to the significant impact that grassroots activism can have on policy reform – and the innovative solutions that can result when funding is made available for local, community-led initiatives, which is certainly one important lesson from this period. More broadly, I think the book reinforces the need for those working in the children’s rights space to continue to push for policies that more fully recognise children’s autonomy and agency. Since the late 1980s, children’s ‘participation’ rights have been increasingly acknowledged at both the level of international law and in the practices of a wide range of government agencies and non-government organisations. In many ways, these ideas have their origins in radicals’ calls for children’s liberation in the 1970s, albeit in moderated form. But while children’s participation rights have gained more mainstream acceptance over time, we still have a long way to go in putting them into practice. Policy-makers – and those seeking to influence them – have an important role to play here in ensuring this concept is embedded in their work and applied in meaningful ways.