Women's Liberation

Suzanne Fairbanks

In the midst of the social activism that characterised the late 1960s, the women’s movement in Australia regained the public visibility it had first achieved at the beginning of the 20th century.1The energy of women’s renewed campaigns was directed into strategies of which two stand out: work for equal civil rights through the courts and government; and actions for personal and social liberation through consciousness-raising, direct activism and alternative arenas for self-expression.

The fight for civil equality had a long tradition in the Australian women’s movement, but women were becoming frustrated. Following campaigns by unions and women in the post-war period, in 1969 the Arbitration Commission awarded equal pay for women, but only for strictly equal work. The commission’s decision would have no impact on women who worked in predominantly ‘female’ jobs. Taking their lead from the early suffragists, Zelda D’Aprano (trade unionist and communist) and teachers Thelma Solomon and Alva Geikie chained themselves to the door of the Arbitration Commission in a very public protest, which attracted wide media attention.

The success of direct protest action in gathering publicity and support led to these women’s forming, with Jessie ‘Bon’ Hull, the Women’s Action Committee (WAC), which engaged in further public protest such as insisting on paying only 75 per cent of the fare on trams as they received 75 per cent of a male wage.2Most importantly, in March 1972 WAC founded the Women’s Liberation Centre in Melbourne, to provide a meeting place and support centre for feminists.

By 1972 women led by Beatrice Faust, a University of Melbourne graduate and civil liberties campaigner, established the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), which produced a form guide to all candidates in the December 1972 federal election. The results of WEL’s Australia-wide survey of candidates’ attitudes to child care, equality in education and work and planned parenthood were published in newspapers in November 1972. In Victoria WEL targeted sitting members of parliament in marginal seats on polling day. When Gough Whitlam led the Australian Labor Party to victory, women’s issues were firmly to the fore.

In Melbourne, the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was closely connected to trade unions and the workers’ movement. By the early 1970s a Women’s Liberation Group had become affiliated with the Student Union at the University of Melbourne. Just as universities provided a haven for anti-war and radical ideas, they proved favourable for the ideas and activism of the women’s movement. Indeed, the women’s movement grew when women active in trade unions, the Communist Party, anti-conscription and anti-war movements perceived that the talk of a new society mostly included the old sexism.3

At the University of Melbourne, the University Assembly formed a Women’s Working Group, which first reported on the status of women at the university in 1975; this report was instrumental in forcing the university to adopt equal opportunity policies. In the Student Union, members of the Women’s Liberation Group organised on campus and participated in wider demonstrations reported in Farrago.

Marilyn Lake says that the women’s movement was intensely literate,4stimulated by a torrent of publications. Former student of the universities of Melbourne, Sydney and Cambridge, Germaine Greer, wrote the international bestseller The female eunuch, which pushed feminist debate in the direction of personal liberation, challenging women to define themselves and take charge of their sexuality. This challenge also informed lesbians in the women’s movement.5As Jean Taylor reflects, in 1973 lesbians began to act on their own behalf in Victoria by questioning discrimination within male gay liberation and the women’s movement alike.6Lesbian culture, meeting places, publications and social events began to flourish.7

As Taylor says, the 1970s might have been ‘one of the most vibrant and political decades in womyn’s herstory, but it was certainly nowhere near the finish of either the WLM or radical lesbian feminism’.8 Indeed, the women’s movement and the lesbian and gay movements have prompted some of the most enduring, and as yet incomplete, changes in Australian social life since the 1960s.

References

  1. Marilyn Lake, Getting equal: The history of Australian feminism, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999.
  2. Lake, Getting equal, p. 244.
  3. Lake, Getting equal, pp. 220–1
  4. Lake, Getting equal, p. 222.
  5. Lake, Getting equal, pp. 241–6.
  6. Jean Taylor, Brazen hussies: A herstory of radical activism in the women’s liberation movement Victoria 1970–1979, Melbourne: Dyke Books, 2009, p. 195.
  7. Taylor, Brazen hussies, pp. 588–679.
  8. Taylor, Brazen hussies, p. 677.