Song sisters

By Anwen Crawford
The soundtrack to documentary ‘Brazen Hussies’ shows a breadth of feeling about women’s liberation in Australia

Chapter Music’s soundtrack compilation Brazen Hussies accompanies a new documentary of the same name about women’s liberation in Australia. The film’s director, Catherine Dwyer, traces a decade of activism, beginning in 1965, when friends Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor chained themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane to protest women’s exclusion from pubs, through to the mid ’70s. Where the documentary’s time span ends, the soundtrack begins, with 14 songs dating from 1975 to 1985, written and recorded by women musicians around Australia, all of whom were active in the second-wave feminist movement.

Collectively, these recordings voice a breadth of feeling and experience that can’t quite be encompassed by activism itself. The film of Brazen Hussies includes some terrific archival footage, shot by participants, of protest actions and women’s consciousness-raising groups. But its focus comes to fall on the reformist – as opposed to revolutionary – aspects of the women’s movement, especially the Women’s Electoral Lobby, founded in 1972, and the work of Elizabeth Reid, who was appointed as women’s affairs advisor to the Whitlam government in 1973. Reid was forced to resign her position in 1975, after a women’s conference she organised in Canberra provoked the ire of the mainstream press: bras draped over public statues, protestors chanting – what a disgrace! It’s outside the protocols of conferences and parliamentary lobbying that ruder, wittier and more intimate expressions of women’s liberation could flourish: in the songs.

These songs range from earnest to sarcastic, folky to funky, with plenty of styles in between. Toxic Shock’s “Intoxicated”, from 1981, recalls the contemporaneous folk-punk of British feminist group The Raincoats – musically see-sawing yet assured, tonally outraged but playful – while also anticipating the riot grrrl bands of the early ’90s. Robyn Archer’s 1977 ragtime, “That Good Old Double Standard”, raises an eyebrow at the “flag of sexist attitude” that governs women’s and men’s sexual behaviour. There’s a calypso from Judy Small (“To Be A Woman”) and a satirical Irish folk song by The Ovarian Sisters that imagines men bearing responsibility for birth control, thanks to the invention of an “inter-penile device”. “It’s the IPD, the IPD / It may not feel too good to you, but it’s not hurting me”, sing the Sisters, with gusto.

The mainstream resurgence of feminism over the past decade has been reflected – and inflected – by popular musicians, Beyoncé prominent among them. Some third-wave feminist activists had grassroots connections with the riot grrrl scene, especially in the United States, while Madonna’s music, and especially her videos, influenced popular debate on women’s sexual desire and sexual behaviour during the ’90s. Head backwards into the ’70s and ’60s, however, and the links between popular music and feminism become harder to find; the commercial and critical success of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” in 1972 was the exception, not the rule.

There are a number of reasons for this. The counterculture of the mid to late 1960s was, despite its emancipatory rhetoric, a movement that “defined freedom for women almost exclusively in sexual terms”, as rock critic and feminist activist Ellen Willis observed, in a brilliant, elegiac essay on Janis Joplin, written in 1980. But the freedom to experiment came, for women, with competing caveats: to not fall pregnant, to be sexually adventurous but not too “easy”, to fulfil male fantasies of the nurturing and beautiful helpmeet while not expecting, or asking for, emotional commitment from men, in return. It was the contradictions and hypocrisies within the counterculture and the New Left that helped to fuel the women’s liberation movement; little wonder, then, that women newly awoken to feminist consciousness did not channel their creative efforts into the rock scene from which they had been largely excluded, except as groupies.

As historian Dr Kathy Sport writes in her liner notes for the Brazen Hussies soundtrack: “The stage wasn’t easy to access and some women opposed the commercial music industry. Few records were made”. Of those that were, most were pressed and distributed on a limited basis. Robyn Archer’s song, for example, was at first only privately released. Pip Porter’s “Between Women”, a brief and tranquil folk tune, was the title track of a self-produced EP, released around 1978, that combined Porter’s original songs with interpretations of traditional ballads, including “Van Diemen’s Land”.

On “Between Women”, Porter and backing vocalist Libby Hunt evoke a nascent feminist utopia: “Love and strength flows sweetly / Between women,” they sing, over Hunt’s gentle banjo accompaniment. “Gifts given so freely / Between women”. The wholegrain folksiness of this self-described “women’s music”, which was closely associated with the lesbian separatist wing of the women’s liberation movement, is easy to mock: unrelieved earnestness always is. Listening to songs like this, I think of Terry Castle’s affectionate, sardonic taxonomy of the women’s music genre, in her 2011 autobiographical essay “The Professor”:

…plaintive warbling on the part of the female singer-songwriter, ultra-saccharine lyrics about waterfalls, women’s hair and kindly gym teachers … Funkadelic and potty-mouthed it is not.

And yet, as Castle herself plaintively observes, these songs were written and recorded in defiance of a social order that was much more restrictive, much more closeted than the world we live in now. An advertisement for Between Women is reproduced in the Brazen Hussies liner notes; it originally appeared in the gay rights magazine CAMP Ink. Castle recalls ordering similar releases through the mail, “like contraband plutonium”.

Brazen Hussies aims to honour the bravery and the achievements of the women’s liberation movement in Australia, which is understandable; the film grants limited screen time to conflict within the movement, such as that between radicals and reformers, or outside of the movement, in the dissent of many Aboriginal women activists from organising dominated by white women and concerned with white women’s lives. But contemporary feminism is no less riven by disagreement, and, in light of that ongoing and necessary struggle, I grant the last word to The Lavender Blues, who, on their 1978 song “Lesbian Nation”, posed a question, and a warning: “Where do we go to after liberation?” they asked, in doubt as much as in hope. “Is this really our salvation?” 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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