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Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

By Kath Kenny
This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

In the 1972 federal election David Widdup, member of gay and lesbian group CAMP Inc, ran against the then prime minister, William McMahon, in the NSW seat of Lowe. Historian Michelle Arrow writes in her latest book that Widdup ran on a platform of decriminalising homosexuality and abortion, challenging McMahon’s position that he didn’t believe in a “political approach” to abortion. As I read this account in 2019, the Labor Party was promising to tie hospital funding to abortion services. Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded that he was “disappointed” about the politicisation of abortion on “the eve of an election”. It was almost as if Morrison, a four-year-old in 1972, had inhaled McMahon’s spirit along with his first packet of Wizz Fizz.

The Seventies (NewSouth; $34.99), Arrow’s book about the decade when the women’s, gay and lesbian movements demanded that abortion, sexuality, childcare and domestic violence be considered political issues – and when the opposing forces argued for the primacy of the heterosexual nuclear family, and that the personal was something separate from politics – could hardly be more germane. As the title suggests, the 1970s shaped modern Australia by shifting our ideas about what politics was. At its heart is a trove of documents, including heartbreaking letters, that Arrow uncovered in the National Archives from a 1974 Royal Commission on Human Relationships. Initially imagined as a forum to consider abortion, it was tasked “with examining the ‘family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships’”, she writes. Around the country thousands of Australians testified to the commission in homes, shopping centres and public hearings.

Intimate stories were told, from transvestites wanting their identities recognised to isolated mothers fearing they would bash their children, and women speaking about brutal domestic violence. Dennis Altman successfully argued that the commission’s scope should include testimonies about homosexual relationships. In many ways it was a #MeToo moment for 1970s Australians, only with a much larger remit. Activists nicknamed it the “Fucking Commission”: along with stories of rape, sexual abuse and terrible sex, the three commissioners also considered how people’s lives could be improved through better sex, and better sex education. As Arrow writes, that this event has “been almost entirely forgotten is extraordinary”.

As the 1970s began, homosexuality was illegal, and women couldn’t drink in many public bars, secure home loans or easily divorce. There were no refuges. Arrow makes the powerful argument that it was only when ordinary, private voices were heard publicly that the social ground shifted. Often with staggering speed: in 1967 just 22 per cent of Australians favoured decriminalising homosexuality; by 1974 the figure was 54 per cent. Arrow says she wanted to tell the story of this transformation as an alternative to existing 1970s histories that focus on the decade’s political and economic upheaval and chaos: “stagflation, oil shocks, constitutional crisis and Dismissal”. But this undersells what she achieves, which is to show how the political and the economic were intertwined with social change.

Arrow’s definition of the 1970s is expansive: she locates the decade’s beginning in the post-war prosperity and growth of higher education of the 1960s that created a large educated middle class. The gay and lesbian rights movement, and particularly the women’s movement, emerged from within, and alongside, the political ferment that many in this group aligned themselves with: the 1965 Freedom Rides, the 1967 referendum, the Aboriginal Embassy, a rejection of White Australia and the moratorium movement. Arrow rightly traces how the women’s liberation movement would soon go on to focus on the lives of white middle-class women (contraception and abortion campaigns were anathema for many Indigenous women faced with forced sterilisation and stolen children) but she also shows that it wasn’t always thus. One of Arrow’s many striking stories features Pat Eatock, an Aboriginal woman and a mother of five who, after being denied an abortion, became an activist in the land rights and women’s movements and a Black Liberation Front candidate in the 1972 election. Her campaign manager was Canberra Women’s Liberation member Elizabeth Reid.

When Whitlam came to victory by including migrants, women and Indigenous Australians in his Men and Women of Australia, he appointed Reid as his adviser for women issues. Like the royal commission hearings, Reid’s conversations with women around the country helped her advocate from within the centre of government for state funding of services such as childcare, women’s refuges and health services. To simplify Arrow’s much more fulsome story, while the change was far-reaching, the economic and political crises of the Whitlam era ended not just his government but the social reforms it had set in train.

Malcolm Fraser’s incoming government cut the royal commission’s three-year schedule to one. The commission’s final report made 511 recommendations, including reform to laws governing abortion and sexual assault, as well those banning as homosexuality, but “it sat in boxes in government bookshops across the country”, Arrow writes. Ten days before the 1977 election campaign, some of the report’s more incendiary recommendations, including the decriminalisation of prostitution and adult incest, as well as making abortions available to girls over 14, were leaked to The Bulletin. Discredited from the beginning, it was shunted to a succession of ministers and eventually forgotten. Conservative organisations were emboldened under Fraser (though they were never the mass movements that the gay and lesbian and women’s liberation movements were), and one of the great things Arrow’s book does is show the parallel emergence of these oppositional voices. In the 1970s the Festival of Light protested the royal commission’s recommendations for better sex education. Try googling the Festival of Light today and you’ll discover it is now FamilyVoice Australia, a remorseless campaigner against Safe Schools.

Two episodes of slut-shaming, seventies style, were also the work of conservatives. Opponents tried to discredit both Reid and Penny Ryan, a women’s adviser to the Victorian government, for having written articles about masturbation while they were students (writing articles about masturbation for student papers was such a common rite of passage in the 1970s for a certain kind of political student, you wonder if a search for it on a CV was the first priority for opponents of each new appointment). Arrow also recounts a little-known tale of how the personal could have been momentously political: thanks to the widowed governor-general Sir John Kerr’s romantic obsession with her, Reid had inside knowledge of Kerr’s hostility to Whitlam’s government, but her warnings went unheeded.  

Quoting academic Victoria Hesford, Arrow writes that to be interested in the 1970s “is to be interested in the alternatives offered to what has become our neoliberal present.” The Seventies reminds us of how remarkably revolutionary the decade could be. Some of the more radical platforms of 1970s activists – a polymorphously perverse sexuality as the norm, 24-hour childcare (one imagines the former would have depended on achieving the latter) and collective forms of living – might seem hopelessly utopian now. But revisiting them reminds us just how attenuated social-movement politics can be now: Woolworths-sponsored Mardi Gras floats, campaigns for more women on boards, and same-sex marriage represent a politics of inclusion and liberal tolerance in place of a more total liberation and revolution. Meanwhile, abortion and childcare have been turned over to private providers, available to those with financial means. Refuges in states such as New South Wales are outsourced to religious organisations.

Reading Arrow’s book, it struck me that all the current leaders of Australian governments (and many Opposition leaders, including 1967 baby Bill Shorten) were born between 1967–1976, almost exactly correlating with this period of great social transformation that Arrow traces. It would take a team of political psychologists to parse the meaning of this concurrence, but it’s interesting to speculate why these leaders now (with the sometime exception of modest social reformer Daniel Andrews) are mostly change-averse. But as the neoliberal market increasingly reveals its flaws, our faith in it is gradually coming apart. Our fear of being left out might yet be trumped by an even greater fear of the mess the market has led us into. Signs are already emerging of a desire to return to the collective movements again and define “the political” anew yet again. For the next generation looking to the 1970s as inspiration, this book will help them see the era for what was achieved and what went wrong. And, perhaps, it will help them figure out what needs to be done next.

Kath Kenny

Kath Kenny is a Sydney-based writer and reviewer currently researching a doctorate on early women’s liberation film and theatre. She is an associate member of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University.

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