A few days ago, Mr Gums and I attended another ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event, this one featuring Australian historian Michelle Arrow in conversation with Australian historian Frank Bongiorno. It was an especially interesting pairing because Arrow’s book, which she is currently touring, is titled The seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia, while Frank Bongiorno wrote, just 4 years ago, The eighties: The decade that transformed Australia. So, it was a case of the Seventies facing off against the Eighties! Fortunately no blood was shed…
The conversation was introduced, as usual, by MC Colin Steele, who does a marvellous job of organising and mc-ing these events. In his intro, he told us that one of the main threads in Arrow’s book is the now well-known idea that the personal is political. This theme also ran through the conversation.
The Seventies was a big decade for me. It’s the decade in which I graduated, established my professional career, and married. It’s also the decade in which I read Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch, and when the great reformer, Gough Whitlam, came to power – and showed what a government with vision and heart could do. I must say that it is rather disconcerting to think that an era in which we were fully adult is now the subject of serious history! Such is life!
Now, the conversation …
Bongiorno commenced by asking Arrow how she defined her decade. Before I share her answer, I should explain that Arrow later told us that, while Bongiorno had taken a comprehensive look at the Eighties, she had narrowed her decade’s focus to gender and sexuality. This affected how she defined the decade. So, her answer was that she took the formation of the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the ACT in 1969 as her start, and the Women Against Rape in War protests (which also originated in Canberra) of the early 1980s as her end. She noted that soon after these protests, the ANZAC narrative began to dominate our national mythology.
Bongiorno asked Arrow to describe the discourse characterising the Seventies. Arrow talked about its being a time of rapid social and economic change and, consequently, of some disarray. Feminism and Gay Rights were big issues.
The conversation then turned to the theme mentioned by Colin Steele that the personal is the political. The main example of this, Arrow explained, is feminism. Women began to realise that their personal experiences and concerns (economic and social, for example) were structurally and politically based. Formal and informal consciousness-raising groups began exploring the underlying issues. This theme also played out in the gay and lesbian rights movement: being gay was also seen as having a political component. She mentioned here the work of the early-1970s-formed group, CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution).
After this rather long introduction, we got to the core of Arrow’s book, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. This Commission grew out of the Whitlam government’s failed attempt to reform abortion law. It was reading the fascinating personal submissions to this Commission that inspired Arrow’s book. While the Dismissal and Fraser’s election resulted in funding cuts to the Commission, bringing the Report forward and affecting the end result, the submissions themselves remain valuable.
Bongiorno noted that this Commission initiated a new role and purpose for these sorts of enquiries. Arrow agreed, explaining that it legitimated people’s stories and played a therapeutic role, both of which we still see today. (The recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a good example)
Another issue discussed was that of violence – and its appearance in the submissions. Violence also reflects “the personal is the political” theme. Corporal punishment for children, violence against women and girls, and gay bashing were all issues that played out politically. Bongiorno referred to Pierre Trudeau’s famous statement that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. Arrow explored the paradoxical nature of this argument: homosexual people sought freedom and privacy for the expression of their sexuality, while women were seeking protection for theirs!
There was of course a discussion about the Pill and its role. I was interested, given contemporary politics, in Arrow’s comment that the liberation of the 1960s, afforded by developments like the Pill, transformed in the 1970s to concerns with identity.
Bongiorno, though, pushed on to ask about the relationship between women’s liberation and the sexual revolution. Arrow talked about researching 1970s popular culture. She read magazines like Cleo and Forum, and suggested that Cleo had a more feminist aspect underpinning its exploration of sexuality and bodily knowledge, than did Forum. She commented that “letters to the editor” were particularly informative. She shared her shock on reading a response to a letter about father-daughter incest that said it was caused by wives not satisfying their husbands. How far we have (hopefully) come!
She also looked at movies – such as Alvin Purple and Petersen – for their evocation of sex, class and gender.
The conversation concluded by discussing Whitlam, the Seventies, and whether it matters. Arrow argued that there was a particular convergence in Australia of the height of the women’s liberation movement and the election of the Whitlam government. This resulted in things like Elizabeth Reid becoming the first women’s adviser to a leader anywhere in the world, to a big government commitment to International Women’s year, to attempts to reform abortion law (still an issue today), and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. Fraser, coming into power at the end of 1975, had to face this new infrastructure. She traces in her book what happened to women’s issues as time passed – for example, to Women’s Refuge funding made by Whitlam in 1975.
Q & A
The Q&A, though brief, demonstrated the audience’s knowledge of the Seventies! Topics included:
- No-fault divorce laws (the Family Law Act of 1975): Arrow agreed this was crucial social change, and it is covered in the book
- Multiculturalism: This is mentioned in the book, but given her focus, it’s mostly in relation to migrant and indigenous women in the women’s movement, and how the movement accommodated difference.
- Indigenous issues (Tent Embassy, Land rights, etc): Again, because of her focus, her coverage mostly relates to women. She noted that because of Indigenous people’s specific concerns, Indigenous women did not particularly feel part of the women’s movement.
- Education: Arrow agreed that Whitlam’s opening up access to tertiary education was transformative, and that it was particularly so for middle-class women (rather than for its main intention, working class people.) This led to the rise of women’s studies in universities, and to women (as teachers) then taking their learning out to schools – proving, again, that “the personal is political”.
- Backlash against feminism: Arrow noted PM Malcolm Fraser’s (1975-1983) “more fractious” relationship with the women’s movement, and the rise of anti-feminist groups. However, the women’s movement, she said, “opened up spaces for protest”.
Another questioner cheekily asked which decade – the 70s or 80s – was most influential, to which the replies were mutually respectful!
The final question I’ll share concerned whether “the personal is political” theme played out in other parts of the world. Arrow responded “yes, mostly in women’s movements”, but that in Australia the convergence of Whitlam with women’s movement gave it a particular flavour. She noted the significance of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships being not just about work but private life as well, and that this influenced the flavour of action in Australia.
Vote of thanks
Sociologist/social commentator Hugh Mackay gave an inspired vote of thanks. With a cheeky glint, he compared the subtitle of Arrow’s 70s book – “the making of modern Australia” – with that of Bongiorno’s 80s book – “the decade that transformed Australia”.
He discussed the major “revolutions” Arrow explores – women’s and gay rights. He noted that histories like Arrow’s show how rocky these were, and how far we have come. It is because of these revolutions, he suggested, that we now better understand Gender and Equality. He then talked a bit about gender and its place today – and why young women seem to feel that it, as a concept, is less relevant to the inclusive, gender-blind, world we want. However, he said, those wanting to eschew the “feminist” tag might want to read Arrow’s book to see just how rocky and difficult it’s been to get where we are today.
It was a lively and engaged encounter, and one which I’ve got even more out of by writing up!
ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
7 March 2019