Private lives, public politics
The 1970s in Australia
The 1970s were a time of profound social and political transformation when women’s and gay liberation movements sought to reshape the public meaning of private experience. Through 3 case studies (early campaigns for homosexual rights, the emergence of domestic violence as a key issue for women’s liberationists and the 1975 Royal Commission on Human Relationships), Michelle Arrow seeks to demonstrate the ways that ‘the personal is political’ reshaped Australian political culture in the 1970s.
Michelle Arrow is Associate Professor of History at Macquarie University. Her most recent book is Friday on Our Minds: Popular Culture in Australia Since 1945.
Associate Professor Arrow is a 2016 National Library of Australia Fellow, supported by Library Patrons and Supporters.
Transcript of ‘Private lives, public politics’
Speakers: Robyn Holmes (R), Michelle Arrow (M)
Location: National Library of Australia
R: Good evening, everyone and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you to this National Library Fellowship Presentation by Michelle Arrow, Associate Professor and previous head of modern history at Macquarie University in Sydney. I’m Robyn Holmes, I'm the Senior Curator here at the National Library with responsibility for managing the fellowships program. And of course, as always, and particularly with a sense of history tonight, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. As we being our lecture we thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re now privileged to call home.
So this is the third in the Library’s current series of fellowships presentations. We’ve got a new wave of fellows going to commence in the beginning of June or later in June but we’ve had four wonderful residents ... fellows in residence over the last few months and this is the third of our presentations with one more to follow in a fortnight from tonight on June the 7th by Michael Piggott, archivist, on the remarkable collection by collector and bibliographer, John Ferguson.
Michelle is keenly sought after in both public and academic spheres for her expertise in the history of post-war Australian political and social life. Tonight’s presentation—which is focused on the 1970s—continues her concern with big themes, big themes, big ideas related to fundamental changes in Australian society and culture under the impact of radio, television, new forms of production technology and mass consumption and consumerism and seismic shifts in public and private lives and attitudes. She’s been nominated for many national prizes for her major projects including Upstaged: Australian Women Dramatists in the Limelight At Last ... interesting story, I think, of playwrights between about 1928 and ‘68 who wrote for the stage and television and radio; Friday On Our Minds: Popular Culture in Australia Since 1945; the edited volume The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law and Memory ... and we’re about to have a series of events from a previous fellow, Lindy ... not Lindy, Alana Valentine, who came here to research the letters for Lindy and that’s become the basis for a new stage play to be staged in Canberra later this year in August and Lin ... and she ... Alana will be back speaking about that at the Library ... and finally a really major radio documentary that Michelle did for the ABC called Public Intimacies: The 1974 Royal Commission on Human Relationships.
Michelle’s often asked to represent history and historians in public forums and most recently just last weekend at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and in April as the only historian at the fourth All About Women Festival, one of Sydney Opera House’s flagship events. As a speaker on topics of significant public interest Michelle established a media presence in 2004 as a presenter on the ABC’s history series, Rewind and has since featured in many radio programs. We like to think that you’re a real media star, Michelle, and this of course is being podcast for the National Library’s radio streaming as well. Her ABC documentary, Public Intimacies, won the New South Wales Premier’s Multimedia History Prize.
Her National Library fellowship on ‘Private Lives and Public Politics’ grew out of this research on the Human Relationships Commission, and forms part of a sweeping project she’s doing to write a new history of the 1970s in Australia commissioned by New South Publishing. I was going to be very rude about those of us that lived through the ‘70s, it’s a formative period, but I can see that there are some older and some younger members of the audience as well as people like me. It will be very interesting to hear what you have to say in light of our own experiences, I'm sure.
Michelle’s examining the social, sexual and cultural revolutions and campaigns of the 1970s not as separate issues but from an integrated perspective. She contends that these issues created new ways to do politics and to become political and change people’s expectations of government. She also aims to bring greater historical understanding to private issues that continue to shape Australian public life today including domestic violence and gender identity.
And speaking of crossing public and private spheres, Michelle’s fellowship has been funded by a consortium of Library patrons and supporters and we are most grateful for their very generous donations, perhaps indeed some people in the audience have contributed. In addition, rather aptly, Michelle’s fellowship has a bit of a family dimension to it because without the support of her partner, Justin, who’s down there and her seven-year-old daughter, Saskia ... hello, Saskia ... whom she left behind in Sydney, Michelle couldn't have taken up this fellowship so I think the Sydney–Canberra bus route has become something of a new workplace, Michelle, each weekend. So we especially welcome tonight Justin and Saskia and Michelle’s parents, Roger ... Joan and Roger Arrow visiting from Oberon. But will you please welcome Michelle Arrow to speak about ‘Private Lives, Public Politics’?
M: Thank you, Robyn, for that really generous, very warm introduction. I’d like to begin before I begin the lecture proper to say what a wonderful experience it has been to be a National Library Fellow, I have really treasured the experience and it’s one I’m going to remember for a very long time to come and the time that it has allowed me to ... afforded me to think and explore has been such a precious gift and I am very grateful. Thank you to all of those at the Library who worked very hard to reinstate the Fellowship scheme and particularly to the patrons and supporters of the Library for funding my fellowship. Everyone here at the Library has made me feel extremely welcome. I think the first week we were all joking that we all felt like kind of minor celebrities because we were just greeted with such warmth everyone where we went but I would like to particularly thank Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, Margy Burn, Beth Mansfield, Katrina Anderson, Andrew Sergeant and particularly the indefatigable Robyn Holmes for their support and assistance during my stay here. I’d like to also thank my fellow NLA fellows, Agnieszka Sobocinska, Klaus Neumann and Michael Piggott ... only Michael of course is here tonight, the others have departed but it’s lovely .. it’s been a really ... made much more a pleasant experience and special experience because of their fine company. And as a ... Robyn has alluded to it seems appropriate for a talk with a title such as this one, to thank Justin and Saskia for tolerating my weekly absences with very good cheer and for all of their encouragement and love over the course of the fellowship.
So when we come ... when we think of the 1970s in Australia a few images and personalities come to mind. Perhaps the most obvious are these two, only recently departed from our national life, of course, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. Through them we commonly view the 1970s as a decade of political change and upheaval. The centrality of the dismissal in the cultural memory of the 1970s, every year it seems there are new revelations and new books, means that we tend to view the ‘70s through these very public political events. It is told and retold as a political morality tale or a kind of what if story. More recently another story has come to dominate our popular imagination of the ‘70s and this one is one that foregrounds the economic and upheaval and crisis of the period in order to frame the 1980s as an era of crusading deregulatory reform which set the nation on a path to prosperity. This places the ‘70s in a longer economic story. Whitlam is praised for his tariff cuts but condemned for his budget blowouts. Fraser is blamed for his inability to take tough reforming decisions, for kind of wasting time. This newer story of the 1970s reflects I think the centrality of economics in contemporary political life. In many ways I think the nation has become the economy. Certainly the way we are talking about the nation in this election campaign is very much about an economy, who can manage the economy. Such a narrative requires a genealogy and this story of the ‘70s as a decade of economic policy failure provides it.
Now I'm not trying to suggest that this story of the 1970s isn’t an accurate one or that the pain that the economic downturn caused in ordinary lives was imaginary, was just a story but we construct historical stories about the past to serve our purposes in the present. This narrative warns us of the dangers of poor policy in the face of economic instability so it is crafted to speak to us today. But I don’t think it tells the whole story of the ways in which the 1970s reshaped Australian life. So these two readings of the 1970s as a political spectacle and as a period of economic crisis and instability have overshadowed another one that we could tell about the 1970s. We were reminded of this story today when the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, issued a formal apology to men who were convicted under the laws that criminalised homosexual acts, laws that were only repealed in Victoria in 1980, thanks mainly of course to campaigns run by gay activists. This story reminds us that the ‘70s was a hugely significant era in the history of Australia's human rights and gender relations. The decade saw the emergence or more correctly the reawakening of many social movements, for women’s and gay rights, gay and lesbian rights, environmental protection, Aboriginal rights and the antiwar movement. It was also the decade of course of the sexual revolution and the rise of multiculturalism. In other words it was an era which saw the reshaping of the public meanings of private life.
While none of these revolutions could be said to be complete they nonetheless transformed Australia just as those economic reforms did however because we have tended to investigate the impact of these movements separately rather than cumulatively their collective impact has been more difficult to gauge, I think. Popular history writers and filmmakers I think haven’t served us well in their neglect of these movements. It means that they are not as well understood as other aspects of our recent past. If you go into a history section of a bookshop it’s full of military history, there’s not a lot of history of these kinds of changes and that’s only becoming more and more pronounced of course with the anniversaries of world war one.
Such neglect I think downplays the extent to which contemporary Australia was formed by the social and cultural transformations of the 1970s particularly to take just one example the greater role that women have come to play in our public and political life. This neglect is also puzzling I think given the ways that public discussion of issues previously considered private like domestic violence, for example, today impact on our political and social debate. To have as our 2015 Australian of the Year a woman who was not just a campaigner on domestic violence but a survivor of it would have been unthinkable two decades ago. Indeed it was Rosie Batty’s status as a survivor that gave her a unique terrible authority to speak publicly on this issue. I’m not a politician, she said, what I have is personal experience.
One of the most famous slogans of the women’s liberation movement was of course ‘the personal is political’. This was an idea that undermined the long-held notion that there were two separate spheres of life, public and private. The public of course was the space of politics, government and paid work, the private was the place for home, intimacy, domesticity. As you can probably tell the division between the two was a strongly gendered one enforced by policy. White women in Australia were granted voting rights far later than men and for much of the twentieth century their assumed role as wives and mothers was used to deny them equal pay and other rights on the grounds that they were not primary breadwinners because they were women. Similarly almost all men were hemmed into a breadwinning role that kept them out of caregiving work. The assumption of male power within the family also left women and children vulnerable to abuse. For example, domestic violence and rape in marriage were typically regarded as private matters rather than crimes. Indeed marital rape was not criminalised nationally until 1991.
So the rise of women’s liberation and gay liberation in the late 1960s and early ‘70s then instigated seismic change in Australian public and private lives. Previously private experiences of oppression were given political meaning through being shared publicly. People were imagining new possibilities for their lives and placing new demands on government for reforms. Breaking down the public private split created new ways to do politics and new ways to become political. Now many historians like Marilyn Lake and Graeme Willett to name just two have investigated the social movement of the ‘70s as transformative in their own right. However what might happen if we examine them in the same frame? And what might the history of the 1970s look like when we consider the ways these social movements shaped ordinary lives and spoke to ordinary people through the media and through popular culture?
So these are the questions that have driven my research here. I want to write a history of the 1970s that takes as its core concern the ways that the public private divide was undermined, challenged and remade through the 1970s. I want to examine the history of the ‘70s by foregrounding those aspects of life that are overlooked in those dominant public narratives of politics and economics. I want to look at private experiences but I also want to examine the ways that private identities for example the gay man, the single mother, even the liberated woman, played out in political debate. These changes opened up politics to new perspectives and new conversations and new constituencies. By buttressing new claims for rights and protections they also changed what it meant to be an Australian citizen.
So tonight I’m going to explore three case studies to kind of illustrate my theme: early campaigns for homosexual law reform; the emergence of domestic violence as an issue for women’s liberation activists; and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. All I think reveal the ways that the shifting line between public and private, between the personal and the political reshaped both Australian politics and experiences of private life in the 1970s. And I think together they show us the ways that the meanings and the political uses of the private changed over the period. While the earliest campaigns for homosexual law reform argued for decriminalisation on the grounds of privacy feminist campaigners on domestic violence had the opposite impulse, they wanted to expose private violence to the public gaze. And the rather extraordinary Royal Commission on Human Relationships initiated in 1974 showed how this impulse, to make private experience public, played out on a national stage creating a political firestorm in the process.
So, first to think about homosexuality. So historian Graeme Willett—who’s probably our best known historian of kind of gay Australia and gay and lesbian activism—noted that homosexuality was carefully excluded from 1950s public life in Australia. Yet by the late 1960s it had become an issue that many activists, civil libertarians and politicians believed should be dealt with through law reform. So why this change? And how did homosexual people themselves emerge as central to those campaigns for decriminalisation and equal rights?
So perhaps the most important factor was the gradual emergence of a new liberalism in Australian public life underpinned by the rise of a new more highly educated middle class who themselves were a product of growing post-war prosperity. This group had a more critical take on the accepted wisdoms of post-war Australian life. It’s the era of the lucky country and Donald Horne and all those books that kind of questioned Australian life as it was kind of unexamined. They were the men and women who questioned the cultural cringe, called for reform to censorship and the White Australia Policy, campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty and sought changes to the abortion laws. In the face of a lack of political action on homosexual law reform the Wolfenden Report provided a useful lever for local debate.
So, the Wolfenden Report into Sexual Offences and Prostitution was released in Britain in 1957. The report’s guiding assumption was not that homosexuality was a perversion but that it was determined by biology or childhood and therefore unchangeable so why were we punishing people for something that couldn’t be changed? The report stated it is not the function of the law to interfere in the private lives of citizens, it is the law’s duty to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive and injurious and to provide safeguards against the exploitation and corruption of others. But there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is not the law’s business.
The report somewhat surprisingly received strong media and even religious support in the UK but even with this backing the British Parliament was very slow to enact Wolfenden’s recommendations, only passing the Sexual Offences Act which kind of enacted this reform in 1967. However this was perfect timing for Australians trying to decriminalise male homosexuality. Their call to decriminalise acts between quote consenting adults in private mimicked the language of the Wolfenden Report. Perhaps surprising to us today, the earliest organisation to campaign for this change was not comprised of gay men and women but of civil libertarians. They were based in Canberra and the National Library holds their papers, very handily for me. So ... sorry about this very poor image but it does illustrate the kind of slightly homespun nature of their periodicals. So this is the first newsletter of the Homosexual Law Reform Association of the ACT formed in 1969 as you can see there, one of the earliest organisations to campaign for homosexual law reform in Australia. I think the second, I think they’re pipped by one other organisation. The group was not in the words of founder, Thomas Mortner, quote a society for homosexuals and to my knowledge no member of our committee is a practising homosexual. The group ... to my knowledge is a crucial bit there, I guess ... the group argued for homosexual law reform on a platform of the right to privacy and protection of civil liberties.
In an article for the Canberra Times in 1969, which was reproduced in the Society’s newsletter, Don Aitken wrote quote whatever adult human beings do in private, provided that those involved are not there against their will, ought to be their own concern. As legal scholar, Emma Henderson, has noted, in these debates privacy became something to be imposed. Homosexuality might be legal but it would remain completely invisible in the public sphere. This is kind of what was sought at this point. This social invisibility would be lifted when John Ware and Cristobel Pole, both gay, appeared in a profile article in The Australian in 1970. They were brave to show their faces in a national newspaper. Ware’s partner, Michael, the report stated, planned to identify himself but has been warned to bid his job farewell if he does. And this was you know that was quite common in the 1970s, as someone would come out in a high profile way and campaign for gay rights and would be sacked so it wasn’t an unrealistic fear. This report was perhaps the first in Australia to present homosexual people as ordinary citizens. At one point the journalist, Janet Hawley, describes Pole, Cristobel Pole, as quote as normal and inoffensive as the next girl.
The effect of giving homosexual people the opportunity to speak openly on their own behalf in public was as Graeme Willett wrote, electrifying. The article announced the founding of a new homosexual rights organisation called CAMP, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution. And the group was flooded with new members after the story appeared. Membership of the group continued to grow rapidly throughout 1971 and through their newsletter, CAMP Inc, the group sought a new public visibility for homosexual people. The editorial of the first issue proclaimed the overall aim of CAMP Inc is to bring about a situation where homosexuals can enjoy good jobs and security in those jobs, equal treatment under the law and the right to serve our country without fear of exposure and contempt. By the early 1970s more and more gay activists were coming out rather than staying private, as I said a brave move when male homosexual acts were still against the law in almost all parts of Australia.
And this famous cover of CAMP Inc is from late 1971, 1972 and it says we’ve come out of our closets to wish you a merry Christmas so effectively coming out in the most public way there is, on the cover of a magazine. Being gay then was no longer simply a matter of what you did in private but part of one’s intimate identity that shaped every part of your life, public and private. Of course gay groups continued to seek law reform throughout the 1970s but it was no longer their solitary aim. Within just a few years gay men and women would be making submissions to government inquiries including the Royal Commission on Human Relationships and they were seeking visibility, not privacy as a means to alleviate their oppression. More about that later on.
So as I noted earlier the slogan ‘the personal is political’ was one of the fundamental insights of women’s liberation. It first appeared ... this phrase, the personal is political first appeared as the title of an essay by American Women’s Liberationist Carol Hanisch written in 1969 and reproduced in notes from the second year, Women’s Liberation in 1970 and that’s the cover you can see there on the slide. The essay was written in response to those who questioned the merits of consciousness-raising, that is the practice of women meeting in small groups and discussing the intimate details of their lives. Critics of this process described it as mere therapy or navel-gazing but Hanisch insisted that these groups were much more than that. She wrote the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem, one of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems, there are no personal solutions at this time, there is only collective action for a collective solution.
Consciousness-raising allowed women to speak out about their dissatisfaction about gender roles, societal expectations, bodies, housework. There’s a whole bunch of things that they talked about and you look at lists where they’ve got questions that they can use to start a consciousness-raising group. They cover the gamut, basically. These are though a wide range of concerns that we would probably classify as private. Through these often personal discussions women quickly found out that the problems they considered theirs alone were of course shared problems with broader structural causes. While these groups were mainly small and local one of the interesting things about reading a periodical held in the Library like the Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter is you can see groups advertising ... forming and advertising and saying there’s one in Epping, there’s one in Chatswood, there’s one in ... all over the place, growing very quickly in these early years.
Two large-scale meetings, the so-called Women’s Commissions, of 1973 and 1974 proved particularly potent in raising the issue of domestic violence as a focal point of women’s liberation activism. So this was one of the things that I wanted to find out while I was here on my fellowship, to investigate these commissions in more detail. And one of the things I was interested in when I was reading feminist periodicals was that I’m ... expected that given the centrality of domestic violence as a feminist issue today, I was expecting it to be a core concern from the very outset of women’s liberation however reading the periodicals I was very surprised to see that it didn’t feature prominently in the earliest years of the earliest women’s movement publications. As Anne Summers recalled at the symposium on the 40th anniversary of Damned Whores and God’s Police, she said women’s liberation really didn’t even have a language to describe domestic violence at first. They called it wife-bashing, that was the sort of first wave that it appears in these periodicals, and in this discussion. Domestic violence had to be kind of discovered publicly and that’s where I think the Women’s Commission’s played an important role.
In early 1973 members of Sydney Women’s Liberation announced their plan to hold a Women’s Commission on International Women’s Day. It would they hoped show quote the diversity of women’s oppression which requires a much longer in-depth investigation into the social status of women in Australia. And partly the reason they did this is because William McMahon in 1972 was sort of realising this his politicians were not doing so well with new female voters and he said I’m going to have a Royal Commission into Women which was what had happened in Canada and so feminists were like well we don’t want you to run a Royal Commission, we will have our own Women’s Commission.
So the Commission was held over two days on the 17th and 18th of March 1973. It was open only to women, about 500 or so women attended and it was closed to most members of the press and certainly it was closed to all men. John Ware incidentally who we met at the ... as ... in the CAMP profile in The Australian chained himself to the stage at first protesting the fact that he was not allowed to speak as a man and was reluctantly ejected you know soon after. I think he didn’t quite get the political significance of a female only gathering. And so the fact that it was closed to the press means we don’t have a lot of media accounts as a record of the proceedings. The Women’s Weekly though surprisingly enough ... well I was surprised ... offered one of the most colourful and sympathetic accounts of the event. Journalist Kay Caveney describing the camaraderie she saw there between the women at the Commission as a kind of mateship, quite a lovely phrase. She said they call it sisterhood but I think it sort of seems like mateship.
Some participants writing in the Communist paper, Tribune, described the Commission as the biggest mass consciousness-raising group of women ever convened in Sydney. The Commission reached the point where it became possible for women to speak out on matters previously considered private with the realisation that they are experiences shared in common with other women so echoing Carol Hanisch there, the kind of the sense of collective ... problems that are collectively owned. We know from some of the firsthand accounts of the Commission that some women shared their experiences of violence and isolation. In response some of the women who did attend, including Anne Summers and Jennifer Daykers, started planning what they initially referred to and what starts to appear in the publications in the women’s liberation periodicals as what they called the night shelter, a service they imagined would be mainly of use to homeless women. In 1973 domestic violence had not yet emerged as a focal point for women’s liberation activism but it’s starting to emerge.
And we can see it’s starting to emerge in the title of the second Women’s Commission held in 1974, this time with the theme Women and the Violent ... sorry ‘Women Against the Violent Society’. This event attracted around 350 participants who met on the 9th, 10th of March 1974 and again you can see for women only. Afterwards the Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter reported that the Commission seemed to illustrate a universal principle, once women speak together on occasions such as the forum they realise they are not alone, their experience is not unique and the shame and guilt they feel has been socially induced. It was during Sunday, the report continued, that the theme was made explicit by many personal accounts of violence in the form of rape and violence within marriage as well as within institutions. It was here that it was realised how very urgent a need there is to establish something very quickly for those women and children who when the family situation becomes really bad have absolutely nowhere to go.
I think Anne Summers was one of the people who had this realisation, I think, and this struck her to join the line of women seeking to speak at the microphone. When she got her turn she issued a call for volunteers to help establish the night shelter as a refuge for women fleeing violence. Since the 1973 Commission she and Daykers has found a suitable building, this building here, for the shelter but needed assistance to run it. A week later more than 50 women met and established the refuge in a house called Elsie in Glebe. It was the first such service of its kind in Australia and it sparked a wave of kind of domestic violence shelters around in most of the capital cities in other places in Australia, most of them run by Women’s Liberation groups.
So women’s activism on the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault was driven by an urge to find practical solutions for women in need like refuges and rape crisis centres. However they also sought to remove the stigma from women who suffered those crimes, they sought to remove the protection of the private sphere and its attendant shame that allowed these crimes to be perpetuated. In a 1975 study of women staying at Elsie many of the women interviewed said that the police were often reluctant to intervene in what were then considered ... were still considered private matters. One woman said that the police told her they didn’t want to ... sorry, they didn’t want to get involved in domestic problems. They said go home because we can’t see any signs of injury and I said no because he belts me around the head. I thought that they would only take any action if he killed me. And that’s a report that the Royal Commission on Human Relationships conducted.
Women’s liberationists wanted to lift the veil on the private sphere and expose it to public scrutiny to effect change. So what would happen when such an impulse animated not just activism on a local level but a Royal Commission at the heart of the Whitlam Government? Now as I alluded to before ... actually I’ll keep that there for a second ... alluded to before, it’s kind of strange but the Royal Commission on Human Relationships may have in fact had its genesis in that election promise made by William McMahon in the 1972 federal election. He and many of his other MPs were scoring very low in the surveys that the Women’s Electoral Lobby were conducting of all federal candidates and kind of realising that he really had not much to offer this rapidly emerging constituency of women’s movement voters. He promised this Royal Commission into the status of women. Of course he never got the opportunity to enact his promise because as we all remember it was time in 1972 and he got voted out.
However Whitlam had taken the women’s movement vote seriously and as a reward for women’s electoral support he did respond to their demands. He removed the luxury tax from the contraceptive pill, he reopened the equal pay case, he appointed Elizabeth Reid as his Women’s Affairs advisor, of course a world first as a women’s advisor to a national leader, and he also attempted to reform abortion law in the ACT. The attempt to change abortion law inspired a fierce parliamentary debate, a women’s embassy at the front of Parliament House and 10,000 letters from right to life groups to members of parliament but no reform. Eventually though out of this debate came a proposal to conduct a Royal Commission initially into abortion and then it was reformed into a Royal Commission into male and female relationships which in 1974 became the Royal Commission on Human Relationships.
So the government appointed three commissioners and you can see them there meeting the press led by Chairman Elizabeth ... Justice Elizabeth Evatt who at that point had recently returned to Australia to take up an appointment as the first female Deputy President of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. She would of course later go on to lead the Family Court of Australia in 1975. Evatt was joined by Anne Deveson, a journalist with a strong interest in social justice and Felix Arnott, the progressive Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. Their terms of reference were extremely broad, they had to examine the family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships with a focus on sex education programs, medical training and sexuality, family planning, pressures on women in relation to children and family, and the legal and medical status of abortion so no big topics, just little things. It was potentially of course huge so how were they going to do this? How would they kind of gather enough evidence and make a report?
In effect I think what they did was conduct a kind of national consciousness-raising event though of course they never referred to it as such. They set out to listen to people all over the country. The Commissioners said that they took steps to open channels of communication with all levels of the community. We talked with many people of different ages, from the very old to the very young, with Aboriginals, migrant groups, people in cities and suburbs and with people in country towns and isolated places. They advertised in newspapers and on radio asking Australians what do you think? With a whole bunch of different suggestions that you can see. Do you have any special ideas about all of these topics? In response they received 1,264 written submissions and conducted thousands of short informal interviews. The public could attend open house sessions and speak to a member of the Commission about issues of concern. One staff member recalls the Commission setting up a stall inside a shopping centre so that people could drop by and discuss their concerns so they were clearly trying to encourage people to talk and encourage people to speak to them.
The Commission also held a series of public hearings around Australia where witnesses gave testimony. Many of these witnesses were what we would recognise as experts such as doctors and social workers but many were ordinary citizens whose authority to speak derived entirely from their personal experiences. People wrote submissions or spoke to the Royal Commission about their private experiences of motherhood, fatherhood, sex education, homosexuality, disability, rape, child abuse, domestic violence and a whole lot of other things besides, that’s just some of the things they talked about. They also spoke about less traumatic but no less meaningful issues like the lack of part-time paid work for mothers, the impact of technological change. Fathers wrote who wanted to be present for the births of their children, parents of disabled children wrote to talk about their problems, problems of widows and those dependent on welfare, and some groups demand a new social visibility and used the Royal Commission as a way to achieve that.
A gay couple from Tasmania argued for public recognition of their relationship, telling the Commission in a written submission that homosexuals are not just homosexuals in their bedroom, they are homosexuals every minute of every day they live. For these people and many others decriminalisation was not enough to ensure equality for gay men and women and they felt that they could not fully live their lives in public for fear of exposure, one man noting that quote men’s attitudes would change if they had been intimidated, threatened, abused, beaten, bashed, robbed and blackmailed as has happened to me in the past. So speaking about private pain in public then was central I think to the activist project of the women’s and gay movements of the 1970s. People wanted to shine a light on the private sphere, to bring its inequalities to public attention to force change.
So what did the media make of all of this? It was clear that the Commission was succeeding in bringing private problems to broader public notice. A Sun Herald story suggested that it was providing an attentive, receptive and above all friendly ear to many Australians facing hardship. Such hardship of course was not always material, several women wrote to the Commission to explain the ways that they had found the transition to motherhood very difficult. One woman wrote for six months my life has been completely changed because I have become a mother. I often feel terrible anxiety because of lack of achievement, the change in lifestyle has really been traumatic. Many others pleaded for better childcare facilities, not just so they could enter the paid workforce but for their own sense of wellbeing. One wrote as a mother I work seven days a week, all year, every year with only occasional help from my husband. I’m on call every night, it is five years since I have had a holiday. Another put it more succinctly, let’s face it, everyone needs a holiday from work, why not mothers?
However this politics of private experience made the Commission a subject of controversy and even ridicule. A Sydney Morning Herald editorial described the Commission as a synonym for futility, procrastination and extravagance where those with opinions on sliced bread and the sex lives of goldfish will be welcome to tell all. So clearly I think for some the issues the Royal Commission was raising should not be aired in public or they were seen as too trivial for public debate so there’s a kind of expansion in what politics was in this period.
So eventually the Royal Commission became entangled in the acrimony of the dismissal. In early 1976 it was one of several government inquiries that the Fraser Government forced into an early conclusion. The Commissioners duly completed their five-volume report with 500 recommendations and delivered it as convention required to the Governor General in late 1977. It was meant to be released in full only after the December 1977 federal election however some of the most controversial recommendations were leaked to the media and a political storm erupted. The Mirror’s front page story began, the final report of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships has recommended vast and revolutionary changes to Australian laws and attitudes to almost every form of family and sexual relations. And the Minister for Administrative Services, Senator Withers, who was responsible for releasing the $1m report is horrified by it. Fraser declared, despite admitting that he hadn’t actually read the report yet, that there were things in it that would quote fill every family in Australia with horror. Whitlam of course accused Fraser of resorting to the politics of smut and in the debate that followed the report was often depicted as an illegitimate child, the product of an intimate encounter whom no one would now acknowledge.
It was also depicted as a ticking bomb, in this example it’s depicted as a kind of hornet’s nest and this one is my favourite, they’re all ... they’re both arguing takes after you, it’s got your nose. No, they’re definitely your eyes. So at their core I think the Commission’s recommendations offered a kind of recognition of a new pluralism in family and intimate life rather than seeking to assert an absolute moral standard. They recommended very wide-ranging reform in the areas of age of consent, abortion, homosexuality and they attempted to better support families in the face of rapid social and cultural change particularly through better childcare facilities, support for those experiencing domestic violence and more thorough education in human relationships and sexuality.
However of course some of those recommendations enacted that politics, they blurred and undermined the boundary between public and private and this was shocking and confronting to many people. This was of course a report that focused on the inequalities and at times even the violence of family life and many of the recommendations sought to expand the role of the state as a way of dealing with those inequalities. Yet some sought to shield the family from political scrutiny. Sir Charles Court, the Premier of Western Australia, said that he believed all decent Australians would reject the published recommendations, the Commission was trying to erode the whole of the family, he said, it wanted to usurp the position of parents. Yet after all five volumes of the report were released the public debate softened, I think somewhat. Many newspapers devoted many pages to sober discussion of the Commission’s extensive recommendations and findings. Remember there were 500 recommendations, this is a significant kind of Royal Commission.
And there was an acceptance I think that some private inequalities did need the intervention of government. A journalist in The Age wrote, while recognising that most human relations should be personal and private the Commission has agreed that at some point all personal and family relations are affected by government policies on education, employment, transport, healthcare as well as sex laws. And there was reflection I think on the initial outrage that greeted the report. The Daily Mirror suggested that the report was so controversial because it was a ... quote ... a catalogue of the abuse of man, we can’t have that in man’s own country now, can we? In exposing the ways that the private world of home and family could be a place of pain and danger, not of safety, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships had hit a cultural raw nerve. And I ... this is the radio documentary that Gabrielle Hislop features in as well here and you can go and download and listen and hear a lot more of the audio of the period which I think enhances the richness of the story.
So to conclude. So today I think there’s considerable debate about the legacy and the meaning of many of the social and political transformations that began in the 1970s. Take the question for example of same sex marriage. Several submissions to the Royal Commission called for some kind of relationship recognition including marriage for gay men and lesbians. While the Royal Commission itself did not recommend such recognition today that change has majority public support. Our politicians are required to have a position on this question and the debate has exposed ideological fractures within the major parties as well as between them. In 1975 there was slow-growing recognition of the problem of domestic violence but the campaigns run by women’s liberationists I guess focused largely on improving government funding for women’s refuges, perhaps more focused on that rather than confronting the problem at its source, partly I think because it wasn’t quite clear how it might be tackled at its source.
One of the more depressing research tasks I undertook during my fellowship here was examining the ephemera file held by the Library on the topic of domestic violence. The file is wonderfully rich, it has lots of pamphlets collected by Library staff over decades, most dating from the 1980s onwards and what struck me was that the messages are discouragingly similar over many years, a reminder that we as a society have been campaigning against domestic violence for a very long time with sadly mixed results. And of course the funding for services supporting women fleeing violent situations and particularly refuges that were founded in the 1970s by women continue to be cut.
Understanding some of the politics of private life in the 1970s means I think we can better understand the ways that our political culture has changed since the 1970s. The 1970s saw new social groups emerge into public debate as political constituencies, as citizens with sets of specific demands, groups like working mothers to just give one example. Elizabeth Evatt described the Royal Commission on Human Relationships as quote representing those who had no unions to speak for them. That is, she argued, it was trying to represent those people who did not have a political organisation to fully represent their needs, to articulate their needs in political debate. This recognises the ways that the new politics of sexuality and gender fractured existing groupings of class or race, creating new allegiances and cutting across old ones. As one woman why spoke at the 1974 Women’s Commission noted ruefully my husband was a socialist when he bashed me. You know so kind of illustrating the ways those fractures were very uneven.
It also a decade in which those kinds of voices were increasingly heard in public debate. If you were going to speak about private things in public as so many people did in the 1970s it helps if someone is listening. One of the things that makes the ‘70s such an interesting and inspiring decade to research is that I think even though we can trace lots of resistance, that Australians also did start to listen to those voices which had long been excluded from public life. The revolutions of the ‘70s are of course unfinished but they did change Australian lives. The Library is full of those voices and I hope I’ve given you a hint of what they have to say here tonight.
I want to end this talk by reflecting on how wonderful it has been to have spent the last three months ... almost three months back in the 1970s sort of mentally at least, a time when libraries and cultural institutions were viewed as a natural and essential part of nation-building rather than as a drag on the public purse as they seem to be viewed by the current government. It seems extraordinary but necessary nonetheless to have to point out that Australia has only one National Library of Australia, it is a custodian of our past that exists for all of us and all Australians deserve access to its riches either in person or online through the wonderful resource that is Trove. Recent funding cuts place that access and that custodianship in peril and that should be of tremendous concern to all of us. We should remember the National Library when we vote in July and we need to tell our friends both in public and in private. Thank you.
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