Jacquelyn Baker interviews Michelle Arrow, editor of Women and Whitlam: Revisiting the Revolution (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2023).

 

Congratulations on the publication of this book, Michelle! It is, in part, the product of the Women and Politics Conference, which was held at Old Parliament House in 2019. Can you explain to our readers why the conference was held and what prompted you to put this book together?

Thank you Jacqui! In 2019, the Whitlam Institute, then led by Leanne Smith, worked with their Distinguished Fellow Susan Ryan to create a conference called Revisiting the Revolution: Women and Whitlam. The conference was designed to bring together a group of women who took part in the revolution in women’s social and political rights that happened under the Whitlam government. It was an extraordinary day: women from at least three generations gathered to debate, celebrate and ruminate on what they acheieved in those years, how they did it and what remained to be done.  It was a feisty and impassioned day and the book was an attempt to try and recapture that spirit. In many ways it also turned out to be very timely: a number of the women who were at the conference ended up being front and centre at the Women’s March at Parliament House in 2021. It also seemed to me that as the fiftieth anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government approached, it was time to really take a close look at the scale and the breadth of the  government’s achievements in women’s affairs, and the role that the women’s movement played in securing some of these achievements.

 

Gough Whitlam, c. 1962 (National Archives of Australia)

What is the significance of revisiting former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s legacy now and with an emphasis on women?

Well, for one thing, the 50th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government has prompted a lot of reflection about the Whitlam era, and of course the election of another Labor government in mid-2022 made the anniversary even more significant. It was also striking to me that Whitlam’s achievements in women’s affairs are not always remembered as part of the overall assessment of his government. For example, a book that was released this year  as a ‘reappraisal’ of the Whitlam government had no chapter on women, and only three of its 21 authors were women.  So the idea that women aren’t part of ‘real’ politics still persists. I also think that the election of Albanese in 2022 – in part, due to a direct appeal to women, especially working and middle class women – was a sign that the Labor Party has undergone a significant transformation since the Whitlam era.  In the 1960s, the ALP had a very blokey culture and it was not especially responsive to women: the Whitlam era showed that if the policies were right, women would vote Labor.

 

 

Who do you envision as the audience of Women and Whitlam?

Grahame Garner (University of Queensland)

I hope that the book will be of interest to women activists of all ages, because it contains a lot of useful advice about how change is made. I hope that those interested in Australian history and politics will enjoy it – those people who might not pick up a feminist history book, but who are interested in the Whitlam era and are keen to know more about Australian history, histories of social change, histories of Australian politics.

The other audience I hope it will find is women who lived through that era and who very vividly remember the impact of the Whitlam government on their lives. Doing media for this book, it seems that many women can immediately identify the impact of the Whitlam government on their lives, whether it was the removal of fees for tertiary education, the introduction of the single mothers benefit, the introduction of women’s refuges or the expansion of child care. These were very concrete reforms that did make a difference in many women’s lives, and women still remember them decades later.

 

While editing this book, did you come across anything surprising or unexpected?

This book had a very long gestation, interrupted by Covid lockdowns and a few personal challenges, so I learned never to be surprised by things that happened to this project along the way! However, I think the explosion of women’s anger and rage that burst forth during the women’s marches in 2021 was totally unexpected but completely invigorating: it convinced me that there was a wide audience for a book like this, and made me believe that history had something important to say at that moment.

 

This book centres on the women involved in the women’s movement and the women who benefited from the changes that were made? under the Whitlam government. I enjoyed reading the range of perspectives and experiences detailed by contributors—from public servants to grassroots activists, from artists to researchers. In particular, I appreciated the way Women and Whitlam brings together three generations and creates this sense of an intergenerational dialogue. Was this something that you were conscious of as you were editing this book and what significance do you see in women speaking across generations?

At the 2019 conference, I think the younger activists who attended felt a sense of inheritance, but also, perhaps, they detected a note of blame – that they were implicitly being told that they weren’t as politically active or creating as much change as the activists in the 1970s did. And of course, one of the reasons that they weren’t able to do as much these days as their counterparts in the 1970s, is because we live in a neoliberal era: the contemporary state is resistant, even hostile, to some of the reforms that today’s activists are seeking. The context in which activism takes place today is so different to the 1970s. So I really wanted to draw out some of that intergenerational dialogue between the contributors, which was why it was important to me that we placed Sara Dowse’s chapter in the final section of the book. Sara writes really acutely and passionately about the impact of neoliberalism on the feminist movement, and on Australian governance, and I felt it was important that her perspective be heard and contextualised alongside the voices of younger women.

 

A name that is synonymous (for me, at least) with Whitlam’s is that of Elizabeth Reid, Australia’s first women’s affairs advisor. Her contribution was a standout and provides a lot of important context to the other chapters in the book. Reid—like many other women who took what they had learnt from the Women’s Liberation Movement into their careers in politics and the bureaucracy—was often accused of “selling-out” and becoming a “femocrat”. While I think chapters, like Reid’s, disprove these accusations, this claim of a feminist or activist “selling-out” still persists today. Why do you think this belief continues to be held by some people?

The accusation that Reid was a ‘sellout’ was certainly levelled at her and many other activists in the 1970s, particularly at those who took up opportunities to work within, or for, the government to try and achieve the things they believed in. In Australia, the presence (or possibility) of government funding for activist projects led to concerns that the movement would be ‘co-opted’ and lose control of its activities, but many activists were happy to accept the funding to further their goals. It’s easy to forget what an extraordinary role Reid had – the first women’s adviser to a national leader anywhere in the world – it was unprecedented! And she came from a movement which had a radical critique of capitalism and patriarchy – it is easy to see why some were suspicious of a government-funded ‘women’s adviser’, though to the Whitlam government’s credit, they chose someone who was active in women’s liberation, someone who shared the movement’s radical critique of Australian society.

You’re right to note that we still criticise people who make a move from the political margins towards the centre as ‘sellouts’. I guess it comes down to where people believe change is made. Reid saw a chance to work inside the system and influence the government: I think that can be a risk worth taking, under the right circumstances.

 

In reading the chapters written by women of the first generation, the emphasis on collectivism stood out to me. Can you explain to our readers what collectivism is and why this form of organising was so effective in furthering the aims and rights of women during the 1970s?

Collectivism was so important to women’s liberation because it was an expression of the principles that underpinned the movement: everyone’s perspective was important, sisterhood was powerful and there were no leaders, no stars. Collectives were formed through consciousness-raising and group actions, rather than the decisions of leaders. It also emphasised that everyone had something to contribute: indeed, everyone needed to contribute in order to achieve success. This also gave people a sense of ownership and responsibility within the movement.

 

If there was one lesson or takeaway that you would like readers to walk away from this book with, what would it be?

Many of the women in this book, when they saw a problem that needed addressing, didn’t just observe it and move on, they rolled up their sleeves and worked to fix it. Change is made by the people who turn up – and we need to keep turning up!

Array
Michelle Arrow
Michelle Arrow

Michelle Arrow is professor in Modern History at Macquarie University and a Research Fellow at the Whitlam Institute. She is one of Australia’s leading contemporary historians and has written for The Conversation, Australian Book Review, Inside Story and Sydney Morning Herald. Michelle is the author of Friday on Our Minds: Popular culture in Australia since 1945 and The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia, which was awarded the 2020 Ernest Scott Prize for history and was shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Photo by Effy Alexakis, photowrite

Jacquelyn Baker
Jacquelyn Baker

Dr Jacquelyn Baker has a PhD that traces women’s liberation in Melbourne over time and space. Her research interests include feminism, gender, sexuality and reading groups. She is the Australian Women’s History Network’s regional Victoria representative. Jacquelyn volunteers as an Arts Diary producer and fills presenter on community radio.

Photo by Cable Williams.