The politics of private experience has consumed a lot of space in public debate in recent years. The #MeToo movement. The struggle for marriage equality. The Royal Commission into responses to child sexual abuse. The ongoing national crisis of domestic violence.
1975: Members of the women's movement marked International Women's Day in 1975 with large demonstrations, such as this one in Melbourne.
Public discussion of these issues is characterised by an emphasis on personal testimony – on individuals speaking about their private experiences in public. People like Rosie Batty, the 2015 Australian of the Year who found a public voice as a woman who had survived domestic violence, or the ordinary Australians who told their love stories to encourage Australians to vote ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage.
These public narratives of private experience have an important history. The practice of sharing personal stories to make political change can be traced back to the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. It is an idea and a strategy best summed up by a famous slogan: ‘the personal is political’.
The women’s liberation and gay rights movements were built upon this idea, which had many permutations: from coming out and consciousness-raising, to the creation of rape crisis centres, or staging political demonstrations like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras that were equal parts party and protest.
The Commission invited Australians to share their views on sex and sex education, abortion, family life, family planning, parenthood, child care, women’s rights and homosexuality.
Women’s liberation and the gay and lesbian rights movement criticized the idea that things that happened in private were outside politics. Establishing women’s refuges, and demanding that governments fund them, is one of the best examples of this politics in action, but it also forced other issues onto the political agenda, including abortion law reform, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the provision of child care.
These issues, activists insisted, were not individual problems for individuals to solve; they were structural, social, and deeply political.
This is the terrain I examine in The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia. The book charts not just how activists made the personal political, but it also considers how this idea reshaped Australian politics. New understandings of gender and sexuality placed new issues on the political agenda.
A progressive PM, but not a single female MP
When Gough Whitlam’s Labor government won office in December 1972, he had not a single female MP among his ranks. His response to the women’s movement’s new demands on government was to appoint a women’s advisor (a world first). Elizabeth Reid, the woman who was chosen for the role, worked to make government more responsive to women’s needs. She also helped shepherd the Royal Commission on Human Relationships into existence in 1974.
The Royal Commission on Human Relationships was my starting point for writing The Seventies. Virtually forgotten today, the Commission emerged from a failed attempt to reform abortion law in the ACT, and it invited Australians to share their views on sex and sex education, abortion, family life, family planning, parenthood, child care, women’s rights and homosexuality.
It generated a rich archive of ordinary people’s responses to a decade of transformative, radical social change: an absolute gift for a historian.
By the time the Royal Commission’s final report was delivered in 1977, the Whitlam government had been dismissed and the Fraser government was less sympathetic to the Commission’s 500 recommendations, which included suggestions to decriminalise homosexuality (which was not legalised in all states and territories until 1994) and abortion (which was only officially decriminalised across Australia four decades later in 2019), and to promote sex education in schools.
Looking back on the 1970s today, it is clear that the feminist and sexual revolutions reorganised our public and private lives.
‘The personal is political’ would take on different meanings under a more conservative government, especially when used by activists who wanted to challenge feminist reforms. The emergence of neoliberalism as the new economic orthodoxy in the late 1970s saw some activists employ the language of efficiency and value: a far cry from their calls for liberation just a few years earlier.
Looking back on the 1970s today, it is clear that the feminist and sexual revolutions reorganised our public and private lives, with far-reaching consequences. The fault lines in Australian politics have blurred and politics today is organised as much by gender and sexuality as it is by older ideas of left and right.
We are still coming to terms with the consequences of the transformative politics of the 1970s. Revisiting the history of this politics, then, is more urgent, and more resonant, than ever.
Michelle Arrow, pictured, is a Professor in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University.
Her book The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia is winner of the 2020 Ernest Scott Prize for History and has been shortlisted for the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction.