Outskirts online journal

Susan Magarey

Further information

About the author

Susan Magarey joined the Canberra Women's Liberation Group in 1970. Since then she has taught Women's Studies at the Australian National University, established the Research Centre for Women's Studies at Adelaide University, and founded Australian Feminist Studies which she edited for its first twenty years. She is currently working on a history of the Women's Liberation Movement in Australia.

susan.magarey@adelaide.edu.au

Publication details

Volume 28, May 2013

Sisterhood and Women’s Liberation in Australia


Made in America: two moments of origin.

In 1969, Martha Ansara, an American, was in her early twenties, living in Boston with her three year-old son, and splitting up with her husband. 1969 was a big year for Ansara. She moved first to California with her new Australian boyfriend, and then, with the same boyfriend, to Australia. In Sydney, she made left-wing friends through Bob Gould’s Third World Bookshop, in particular with Sandra Hawker and with two Australians who had recently returned from the United States: Margaret Elliot and Coonie Sandford (Wills, 20). Together they formed a group and discussed the pamphlets that Ansara had brought with her and their own experiences. Towards the end of that year they decided to hold an open meeting about Women’s Liberation. The official story is that those three women composed a leaflet headed Only the Chains Have Changed to distribute during a protest march against the war in Vietnam on 14 December 1969, calling a meeting about Women’s Liberation for January 1970. Many years later, Ansara confessed that, being a young mother, she had been exhausted and had fallen asleep, so the leaflet was the work of Hawker and Sandford and Ansara’s film-making journalist boyfriend (Ansara, 7).

The meeting should have been a failure, Ansara was to recall: ‘Nobody in their right mind holds meetings in January. I knew nothing you know’. But even though it was January -- when everyone goes to the beach -- the meeting was packed. This was, Ansara remembered, a ‘new phenomenon’: ‘we were swept up, I guess, in the sort of new wave of interest in this imported phenomenon’. (Ansara, 4)

Early in 1969, Warren Osmond, a Tutor in Politics at the University of Adelaide, had been reading anti-war publications which made a great fuss over the Miss America Protest of 7 September 1968. New York Radical Women organised about one hundred women onto buses to travel to Atlantic City where they picketed the pageant, performed guerrilla theatre on the boardwalk, and tossed ‘instruments of torture to women’ – high-heeled shoes, bras, girdles, typing books, curlers, false eyelashes, and copies of Playboy, Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal – into a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ (Echols, 93-4). Just for the record, they did not, despite the endlessly reiterated myth, burn these objects: the city prohibited any burning because its boardwalk was flammable. In an article published in the Adelaide student newspaper, On Dit, Osmond drew a parallel between the Miss America Pageant and Adelaide University’s ‘Miss Fresher’ beauty contest, part of the Orientation Week celebrations at the beginning of the academic year. Was it not, he asked, ‘Just about time for a new feminism?’ (Osmond, np; Kinder, 31).

A year later, in March 1970, a group of about fifty young women calling themselves Women’s Liberation picketed the ‘Miss Fresher’ contest at Adelaide University. Anna Yeatman, another Politics Tutor, said that they were protesting against being seen simply as objects of male desire, ‘sex slaves’, ‘to be gaped at by pathetic, goggling men’. The media (briefly) went into a frenzy: Channel Nine’s newsreader interviewed Yeatman on television, and the evening newspaper, the News, with uncharacteristic prescience, headed its report, ‘Women’s liberation is quickly shaping as a major world issue of the seventies’ (News, np). Women’s Liberation - made in America - had arrived in Australia.

A Movement for the Liberation of Women

It was nothing if not ambitious. One of the movement’s earliest publications, called MeJane, signalled a newspaper that would leave Tarzan out of the picture altogether. ‘Our changes will be total’, its editorial declared: ‘they will not be immediate, but we want to start now, changing life styles, changing the family and above all, changing ourselves’ (MeJane 1, Editorial).

It would be different from other political movements which involved men as well, and women behaving like men. In May 1970 Anne Summers travelled from Adelaide to Melbourne to a conference on ‘Female Conditioning’ which she found entirely antipathetic. ‘There was’, she noted,

much talking and shouting, there were heated exchanges between the protagonists of various ‘lines’ and those espousing minority views were frequently patronized or even jeered at. One woman abused several of us for wearing make-up … others were castigated for knitting during the sessions (Summers, 406).

Martha Ansara and Communist Party member, Mavis Robertson, went to that conference, too. There were, Ansara remembered, ‘these weird young ladies in black jackets who were Maoists, I think, who were just thought police’. They criticised and castigated: ‘This is backward’. Mavis Robertson, scoffed: ‘I wonder if they’re going to be doing underarm inspections next to see if we shave under our arms’ (Ansara, 6). Eighteen months later, though, a report on a Women’s Liberation conference in Melbourne in August 1971 noted two seasoned campaigners praising ‘the radical approach of today’ ‘with its rejection … of male-type structures’; they considered that such an approach was more likely to be successful than older forms of feminist activism with their ‘too frequent courting of male support’. The different approach ‘led so many to realise how their previous separations had been imposed upon them by values which were for the benefit of others rather than themselves’ (MeJane 5, 4).

Banishing the men

‘Others than themselves’ meant men. It took a little while to decide that men could not be part of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In Adelaide, Anna Yeatman argued for men to continue to be involved in Women’s Liberation, rejecting any idea that ‘men themselves’ could be identified as ‘the source of male dominated social organisation and the male chauvinist value system’ (Yeatman, 21). During the summer of 1970-71 in Adelaide, Women’s Liberation meetings were held at the home of Julie and Bob Ellis, perpetuating the involvement of men. According to historian of Adelaide Women’s Liberation Sylvia Kinder, however, this period was short-lived, as the works of north American feminists Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett became more widely available in Australia during 1971 (Kinder, 48-9). In Sydney, the process was quicker and more pragmatic. Martha Ansara described what took place at Glebe Point Road.

It seemed to me that because women’s voices had been so overwhelmed by the voices of men, and because, in fact, our agendas conflicted, that you would not have men at the meetings. It didn’t make any sense. Well, you know, this just got debated and debated, and the communist women in particular … couldn’t see any reason why the comrades couldn’t all be equal together. So we said, ‘Okay. We’ll hold an open meeting’. That open meeting … was enough to do the trick. The men came in and they hogged all the conversation, and they were opinionated. They used all those tactics … of overwhelming people, and that was it. They were out. (Ansara, 5-6).

It was an experience replicated many times; I myself recall a similar moment at an early Women’s Liberation meeting in Canberra. A husband who believed himself entirely supportive stood in the doorway with one arm stretched upwards along the door-frame so that (a short man) he occupied a taller space; we all sat in a circle on the floor, as we were accustomed to doing, but this time at his feet, and lectured us on what Women’s Liberation ‘should do’.

As early as July 1971, experienced campaigner Joyce Stevens - like Mavis Robertson, one of Martha Ansara’s communist women - had given up on the notion of comrades all being equal together. She told MeJane that women would need to get used to ‘the unpalatable fact that women are by word and deed oppressed on the basis of their sex and … the vehicles of this oppression are men’. Then, in an observation so radical that it took some time to gain widespread acceptance, she added:

All men benefit from the oppression of women indirectly through the male domination and privileges of society generally and individually through the life styles set aside for women, whether the women [sic] be his mother, wife, daughter, girlfriend or sister (or any combination of these). (MeJane 3, 6)

The movement for the liberation of women was to be a movement of women as well as a movement for women.

Small group egalitarianism

Women’s Liberation quickly developed a characteristic ‘approach to meetings’, participants breaking up into ‘small (rap) groups’ which ‘promoted an openness and width of participation impossible in large numbers’. Such an approach, MeJane claimed, enabled ‘industrial workers, housewives, teachers, students – all women’ to accept and relate to each other (MeJane 5, 4). This was important: they were relating as equals. Indeed, in one small group at the 1971 Melbourne conference, the housewives – traditionally dismissed on the Left as, at best, a ‘reserve army of labour’ – demonstrated a sophisticated appreciation of their own political potential and its wider implications that made some of the early feminist theorists sound both narrow and naïve.

They discussed the potential power of housewives, as consumers, to support their sisters in industry: when women workers make it known that a certain company exploits its female staff even more unmercifully than the average – housewives can stop buying that company’s products. Such action need not take on the proportion of an organised national boycott to have a pinprick effect on the company and to let the women in the industry feel bolstered by the support (MeJane 5, 4).

Small groups, without men, and – above all – committed to equality among the participants in each group were necessary, Sydney feminist Sue Wills has pointed out, for ‘allowing women to develop self-confidence’ (Wills, 46). Women’s Liberation was developing an analysis of power that reached from the most traditional and public to the most intimate and private – challenging conventional distinctions between public and private as well as showing a household to be quite as much a political arena as a house of parliament. As Queensland-born Women’s Liberationist, Eileen Haley, explained:

Most people think of themselves as having a ‘private life’ in which politics does not operate. Politics is something that goes on ‘out there’. Feminism shows this distinction as non-existent. It exposes the ‘private life’ areas as a political arena. It also shows how the dominant political system invades that private life continually in very deeply felt ways (Haley, xxxvi).

Power governs all relationships, everywhere, from the ballot-box to the bedroom. This was one of the most resonant understandings of late twentieth-century feminism: that ‘the personal is political’. The power relations of personal life affected interactions between women in Women’s Liberation groups, too. By the time of the third national Women’s Liberation Conference over the June long weekend in 1972 in Sydney, small groups had become the order of the day, and the principle of refusing hierarchies held sway.

Structurelessness and Consciousness-raising

Anne Summers had a better time at the June 1972 gathering. A year or so later she spelled out the general rule in Women’s Liberation about opposition to any kind of hierarchy, indeed to any kind of formal organisation. ‘From its inception Women’s Liberation has been anti-organization’ she wrote:

In the sense that we have no elected officers, no formal membership, no rules or platform to which people must adhere, and no theories determining the relationship of factions or oppositions groups to the movement as a whole. We have justified this stance by pointing out that formal organizations is [sic] always oligarchical in that it inevitably produces an elite of leaders who cling to their powerful positions more tenaciously than they adhere to the principles of the organization they purportedly represent (Summers, 408).

Many if not most of the small groups springing up around Australia included consciousness-raising in their discussions. Martha Ansara described it: ‘we formed a group and the first thing we did was we followed this consciousness raising procedure, and we discussed out own lives’ (Ansara, 4). In consciousness-raising groups, participants learned that an isolated problem or an individual misery was neither isolated nor individual. Rather, each was a feature of a structural or systemic organisation of relations of power, of politics, of the politics of what, at that time, Eileen Haley called ‘male supremacy’. An individual woman’s personal life was, Sue Wills noted, ‘political reality in microcosm’ (Wills, 386). But to reach such perceptions, the women involved needed to learn to trust each other with narratives about themselves, about moments in their individual lives that they thought they would never describe to anyone about aspects of their relationships with their mothers, fathers, husbands, lovers, daughters, sons that they had never thought to articulate, much less share. Trust of this order formed strong bonds, and with this came sisterhood.

Sisterhood is Powerful (Robin Morgan)

‘We call on all our sisters to unite with us in struggle’, exhorted the manifesto of Redstockings, the group that Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis founded in New York in February 1969 (Echols: 139; Redstockings in Morgan, 600). Sisterhood is Powerful announced Robin Morgan’s collection of articles conceived of as an action by feminists ‘committed to a Women’s Revolution’ (Morgan, xvi), published in 1970. Across the Pacific in Australia, women read these words, adopted the concept, and themselves felt united and, accordingly, powerful. It was a transformation: Deborah McCulloch, Women’s Adviser to radically reforming Premier Don Dunstan, observed that before the Women’s Liberation Movement, ‘most of my contemporaries grew up in a culture which said … you don’t spend any time with women, you didn’t like women … you always complained about them, and the ideal and the norm was male’(McCulloch, 1). Women on campus at Adelaide University began producing a newsletter titled Liberation (Kinder, 54). When someone congratulated Edna Ryan, doyen of Women’s Electoral Lobby in Sydney, on the career of Susan Ryan, Minister of Education and Minister with responsibility for women in the first two governments of R.J. Hawke – assuming that Susan was Edna’s daughter - Edna responded: ‘She’s not my daughter, she’s my sister’ (Ryan). ‘Sisterhood’, Canberra feminist journalist Helen Shepherd affirmed, ‘was like a petrol pump’ (Reid): it kept you going and going.

There were echoes, of course, of the labour movement’s assertion of solidarity in the brotherhood of man, and men’s struggle against exploitation in the capitalist labour market. But the solidarity of women in sisterhood went much further, for women’s grievances extended from the labour market to work-places that were also their homes, in which their bosses were their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, even their sons, and their grievances included the domestic labour in their double work-load, difficulties preventing them from controlling their reproductive capacities, their unfulfilled desire for sexual pleasure, being required to take exclusive responsibility for children and their care, and – having just lived through ‘the decade of domesticity’ (Segal, 65) - about feeling un-natural for registering these conditions as grievances. Sisterhood had a reach far beyond that of the brotherhood of man.

In a paper that she took to the Marxist Feminist Conference in Sydney in June 1977, Canberra Women’s Liberationist Biff Ward described the ‘initial exhilarating flush of feminism’ which was ‘based on four things, which together gave a feeling of personal elation and closeness to other women, which we call sisterhood’. The four things were acceptance, support, change and development. Acceptance came from consciousness-raising, ‘sharing … our experiences as women’. Support was ‘the key aspect of sisterhood: ‘Other women heard, accepted, what we said, and we thereby felt validated and supported’. Then change: ‘Feminism changes people’, she observed. ‘Sisterhood encompassed that’. Finally, ‘sisterhood meant group/collective development of feelings, ideas, strategies, praxis’ (Ward). The emotion rises like steam from the page: exhilaration, elation, bonding, sisterhood. And Biff Ward was by no means alone.

Melbourne feminist Sue Jackson described that moment of exhilaration to interviewer Ruth Ford:

 I don’t know if you’ve seen photographs of it, from that time, and everyone from Margaret Whitlam on through, all the women of that time, there’s a look on the face. That wide-eyed sort of bright and hopeful look and it was that feeling you know. There was a feeling of incredible anger, of course, when you’re understanding all the various ways … in which women were oppressed. But at the same time, this sense of joy and power coming from this working together and working it out and the scales being taken from the eyes (Jackson).

Joy and power from working together was a powerful mix. ‘The bonding was like with the Women’s Movement forever’, recalled Adelaide feminist, Anne Dunn (Dunn, 4). ‘Oh … the buzz of it all’, exclaimed Treena Everuss, remembering the early 1970s in Adelaide; what she liked especially was

the relationships I was forming with women. It was the whole social life that it offered you …. And the friendships and everything that I made, more than friendships. That was – I just loved that as well, because that was what I was looking for. So it was fulfilling that for me as well (Everuss, 2).

‘We knew that the whole society had to change’, said Sue Jackson, ‘and that involved every kind of structure and mode of relating, and everything. And individuals had to re-pattern themselves, and the whole thing. We knew how big it was. The amazing thing is – we thought it would happen’ (Jackson).

This was, Australian-born Lynne Segal in England observed, ‘the feminist dream of a common language, of shared values or goals’ (Segal, 13). This was a politics of affinity. North American pioneer of Women’s Liberation, brilliant political analyst Jo Freeman, wrote of the ‘sweet promise of sisterhood’: ‘It claimed to provide a haven from the ravages of a sexist society; a place where one would be understood’ (‘Joreen’, 51). Women who had once thought of each other as rivals for patriarchal prizes now formed political solidarities with each other – and more, closely bonded friendships, sometimes even sexual relationships. The fabric of the whole social order quivered.

But there were problems.

Sisterhood is Powerful: it kills sisters (Ti-Grace Atkinson) Structurelessness – again

In her exposition of the principles of organisation – or refusal of it – in Women’s Liberation, Anne Summers explained that ‘[i]n trying to overcome these deficiencies in other modes of organization we have in our own political methods tried to prefigure the kind of social relations which would prevail in the kind of society we are trying to create’ (Summers, 408). These were entirely appropriate for small groups primarily engaged in consciousness-raising. But even participants in Women’s Liberation could find general meetings that were structureless and leaderless distinctly irritating. Kay Daniels, a founding – indeed, a leading - participant in Women’s Liberation in Hobart, reported on the June 1972 Conference in Sydney in tones of exasperation. ‘Some’, she commented,

who weren’t sufficiently mellowed by sun and sisterhood found the non-organisation immensely irritating and time-wasting….The interminable introductions around the circle made me feel like a brownie on my first day out. Disagreement was softened and total irrelevance suffered to an incredible extent (Daniels, 4-5).

Lack of political efficacy irritated Martha Ansara, who wanted to get things organised for action to take place. ‘If you want to get something done’, she observed, ‘you do need to divide up the tasks and have clear line of authority and so on’ (Ansara, 4-5). But in Women’s Liberation, there was something she characterised as ‘unbelievable anarchy’:

I found it very difficult because you could meet, for instance, have a meeting, be involved in a group that was organising for International Women’s Day, and some new mob of people would come in and throw everything that you decided open to debate, and more than that, they didn’t have children, they could go on and on all night if they wanted and wear you out. So I found it very difficult and very chaotic. You know, very wasteful of our time and energy in the way that decisions were made under the guise of not being hierarchical’ (Ansara, 5).

In time, it became clear that there were greater difficulties to encounter in the refusal of leadership and structure, than provocation of impatience. Again, we were to learn from the United States of America where, as early as 1970 Jo Freeman, wrote what became an extremely influential article titled ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, initially circulated anonymously under the pen-name ‘Joreen’. ‘Contrary to what we would like to believe’, she announced, ‘there is no such thing as a structureless group’. Any group of people coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will ‘inevitably’ structure itself ‘in some fashion’. The concept of ‘structurelessness’ then ‘becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others’, a ‘way of masking power’ – the power of informal elites within the group. These, because they are informal, and seldom recognised, ‘have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large’. Unstructured groups, in an unstructured movement, are, ultimately, she argued, ‘politically inefficacious, exclusive and discriminatory against those women who are not or cannot be tied into the friendship networks’ (Freeman, 73-5).

Anne Summers agreed with Freeman that ‘de facto elites have arisen in the small leaderless groups of an unstructured movement’ (Summers, 408). Sylvia Kinder also concurred that the absence of structures and leaders engendered ‘stars’ (Kinder, 52). And Biff Ward’s paper at the Marxist Feminist Conference in Sydney in 1977 explicitly addressed the question of ‘trashing’, one of the effects that Freeman identified – with considerable anguish – of structurelessness. Sisterhood, she argued, was being ‘replaced’ – destroyed – by trashing (Ward). ‘Trashing’ is defined in A Women’s Thesaurus as ‘[p]olitically motivated, destructive criticism or character assassination, often in the guise of honest conflict’ (Capek, 480). Ward’s paper conveys all the hurt and anger attendant upon personal disagreement descending into personal attack. Trashing, it tells us, destroys and prevents development of the kind that sisterhood fostered. Instead of acceptance and support, trashing ‘produces fear and inertia and bitterness’. It ‘stops people changing any more since they need to spend so much energy on merely surviving at the point they have reached, personally and politically’. The way out of the impasse that trashing produced, the paper concluded, reaching back to Women’s Liberation’s first principles, was remembering the belief ‘that the means is the end; that we create the revolution in our own image; how it is made determines the future society’. We have ‘hurt and maimed each other with our own trashing’, and therefore, Biff Ward noted, ‘I believe that we can never work too much on understanding how repression of individuals works’ (Ward).

Martha Ansara printed many copies of ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ for her group, Words for Women, to distribute, she said. But she did not think it did any good.

Difference

Despite sisterhood, there were major disagreements within the Australian Women’s Liberation Movement. They were there from the beginning, as is hardly surprising in an ‘imagined community’ encompassing women from such a variety of walks of life. Merely in Sydney, Sue Wills demonstrates, there were a large number of small groups, each one conforming (more or less) to one of three quite distinct orientations. These were:
  • groups based on locality e.g. Balmain, Glebe, and other suburban groups as well as the university campus groups;
  • groups based on interest or ongoing projects e.g., Working Women’s Group, the Art Workers for Liberation Group, the Radical Therapy Group, and the collectives responsible for the production of Mejane and Refractory Girl;
  • groups formed to organize specific activities which disappeared or transformed themselves after the event e.g., the collectives formed to organize conferences, demonstrations, marches and the like. (Wills, 46)
All of these groups could work quite happily separately, or in collaboration over demonstrations, marches and conferences, for example, and in participation in the less frequent general meetings which dealt with nitty-gritty matters such as paying the rent on the Women’s Liberation House in Alberta Street. But there were moments when differences proved destructive. Let us consider just two briefly-told examples. The first: in Sydney and Melbourne, general meetings of Women’s Liberation were frequently subjected to long-winded hectoring addresses by young women from the Spartacist League about participating in class struggle being the only way to achieve the liberation of women. Ultimately, general meetings in both cities resolved to expel the ‘Sparts’, a drastic and, at least for some, a disturbingly un-sisterly decision (Taylor, 215-16). The second: I was one of a small Canberra group which organised a residential conference on Feminist Theory at Mt Beauty for the long weekend in January 1973. We called ourselves ‘The Hevvies’; the self-mocking name was a deliberate ploy to ward off accusations of pretentiousness. We sent out a letter addressed to ‘Dear Sisters’ inviting people to suggest papers. Ironically, though, given our sisterly aspirations for it, the Mt Beauty conference is best remembered as the weekend when the Hobart Women’s Action Group ripped into Women’s Liberation - that is everyone else there - on the charge of discriminating against lesbians (Hobart Women’s Action Group).

These, I would emphasise, were disagreements over the campaigns and causes to which the Women’s Liberation Movement could and should devote its energies. The Spartacist women may have wanted all the participants in the Women’s Liberation Movement to join them, but even they knew that this was not a realistic wish. The Hobart women did not want everyone else to be lesbians; theirs was not an assertion that sisterhood meant that all women were, or should be, identical.  The Hobart women were arguing only that all women included lesbians as well as heterosexual women.

The Politics of Identity

Differences of identity were present in the Women’s Liberation Movement from its beginning: if nothing else demonstrates this vividly, then the very title, as well as the contents of the collection of papers from the first of the Women & Labour Conferences – Women, Class & History – does so. But by the 1990s, differences of identity were acquiring a fresh and encompassing emphasis. Melbourne feminist, Laurie Bebington, was irritated, she said, that some histories of feminism in Australia taught that the identities of the women who made up Women’s Liberation’s were limited to the white and middle-class. She argued fiercely against such a view. Young women today, she told Ruth Ford in the 1990s,

will categorise the Women’s Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement back then [in the 1970s], as a movement of middle class women, you know, none of whom were Kooris or are from different ethnic background or anything of that sort. It was just not true. There was [sic] women across class, across race barriers, across ethnic origins … And across ages – and that was one of the things that was really exciting (Bebington, 5). 

Bebington herself, it is worth noting, was still at school during the early years of the Women’s Liberation movement. Her irritation prompts attention to shifts in historical context.

Sisterhood as the solidarity of all women, as shared goals and values, shared political commitment, could slide into a very different concept. As the collectivist and inclusive 1970s yielded to the individualised acquisitional neo-conservative 1990s, the politics of collective struggle began to seem stale and dated, while identity politics acquired a new precedence and gloss. As a concept connecting with identity politics rather than the politics of collective struggle, the concept of sisterhood could come to mean that all women had to be the same; sisterhood could shift in meaning from solidarity over common causes to a unity based in a common identity. But since we were not, at that time, or ever, all the same, then recognising differences among women - differences of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality - could also, by reversing that initial slide, splinter the commitment to solidarity. It was not differences of identity among women that fragmented the political solidarity, the sisterhood, of late twentieth-century feminism; the differences were and always had been there. Rather, it was the context in which those differences acquired primacy, a far broader shift in focus from the group to the individual, from politics to lifestyle, from activism to identity. Commentators began to speak of Women’s Liberation as failing in the promise that women could ‘have’ it all; this was a sharp contrast to the desire of 1970s Women’s Liberation to be able to ‘do’ so much more than women were allowed or able to do at that time. In Melbourne in the 1990s, Jan Chapman Davis, a mother of four, had only begun to learn about her Aboriginality during the 1970s. She told a story about an academic woman.

Miss White Middle Class herself, she was sitting at the table … and I was talking about my life, and the kids and the problems that I have …. And … she just turned to me and said, “Oh, my goodness. You are oppressed, aren’t you!” And it was a big put-down. Basically she was just having a go at me. And I was just, you know, been hearing all this “sisterhood is powerful and love your sister” and there was this bloody snobby bitch being really nasty to me (Chapman Davis, 9-10).

For Davis, at this time, her identity as an Aboriginal woman, together with her identification with working-class deprivation (for instance in the areas of health and education) was assuming greater importance in her life than her identity as a feminist, together in sisterhood with the un-sisterly Miss White Middle Class. Lynne Segal was to comment: ‘The rise of what would at times prove a divisive identity politics was as much due to the success as the failure of Women’s Liberation, as women explored both the potential strengths and the particular suffering of their multiple identifications’ (Segal, 124).

A Legacy?

By the time that Emma Grahame came to write the entry on ‘Sisterhood’ for the Oxford Companion to Australian Feminism in the late 1990s, she observed that ‘the notion of sisterhood has become more problematic’ as feminism has ‘grappled with issues of sexuality, race and class’ and their emphases on differences between women (Grahame, 490). Ten years later when Monica Dux and Zora Simic produced The Great Feminist Denial, rescuing basic feminist demands from ‘four popular debates about the crises facing modern women and the culpability of feminism’ (Dux and Simic, 179) – caricatures, they decided – the term ‘sisterhood’ did not even appear in their index. When popular glossy marie claire interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard and six of her senior female ministers, in the wake of Gillard’s world-famous speech accusing the leader of the opposition of sexism and misogyny, the collective term that the magazine invoked was ‘handbag hit squad’, not sisters (marie claire, 48).

Of course, sisterhood was not confined to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Women’s Electoral Lobby, a national body which was prepared to structure its organisation, and was thereby more practically effective than Women’s Liberation, invoked a solidarity of women as sisterhood. Marian Sawer’s study of that predominantly 1980s phenomenon, the ‘femocrat’, was titled Sisters in Suits (1990), acknowledgement that the female bureaucrats so labelled were feminists working for specifically feminist goals. And feminism has a broader and longer history than any story of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s in Australia. But the sisterhood of the Women’s Liberation Movement left a powerful legacy. Lynne Segal, in 2007, observed that almost every woman she spoke with considered that ‘the most cherished gain from the past, was the enduring network of friends they had acquired through Women’s Liberation’ (Segal, 136). In Sydney, that astute political activist, Joyce Stevens commented that what had kept ‘avenues of discussion open, even when political differences have been … profound’ was ‘the friendship network’ (MeJane 5, 8). Stevens’s ‘friendship network’ formed as participation in the ‘imagined community’ of Women’s Liberation was one of the principal elements in the emotional bonding which has sustained a commitment to the liberation of women into the twenty-first century. ‘For me’, said Martha Ansara in 1997, ‘it was absolutely the foundation of my life, and my future life ever since. I never looked back’ (Ansara, 6). And nor have I.

References

Ansara, Martha, interview with by Tristan Slade 29 September 1997, transcribed by Mary Lyons, transcript in the possession of Susan Magarey.

Bebbington, Laurie, interview with Ruth Ford, 7 December 1997, transcribed by Mary Lyons, transcript in then possession of Susan Magarey

Capek, Mary Ellen S. (ed.), A Women’s Thesaurus: An Index of Language used to Describe and Locate Information By and About Women, Harper & Row, New York, 1987.

Chapman Davis, Jan, interview with Ruth Ford, 29 October 1997, transcribed by Mary Lyons, transcript in the possession of Susan Magarey.

Claire, marie, December 2012.

Daniels, Kay, Liberaction, 3, 1972.

Dunn, Anne, interview with Deborah Worsley-Pine, 19 August 1996, transcribed by Mary Lyons, transcript in the possession of Susan Magarey.

Dux, Monica & Zora Simic, The Great Feminist Denial, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2008.

Echols, Alice, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 (University of Minnesota Press) Minneapolis, 1989.

Everuss, Treena, interview with Deborah Worsley-Pine, 2 July 1996, transcribed by Mary Lyons, transcript in the possession of Susan Magarey.

Freeman, Jo, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, reprinted in Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon (eds) Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (Basic Books) New York, 2000.

Grahame, Emma, ‘Sisterhood’ in Barbara Caine, Moira Gatens, Emma Grahame, Jan Larbalestier, Sophie Watson, Elizabeth Webby (eds) Australian Feminism: a companion (Oxford University Press) Melbourne, 1998.

Haley, Eileen, ‘The long haul’, Politics, VIII, 2, November 1973.

Hobart Women’s Action Group, ‘Sexism and the Women’s Liberation Movement or “Why do straight sisters sometimes cry when they are called lesbians?”’, Refractory Girl, 5, Summer 1974, 30-33.

Jackson, Sue, interview with Ruth Ford, 3 November 1997, transcribed by Mary Lyons, transcript in the possession of Susan Magarey.

‘Joreen’ [Jo Freeman], ‘Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood’, Ms., 1976.

Kinder, Sylvia, Herstory of the Adelaide Women’s Liberation Movement 1969-1974, Salisbury Education Centre, Adelaide 1980.

McCulloch, Deborah, interview with Deborah Worsley-Pine 12 April 1996, transcribed by Mary Lyons, transcript in the possession of Susan Magarey.

MeJane 1 March 1971; 3, July 1971; 5, November 1971; 4-5, 8

News, 23 March 1970.

Osmond, Warren ‘Just about time for a new feminism?’, On Dit, March 1969.

Manifesto, Redstockings, in Robin Morgan (ed.), Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, Vintage Books, New York, 1970, 598-601.

Morgan, Robin, ‘Introduction’ in Robin Morgan (ed.), Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, Vintage Books, New York, xv-xlvi.

Ryan, Julia, anecdote about her mother, Edna Ryan and politician Susan Ryan, told to Susan Magarey, nd.

Sawer, Marian, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Allen & Unwin Sydney, 1990.

Segal, Lynne, Making Trouble: Life and Politics,Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007.

Shepherd, Helen, anecdote about sisterhood being like a petrol pump, told to Susan Magarey by Elizabeth Reid at a meeting of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 21 November 2012. Elizabeth Reid, subsequently Women’s Advisor to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Helen Shepherd, journalist, and Susan Magarey were all participants in the Canberra Women’s Liberation group.

Summers, Anne, ‘Where’s the Women’s Movement Moving To?’, first published MeJane 10, March 1973, reprinted in Jan Mercer (ed.), The Other Half: Women in Australian Society (Penguin Books) Ringwood, 1975.

Taylor, Jean, Brazen Hussies: A Herstory of Radical Activism in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Victoria 1970-1979, Dyke Books Inc. East Melbourne, 2009.

‘Transcript of Hobart Women’s Action Group Paper ‘Sexism in the Women’s Liberation Movement’ at Mount Beauty Conference, January 1973, transcript by Sue Wills, August 1997, in Sydney First Ten Years Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

‘Transcript of tape of Meeting to discuss Motion to Expel Spartacist League from General Meetings of Sydney Women’s Liberation, 17 April 1977’, transcribed by Sue Wills, June 1997, in the Sydney First Ten Years Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Ward, Biff, ‘The Way Forward for the Revolutionary Women’s Movement: Understanding Trashing and Sectarianism’, paper for the Marxist-Feminist Conference, Sydney, June 1977, in the Edna Ryan Papers, National Library of Australia MS 9140, box 13, folder 73.

Wills, Sue, ‘The Politics of Sexual Liberation’, PhD Thesis, University of Sydney, 1981.

Yeatman, Anna, ‘The Liberation of Women’, Arena, 21, 1970, 19-26

 

Back to top