Picture this: it’s the 8th of March 1975, International Women’s Day, in International Women’s Year. Pat Giles is standing beside the dais at the Supreme Court Gardens in Perth, Western Australia, waiting her turn to climb the stairs to address the crowd. There are hundreds and hundreds of women here. A young male journalist moves in beside her, greets her warmly, then asks, “Why is everyone here wearing overalls?” Pat looks out at the crowd of women, babies, children, the occasional man, and says “But not everyone is. Look at me!”
In this paper I want to use that very simple acknowledgement of visual difference, a difference of style that can be seen to have resonated in so many ways – politically, socially, culturally – depending on the location of both viewer and performer, as a way in to acknowledging the differences of class, age, sexuality, political affiliation and activist strategies that can be seen to have characterized the fledgling second-wave women’s movement of Perth of the early 1970s. Such acknowledgment seems particularly necessary, given feminist scholar Margaret Henderson’s recent work on public memory, and her observation that third wave 1990s ‘young feminists’ appear to feel they have a monopoly on diversity and difference, and appear to remember second-wave feminism condescendingly and uncomprehendingly as uniform, ethnocentric, and issues-based (Henderson, 2006: 178-179). Background research to writing the biography of Pat Giles has uncovered information that disrupts the notion of a blandly homogeneous group of women who participated in second-wave feminism in the early 1970s in WA. In this paper I’ll be drawing on material generated in researching the biography of Pat Giles to explore the ways some of those differences of style were responded to and negotiated by Giles herself and by those around her.
We don’t have a photograph of Pat Giles on International Women’s Day in International Women’s year, but we do have other photographs from the 70s, and in all of them Pat is wearing not overalls but her usual garb – the simple, smart, conservative clothing of the middle-aged, middle-class, professional 1970s Australian woman. Although she would not have used that term, Pat Giles was aware of the politics of dress. Reflecting on the overalls story in an interview with Justine Cloverdale in 1994 she said “some women like me looked conservative, and that could have been to our advantage” (Giles, 1994). More recently she has said, “Sometimes I think it was easier for people, If they saw someone like me, to think that the women’s movement might be relevant to them too…” (Giles, 2005).
By 1975 Pat Giles was no doubt a complex and somewhat enigmatic figure in Western Australian public life: she was a relatively conservative middle-aged, middle-class, competent, efficient, community-spirited mother-of-five who, in the company of her elder daughters, had become immersed in radical student politics as a mature-aged student in the heady days of the early 1970s; she was a nurse who later studied politics and industrial relations; she was a doctor’s wife in a blue-collar suburb who readily assumed the mantle of leadership in community organizations; she was an articulate, well-groomed, dignified, outspoken agitator for women’s rights in a sea of counter-cultural younger women who were indeed frequently dressed in overalls; she was a composed, steady, energetic and dependable figure who derived enormous satisfaction from her family but whose personal life had additionally been marked by tragedy, loss, sporadic violence and grief. By middle-age her ideas had changed significantly but her appearance had not. Her life experiences had taught her not to expect to be firmly located politically or socially within any specific group: consequently, she seems to have learned the art of straddling many different kinds of allegiances and sensibilities, and she was happy to pass as looking ordinarily conventional (Giles, 2005; Giles 2006).
Pat Giles first emerged as a public figure in Western Australia in 1969, when her commitment to state education led to her standing as a candidate in the 1969 Federal election for the pressure group Council for the Defence of Government Schools, affectionately known as DOGS. She stood again in 1971, but for State Parliament, and this time placed many signs reading GILES for DOGS in her electorate. In an activist career that spanned five decades, where she worked as a trade unionist, parliamentarian and feminist activist locally and internationally, her goal has been to “to facilitate the move towards a more just society for women and others who experience disadvantage” (Giles, 2005).
In the context of the world of social and political protest, there are two unusual features of Pat Giles’ activist engagement. The first concerns her desire to work within existing institutions to enact the processes of social change. Unlike separatist feminists who saw engagement with existing patriarchal structures as something of a betrayal of feminist integrity (Giles & Fatin, 1982; Pritchard Hughes, 1997; Sawer, 1992), Pat Giles sought the reform of those same institutional structures through the introduction of practical policies to benefit women in particular and the disenfranchised in general. Australian feminism is noted for its diverse approach to enacting social change (Bacchi, 1996; Bulbeck, 1997; Magarey & Sheridan, 2002; Pritchard Hughes, 1997; Sawer, 1990; Summers, 2002) and Giles was one of the women who enjoyed working inside the institutions whose patriarchal values she contested. Not surprisingly, her methods were not always appreciated by her feminist sisters. However, she stuck fast to her reformist agenda and to her engagement with existing institutional structures as a means to create cultural change.
The second unusual feature of her passionate commitment to the political process is the quality of that passion. Rather than taking the form of a dramatic conflagration that one might normally associate with passion, Pat’s passion can be viewed as a steady, quietly burning flame. This is entirely consistent with her approach to life. Hers is not a flamboyant personality. She is not known for charisma. Heads do not always turn when she enters a room. But as everyone who has worked with her will attest, her determination is unflagging, and her energy indefatigable. People love and admire Pat Giles not for any quicksilver quality but for her steadiness, her even-temperedness, her practical approach to life, her generosity, her quiet dignity, her ability to work with people who are different from herself, her intelligence and her capacity for sheer hard work (Creed, 2006; Davenport, 2006; Kirner, 2007; McGinty, 2006; Salmon, 2006; Suttner, 2006; Watson, 2006).
How did Pat Giles come to understand the inevitability of working with people who were different from herself? It’s with this question in mind that I want to focus again on her engagement with the fledgling women’s movement of the early 1970s.
The establishment of the Women’s Liberation group in Perth preceded the establishment of the Women’s Electoral Lobby by almost a year. But before we look at those two groups I want to look quickly at the groups preceding them.
Historians of the women’s movement in Western Australia (Chase, 1999; Daniels et al, 1977; Davidson, 1997; Williams 1993) are quick to point out that the two central groups of the second-wave women’s movement – the Women’s Liberation group and the Women’s Electoral Lobby – did not emerge from nowhere, but were preceded by a long line of women’s associations, some dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. These included the Karrakatta Club, formed in 1984 by Edith Cowan and others with the intention of providing women with the opportunity to be active and vocal in public affairs; the Modern Women’s Club, founded by Katharine Susannah Prichard in the 1930s as a discussion group for intelligent women (Ranford 1987); the Union of Australian Women, with deep and lasting links into the idealistic Communist Party women of the first half of the century; the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in The Hague in 1915; the Association of University Women, whose main activity in 1970 was to investigate the problems of married women in the workforce; the WA Council of Equal Pay and Opportunity, founded in 1958 as the Combined Equal Pay Committee, and disbanded in 1973 when their central goals had been met; the long-established and establishment Women’s Service Guilds, which ran until the 1990s; and the Abortion Law Reform Association, which began in 1969. In WA, women from the churches and from the Left also worked alongside men as peace activists in the Ban the Bomb movement of the middle of the century, and the Vietnam Moratorium movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Davis, 1986; Gare, 1987, Williams, 1986). As her own involvement in the women’s movement intensified during the 1970s, Pat Giles became aware of the significance for her own politicisation of each of these groups and the women who belonged to them. In particular, Communist Party women such as Joan Williams, Enid Conachie and Irene Greenwood were networked thoroughly into each of the progressive social movements, and arguably played a huge role in shaping the fledgling second-wave women’s movement during the 1970s (Williams, 1993).
Such is the impact of Irene Greenwood on Pat Giles, that consideration of the question of how Pat came to understand the inevitability of working with people who were different from herself would be incomplete without acknowledgment of the profound role Irene played in shaping her entitlement to be involved. Pat was in her early 40s and Irene in her early 70s when they first met. Irene’s direct connections with previous generations of inspired and inspiring activist women brought the history of women’s activism alive. As Pat became swept up in the protest movements on the university campus in the early 1970s, Irene beguiled her with stories about her own famous mother, Mary Ann Driver, and about her friend and mentor Katharine Susannah Pritchard. The stories Pat heard from Irene brought history to life: they were stories told from the inside, about the struggles and triumphs of such organizations as the League of Women Voters, the Modern Women’s Club, and the Women’s Service Guilds. Unlike most women who came to feminist activism in the 1970s and for whom previous generations of activist women remained invisible historically, Pat understood that she was part of a noble tradition. Arguably, one of Irene’s gifts was to give Pat a sense of her inheritance as an activist woman; another was to position her between generations, as both activist daughter to Irene’s generation, and activist mother to her own radical daughters; and a third gift from Irene was to introduce Pat to what she called “the arcane and complex world of international politics” (Giles, 1998: 65), by making it possible for her to go to Mexico for the International Women’s Year Conference in 1975. Through Irene’s influence, if through no other means, Pat Giles became aware of the diversity of the women’s movement locally and internationally in terms of age, class, sexuality, and political allegiance and activist strategies. Importantly, Pat Giles did not expect to be like everyone else in the women’s movement groups; nor did she expect everyone else to be like her. She reveled in the energy, the originality, the taboo-breaking of her daughters and their friends, for example, but she didn’t try to become one of them (Giles, 2005; 2006).
Let’s look now at the establishment of the Women’s Liberation group in Perth which, occurred almost a year before the establishment of WEL in WA. The first public meeting of Women’s Liberation was held on 4 May 1972 at the Trades Hall in Perth. This meeting was preceded by two preparatory meetings, the first at a private home in Rivervale belonging to Dola Wilson and her medical husband, Ron Wilson. Pat attended this meeting, which, she recalls, was “jam-packed” with people she did not know (Giles and Fatin, 1982), many of whom were activists in the Vietnam Moratorium movement or black power activists. The meeting was initiated by Penny Ewen, and Pat was invited through her connections with the ALP. The second preparatory meeting was held on the UWA campus and was called by Sue Boyd of the University Student Guild (Giles, 2005).
On 5 May 1972 The West Australian reported that the previous night’s public meeting at the Trades Hall was attended by “about 400 women and a handful of young men”. (The West Australian, 5 May 1972: 10). It is difficult to convey the excitement of such an event. Interestingly enough, although the Women’s Liberation Movement became strongly associated with young women, and although on this night young women were in the audience, it was the middle-aged women, including Pat Giles and Joan Williams, who spoke. The politics of dress were apparent that night. Pat recalls the euphoria she felt, but she also recalls the tension in the air, and the sharp sting of criticism for dress deemed inappropriate or for inappropriate political views. She recalls, for example, that Joan Williams was criticized for wearing earrings and make-up, “when the rest of us were on the point of discarding it: scrubbed faces and hairy legs were the go for 18 and 38 and 58 year olds” (Giles, 2005). The easy conflation of conservative appearance and conservative politics, in this instance, proved to be completely misleading. Joan Williams, like many of the Communist women of her generation who became closely involved in second-wave feminism, may have dressed like a conservative middle-class woman, but her politics were anything but conservative. Joan Williams had been committed to Communism, to peace activism and to sweeping social change since the 1930s. She brought decades of activist experience to the new movement. On that same night, however, women sitting at the other end of the political spectrum, also conservatively dressed, did feel decidedly out of place. Pat Giles recalls that two women from the Housewives Action Group, Pat Bracey and Sue Campbell, who were “women’s institute kind of women” dropped out quite quickly (Giles and Fatin, 1982).
It is testimony to the sense of urgency and exhilaration generated at this first public meeting that it was decided to run Women’s Liberation candidates for the local government elections to be held in just 20 days’ time, on 24 May 1972. Pat Giles and Joan Williams were among the 5 Women’s Liberation candidates who nominated. In addition to the local government activities, Women’s Liberation formed several special interest groups, and by July 1972 the Political Action group, the Abortion and Contraceptive group, and the Child Care and Preschool Education group were holding separate meetings (Giles and Fatin, 1982).
The political style being adopted by Women’s Liberation was deliberately confrontationist, and involved a combination of public activism and the more traditional letter-writing and lobbying. Confrontationist tactics were highly successful in getting publicity for the fledgling activist group. For example, in August 1972, charges of obscenity were brought against the University branch of the Women’s Liberation group for their special Women’s Liberation edition of the student magazine Pelican. During the trial, The West Australian reported that “Detectives photographed a placard that one group of young people exhibited outside the court house. It features a phallic symbol” (Speed, 1982: 10). The court found that although the edition of Pelican could “shock and disgust people” there was no intention to deprave and corrupt. Clearly, the local populace was easily shocked (Speed, 1982).
In September 1972 a leaflet on contraception and abortion was distributed in the Hay Street Mall; and Pat recalls a Women’s Lib street demonstration, possibly modelled on previous demonstrations by the Union of Australian Women 1, where women walked to Parliament House and draped a series of babies’ nappies bearing the message “Nappy power is not enough” over the public gallery. Pat recalls that Labor member Lyla Elliott was highly amused, but the offending women were quickly ushered out of the House (Giles, 2005). Such escapades generated sensationalised press coverage, and helped create the ratbag image for which Women’s Lib became famous. Several commentators have noted that although this image was hardly accurate, it had an impact on the women’s movement in Perth in that it caused the newly forming Women’s Electoral Lobby to distance itself by taking a more conservative stance than was necessary (Speed, 1982: 9).
Although the Women’s Electoral Lobby had not yet formed in WA in 1972, the impact of its national campaign to question every candidate on women’s issues in the coming federal election in late 1972 was certainly felt on this side of the country. This campaign provided the impetus for two quite disparate groups to work together and ultimately provided the basis for the establishment of the Womens’ Electoral Lobby in WA.
As Pat tells it, the Political Action group of Women’s Lib had been meeting to hear speakers and embarked on the task of interviewing political candidates with their own questionnaire. They were joined in this task by women from a recently formed group of daughters of the establishment Women’s Service Guilds, called the Harvest Guild; and at that stage the Women’s Lib questionnaire was dropped and the national WEL campaign questionnaire began to be used.
At this point in the story, it’s necessary to backtrack for a moment, to hear from Wendy Fatin, one of the members of the Harvest Guild (Giles and Fatin, 1982). Fatin acknowledges that as a group the Harvest Guild were young, conventional and politically naïve. But they were not counter-cultural. They did not dress in overalls, not did they overtly shun the trappings of conventional femininity. Wendy Fatin recalls that she was aware of the big Women’s Liberation public meeting in the Trades Hall in May 1972, but as a middle-class doctor’s wife she was afraid of participating in a group of radical women "who were associated in the public mind with leather and whips" (Giles and Fatin, 1982). The two groups were completely separate and knew very little of each other.
In the latter half of 1972, with a federal election looming, Wendy Fatin read an article in The Australian called “The String Bag Set”, about some Melbourne women who had established a Women’s Electoral Lobby group based on the US NOW group. This group sounded far less terrifying than the Women’s Lib group to the conventional young Fatin. She was impressed with their pre-election tactic of taking a questionnaire about women’s issues to every parliamentary candidate around the nation, and in response to the article, wrote to the WEL contact person, Caroline Graham, asking for information about how to be involved. Her receipt for $5 for membership of WEL (Vic), of 30/10/72 pinpoints the date. In an early example of the kind of networking for which WEL would become renowned, WEL (Vic) responded by sending Fatin the names of the handful of other WA women who had also joined WEL (Vic). Among them was Pat Giles. Fatin recognised Giles’ name from posters reading GILES for DOGS that she had seen by the roadside as she drove her daughter to a special kindergarten in Mt Lawley each day in the lead-up to the State election in WA in 1971. She knew from recent newspaper reporting that Pat Giles had addressed the first public meeting of Women’s Lib, but imagined from her photograph (and here’s a comment on the politics of dress) that she would be less intimidating than other women (not a whip in sight, and apparently heterosexual) and so she called Giles, they arranged to meet, and, in spite of some initial mutual suspicion, the Women’s Liberation members of the Political Action Group who had been working on their own questionnaire for the federal election candidates soon joined with the Harvest Guild women to collaborate on distributing the WEL questionnaire to local political candidates. Five women from this group, including Pat Giles, went together to the first national WEL conference in Canberra in January 1973. Wendy Fatin remembers this as a very exciting event. Among the star-studded list of speakers were Mary Gaudron (who, Fatin recalls, dressed in tatty jeans and scuffed sandals); Beryl Henderson; Gail Wilenski, Rosa Walden, Eva Cox, Beatrice Faust, Eve Mahlab, and Edna Ryan (Giles and Fatin, 1982).
Two months later, in March 1973, this same group held a public meeting to establish a WA branch of WEL. Those present recall that it felt very respectable: the meeting was chaired by Dorothea Squires, who was a member of the Women’s Service Guilds; it was addressed by Bob Hetherington from the History Department at UWA; and Ros Denny, Matron of King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, was on the dais. Because of her association with the more radical Women’s Liberation group, Pat Giles was not on the dais; however at that meeting she was elected inaugural Convenor of WEL (WA), and although she stayed involved with the Women’s Liberation group, it was to WEL that she gave her primary allegience thereafter (Giles, and Fatin, 1982; Speed 1982; Giles, 2005).
The two groups – WEL and Women’s Liberation – had overlapping agendas but quite different activist strategies, and different public images. Nevertheless, some women including Pat Giles and Joan Williams and the much younger Michelle Kosky, were members of them both (Giles, 2006). WEL (WA), like WEL nationally, aimed to exert influence on the existing political structure and lobbied for equal pay, childcare, better educational and work opportunities for women and ready access to contraception; Women’s Lib wanted more radical reform. As Suellen Murray notes, the Women’s Lib group set about establishing the first feminist refuge in Perth and the first women’s health centre, both run by feminist collectives (Murray, 2002).
In terms of age, class, and image, the WEL women were older and WEL had a middle-class image. Statistics collected in 1974 show that half of the women in the WA branch of WEL were university educated, and three quarters were married; by contrast, the Women’s Liberation group attracted a younger cohort of women and had a counter-cultural image (Speed, 1982). Most of its members were university students, although some non-university aligned working-class women had attended an early picnic and rally at Parkerville in mid 1972. It’s important to note, though, that the class affiliations and the image of both groups were further complicated by the presence of Communist Party women like Joan Williams, Enid Conachie, and Madge Cope, all of whom were middle-aged, conventional looking and ostensibly middle-class women, but whose values actively challenged the values of mainstream middle-class Australia.
In spite of the clear differences between the tone and the tactics of the two groups, one of the distinguishing features of second-wave feminism in Western Australia appears to have been the relative lack of tension between them. Pat recalls being shocked by the anger and aggression surrounding some of the disagreements that surfaced amongst eastern states women at conferences during the early 1970s (Giles, 2005; 2006). This is not to suggest that WA women were docile or complacent; nor is it to suggest that tempers did not flare nor passions be aroused. Anyone who was present at some of the mid-70s meetings about the establishment of the women’s health centre, for example, would remember the heated, fiery, passionate arguments about strategies and goals that seemed to cut to the very core of personal and collective identity. But both Pat Giles and Wendy Fatin attribute what they each see as the relative lack of hostility within and between groups in WA largely to the influence of experienced campaigners like Irene Greenwood and Joan Williams. Wendy Fatin’s first encounter with Irene Greenwood was at the inaugural meeting of the Harvest Guild, when “this elderly lady sat us in a circle and told us all about feminism, and love and generosity”. Western Australian WEL women were in no doubt about the centrality of Irene Greenwood in influencing their collective approach to political activism and appear to have regarded her with great affection. WEL Broadsheet Vol 1 No 4 1973, for example, notes that at its meeting on 12 June 1973, the WEL Status of Women Committee noted the importance of Irene Greenwood as role model and mentor.
Interestingly enough, the overlapping agendas of WEL and Women‘s Liberation groups can be seen to play out in the biography of Pat Giles herself. Although as we’ve seen, Pat Giles’ primary allegiance was to WEL, and it was the Women’s Liberation group in WA who initiated and collectively ran the first feminist refuge and women’s health centre in Perth, we find a definite overlapping of interests: women’s health issues and domestic violence have been central to Pat Giles’ agenda locally and nationally for four decades. Today, for example, in her late 70s and after decades of national and international travel which frequently took her away from her local community, Pat Giles remains treasurer of a community based women’s health centre and sits on the board of management of a women’s refuge named in her honour.
In summary, background research to writing the biography of Pat Giles has uncovered information that disrupts the notion of a blandly homogeneous group of women who participated in second-wave feminism in the early 1970s in WA. Although the women’s movement of the early 1970s in Perth was largely white and middle-class, a closer inspection reveals significant differences of class, age, political affiliation, sexual identity and political strategy. In particular, this research suggests that the strong presence of Communist Party women such as Irene Greenwood, Joan Williams, Enid Conachie and Madge Cope allowed differences to co-exist by their drawing attention to the different kinds of activist women who had preceded the 1970s second-wave movement and to the different kinds of activist women who inhabited the contemporary international arena. Drawing on their own long experiences of being activist women working from the margins to influence political and social thinking and practices, these Communist Party women also argued strongly for a harmonious recognition of sisterhood based in shared activist agendas, so creating a less conflicted interaction between the different groups comprising the women’s movement in Perth than existed in eastern states cities.
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