Making the personal political
ALP Election Leaflet 1974
Reproduced by kind permission of Bruce Petty
Michelle Arrow, The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia, NewSouth Publishing, 2019.
How should we characterise the 1970s in Australia? Was it a time of missed opportunities, the counterpoint to the big economic reforms of the 1980s, as in Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty narrative?
Michelle Arrow presents an equally confident but contrasting overarching theme: this was the decade when the personal became political, when traditional boundaries between the public and private were successful challenged, never to be reinstated. The women’s movement succeeded in expanding the realm of the political to encompass what was previously concealed behind the garden gate and the gay and lesbian movements did likewise. Speaking from personal experience challenged existing narratives; it meant politics took on new forms such as consciousness-raising or ‘coming out’. What had been regarded as personal problems were now shared and became the basis for new political identities.
Arrow begins with and returns later to the ‘public intimacies’ presented in the submissions to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships established by the Whitlam Government in 1974. The submissions revealed dimensions of personal experience long hidden from public view, including abortion, domestic violence and contraception (whether voluntary or forced upon Aboriginal women). Gay and lesbian activists wrote submissions, despite the Catholic Church challenging the Commission’s power to enquire into homosexual conduct or behaviour. As Senator Pat Giles once commented, the word ‘submission’ took on new meaning for women in the 1970s and Arrow makes exceptionally good use of the submissions found in the National Archives repository in Western Sydney.
Once she has established the overarching theme of the book, Arrow provides lively accounts of how it played out. She begins with the arrival of ‘celebrity liberationists’ at the start of the decade (Germaine Greer and Dennis Altman) and concludes with the Anzac Day marches of Women against Rape in War in 1983. In between come the discovery of the prevalence of violence in the home, the founding of refuges and other women’s services, the Whitlam Government, the national consciousness-raising of International Women’s Year, the advent of Mardi Gras and also backlash.
There is much to like about this reading of the 1970s and its overview of how gender and sexuality took on new political meanings, challenging the gender stereotypes of the past. What is missing? As a political scientist I was disappointed that, given its centrality to the book, there was not some interrogation of the concept of public and private, the ‘foundational concept of modern political culture’ (p. 7). The drawing of boundaries between these spheres has been more complex than presented here and encompasses the place of civil society – for example, the transition of political parties from private to public entities subject to judicial scrutiny. There is also the important question of the market. As mentioned later in the book, 1975 was not only International Women’s Year but also the year when Milton Friedman toured Australia to promote a redrawing of the boundary between public and private through the rolling back of public regulation of the market.
As a generalist history aimed at engaging the reader there are inevitable problems of detail. There is (quite rightly) a lot about Elizabeth Reid as a key figure in translating women’s liberation into new policy agendas. However, she is referred to as ‘the first women’s advisor to a national leader anywhere in the world’ (p. 12). Quite apart from the spelling (the Whitlam Government only had ‘advisers’), the claim seems slightly overblown. While Reid may have been the first with the formal title of ‘women’s adviser’ to a head of government, in the US, President John F. Kennedy had been elected more than a decade before with commitments to equal pay and equal opportunity. Esther Peterson, who he appointed as Director of the Women’s Bureau and Assistant Secretary of Labor, was described as his women’s adviser. She instigated his Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and held hearings across the country on pay equity, childcare and gender and race discrimination.
As an historian of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), I was also slightly put out by Women’s Liberation being given the sole credit for the discovery of partner violence: ‘Women’s Liberation identified and named this violence in the public sphere and created women’s refuges as safe spaces’ (p. 70). The pivotal Women’s Commission of 1973, where large numbers of women unexpectedly and painfully spoke out about the violence of male partners and its effects on their lives, was co-sponsored by WEL. Then, WEL members began establishing refuges ‘from Port Pirie to Portland and Hervey Bay’ (see Making Women Count, pp. 65–67).
Another rather too easy generalisation is that: ‘mainstream feminism today is often still guilty of privileging the concerns of middle-class women, instead of focusing on building broad, intersectional coalitions’(p. 9). One could just as easily argue that this is exactly what WomenSpeak and its successor, the Equality Rights Alliance have been doing since the Howard Government established corporatist structures in 1999 – lobbying for a decade for the right to autonomy of voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and immigrant and refugee women; and then supporting and engaging in coalition building with the representative bodies finally achieved (currently the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance and the Harmony Alliance).
A final comment on detail –a very dismissive comment is quoted (p. 173) on the Fraser Government’s cashing out of the dependent child tax rebate and paying it instead to mothers as family allowances. Yes, there was a lamentable failure to index family allowances. However, a survey commissioned by the Office of the Status of Women in 1985, in an unsuccessful attempt to ward off their abolition, found that 90 per cent of mothers still said family allowances were important to them and 40 per cent said it was their only source of independent income.
To return to the general, Arrow’s framing of the decade works well, including the take-away message at the end. She suggests that too often in today’s online feminist spaces personal stories combine with personal solutions. Instead she says we should go back to the 1970 publication that introduced the slogan ‘the personal is political’. While Carol Hanisch emphasised that personal problems were political problems, she also stressed that there were no personal solutions: ‘only collective action for a collective solution’. As Arrow says, this remains an important message in the digital era.
Marian Sawer AO is an emeritus professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University