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Posted on 16 Apr 2019 in Non-Fiction |

MICHELLE ARROW The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia. Reviewed by Kathy Gollan

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The 1970s in Australia was more than flared jeans and satin pantsuits: in this overview Michelle Arrow charts the decade’s transformation of the social and political landscape.

The seventies was a decade of upheavals in political, economic and industrial life. Michelle Arrow focusses on the social changes, particularly those driven by the women’s liberation and gay and lesbian rights movements. She shows in fascinating detail how quiet lobbying from within the mainstream blossomed into more demanding activism, how reformism became revolution. Then how that energy was co-opted by a sympathetic government and later undermined by hostile forces. It’s a good read.

‘Battered wives’, ‘latchkey kids’, ‘sexual deviants’, ‘backyard abortion’. All are seventies terms that sound hopelessly dated and/or judgemental to 21st-century ears. But the fact that they were being used at all was in itself a breakthrough, as Arrow shows. Subjects were being aired that had never been spoken about in public in Australia.

In this era of reality television and oversharing on social media, it’s hard to imagine a time when the personal experiences and concerns of ordinary people were not considered important enough to be part of public discourse. In 1970s Australia the public sharing of personal stories was a deliberate political act, and the women’s liberation slogan ‘the personal is political’ was genuinely transformative, according to Arrow.

The sixties too, was a decade of activism, but social issues such as censorship, abortion and homosexuality were taken on by (mostly male) civil libertarians. They wanted to strengthen the barrier between public and private, arguing that state or church should have no interest in the personal lives of its citizens as long as their actions didn’t harm others. The slogan ‘the personal is political’ showed the limits of this doctrine of ‘tolerance’:

By 1974, CAMP Ink argued that ‘we do not want “permission” to live and love as we wish – we want it accepted as our RIGHT’. This represented a remarkable shift in rhetoric in just a few short years.

Arrow has accessed a valuable resource in the public forums of the seventies, which provided a platform for personal experiences, for example the 1973 Women’s Commission, the Women and Violence Forum, the 1974 Royal Commission on Human Relationships.  For the first time:

… people who had long been excluded from full participation in public life on their own terms used the platform the Royal Commission offered to point out the limitations placed on their lives by institutions and ideologies like the nuclear family and compulsory heterosexuality.

They were listened to with respect, often for the first time. Arrow traces how magazines like Cleo and even the respectable Australian Women’s Weekly, as well as TV programs like Number 96 and Chequerboard started to tell these same stories. Domestic violence, backyard abortions, domestic drudgery, the secrecy forced on to gays and lesbians – the underbelly of Australian suburban life was shown the light of day. The stories not only gave validity to other people’s experiences, they provided the rationale for the campaigns.

Arrow does a great job of teasing out the complexities of social activism. Access to abortion, for example, was supported even in the seventies by a majority of Australians and opposed only by religious hardliners. It became one of the key priorities of the women’s movement. However, from the point of view of Indigenous women, in the context of forced sterilisations and stolen children, support for abortion was much more equivocal. Refuges for women fleeing domestic violence were another major achievement of women’s activism. But the volunteers who staffed them were, initially at least, well-meaning middle-class women who had difficulty relating to the mainly working-class residents, whose priorities and interests were so different from their own.

Social activism took many forms, and in the seventies activists explored the value of being outrageous. Arrow takes us back to the incendiary speech given by Kate Jennings at an anti-Vietnam demonstration in 1970. She shocked the audience (myself included) by hijacking the proceedings to denounce left-wing men for their sexism. Her explosive injunction to, ‘Go check the figures, how many Australian men have died in Vietnam, and how many women have died from backyard abortions?’ seemed a most inappropriate diversion from the campaign against the war. And yet the truth in her words resonated long after the other speeches were forgotten. Even more provocative were the members of the Women Against Rape group who attempted to join Anzac Day marches carrying the banner ‘in memory of all women of all countries raped in all wars’:

… the Gay Ex-Service Association mimicked the women’s protests by attempting to lay a wreath at the shrine of Remembrance on Anzac Day 1982. They were blocked by Bruce Ruxton (head of the RSL), who told journalists, ‘I don’t know where all these gays and poofters have come from. I don’t remember one single poofter from WWII.’ 

Nowadays people like Donald Trump give being outrageous a bad name, but in those days it could be an effective way of focussing attention.

The election of the Whitlam government in 1972 saw the appointment of the world’s first women’s advisor to a PM, Elizabeth Reid. Social change advocates debated the merits and pitfalls of working within government structures:

Some feminists warned that looking to the state for money was bound to end badly, selling out the ideals of the movement in a scrabble for handouts … [It] was a debate over the role that government could or should play in the struggle for women’s liberation.

Some groups did of course accept government money – and white middle-class women, skilled in writing submissions and getting jobs, proved the main beneficiaries.  But advances were made which benefitted all women, and once enacted could not be undone – easier access to abortion, divorce, the supporting mother’s benefit, decriminalisation of homosexuality, were great achievements that Australia still benefits from. Australia’s innovative, world-best response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s was possible partly because of the trust between the gay community and government. Their history of cooperation in the seventies meant that gains for the whole society could be delivered.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is ‘Backlash’, showing how conservative women, initially on the back foot, rallied and pursued their anti-feminist agenda. They sought to undermine the women’s policy machinery within government by claiming it didn’t represent the concerns of the stay-at-home mother.  They lobbied politicians, presented petitions, staged demonstrations, invoking the now familiar conservative straw man of ‘freedom of choice’ – the freedom to choose the ‘vocation of homemaker’.  As the economy constricted over the seventies, this rhetoric, along with reducing funding for childcare, was used to discourage women from entering the workforce. Fighting a fierce battle against access to abortion, conservatives had more success preventing sex education in schools.

1975 was International Women’s Year, but it was overshadowed by Australia’s economic collapse and the Dismissal. I was fascinated to read that Liz Reid tried to warn PM Whitlam that the Governor General was planning to sack him. And how did she know? John Kerr, a recent widower at the time, was courting her. Kerr probably thought that even if Reid did relay his intentions, she wouldn’t be believed. If he did think that, he was right, Whitlam didn’t take her seriously and dismissed her concerns. A couple of months later her warnings came true and the rest is history.

In spite of campaigning heavily on its achievements for women, the Labor Party was decisively rejected at the 1975 election. Was it possible that these gains weren’t wanted? wondered activists disconsolately.

The second half of the decade was a matter of holding on as many of the Whitlam government initiatives were wound back. The Office of Women’s Affairs was relegated to more junior portfolios. The Royal Commission into Human Relationships report with its 500 recommendations was a victim of political opportunism as it was sensationalised and then ignored. The Family Court became more conservative. Funding for refuges was transferred to the states.

The contraction of the economy spawned the ideology of economic rationalism and small government that persists unabated to this day. Even moral and social imperatives are couched in economic terms. For Arrow, studying the seventies gives us ‘a glimpse of a different way of thinking about the nation, a way of imagining national belonging outside the framework of efficiency and productivity’.

There is a useful afterword, ‘The personal remains political’, which shows that activism is still part of Australia’s fabric, around domestic violence, marriage equality, Indigenous and disability rights and intersectionality, and is still bitterly contested. There’s no shortage now of public platforms for the stories of ordinary people, but:

… too often, personal stories are told in our culture without meaningful political activism to animate them … the political is all too often reduced to the personal.

The freedoms that 1970s activists fought for have become opportunities to make more sales – the personal is political becomes the personal is profitable.

This book is not a comprehensive survey of activism in that decade. You won’t find the struggles to get unions to take the concerns of their women members seriously. Or campaigns against discrimination in the church. But for an insight into how personal politics strode on to the national stage and reshaped Australia for the better, this is a fine book.

Michelle Arrow The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia New South 2019 PB 304pp $34.99

Kathy Gollan is a former executive producer and editor for ABC Radio National.

You can buy The Seventies from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.