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Feminism in Australia: A long and contradictory history

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Review — Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: A history of Australian feminism, Allen & Unwin, 1999. 316 pages. ISBN 1 86508 137 X

Feminism is arguably one of the most powerful, the most energy-charged and the most radical of the ideas thrown up in the modern age. It has the potential to challenge the very foundations of the oppressive capitalist world. Perhaps that’s why it has been so effectively “disappeared” from history.

Each generation of feminists has to start with the task of resurrecting the work of those who went before.

In her history of Australian feminism, Getting Equal, Marilyn Lake tackles, yet again, the task of reclaiming the past, and repositioning us to recognise, respect and learn from the women who worked with such power and such creativity to achieve so much for women in particular — and all oppressed people in general.

Lake reminds us that feminism propels action for social change: “Feminism was a cult so deep that one lost oneself in it, and it was a power which pushed the true feminist along.” This is Linda Littlejohn speaking. She is one of the feminists, forgotten now, but a household name in the ’30s, who worked indefatigably, in Australia and internationally, to promote the economic emancipation of the woman worker. Lake says of Littlejohn that she understood feminism was “not merely an individual persuasion” but was “a set of ideas, a collective force.”

Feminism unites the oppressed. Some of the highlights of Getting Equal are the constant reminders of how feminism shakes the status quo. It can break women out of the constraints of race and class. In tackling their own oppression as women, privileged women came to recognise the oppression of others.

Mary Bennett, a powerful voice for justice for Indigenous people, said in 1931: “I grew up in squatterdom and most of my friends are squatters, so I know their case through and through, but this does not blind me to the fact that a party to a case ought not to be a judge in his own cause.” She was arguing for the preservation of Arnhem Land for its ancestral owners. She reminded me forcibly of Camilla Cowley, the pastoralist who, over half a century later, came to see the wrongs of Howard’s “Ten Point Plan” to extinguish native title and became a most eloquent advocate for land rights.

Howard may like to think that what he derisively calls the “black arm band” view of history is a modern invention. But it is not. In 1930, at the Pan-Pacific Women’s Conference in Honolulu, Constance Cooke delivered a well-researched and detailed paper on “The Status of Aboriginal Women in Australia,” in which she said: “The first great wrong was when the original inhabitants were deprived of all their lands…the second great wrong to the race has been the interference of the white man with the native women.” Like modern activists for Indigenous rights, she appealed to an international forum — and she predictably copped an outraged response from the government of her day.

In 1912, feminists won the “maternity allowance,” a five pound ($10), one-off payment on the birth of a child. Interestingly, it was paid to unmarried as well as married mothers, but not to “Asiatic or Aboriginal natives of Australia, Papua or the islands of the Pacific.” This exclusion was accepted by Labor Party women, who, like their male comrades, were strongly in favour of the White Australia policy.

But the “non-party” women, like Vida Goldstein denounced the “colour bar.” It was one of many instances that Lake gives which demonstrate how organising autonomously enabled feminists to escape the mental shackles of the ALP which was limited by its orientation to the most privileged layers of the working class.

Part of contemporary discussions about the mistreatment of the Stolen Generations is the belief that at the time, nobody opposed the policy, right? Wrong! Mary Bennett and many others argued strongly against the policy. In 1934, custody rights for mothers were far from fully achieved. Wealthy and middle class mothers were at risk of losing their children: the interests of Black and white women dovetailed.

An eye for the times. One of the great values for me of this book is Lake’s ability to place attitudes of the past in their context. She talks about the immense emphasis on a state income for mothers not as “conservative — an earlier version of “family values” — but as a revolutionary demand for economic independence for women, whether they worked outside or inside the home.

Their opposition to the “demon drink,” which earned them a reputation as “wowsers,” made sense in the context of violent men and unprotected women at home. However, it may also have owed something to a continuing Puritan tradition. “Just say NO!” has a long history.

The major difference between the earlier feminists and the “women’s libbers” was their approach to sex. In 1888, Bessie Harrison Lee suggested in a letter to The Herald that if a couple could not afford children the solution was simple: no sex. Many women spoke of the “bestial” appetites of men. Such an attitude was shocking to the sexually liberated ’60s, and a reason to dismiss older feminists as Victorian.

But as an older woman, that attitude is, sadly, more understandable to me than it might be to a younger woman. I grew up in a society where rape in marriage did not even officially exist as a crime. In practice, rape of an “unchaste” woman, was not prosecuted. So it’s hardly surprising that sex itself, rather than its misuse, came to be seen as the problem. As Lake points out, the call for abstinence, rather than contraception, put “anti-sex” feminist leaders well behind the more enlightened woman in the street.

Early mistakes and perennial problems. A more fundamentally flawed attitude was shown in the jingoism of those feminists who supported conscription during World War I and the racism of the Labor women who supported the White Australia policy. Unlike Mary Bennett and Camilla Cowley, these women had not yet learned to understand that supporting racism and imperialist war was not in any sense in women’s interests.

Just like contemporary femocrats and women who break the glass ceiling, women in the past who “made it” — courtesy of the women’s movement — but did not retain a political anchor, simply joined the ranks of the privileged. Miles Franklin, was unimpressed with the political performance of Dame Enid Lyons who spoke at a conference in 1938. Of Lyons, Franklin said frankly: “…she has no depth or originality, but is a smart politician. She talked and talked for an hour or more, on and on, and blew over it a vast wheeze from the bellows of motherhood…Other women condemned as freaks and perverts have gone ahead and made it possi1ble for her thus to air herself on the public platform.”

Achievements and challenges. When Lake comes to “Women’s Lib,” her writing takes on a particularly enjoyable zest. She recreates the intense energy and creativity of that period. She analyses the tensions: personal therapy versus political reform, reform versus revolution.

She highlights the gulf between those feminists who saw male power as the only problem and tried to push this conviction onto the Aboriginal women who knew that their central problems were caused by poverty and racism.

She laments that these feminists did not have the benefit of the knowledge of the past which she has provided for us in this book.

Getting Equal gives an inspiring picture of what feminism has achieved and what it can achieve when a clear understanding of the source of women’s oppression is the guide to action. It also shows us that, without a clear program, the women’s movement can easily be derailed into individual self aggrandisement, racism,  reactionary nationalism, destructive man hating, biological determinism and focusing on the superficial symptoms of oppression, while ignoring its underlying causes. Our task is to learn from the past in order to clarify our vision of the future and work out how to get there. The heroines of Lake’s Getting Equal are those women who sorted through the range of competing ideologies and adopted feminist socialist politics, which enabled them to work for a better world for everyone.

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