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Sophie Robinson

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About the author

Sophie Robinson is a PhD student in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New South Wales. Her thesis is looking at the lesbian presence in women’s and gay liberation in Australia and the intersections between these two movements. Her main research interests centre on the history of Australian feminism, lesbian feminism and masculinity politics. 


Publication details

Volume 31, November 2013


The Man Question: Men and Women’s Liberation in 1970s Australia

This article explores ‘the Man Question’ in Australian feminism during the 1970s and attempts to complicate the popular notion that men are ’outsiders’ to its history (Henderson 2008). I will provide empirical evidence of some Australian men positively engaging with feminist ideas and strategies, highlighting the debt that these men – and the movements they formed a part of – owe to feminism. This presents a contrast to the literature that emerged from the 1980s in Australia, including articles in men’s magazines, interview-collections and self-help books, in which Australian men reflected on their negative experiences and impressions of feminism since the 1970s, producing what Margaret Henderson has identified as ‘masculinity in crisis discourse’ (2008, 30). Such discourse did not allow consideration of how the advent of the women’s liberation movement in Australia encouraged some men to turn ‘the feminist lens upon themselves’ (Murphy 2004, 7). This was a challenge that some embraced, some resisted and others were uncertain about (Pease 1997). Sometimes, cognisant of debates among women about the appropriate constituency of feminism, these men chose to define themselves as ‘pro-feminist’, ‘effeminist’ or ‘anti-sexist’, as opposed to ‘feminist’.1 The debts they owed to feminist praxis (including feminist theories that positioned men or maleness as the problem), and the seriousness with which some interrogated feminist politics, are nonetheless clear (as well as bold and surprising). Without making grand or generalised claims about these men, I seek to incorporate my case studies into a broader history of men positively aligning themselves with women’s movements and/ or discourses of feminism. The specific men addressed here were primarily tertiary educated and white and typically the intimate friends, lovers and/or political allies of women involved in women’s liberation and they do not represent the entire cohort of men that may have aligned themselves with feminist politics throughout Australia during the 1970s. My focus on men as historical agents of contemporary Australian feminism allows me to explore, as Australian feminist scholars Grosz (1990) and Murdolo (1996) have done before me, ‘possibilities of multiplying rather than limiting the diversity of feminist identities through the practice of historical narration’ (Murdolo 1996, 73).

This article will do four things, starting with an articulation of the Man Question in the existing historical archive of Australian feminism: both in women’s liberation and more generally. Secondly, I will consider the specific historical context that enabled men to align themselves with women’s liberation during the 1970s, and the actual spaces open to men within the movement. These spaces, it will be shown, were auxiliary at best, experimental and often highly contentious. Thirdly, I will consider the shift within feminism as new spaces were created by the men themselves, in particular through borrowing consciousness-raising (CR) techniques and reading popular feminist literature of the period. Finally, I will engage with a topic that remains largely unexplored in histories of Australian feminism: connections and collaborations between the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements, namely how some gay men reconstructed their male identities based on radical feminist critiques. This section situates the 1970s as a pivotal period in the history of the women’s and gay movements’ engagement with Australian feminism, providing examples of gay men supporting and identifying as feminists, and actively contributing to new expressions of masculinities (Seidler 1992) in late-twentieth century Australia.

Material that documents men’s involvement in 1970s Australian feminism is scattered, piecemeal and idiosyncratic, initially drawn from the personal memoirs and political newsletters of women’s liberation activists. My archive is therefore necessarily grafted from that of Australian women’s liberation which has been subjected to more extensive academic inquiry, particularly the Sydney context (Wills 2007). It makes use of the newsletters and articles published by the Sydney Women’s Liberation collective during the early 1970s that directly refer to a male presence. Evidence is also derived from the personal memoirs of women’s liberation activists in other Australian cities that emerged in the 1990s and late 2000s (Jean Taylor 2009). Another source has been women’s accounts of their experiences in CR groups (Henry and Derlet 1993). The men’s voices themselves are largely absent as most of these sources are women’s summaries of their experiences and attitudes towards men who attended their meetings and CR groups. These summaries are nonetheless useful, and reflect the seriousness with which some women responded to the Man Question in a movement with very specific objectives and meaning for them as women.

Sources from the Australian gay liberation movement have also been crucial in developing this archive, including the Sydney Gay Liberation Newsletter which began circulation in 1972, as well as the germinal gay liberation text by Dennis Altman, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1971). Gender theorist Raewyn Connell’s scholarship is particularly relevant to my own interrogations as she argued in Gender and Power (1987) and Masculinities (1995) that gay and women’s liberation have followed similar trajectories as sexual liberation movements, the former grafting much of its critique of sex-roles, capitalism, men and patriarchy from the latter. More recently, Australian histories of gay liberation and the wider lesbian and gay rights movement in Australia such as Graham Willett’s Living Out Loud (2000) and Robert Reynolds’ From Camp to Queer (2002) have also documented collaboration between Australian gay men and feminist women, and there also exists an extensive archive of correspondence, interview material, photographs, and personal histories that speak to definitive moments in Australia’s radical past that involved gay men and lesbian feminists working together (Ritale and Willett 2011, 86-93). This article builds on this scholarship by extending much-needed analysis of the intersections between gay and women’s liberation. Further, while the archive for gay liberation and gay law reform history in Australia is vast and growing, it has been mostly male-centric and there is still much to be written about the lesbian presence in these movements (Baird 2001).

Evidence of the Man Question in Australian Feminism

Historically, and into the present, the Man Question in feminism has taken a variety of forms. In its simplest form, the questions of if and how men can be involved in feminism are often considered to be incongruous with feminist ideals of woman-identified culture and activism; or rather, men and women, and men and feminism, have tended to be portrayed as oppositional gendered categories (Rosin 1994). For women activists of ‘first wave’ Australian feminism including Australian Rose Scott, men were both part of the problem— they were deemed sexually voracious, the seducers and corrupters of women (Allen 1994)— and part of the solution—through liquor reform and sex education it was hoped that men and masculinity could be domesticated (Lake 1998). Widely read feminist literature of the 1970s, such as Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), conceptualised men and their associated sex-roles (to use the terminology of the 1970s) as harmful and repressive. Further, as Mary Spongberg (1998, 259) has highlighted, a more definitive ‘radical feminist’ stance (developing in Australia and elsewhere by the late 1970s) would come to conflate men with ‘the violent underpinnings of patriarchal and phallocentric sexuality’ and with the hegemonic oppression of women both inside and outside the home (Johnson and Lloyd 2004).

Australian feminist author and former women’s liberationist, Anne Summers, noted in her memoir Ducks on the Pond (1999) that a significant area of debate at women’s liberation meetings in Sydney and Adelaide in the early 1970s was ‘the Man Question.’ This debate centered on whether the male partners, friends and children of members should be allowed to attend meetings, consciousness-raising groups and conferences. For despite an assumed goal (inscribed in the 1969 manifesto of Adelaide women’s liberation) to bring about the liberation of all humanity (Women’s Liberation, Adelaide, 1969), 1970s feminist activism in Australia and elsewhere is characterised by an emphasis on female empowerment, woman-identified relationships and moments of separatism. As Verta Taylor and Leila Rupp have explained with regard to the ‘oppositional consciousness’ of female separatism and ‘cultural feminism’ in the 1970s and ‘80s, these methods of activism were essential strategies ‘for organising one’s life around feminism’ (Taylor and Rupp, 43), and they were essential too for many feminists in Australia. In Sydney in 1973, the Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter stated that the success of the movement’s activism depended on its exclusively female, ‘no-men allowed’ policy (Grahame 1998, 401). When Summers had mentioned at the inaugural 1970 national conference in Melbourne that men were at times present in Adelaide’s women’s liberation meetings, she was ‘shocked by the hostility of the response.’ Her admission, recalled Summers, ‘appeared to be confirmation of the political backwardness of Adelaide’ (1999, 263).

Feminists in the 1970s were never clear or unified when it came to the Man Question. It was hardly uncommon for instance for women’s liberation members to have husbands and boyfriends, and to be mothers, such as Jean Taylor, with both male and female children (Taylor 2009). Summers admired the pragmatism of some left-wing women, such as Mavis Robertson from the Communist Party who simply stated that ‘we may love men and live with them, but we don’t have them at our meetings’ (Summers 1999, 264). Others could be supportive of their male partners getting involved in feminist-inspired consciousness-raising groups, so long as this was separate from their women’s groups (Henry and Derlet 1993, 29-31).

The reluctance or ambivalence of feminists about directly including men in their social movement is hardly surprising, considering that the origins of women’s liberation, in Australia and elsewhere, was both a product of and reaction to the New Left, and a protest against the exclusion of women in public life. As Zelda D’Aprano and other female political activists found in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Marxist and socialist organisations they were affiliated with, such as the Communist Party of Australia, were saturated with male chauvinism, and women’s roles were typically those of the leaflet copier or coffee-maker (Kaplan 1996, 31; Burgmann 2003, 107-109). A defining framework for women’s liberation therefore was to give personal and political legitimacy to the specific experiences that women felt were ignored at all levels of Australian society (Scutt 1987). While in its early days women’s liberation supported a dialogue and alliance with male comrades of mixed New Left groups, and with gay liberation, in an effort to overthrow capitalist structures, women’s liberation developed a distinctly radical and gender-specific consciousness by 1975 (Curthoys 1992; Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter 1970, 6). This involved an awareness of sexism as a primary form of oppression (a theory commonly associated with radical feminism and also lesbian feminism) and an acknowledgment of specific difficulties, problems and solutions for women in society, and for feminist political mobilisation (Watson 1998, 481; Summers 1975).

Men were largely auxiliary to the conferences and meetings of women’s liberation (Henry and Derlet 1993, 30). In some instances however men could be invited along to discuss topics considered to be of mutual interest, such as sex-role conditioning in education institutions and sexual violence (SWLN 1970, 6). At the inaugural women’s liberation conference held in Melbourne in 1970, women spoke about the need to increase discussions with men ‘about women’s liberation . . . and combine with other groups, of men and women, in different kinds of actions’ (SWLN 1970, 6). Others, like the Sydney women’s liberation group, had major problems with men’s involvement in any part of the conference or wider movement due to past experiences of men criticising their comprehension of socialist politics and activism. From as early as 1970 there was already a major tension between strategies of incorporation and separatism. This tension would increase as feminist political theory diversified across radical, liberal, socialist, and conservative agendas, posing new questions about the relationship between women’s oppression, men, sexuality, patriarchy and capitalism.

Out of these contested spaces, some men still pursued an involvement in feminism throughout the 1970s: by reading feminist literature, engaging with the emerging Anglo-American feminist-aligned men’s movement, making unconventional feminist-friendly lifestyle choices, supporting the women in their lives in political activities, and also through forming their own CR groups that borrowed structure and content from women’s liberation (Reynolds 2002). They did so in a decade in which dominant constructs of masculinity were being challenged not only by feminism, but also by the sexual revolution (which both reinforced masculine sexual privilege while purporting to extend it to women) and the gay liberation movement. Of these various ‘revolutions’, I argue it was feminism which was the most challenging to late-twentieth century Australian masculinity politics and, despite the popularity of narratives to the contrary, often constructive (particularly for gay men), insofar as it is possible to separate the intersecting influences of transnational radical social movements of this period.

Men, Feminism and Consciousness-Raising

For many Australian men and women who were under forty at the time, the 1970s was a particularly transformative decade, heralded by the election of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister and an end to twenty-three years of conservative Liberal Federal Government, student-based mass demonstrations and a cultural rejection of capitalist market forces (Weeks 1985; Cochrane 1999). As young people increasingly put off work and marriage, often to study for longer periods of time at universities or to involve themselves in anti-war and radical protest movements, the seemingly clear-cut path to ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ was destabilised and the breadwinner/housewife roles rendered less static (Johnson and Lloyd 2004). Student lifestyles during the late 1960s encouraged greater experimentation with new fashion, hairstyles and music, furthering the breakdown of traditional gender constructs (Cochrane 1999). Increasing numbers of young men for instance were growing their hair long and through this act asserting their youth and freedom. As Peter Cochrane has highlighted, long hair on men alone signified a radicalised and somewhat effeminised male identity and a rejection of the ‘short-back and sides, soldiering and patriotism’ (1999, 169) that had defined conventional Western masculinity since the 1950s. It was from this cohort of experimental, rebellious and politically engaged young men and women, as well as from other student-based radical groups such as the Sydney Push and the Campaign Against Moral Persecution, that women’s liberation would gain male allies (Coombs 1996).

For many men of this generation, a sense of holding traditional breadwinner-status and privilege in both private and public spheres was dramatically called into question in the early 1970s, and prompted a variety of responses. Reflecting in the late 1990s, Australian journalist Mike Carlton and academic Bob Pease both stated that they had been brought up in the post-war world to believe that men behaved in certain ways towards women, and in society at large. They were to be, Carlton would later recall, ‘the hunter and the gatherer . . . climbing up that greasy-pole of so called success, in the eyes of our employers, our peers and society in general’ (Carlton 1996). Both men were from working-class families: Mike Carlton attended a private school on Sydney’s North Shore on a scholarship, while Bob Pease worked with his father in an exclusively male-run timber yard from the age of fourteen (Pease 1997). In these highly masculine environments, Carlton and Pease learnt to value success, hard work and skill as part of their socialisation into manhood and both would go on to develop successful careers in journalism and academia. However, along the way their male identity was challenged through their relationships with women radicalised by feminism. Carlton was implicated via his wife, who as a university student in the 1970s ‘started to get on board with that first wave feminist thinking, the Germaine Greer thing, and decided that she wished to change’ (Carlton 1996, 100). Feminism was a force which drastically altered the dynamics of his marriage, household and lifestyle and, he argued, ‘made life extraordinarily difficult to cope with’ (99). Pease, who was already immersed in a counter-cultural lifestyle as an environmental studies student in Tasmania, found himself deeply confronted by a girlfriend’s claim that he was complicit in the societal oppression of women. His socialist principles encouraged him to interrogate these disturbing claims in rather unique ways for a man of this time: establishing a CR group for men, reading feminist literature and experimenting with new ways of being a man, including his role as a stay-at-home dad (Pease 1997, 4).

CR groups were an effective forum in which men could think seriously about feminism and at the same time enabled them to offer support to feminists and other women in their life. They were a particularly crucial component to the Australian women’s liberation movement throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, as a manifestation of grass-roots activism and as the most effective way, according to Marilyn Lake, of developing feminist consciousnesses through discussions of sex-role socialisation and liberation politics (Lake 1999, 233). When Anne Summers started attending women’s liberation CR groups in the early 1970s she thought that ‘both men and women need to recognise the cultural conditioning they have undergone’ (Summers 1999, 261-262). For Jean Taylor, it could also be practical for women to include their male partners in groups ‘to give them some idea of what we’d been doing every week for these past many months’ (Taylor 2009, 220). As Kristin Henry and Marlene Derlet have highlighted in Talking Up a Storm (1993), some of the women from their consciousness raising group in Melbourne (formed in 1972) encouraged their male partners to start up a men’s CR group, but acknowledged that their own was sacred, viewing it as a ‘nucleus’ of the wider women’s movement (Gloria qtd in Henry and Derlet 1993, 44). As another former member explained, ‘It was the group that gave us the confidence and the faith in ourselves, and taught us how to communicate with other women’ (Helen qtd in Henry and Derlet 1993, 44).

For men interested in applying CR techniques to their own experiences, it became obvious that they would need to fashion separate spaces for this. Whilst open groups (that is, they could involve men or other women) did exist in the 1970s, women’s liberation and the wider women’s movement tended to emphasise a woman-centered approach to their activism. As Janet explained about her women’s liberation CR group in Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter in 1973, ‘ we wanted a closed group which could be supportive and where we would be able to form close alliances . . . we saw ourselves as women in our struggle for identity’ (7). Such exclusivity enabled women in many cases to better articulate and analyse how sex roles had affected their identities (Cornell 2000, 1035), and also provided a link to the wider women’s liberation movement (Janet 1973, 7). Combative experiences with men invited into CR groups could also dramatically highlight the need to have women-only meetings. For example, Janet’s experience of inviting men into her group to discuss their understanding of women’s liberation disintegrated into a debate about semantics, with the men questioning ‘the meaning of the terms or jargon used’ (1973, 7). Janet also recalled that ‘some women felt that the meeting lost all form and became a sort of open battle or a forum to power games between some of the men’ (7). In Jean Taylor’s group, husbands invited along one night reacted defensively and spitefully during discussion about women’s roles and feminist consciousness. (Taylor 2009, 227). In 1973, the socialist-oriented Dave Mcknight had an article about ‘men’s groups’ published in the Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter arguing that separate groups would allow men to ‘solve some of the issues of men’s liberation’ (McKnight 1973, 9). This article was included in the newsletter as a ‘male perspective’ piece that followed on from the article about Janet’s open CR group.

Challenged by perceptions that men were unemotional, aggressive, and ‘oppressive to women and gays in a thousand subtle and not so subtle ways’ and also inspired by the links between Marxist critiques of the alienated worker and the alienation felt between men, Dave McKnight utilised CR techniques as a way to destabilise these perceptions (McKnight 1973, 9). McKnight questioned the meaning of sexism and how gay men as well as women were often the target of discrimination and abuse by heterosexual men, a question that became particularly pronounced in his group due to the presence of two gay men (McKnight 1973, 9). As he explained in the article;


The features of the masculine stereotype are thrown into stark relief when straight men confront gay men . . . for male homosexuals have always been seen to be the ‘failed men’ in terms of the male culture and ethos (1973, 9.)

McKnight was also acutely aware of how this consciousness-raising experience differed from that of women’s liberation CR groups at the time. He remarked that despite learning about the oppressive nature of the male sex-role that socialised men to ‘be objective . . . no emotions please’ (1972, 9), he also noted a crucial difference—the benefits and privileges that also accompany adherence to the male attributes, namely men's social power and dominance over women, which, he argued, men ‘have a vested interest in preserving’ (9).

Further along in the decade, Bob Pease’s Tasmanian-based CR group comprised eleven educated, middle-class and mainly heterosexual men (pers comm). It began as an informal way to make sense of their female partners’ and friends’ emerging feminist consciousness and the challenges this posed for many of their attitudes and behaviours as men in Australia (Pease 1997, 18). It also became a forum in which to talk through some of the current ideas about a men’s liberation movement.

Men’s Liberation

By the late 1970s literature concerning men’s relationship to feminism and male liberation had found its way into Australian bookshops and feminist reading circles, suggesting a growing overlap between feminism and masculinity politics (SWLN 1976, 7-8). Men’s liberation literature was diverse, each available text theorising a different relationship between men and feminism but all signifying a debt to feminist critiques of sex roles and gendered oppression. Some were committed to fostering a ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘anti-sexist’ dialogue between Western men and the women’s liberation movement, such as Jon Snodgrass’ US-based anthology A Book of Readings: For Men against Sexism (1977). This collection of essays kept a close, critical eye on men’s various commitments to contemporary anti-sexist practices in the United States. The radical British-based magazine Achilles Heel included content that deeply challenged heterosexuality and sexual practices as well as masculine norms (Seidler 1992). As Victor Seidler has highlighted, its praxis was ‘sympathetic to feminism and gay liberation, feeling it was important to find a way [for men] of relating to these movements’ (Seidler 1992, x). In the United States, Jack Nichols’ Men’s Liberation (1975), Warren Farrell’s The Liberated Man (1974) and Joseph Pleck and Jack Sawyer’s Men and Masculinity (1974) acknowledged a link between women’s liberation, feminist critiques of sex-roles and the potential this created for reforming masculinity—in this case, the male propensity to espouse ‘dominance, competition, control, rational structuring and toughness’ (Nichols 1975, 11). Nichols’, Farrell’s, and Pleck and Sawyer’s texts were also preoccupied with the specific oppression accorded men by their post-war male role and formed part of a diffuse manifesto for a developing faction within the Western men’s movement. This faction was positioned as separate from the gay liberation movement but considered of parallel and complementary significance to women’s liberation. Jack Sawyer referred to it as ‘male liberation’ (Pleck and Sawyer 1974, 170).

The dual accent in these texts on both destabilising constructions of masculinity and reforming men caused tensions between men’s groups and feminist groups in Australia and elsewhere over the next couple of decades (Messner 1998, 255-276). And yet, they initially provided Bob Pease with a sense that there was a supportive space to develop his own ideas about sexual politics, and that individual men were not alone in ‘struggling with these issues’ (Pease 1997, 33). This would have been crucial, given the concern amongst some feminists that Pease’s group was making intrusive inroads into feminist space. For example, Pease highlighted that he was heavily criticised for forming a men’s feminist reading group that systematically read and then analysed major feminist texts, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and moving chronologically through to Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (1977). According to Pease, the criticism was that the group was ‘reading their literature – books that were written by women, for women’ (Pease 1997, 21). Pease’s CR group would eventually fragment after fourteen months, unable to reconcile conflicting attitudes about their approach and level of commitment to feminism. He recalled that some felt ‘paralysed by guilt’, some felt defensive and angry at being blamed for male privilege, some felt a desire to focus on how men were oppressed and did not ‘want to hear about the privileges we held as men or the social power we held over women’, and some wanted to continue a dialogue with feminist critiques (1997, 20). These different perspectives became emblematic of wider shifts in ‘men’s liberation’ discourse as it was increasingly discussed by the end of the decade (Connell 1997, 62-77).

Reflecting upon the experiences of his CR group, Pease recognised that such groupings of men may still offer ‘ways of being nurturing with other men that are not at the expense of women’ (Pease 1997, 33). Also, McKnight viewed men’s learning to communicate honestly and intimately about themselves with one another as a way to challenge hegemonic masculinity and the pervasive sense of male alienation in Western capitalist societies (McKnight 1973, 9). Unlike McKnight’s group, however, Pease’s group was largely heterosexual and as most of the men had been struggling with homophobia, this may have derailed their attempts (1997, 20). Meanwhile, gay men around Australia were interrogating the crucial links between feminism and the gay liberation movement, and broadening the scope a feminist awareness amongst individual men. Along with lesbian activists from both women’s liberation and gay liberation, they were also critiquing the sexism of gay men and the marginalisation of lesbian issues in gay liberation.

Gay Liberation

In Sydney in 1973, Tony Crewes wrote an article for Melbourne Gay Liberation Newsletter titled ‘On Maleness’ (Crewes 2013). In it he argued that sexism amongst radical gay male activists was not only detrimental to their ability to seek ‘warmth and pleasure with other males’ but also to women, who ‘get fucked and used in the same way as ever and are still left emotionally dependent on men’ (Crewes 2013, 128). Here was an analysis of masculinity, sexism and women’s liberation—from a man— that provocatively blended women’s and gay liberation discourse of the time. As fellow early gay liberation activist John Lee highlighted in 1990, he, Tony Crewes and many other gay men were deeply affected in the early 1970s by feminist literature and particularly radical feminist thought from overseas;


We read Germaine Greer and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and all this sort of thing and I’d been reading Marcuse – Eros and Civilisation – and books like that. So we were very interested in sexual liberation in the most radical form though Radical feminist or redical [sic] women’s stuff came first (Lee 1990).

‘On Maleness’ was also an indictment of masculinity politics in the Australian New Left, which Crewes described as ‘the Male Left, where men do not touch, kiss, talk about their problems, fuck together, listen to and be directed by women, cry’ (Crewes 2013 , 129). Indeed, while both the counter-culture movement and New Left politics helped inspire a new radicalism in Australian society, indicated by a rebellious youth-culture and experimentation with new sexual behaviours (though mainly in a heterosexual context), it would take women’s liberation and gay liberation movements to pose a more radical challenge to conventional understandings of sex, gender and sexuality, and particularly amongst individual gay liberation men (Altman 1979, 154-155).

Australian women’s liberation and gay liberation shared an avant-garde approach to the liberation of humanity from sex-roles and the institutions that underpinned them (Johnson 1998, 206-207; Ross 2013). As Dennis Altman highlighted in Coming Out in the Seventies (1979, 168), ‘gay liberation demanded not just civil liberties for homosexuals but rather a change in the social ordering of sexuality and an end to the dominance of the heterosexual nuclear family model.’ This theory of oppression had been, Altman continued, ‘influenced by the counter-culture in general, and by the re-born feminist movement in particular’ (1979, 168). Lex Watson, former co-president of Australian gay activism group Campaign Against Moral Persecution (and one of the first political groups in Australia to uphold an alliance between lesbians and gay men, established in the Sydney suburb of Balmain in 1970): explained that gay and feminist activism in the ‘70s were bound by the three separate but interlocking themes of sexual orientation, gender identity and social sex-roles (Watson in conversation with the author, 2012).

Shared concerns and tactics allowed for collaborative and often creative dialogue between feminists and gay male activists throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, expressed at national conferences, public protests, general meetings, parties and dances. There were many elements to gay liberation activism; for instance, those borrowed from or inspired by women’s liberation, particularly their use of consciousness-raising groups to discuss sexual oppression (Altman 1972, 196). Some women’s liberation members were also former (and often current) gay liberation activists, moving between the two movements as they dealt with their interlocking political agendas (Wills 1981). In Sydney, gay liberation often took place at women’s liberation headquarters in the inner west suburb of Glebe (SGLN1972, 1). At the 6th National Conference for Lesbians and Homosexual Men in 1980, an initiative supported by both women’s and gay liberation networks, a woman named ‘Uma’ described in Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter how encouraging it was ‘to see the growing awareness and commitment to Feminism in the men’ (1980, 2). This growing awareness, by this time eight years in the making, also involved many instances of conflict between the Australian women’s movement and the men of gay liberation.

A defining point in women‘s liberation and gay liberation coalition had come much earlier however, at the forum on ‘Sexual Liberation’ held at the University of Sydney in January 1972 (Altman 1979, 16-21). Here the speech delivered by Dennis Altman (which marked the establishment of the Australian chapter of gay liberation) was a significant moment for Australian feminist politics as it highlighted the contested place of lesbians within women’s liberation. Altman chastised another panelist, feminist expatriate and author Germaine Greer, for not addressing lesbians in The Female Eunuch, and called attention to a level of invisibility and ignorance of homosexual issues in the women’s movement;


If I might make my one mandatory chiding (I won’t call it an attack), on Germaine Greer, it is to say that I think in part anyway, her book exemplified some of this denial, a refusal to recognise that homosexuals form an important section, not only of men in our society but also women. Where is the lesbian in The Female Eunuch? (Altman 1979, 18)

This bold statement positioned Altman (an openly gay man and activist) and the gay liberation movement as a strong potential ally of lesbian feminists, many of whom were starting to realise that both the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements could be ambivalent about their presence, concentrating on the needs either of heterosexually-oriented women or of gay men. Reading the quote today we are reminded of the need to interrogate the links between gay liberation and women’s liberation more closely, particularly because here is a very early example of a gay man literally standing up to speak on behalf of a major issue for feminist politics at the time. Furthermore, the first public gay liberation demonstration in Sydney in 1972 took place in conjunction with the broader Australian women’s movement, as part of the International Women’s Day March (Ross 2013; Lee 1991). ‘We saw ourselves in perfect alignment with the women’s movement in its radical form’, John Lee recalled (Lee 1991), however ‘terribly cosy’ this idea may have been so early on.

What is distinctive about the relationship between gay liberation and women’s liberation, and its relevance for analysing men in Australian feminism, is an overlapping commitment to creating a new, de-gendered human subject in the early 1970s (Johnson 1998, 208)—a theme that would reappear with the emergence of queer politics and activism in the 1990s (Jagose 1996; Eng et al 2005). Dennis Altman’s book Homosexual is emblematic of this utopianism and emphasised women’s and gay liberation as mutually enforcing projects, having argued that, they ‘hold the greatest implications for straight men and, indeed, for full human liberation’ (1971, 206) and that individual transformation and sexual liberation are possible for men and women (1971, 80-97). Pauline Johnson (1998, 207) has suggested that Homosexual may not ‘today be immediately recognised as a feminist text’; however, its critique of sex-roles, clear referencing of feminist authors, thinkers and ideas, and its experimental style placed it ‘as more than a mere companion piece to women’s liberation literature.’ Its continuing significance for lesbians and gay men of varying political ideologies is clear from the recently published collection After Homosexual (2013). It includes primary and secondary material from local and international writers (including many feminists) such as Raewyn Connell, Jeffrey Weeks, Barbara Creed, Karla Jay, Martha Shelley, Graham Willett and Tony Crewes, and considers the transformative legacy of Homosexual and the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements in Australia and elsewhere.

In Sydney, gay liberation dances held at town-halls provided a new and public space for gay men and lesbian women to meet together, drink, dance, socialise, and also to politicise. It was through this scene that many gay men and lesbians (along with heterosexual women) experienced new ways of relating to each other that destabilised binaristic constructs of sex, gender and sexuality within their own communities and in wider society (Jennings and Mackay 2009). By the end of the ‘70s, various events such as the anti-psychiatry movement (which rejected aversion therapy and other psychiatric procedures that purported to ‘cure’ homosexuality), Gay Pride Week 1973, numerous National Homosexual Conferences and the establishment of the Sydney Mardi Gras brought gay men and lesbian feminists even closer together (Harris, Witte and Davis 2008). These events provided opportunities (some collaborative and some combative) to discuss tactics for transforming sexual politics in Australia and to pursue the feminist framework of the personal as political.

Theoretical developments in Western feminism, namely the emergence of radical feminism and lesbian separatist groups in Australia and the United States by the late 1970s, dramatically altered some gay men’s attitudes towards feminism (as it did for many women also). A local variation of the US-based ‘Radicalesbians’ was established by women from both women’s and gay liberation in Melbourne during 1973 (Radicalesbians 2013; Sitka 1989). Their impetuslike that of their North-American counterparts, was to organise separately from men and focus on political lesbianism as a viable feminist practice (Thompson 1992, 387-398). They challenged both the silencing of lesbian issues in the women’s and gay movements, and critiqued hetero-sexism, patriarchy, sex-roles and the nuclear family (Willett, 68).

A small group of Australian men involved with gay liberation in Melbourne and Sydney chose to align themselves with the Radicalesbians, identifying themselves as allies of radical feminism whilst fashioning their own movement, ‘radical effeminism’. ‘The Effeminist Manifesto,’ produced in the United States in 1973 (Danksy, Knoebel and Pitchford 2013, 133-139), and subsequently adopted by its Australian chapter, is both stark and amusing in its serious avowal of woman-centred and pro-feminist ideals. It also raises questions about the debts some men owed feminism in enabling them to develop their political awareness, particularly when its authors seemed to be eagerly engaging with feminist debates of the time. For example, the manifesto firstly focussed on sexism and male supremacy as the root of all oppression (134)—a common trope of radical feminism and lesbian feminism; it celebrated gynarchism (the power and rule of women), and then criticised gay men and lesbians who engaged in ‘sado-masculinity, role-playing and objectification’, as well as ‘masochism and transvestism’, arguing that these projected ‘anti-women feelings’ (136-137). Further, while the manifesto verged on the essentialist in its call for followers to ‘value the feminine principle’ and ‘admire in each other what is tender and gentle, what is aesthetic, considerate, affectionate, lyrical and sweet’ (137), it also proposed ‘to find militant ways for fighting our oppression’ (138). Effeminists in Australia, such as Craig Johnston who wrote the paper ‘(Ef)feminism’ for National U in 1974, argued that the only contribution gay or heterosexual men could make to feminism was to remake, or rather to eschew, their masculinity: ‘to become unmanly, to oppose hierarchies, to share, to be, sensitive to the feelings of others, to raise children— in short, to live out non-masculine values and lifestyles’ (Willett 2000, 70). Effeminism, was also premised on a wider critique of the Western gay liberation movement as a highly individualistic and sexist organisation, ‘orienting itself to men and mimicking male politics’, as argued in the ‘Draft Manifesto of the Revolutionary Homosexuals of the Gay Liberation Front’ in 1974 (a paper that blended socialist and effeminist principles; Willett 2000, 70). There are indeed many contradictions throughout the Effeminist Manifesto, and yet it stands as a particularly detailed, theoretically nuanced and engaged piece of feminist writing of the early 1970s.

Effeminism was inspired by women’s and gay liberation praxis, particularly their experimental approach to activism, their politicisation of the personal and their willingness to challenge sex roles and gender identity (Willett 2000, 54). One of the original North American effeminists, Steve Dansky, has argued that it was a unique political position for gay men to assume, encompassing a ‘binary function: first to signify the etymological correlation and support of feminism; and second, to connote the societal ostracism of men considered to be effeminate’ (Dansky 2013, 58-59). Effeminism was also momentary and obscure, and North American counterparts are known to have been shocked that their effeminist ideals gained traction outside of New York (Lee interviewed by French 1990). Nonetheless, it is an important part of a wider and continuing history of gay men engaging feminist theories and practices, and of men and women working in positive collaboration towards rethinking sex and gender politics during the tumultuous decade of the 1970s (Willett 2000, 64). The Australian contingent of effeminists are one among many examples of political links between contemporary queer and feminist histories, and again deserves further analysis than is applied here, being one of the few examples of men aligning themselves with what Willet has described as ‘the most dynamic and exciting part of the social movements – radical feminism’ (2000, 70).

Into the 1980s and ‘90s

By the late 1970s some feminists chose to align themselves more closely with radical and lesbian feminism, focussing their activism on woman-identified community building which could include female separatism (Matthews 1997). This did not mean an end to feminists working with gay men in social movements, however. Many did in order to fight against the gendered discrimination faced by homosexuals and minority groups during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s (Matthews 1997; Robinson 2013, 177-192). In the longer term, the emergence of queer politics and activism, as well as a discourse of ‘third wave’ feminism in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s seemed to indicate a ‘new’ moment in the recent historical alliance between feminism and gay politics. This moment included alternative frameworks for a range of marginalised identities to protest and seek empowerment collectively (Howie, Gillis and Munford 2004). And yet this period also presented a stark shift from the more utopian atmosphere of the 1970s, reflected in the increasing tendency amongst both older and younger generations of Australian men and women to declare that feminism was ‘irrelevant, counterproductive, or even dead’ (Dux and Simic 2008, 10).

The ‘Man Question’ in feminism shifted and increasingly centred on whether feminist praxis could extend its increasing acceptance of ‘multidimensionality’ (Holmgren and Hearn 2009) of women and feminisms to an acceptance of diversity amongst a particularly problematic category, men. (Reekie 1988; Schacht and Ewing 1997; Herbert 2007). By the early 1990s, Australian scholars Raewyn Connell (1995), Michael Flood (1994) and Bob Pease (1997) were beginning to make their debut into the critical study of local and global men and masculinities, as well as pro-feminist men’s activism, and overseas Lynne Segal was positioning the study of masculinity alongside feminism, conceptualising how feminist activism encouraged and complicated new expressions of masculinity, particularly in Westernised societies (1987; 1990). Feminists inside and outside the academy were (and still are) questioning whether men too can occupy a feminist consciousness, a concept that deeply (and understandably) challenges the long history of feminism as a ‘women’s movement’ (Herbert 2007).


The women’s liberation movement would undergo various shifts to its theories and practices from 1969, and by the end of the twentieth century the energies put into early utopian ideals and experimental activism had been channelled into a wider range of political, cultural and intellectual pursuits (Curthoys 1992, 439). Many men had been deeply challenged by the way women around them had committed themselves to revolutionary change in their private and public lives, though some considered this debt more positively and proactively than others. Those men already politically engaged and radicalised often sought answers to questions about sex- and gender-based discrimination in feminist books or reading groups, or found justification of their hopes and fears for male identity in the emerging texts of the Western men’s liberation movement. Others were content to work on redefining their relationships with other men through consciousness-raising techniques, and, for a select few, by rejecting any semblance of conventional masculinity altogether through ‘radical effeminism’. Sometimes these responses became intertwined as men dipped in and out of the experimental space feminism was offering them in the early 1970s. The variety of responses would continue into the 1980s where some men’s commitments to feminism became more politically active and academically based as feminism expanded into scholarship. Bob Pease, for example, became heavily involved in fostering a pro-feminist men’s network in Australia and contributed various publications on the role of feminism in men’s lives (Pease 2002, 165-177). He also established patriarchy-awareness workshops in Melbourne, the Men Against Sexual Assault organisation and an online pro-feminist discussion forum called profem. Craig Johnston, a former effeminist, has published groundbreaking scholarship on queer politics in Australia (Johnston and van Reyk 2001), highlighting the importance of feminism in destabilising narrow understandings of sex, gender, sexuality and identity in Australia and elsewhere. Other men took a different turn as they grappled with further challenges to traditional gender roles in Australian society brought about by a greater presence of feminist reform in the public sphere. By the 1990s feminism was a familiar (and highly contentious) part of Australia’s cultural and political landscape.

This article has sought to shed light on a relatively unknown aspect of contemporary Australian feminist history—the debt that some men and men’s social movements since the 1970s owe to the women’s liberation movement. It has hopefully shown that whilst being a problematic presence alongside feminist networks, women’s liberation activists and men from gay liberation and other leftist political groups during the 1970s were sharing techniques and strategies to transform Australian social mores. And yet, although gay men and feminist women in particular shared the struggle to redefine attitudes to sexuality, gender and identity politics, working on the ‘same side’ did not always mean a peaceful alliance (Dowsett 1998, 12). Nonetheless, mapping the history of male engagement with feminist theory and activism in this period problematises how we think about feminist identity politics today. While there is still many more case studies to be explored (particularly outside of the Sydney/Melbourne metropoles), this article’s aim has been to challenge the popular narratives that feminism has been largely destructive and crisis-inducing for boys and men.



1. The term 'feminist' was contested within the women's liberation movement in the early 1970s due to its connotations of an earlier and seemingly more conservative expression of the Western women's movement (Grahame 1998).  



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