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Feminism as cultural renaissance.

'Truly, it felt like Year One' wrote English novelist Angela Carter; 'towards the end of the sixties it started to feel like living on a demolition site--one felt one was living on the edge of the unimaginable'. There was 'a yeastiness in the air that was due to a great deal of unrestrained and irreverent frivolity', and 'an air of continuous improvisation'. 'I can' She wrote, 'date to that time and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968 my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my "femininity" was created and palmed off on me as the real thing.' (1)

To begin what is predominantly--but not exclusively--a white story: in January 1971, at Australia's first Women's Liberation conference in Sydney, postgraduate students Ann Curthoys and Lyndall Ryan spoke of forms of 'cultural oppression': 'it is here' they proclaimed,
   that the oppression of women goes beyond the traditional
   class barriers. And it is here that we have to start to smash
   those myths for unless we can change the whole cultural
   orientation of women, no revolution is going to bring us the
   liberation we are seeking. (2)

The language was that of the new New Left (3) and the popular movement against Australia's participation in the United States' war against the Vietnamese people--except for its emphasis on 'culture'. That emphasis pointed towards a dimension of the movement for the liberation of women that is seldom recognised. [Fig. 1] Look at Chris Westwood and Sue Williams: they've abandoned their skirts and stockings, not to make coffee for men at an anti-war meeting, but rather to sing--and on stage, not at home in the bathroom--in drag. (4) Young singer/songwriter, Robyn Archer sang on a subject previously un-mentionable in public, 'The Menstruation Blues'. (5)


See Ann Curthoys: she made more than speeches; she made a spectacle of herself on the cover of Mejane, volume 1, number 1. (6) [Fig. 2] All over the country, but especially in the cities, women took to their pens, typewriters and gestetners; to their easels and kilns; to their guitars; to their classrooms, and--breaking all the rules about separate spheres--to the streets and the stages.


Such activism could be seen as an extension of the Youth Movement of the late 1960s, with its insistence on its countercultural distinction from the mainstream. (7) Such activism could be seen as an extension of the cultural revolution of advanced industrial capitalist nations and its debates over what would come to be called 'Euro-communist marxism'. (8) The chronological overlap of the new New Left, the Youth Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement makes the association inevitable.

But the disorderly conduct associated with Women's Liberation distinguishes it from such chronology, if only because the women continued to erupt through the bounds of convention over and over again, throughout the 1970s and beyond. The Coming Out Ready or Not Show put together by the Australian Women's Broadcasting Cooperative to go to air on Saturday afternoons signalled in its very name what Julie Rigg and Julie Copeland noted as 'that new tone we could hear in women's voices: a boldness and enthusiasm for the possibilities of change'; it was launched on International Women's Day in 1975, (9) in Sydney. Refractory Girl had been coming out in Sydney since 1972 and in Brisbane Hecate launched itself as one of the first international journals of academic feminism at that same point in 1975. The South Australian Women's Art Movement's vision arrived in 1976. (10) The Sydney Women Writers' Workshop got themselves together when, 'with a bit of a bang', they organised a reading at Bondi Pavilion in May 1978. (11) Sisters Publishing, a cooperative of five women publishers based in Melbourne, established themselves to national fanfare in 1979. (12) It was as late as 1989 when Jackie Huggins took time out from writing her honours thesis in Women's Studies at Flinders University to erupt onto the stage as 'a Cherbourg Girl' in Ann Dunn's Black and White Women's Show in Adelaide. (13)

Further, the Women's Movement's cultural transformations were notable precisely because they were extensions of those earlier left and anti-war movements. The women took the men's arguments to logical conclusions entirely beyond those envisaged by the antecedent movements. 'Liberation' was supposed to refer to the working-class or the third world or young men, not to women. Women's Liberation's claims and visions were all-encompassing; the liberation of women meant total transformation of whole societies, and elimination of power differences between white and black, first and third world, employer and worker, even parent and child, and--the new, unanticipated coda which the Women's Liberation Movement introduced--between men and women. (14) Moreover, because Women's Liberation was a movement of women, women began to talk with each other, to form political solidarities with each other, and also, instead of rivalries around patriarchal prizes, friendships; sometimes even sexual relationships. A politics of affinity? (15) The fabric of the whole social order quaked.

Cultural disruption is a dimension of second-wave feminism that gains little, if any, attention in any of the histories written to date. (16) So I have no ready-to-hand analysis to follow. Yet historical scholarship shows such exhilarated rule-breaking to be by no means un-precedented. The scholar I want to invoke, here, is north American doyen of early modernity, Natalie Zemon Davis. In a wonderful essay titled 'Women on Top' published in 1975, she detailed ways in which people--men as well as women--challenged the hierarchical order of pre-industrial societies with widespread forms of cultural play in literature, art and festivity depicting sexual inversion and offering examples of the unruly woman. In an argument that ran counter to the orthodoxy of the day, and to an orthodoxy subsequently established around the name of Bakhtin, she maintained that the comic and festive inversion, which other scholars considered as ultimately reinforcing assent to that hierarchical order, could also undermine such assent 'through its connections with everyday circumstances outside the privileged time of carnival and play'. 'I want to argue' she wrote, 'that the image of the disorderly woman did not always function to keep women in their place. On the contrary, it was a multivalent image that could operate, first, to widen behavioural options for women within and even outside marriage, and, second, to sanction riot and political disobedience'. The image of the 'woman-on-top' she proposed 'might even facilitate innovation in historical theory and political behaviour. (17)

Davis herself is careful to make her argument specific to her researches in early modern Europe. With the advent of industrialism, modern states, classes and systems of private property and its exploitation of racial and national groups, she observes, then the symbolisms of disorder change. (18) I would like to be far more cavalier with her idea. I want to suggest that by the end of the 1960s in Australia--towards the end of the longest economic boom in the history of the advanced industrial capitalist west--the symbolism of good order and social hierarchy was once again strongly gendered, with woman seen as confined to Hegel's nether world, the domestic sphere in which her labour was categorised as consumption (rather than production) and consumption was highly sexualised. (19) (The gap between such symbolism and the movement of so many women, including wives and mothers, into the labour market constituted one of the major contradictions provoking the resurgence of feminism in 1970.) That symbolism and its association with the demure and domestic was one of the primary targets of the feminist cultural renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s, and the feminist cultural renaissance, in itself, constituted an onslaught on the conventions of marriage and domesticity, the symbolism of good order and propriety expressed by women and men being in their proper and separate spheres. To translate Natalie Zemon Davis slightly, girls behaving badly opens up a greater range of behaviours among women that will eventually gain acceptance. Girls behaving badly sanctions 'riot and political disobedience' throughout the population; it might even facilitate 'innovation in historical theory and political behaviour'.

Any consideration of Women's Liberation as cultural renaissance will need to attend to a host of events, processes, manifestations. There was the wonderful moment in 1976 when seventy-nine year-old feminist, Beryl Henderson, a woman who would marry for the first time a year later, 'made some passing remarks about etymology' on the Coming Out Show. The radio manager decreed that what she had said was offensive and prohibited the customary replay on the regional network. The Women's Broadcasting Collective responded with charges of censorship and what was then broadcast was not some substitute program but five minutes of what broadcasters call 'tone' instead. Here are Beryl's words, the words that the radio manager found offensive:
   Women's Liberation has gone beyond the worlds I dreamed
   of ... in their freedom, their language.... I don't enjoy their
   language.... I've always felt it a shame that something which
   is really delightful should be used as a swearword.... Actually
   "fuck" is a very nice word. It's an Anglo-Saxon word. "Cunt"
   is the worst thing you can call someone, yet as a man will say,
   it's really a very nice thing, isn't it? (20)

(Perhaps not, for some twenty-first century white male football players.) There was the Daylesford Embroidered Banner Project of 1981-2 about which participant Christine Stoke said: 'My belief is that the capacity to define oneself and one's priorities is the essential beginning of any productive activity. I base it on the experience of feminism which represents a continuing struggle to become one's own subject.' (21) There were the singer/songwriters, from Robyn Archer and the 'Old Soft Screw' [Fig. 3] to the Ovarian Sisters from Hobart and their album titled Beat Your Breasts which included the delightful send-up, 'The IPD', the intra-uterine device converted to fit a man. [Fig. 4] The Chorus of 'The IPD' went: Oh it's the IPD, the IPD!/It may not feel too good to you/But it's not hurting me./So every time the pain begins to fill your eyes with tears,/Remember I put up with it for years. (22) There were the novelists, beginning perhaps with Kerryn Higgs' prize-winning novel, All That False Instruction (33) There were the feminist playwrights, actors and singers from Fools Gallery's Standard Operating Procedures to another Canberra group's review which included a chorus of young women dressed in imitation of Barbara Cartland, each twirling a fluffy pink dog on the end of a lead and singing to Dusty Springfield's music, 'Stand By Your Gran.' (24) There were the poets, collected by Kate Jennings in Mother I'm Rooted, (25) in 1975 and the endlessly inventive posters, [Fig.5]


Let us look at one of these disruptive manifestations more closely by considering some (presciently post-modern) elements of one of the productions of the Adelaide Feminist Theatre Group, a collective associated with such other productions as The Carolina Chisel Show and Redhead's Revenge [Fig. 6]. (26) This one is called Chores! The first script was written collectively by six women who, in their own words, 'sat around and made jokes and had ideas for a year of Sunday afternoons', then staged their show first for the Women's Movement in 1977. The title signalled its ostensible concern, which was how to organise domestic labour in a feminist collective household. But the writers distanced it from the household in which most of it was written by making it an historical fantasy, set in 1911. It reflects some of the emphases in the syllabuses of tertiary education courses in history and English literature in the 1970s. Its characters are--not such first-wave feminists of Australia as Catherine Spence, Louisa Lawson, Rose Scott, Maybanke Wolstoneholme, Vida Goldstein or Mice Henry, but instead--[Fig. 7] fantasies of the English suffragettes, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, Emily Wilding-Davison, and, to add spice to this mix, someone who probably never met any of the suffragettes, Radclyffe Hall, who arrives on stage boasting of being the author of a famous lesbian best-seller The Well of Loneliness, a work not published until seventeen years later, in 1928. As that spice might suggest, the central concern of the piece turns from questions of who is to do the housework to who is going to get into bed with whom in this collective household.

Chores! is a musical, using well-known songs ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan to Rodgers & Hammerstein, from Mario Lanza to Bill Haley and early rock and roll. This produced satire of love songs, as when 'I have often walked down this street before', one of the romantic moments in My Fair Lady, becomes:
   I have often walked in this house before
   But it never seemed to smell so awfully foul before.
   Bulging rubbish bins--empty money tins--Can
   this be the place where I live?

Or 'Amazing Grace' becomes this:

   Amazing Grace and Sally Forth
   Are really fun to know.
   They like each other very much,
   And what they feel, they show.

   When Sally sits on Grate's knee
   It makes me feel so good.
   I am so very glad to see
   Amazing sisterhood.


It also produced a moment when the happily married Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence confounds historical realism, and the original meaning of her song, by singing it straight, but in a context which transforms its sense from straight to gay: 'Never knew I was pissed until I kissed her.' Sylvia Pankhurst does the same, addressing Annie Kenney, singing 'Don't throw bouquets at me .... People will say we're in love', but hers is a triple whammy because her song also satirises feminism's attack on romantic love.

Chris Westwood, later to be Director of the South Australian State Theatre Company for a time, characterised these productions of what could be called the 'samizdat era' of Women's Liberation as 'pro-am', mixing the talents of those who were or would become professionals in the entertainment industry with those of amateurs. For some they may have been training. In the productions of the Adelaide Feminist Theatre Group it is possible to glimpse Penny Chapman, for a time a producer of television drama with the Australian Broadcasting Commission; Janet Seidel who wrote the music for Chores! is now a professional blues singer; and Jenny Pausacker, who played Emily Wilding Davison, typing with two of those little bits of cotton that Annie Kenney kept bringing back from the cotton factory in her ears, is now--not a marketer for tampons, [Fig. 8] but rather--a well recognised and awarded writer of fiction.


The press hated Chores! when another group performed it for the general public in Adelaide. (27) They complained about it all being 'An in-joke for women gays', and 'too self-indulgent and narrow in its scope to appeal to a wider audience'. Perhaps this would have to be expected. It is another instance of the women behaving badly, just one more instance of feminism's cultural renaissance. What is probably most remarkable about it is how well-known the English suffragettes and their stories must have been among the production's audiences, both feminist and general public, for Chores! was so successful that it was revised and taken off to Melbourne to be performed again. It is, I think, heartening, in the early twenty-first century when the Australian government is clearly committed to reducing women once again to the 'nether world' of housework, to recall the exuberance of Women's Liberation's cultural renaissance, its disorderly rulebreaking and, above all, its belief in change.

Susan Magarey


(1) Angela Carter, 'Truly, It Felt Like Year One' in Sara Maitland (ed.), Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s (Virago, London, 1988), pp. 209, 211, 212, 213.

(20 Reported in Canberra Women's Liberation Newsletter, no.5, February 1971, pp.3-4.

(3) The distinction between the New Left and the new New Left was a distinction between such anti-Stalinists who had abandoned their membership of the Communist Party of Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, and the largely Althusserian structuralist Marxists of the late-1960s and 1970s who would never have thought of joining the CPA. It was also, clearly, at least partly a generational distinction. Examples of each among historians are R.A Gollan, Radical and Working Class Politics: A Study of Eastern Australia, 1850-1910 (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1960), and R.W. Connell and T.H. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History: Documents, Narrative and Argument (Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1980).

(4) See, for example, Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, first pub. 1969 (University of California Press).

(5) Robyn Archer, 'The Menstruation Blues', from Robyn Archer, The Ladies' Choice, 1973, The Robyn Archer Songbook (McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1980).

(6) Mejane, vol. 1, no.1, March 1971.

(7) Sue Williams, 'A Decadent Dancing Delight for Women Who Walz', Burnside Town Hall, Adelaide, 1977.

(8) See Andrew Wells, 'Marxism and Australian Historiography', Thesis Eleven: A Journal of Socialist Scholarship, 11, 1981, p.l03.

(9) Julie Rigg and Julie Copeland (eds), Coming Out! Women's Voices, Women's Lives: A Selection from ABC Radio's Coming Out Show (Nelson in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Melbourne, 1985), p.1

(10) Catherine Cough-Brady, 'You Don't Want to Be an Artist, Do You Babe?: Social Change and the Women's Art Movement', BA Hons. Thesis, Adelaide University, 1992, p.1

(11) Anna Couani and Pamela Brown, 'Sydney Women Writer's Workshop', Lip 1978-9, p.188.

(12) See Rosemary Dobson (ed.), Sisters Poets 1 (Sisters Publishing Ltd, Carlton, 1979), with the national Sisters Editorial Board at the beginning. See also Hilary McPhee, Other People's Words (Picador, Sydney, 2001), pp.159-161, Louise Poland, The Devil and the Angel? Australia's Feminist Presses and the Multinational Agenda, Hecate, Vol 29 no.2, 2003.

(13) The Feminist Theatre Group, Anne Dunn and Eva Johnson dir, Is This Seat Taken, The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, 1989.

(14) See, for example, Susan Eade [Magarey], 'And Now We Are Six: A Plea for Women's Liberation', Refractory Girl, March 1977, P.3.

(15) A recommendation of a politics of affinity for feminists would appear in Donna Haraway, 'A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s', Australian Feminist Studies, 4, Autumn 1987, P.9.

(16) For example Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989); Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (Aurum Press, London, 2000); Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (Viking Penguin, New York, 2000); Judith Ezekiel, Feminism in the Heartland (Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2002); Bea Campbell and Anna Coote, Sweet Freedom (Blackwell, Oxford, 1987); Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (eds), What is Feminism? (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986).

(17) Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1975), p.131. My thanks to John Docker for reminding me of this essay, and to Lynn Martin for lending me his copy of the book. On Bakhtin, see M.M. Bakhtin, Speech Gems and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986), p.xv.

(18) Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern Prance, p.150.

(19) See, for example, Ann Game and Rosemary Pringle: 'The Making of the Australian Family', Intervention, 12, 1979, pp.63-83, and 'Sexuality and the Suburban Dream', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 15, 1979, pp.4-15; Susan Magarey, 'Questions about "Patriarchy", in Dorothy Broom (ed.), Unfinished Business: Social Justice for Women in Australia (George Allen and Unwin; Sydney, 1984) pp.182-184.

(20) Rigg and Copeland (eds), Coming Out!, P.79.

(21) Christine Stoke, 'The Daylesford embroidered banner Project', Lip, 1984, p.8.

(22) Robyn Archer, p.20, and 'The Old Soft Screw' 1971 from The Ladies' Choice, in The Robyn Archer Songbook, pp.14-15; The Ovarian Sisters, Beat Your Breasts (Candle Music Company Pry. Ltd., Hobart, 1980).

(23) Elizabeth Riley, pseud., All That False Instruction (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, London, 1975), see also Harriet Malinowitz, 'Introduction' and Kerryn Higgs, 'Afterword', in Kerryn Higgs, All That False Instruction (Spinifex), North Melbourne, 2001. This has been called the first 'lesbian novel' in Australia. Film makers took rather longer to become widely visible. Margaret Fink and Gillian Armstrong, dir., My Brilliant Career (based on the novel by Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, first pub. 1901) came out in 1986, and the first film by Tracy Moffat, Nice Coloured Girls was made in 1987.

(24) See Andrea McLaughlin, '"acting on it" Feminist Theatre: Politics and Performance', Lip, 1984, Pp.76-7. This reference does not give a date for the performance season; Fool's Gallery was an amateur feminist theatre group in Canberra, and Standard Operating Procedures was largely based on Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Beacon Press, Boston, 1978); I saw the musical review including the send-up of Barbara Cartland in Canberra and in Adelaide, but I have not yet been able to find any documentation about it.

(25) Kate Jennings (ed.), Mother I'm Rooted: An Anthology of Australian Women Poets (Outback Press, Fitzroy, Victoria, 1975).

(26) The Redheads' Revenge, The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, 3-13 May 1978.

(27) A carbon typescript of the text used for the second production of Chores! is in the possession of Susan Sheridan.
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Title Annotation:Australia
Author:Margarey, Susan
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:May 1, 2004
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