‘The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia’ by Michelle Arrow

2019, 239 p plus notes

It’s strange when you read a history that is analysing events that you lived through yourself. The events are familiar, of course, but there’s also an element of surprise at things you didn’t realize at the time, and at the matters that the historian has placed emphasis on, when you weigh them against your own perspectives and memories. It’s also rather disconcerting to realize that your own lifespan is now considered ‘history’.

Of course, histories of a given decade or century do not neatly conform to calendars. Historians speak of the ‘long’ eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in this case, Michelle Arrow sets the start date for the ‘sixties’ with the retirement of Robert Menzies in 1966 (I don’t know if I agree with her here), and ends ‘the seventies’ with the election of the Hawke ALP government in 1983. As she points out, there has been relatively little scholarly interest paid to the Seventies in Australia, especially in comparison with the United States and the United Kingdom. The decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s in Australia have all received book-length treatment, but the only stand-alone study of Australia in the 1970s was Frank Crowley’s Tough Times: Australia in the Seventies. The 1970s, she argues, have either been defined solely in political terms, most particularly involving The Dismissal, or as a gloomy economic narrative leading up to the 1980s and 1990s as a period of economic deregulatory reform (think Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty or George Megalogenis’ work).

Her book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of the decade, but it does emphasize social change rather than political events and economic policies:

Somehow the social movements and social change of the decade sit just outside the frame through which we see the 1970s…This book places them front and centre and positions them as key drivers of change…this book is primarily concerned with the ways new understandings of gender and sexuality transformed Australia, and as a result it focuses on the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement.

p.11

And so, having made the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement her main frames of analysis, this book traces these two themes through the 1970s, discussing social and political events of those years along the way. As has been the case with many of the decisions and programs of the Whitlam government (e.g. dismantling the White Australia policy, withdrawing from Vietnam), quite a few had already been set in train in the last years of the 1960s, although not prosecuted with the fervor of the Labor years. This was also true of the women’s movement and the gay/lesbian movement. There had been ‘women’s groups’ of different political hues throughout the twentieth century, pushing for ‘liberalism’ rather than ‘liberation’. The Homosexual Law Reform Association of the Act was formed in 1969, priding itself on the knowledge that ‘no member of our committee is a practicing homosexual’ (p. 30)

What changed in the 1970s was that the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was taken up by both the women’s movement and gay/lesbian rights groups. Consciousness-raising groups brought up individual stories which were then woven into a political analysis of systemic oppression. It’s hard for us to realize now, in our time when everyone has their ‘story’ and their ‘journey’, that 1960s Australia, along with other Western cultures, was content for uncomfortable stories to be kept private, out of the public eye, and certainly not the basis for political (as distinct from individual) action.

However, ‘The personal is political’ did not translate into electoral success for women in the 1972 election that swept Gough Whitlam to power after 23 years of Liberal-Country party government. (An amazing thought: people voted in that election who had never seen any other government than a Liberal-Country party one). There were no women in the House of Representatives, and the only two women in the Senate were from the Liberal Party. As a result, Gough Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid to be his advisor on women’s affairs, from a short list that included Anne Summers, Eva Cox and historian Lyndall Ryan. It was a tough gig. She had no staff but she became the public face of the women’s movement (p.93). Many in the women’s movement objected to her appointment by a man. She embarked on a listening tour and inviting women to write to her, hearing women’s stories- there are those stories again- in order to develop policy ideas to turn the personal into policy. Equal pay for equal work, the introduction of the single mothers benefit, and improving the quality and availability of child care emerged as the most important needs. There was an uneasy relationship between the Whitlam government and the women’s movement, and between Elizabeth Reid and the women’s movement as well.

In 1972 with Helen Reddy’s ‘I am Woman’ ringing in their ears, the UN General Assembly declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year. In the leadup, Spectrum research had conducted a research report into the status of women that both provided a snapshot into women’s lives but also revealed a widespread lack of interest in feminist issues and the women’s movement more broadly. A grants program set up as part of IWY further exacerbated this schism (although many of the projects and women creators who were supported through these grants have stood the test of time). The headline event was the week-long Women and Politics conference in Canberra, which was opened by Gough Whitlam on the evening of the 31 August. Arrow notes that in many ways it was an exemplary feminist project, with subsidized fares for low-income participants and free child care. But it also highlighted the fractures in the women’s movement between white feminists and migrant women, working class women and particularly Aboriginal Women, led by Marcia Langton, many of whom had different priorities to the largely middle-class white feminists. But as the political temperature rose in 1975, Reid’s power was reduced; there was a suggestion that she be moved into the bureaucracy, and she tendered her resignation.

‘The Personal is Political’ was writ large in the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, headed by Justice Elizabeth Evatt, journalist Anne Deveson and Brisbane Anglican archbishop Felix Arnott, which was established by the Whitlam government in late 1974. By the time it reported on 28 February 1978, the Fraser government wanted no part of it. It was not the first government inquiry into human relationships – the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales of 1903-04 was a world-first – but unlike that earlier commission which mainly heard from men, the 1974 commission actively sought the views of women. The files of this Commission form the heart of Arrow’s book, where she describes some of the evidence collected in the submissions, both in relation to women’s issues and homosexuality, and traces through the muted response once the government had changed.

Australia had become a “nation of bank tellers” in the second half of the 1970s, as the role of women’s adviser became circumscribed, the Women’s branch had its resources cut, and funding for refuges dried up. The National Women’s Advisory Council was established in 1978 ‘to assist in policy making’. Chaired by the vice-president of the Victorian liberal party, Beryl Beaurepaire, it included an Aboriginal woman, a migrant woman, a representative of the ACTU, the President of the Family Planning Association, law lecturer (and later Governor General) Quentin Bryce and a representative of the CWA. Only Wendy McCarthy, the Family Planning president, was part of the women’s movement. Arrow argues that it replicated much of the work of the Commission on Human Relations, and although it developed a comprehensive policy agenda, none of the initiatives came to fruition until the Hawke Labor government. There was backlash over abortion reform (think Margaret Tighe and the Right to Life); religious conservatives became more organized (think Festival of Light) and groups like the Women’s Action Alliance and Women Who Want to be Women formed a visible anti-feminist front. Sex education became bitterly contested, especially in its approach to homosexuality. The first Mardi Gras parade, held in June 1978 opened up a new more confrontational phase in gay and lesbian politics. (p. 220)

Reflecting the ‘long’ Seventies that Arrow deals with, the book closes with the Women Against Rape collective protests at Anzac Day commemorations in the early 1980s – a reassertion of the ‘personal is political’ trope into national affairs. In her Afterword Arrow picks up on the Hawke Labor government, and the emphasis on the economy that has largely obscured the importance of using individual story-telling as the basis for political action. But there is no great triumphant ending here. Perhaps the most important legacy is the continuation of the recognition that the personal is political, as seen in the Human Rights Commission Bringing Them Home report in 1997 and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017. But, as Arrow points out, too often “personal stories are told without political activism to animate them…the political is all to often reduced to the personal.” And there is still much unfinished business of the 1970s.

This book won the Ernest Scott Prize for 2020, awarded annually “to the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” It is carefully footnoted and researched, but it maintains a light tone which is personal at times. It is well-structured in a narrative sense with chapters divided into discrete sections, and ‘hooks’ at the start and end of each section to drive the argument forward.

But, having lived through the seventies myself, I do wonder about the difference between the historian’s view and the perspective of those who lived at the time. In Arrow’s book, a documentary archive (i.e. the correspondence of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships) takes on an importance for a historian that I’m not really sure it had for the general public at the time. Was I even aware of it? I certainly didn’t contribute to the commission- in fact, did I know anyone who did? Maybe my obliviousness to this Royal Commission reflects nothing more than my own sheltered, middle-class, conservative, politics-free life at the time.

But perhaps even the visibility of, and participation in, inquiries then and now signals a change. I think of inquiries held today into what would previously been seen as ‘personal’ matters, most especially the Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse inquiry, and I think that there is a high level of public buy-in (e.g. the animus against George Pell; the ribbons on church railings) that I don’t recall existing in the 1970s. But perhaps the importance of an inquiry doesn’t rest in its creation or impact at the time, but the use that is made of it in the years and even decades following.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

10 responses to “‘The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia’ by Michelle Arrow

  1. Defining the 70s like that is probably right. I’ve always looked from the opposite perspective, that the sixties started late in Australia. My personal POV from the perspective of SDS at Melb Uni 1969-71 was the women’s movement was important but secondary to the anti-war movement whose ultimate aim was a socialist state. Sadly the Abbotts and Costellos coming through a few years later devoted their lives to overturning much of what we thought we had gained.

    • It’s interesting that although the book ends up with an anti-war protest, the emphasis is on the women’s movement with relatively little mention of other radical/progressive political movements running concurrently.

  2. My own battles for equality at work started in 1970, so I’m a bit surprised by the starting date.
    Plus, though I never joined any organisations, WEL was an important part of my thinking throughout the 1970s, not royal commissions. I looked to them to tell me how to use my vote. Does she consider their role?

    • Yes, she certainly does mention WEL and other womens organizations. Were you aware of the Royal Commission? Or was I just sleepwalking?

      • No, well, I don’t think so. I used to read The Age every day, and watch the ABC news and current affairs program so if it was reported I would have been aware of it, but there was so much else going on those heady years, maybe it was less important than what was actually happening?

  3. Absolutely I remember the Royal Commission into Human Relationships. It was a big and impressive undertaking. All the research they did. I remember it because of Anne Deveson. I was a fan of hers.

    I went to a conversation (wrote it up on my blog) about this book when it came out last year, and I started my post pretty much as you did – that I can’t believe that a decade that was significant in my life is now being written about as history!

    Re Bill’s comment about the anti-war movement, what he says was exactly the problem! The men ran that movement – the women were expected to distribute the leaflets, make the tea etc. It was largely out of that movement I think that women realised they had to fight for themselves because no other b****r was going to do it. I was reminded of all this recently when I saw the film Brazen hussies. Kate Jennings managed to get a speaking place at an anti-war rally – “they” (the men on the Left) finally agreed to “let” one woman speak – and used it to rouse the sisterhood. Kate Jennings opens her book, Trouble: The evolution of a radical, with the story of this speech and then includes the speech itself. (I should have shared this in my post on Trouble, but instead I just dot-pointed the sections because it was such a “big” book content and ideas wise.

  4. Pingback: Movie: Brazen Hussies | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  5. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020 – wrap up | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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