This post has been a long time in the making because I’ve been bogged down with sciatica again. It’s thrown my sleep patterns out, left me feeling very tired and also lethargic and aimless. So I decided to go with the flow, simply tread water and wait until I felt the urge to start writing again. Which is now. And at the same time, I’ve decided to make space for new adventures in my life by getting rid of all the shelving with my crystals on and storing all my crystals in my cupboard space. I’m focusing on my art and writing my book as blog.
New beginnings, new paths, new energy. I probably needed the break to process where I really want to work in my life right now. So now on to my adventures with Women’s Liberation in the early 1970s.
I had my teenage rebellion in my ‘twenties when I moved to Australia. Until then I’d pretty much been Ms Goody-Two-Shoes, not rocking the boat, head down and studying assiduously to get a good degree as I was the first in our family to go to university, and fairly conservative. At least, that’s the image that I have of myself but I’ve been interested to catch up with old friends from my University days who see me quite differently – organised, organising people and quite adventurous. Weird how you see yourself and how others see you!
I guess working on a kibbutz in Israel, which is what I did prior to travelling to Australia in 1972, and then hopping off Downunder could be considered quite adventurous although at the time it just seemed to me that both were interesting things to do. Perhaps I also did this bit of travelling as I had no idea of my direction in life. In fact, I never did find a direction until my mid-fifties – late starter, you might say!
I began throwing over the traces with gusto when I joined the Australian Union of Students as the organiser for Western Australia and subsequently got involved with Women’s Liberation. I had seen a news report of women in the movement handing out contraceptive advice at secondary school gates and it interested me.
Why did I become interested in Women’s Liberation?
It’s so easy to forget what life was like for women back in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, so here are a few reminders that Women’s Libbers rocked the boat because women:
• Were denied equal pay
• Were clustered in low paying work
• Were paid less for the same work done by men
• Weren’t allowed to open their own bank accounts without permission from their husband, boyfriend or father.
• Couldn’t get a mortgage as a single woman.
• Were victimized all too often if they were raped, labeled as the “temptress”, “seductress”, or whatever, because rape wasn’t recognized as an act of violence.
• Had to leave the public service when they married.
• Had to leave the workforce when they had children.
• Had to leave the workforce when menfolk came back from war and wanted the jobs (see the move Rosie the Riveter and a documentary about women pilots in World War II flying planes around the UK to the various aerodromes where they were needed)
• Were invisible in history, the media and film. Apart from a few odd exceptions like Katherine Hepburn, women were pretty much bitches (Betty Davis) or goddesses up on a pedestal (June Allyson)
• Were sex objects
• Were forced to resort to illegal abortions because of unwanted pregnancies, often dying dreadful deaths from scepticaemia.
• Were vilified if they chose to have an abortion despite the vast majority of women agonizing over such a choice.
• Were denied free, safe contraception and planned parenthood.
• Had enormous difficulties accessing advanced education
• Were going off their rocker in the suburbs with frustration and boredom.
And we in Women’s Liberation were impolite, rowdy, feisty, hollering, rollicking, loud, raucous, marching, holding demonstrations, rejecting ideas of being “nice” and “lady-like”, and standing together in large numbers to organise for women’s right to be treated with respect, dignity and equality.
This is one of the songs from those time:
“Don’t be too polite, girls, don’t be too polite,
Show a little fight girls, show a little fight,
Don’t be fearful of offending, in case you get the sack
Just recognize your value and we won’t look back.
All among the bull, girls, all among the bull,
Keep your hearts full, girls, keep your hears full
What good is a man as doormat, or following at heel?
It’s not their balls we’re after, it’s a fair square deal.”
In early 1978 I went on a tour to China just as it was opening up. We visited a women’s brigade on an oil field in Shandong Province (one of the coldest places I’ve ever been by the way!). The women’s brigade was set up as Chinese leaders in the oil industry found that men looked down on women workers and sidelined them. So the aim of the women’s brigade was to encourage emancipation in the industry and self-respect among the women workers.
We sang the above song to them, and they sang back women’s revolutionary songs to us. Our interpreters told the Chinese women the meaning of our song, and then translated the Chinese songs to us. We had a wonderful time, laughing, singing, talking (via our interpreters) and shaking hands when we left with many waves as our mini-bus drove away from the oilfield.
“Don’t be too polite, girls” is a fighting song from the history of working women in Australia. I use the term “fighting” deliberately, because we women have never been handed our gains on our plate. We’ve had to organize, fight and stand together as sisters to achieve anything. I don’t ever want young women to forget that because, as a young woman myself, I stood on the shoulders of the mothers, sisters, grandmothers and great-grandmothers before me who took action, in big and small ways, to advance women’s interests, including the right to vote. And I honour and remember them with pride.
Jack and I arrived in Australia in 1972 a month or so before the Whitlam government was elected. This was the government of the Australian Labor Party and its ascent to power came after the Liberal-Country Party coalition had been in office since 1949. We knew stuff-all about Australian politics but, nevertheless, when we listened to the L-CP advertisements on radio with their “reds under the beds” theme, it was like leaping back a few decades. We’d look at each other and mutter “Blimey, they’re a paranoid bunch” when these crazy-sounds ads for the L-CP came on without understanding that the L-CP had relied on the “reds under the bed” them to stay in office in the decades since 1949.
When the Whitlam government came into office, we really had no idea of the upheaval such a government would unleash. It undertook quite revolutionary action which left the conservative Establishment beside itself with rage and determined to restore what the L-CP believed was its right to rule which had, in the 1972 election, been usurped by a bunch of upstarts.
If you’re wondering why I’m commenting on this, it’s because, once we decided to stay in Australia, I got caught up in the excitement of the early Whitlam years when great social change took place, particularly to the benefit of women and Aboriginal people.
Those who may have read that the Whitlam years were ones of complete chaos may be a bit surprised to read anything good about the return of the ALP to office in Australia. But history, as they say, is written by the victors and the conservative forces in Australia have done their best to portray the years of Whitlam rule as chaotic, unhinged and run by a bunch of ignorant nutters. In the process, they’ve carefully played down the way in the conservative Establishment in Australia set out to undermine and, ultimately, knock off what seemed at the time a quite revolutionary Labor government. In this the forces of reaction were helped by the fact that the Senate was controlled by the L-CP which did its best to obstruct legislative measures by the Labor-controlled Federal Parliament and eventually refused to pass supply bills which provided for government expenditure..
To give you some idea of the upheaval in the very staid, stiff upper-lip approach of former conservative governments, here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia which shows a little of the gusto with which the new government started out in office:
“On 5 December, once Labor’s win was secure, Whitlam had the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, swear him in as Prime Minister and Labor’s deputy leader, Lance Bernard, as deputy prime minister. The two men held 27 portfolios during the two weeks before a full cabinet could be determined.
During the two weeks the so-called “duumvirate” held office, Whitlam sought to fulfill those campaign promises that did not require legislation. Whitlam ordered negotiations to establish full relations with the People’s Republic of China, and broke those with Taiwan. Legislation allowed the Minister for Defence to grant exemptions from conscription. Barnard held this office, and exempted everyone. Seven men were at that time incarcerated for refusing conscription; Whitlam arranged for their freedom. The Whitlam government in its first days re-opened the equal pay case pending before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and appointed a woman, Elizabeth Evatt, to the commission. Whitlam and Barnard eliminated sales tax on contraceptive pills, announced major grants for the arts, and appointed an interim schools commission. The duumvirate barred racially discriminatory sport teams from Australia, and instructed the Australian delegation at the United Nations to vote in favour of sanctions on apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It also ordered home all remaining Australian troops in Vietnam, though most (including all conscripts) had been withdrawn by McMahon.”
The Whitlam government appointed a women’s advisor, established universal health care, eliminated military conscription and criminal excusion, set up fee-free university education, implemented legal aid programmes, gave legal recognition to de facto relationships, and recognised Aboriginal land rights. Other measures were introduced but just these few gives you some idea of the sweeping changes implemented by Whitlam’s government. Those were heady days!
I have to be honest and say that in our early days in Australa a lot of this went over my head as we simply enjoyed our hedonistic holiday in Australia, with work and good pay, a fantastic climate, partying and making new friends. In 1973 we intended to book a cruise home to the UK and resume our normal lives. But in that year, as we were sorting out what cruise line to use to return home, my mother wrote and told us to stay in Australia for the time being. She said that there were strikes, a 3-day working week, power cuts and very few job vacancies. She told me years later that it was one of the hardest letters she ever wrote but, ironically, it was the decision to extend our stay which saw us loosen our ties with the UK and settle down in our new country.
In the days of the “Ten pound Poms”, people could pay £10 for travel to Australia, but they had to stay for two years. In those two years, your ties with friends back in the UK tended to die away because there was no internet, no e-mail and no Skype. You’d start making friends in the new country and get more settled. Which is exactly what happened to me and to Jack.
We got to know people, made friends and developed a social life. I enjoyed my work but, as time wore on, I became restless, particularly as we were staying longer than expected. I’ve always been the same. As soon as I’ve mastered a job, I get bored and want another challenge. I tried to move to being a storekeeper at the engineering company I worked for, but was passed over for someone who, truth be told, had more qualifications than I ever would have.
And finally I threw in the towel after a dust-up with one of the salesmen. He had written a draft letter which I automatically translated into better, grammatical language. He was beside himself at the changes and ordered me to type his original letter. I refused and told him it was load of old cobblers. Eventually, the acting boss at the time backed the salesman, although someone else did type the letter, but I knew my time there was limited. And I remember the acting boss saying to me: “You’ll leave now, won’t you?” And I nodded. He said: “I’m sorry, I had no choice, but in any case you’re too intelligent to stay here for long.”
I ended up applying for two positions, a secretarial job with a petroleum exploration company and one as an organiser for Western Australia with the Australian Union of Students. The secretarial job was the safe, predictable and conventional job. It also had higher pay. The AUS job was unconventional and meant a pay cut. Jack didn’t go too much on the pay cut but, for the first time, I struck out on my own and stood firm. My intuition was working overtime (although I didn’t know anything about intuition in those days), so I took a punt and went for the AUS job. It was a big unknown, working as the union organiser in Western Australia. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. All I knew was that it looked incredibly interesting and it seemed to call to me. I did actually get the secretarial job and turned it down. They begged me to take the position but I refused. It was a big risk as I hadn’t actually got the AUS job. But somehow I knew that I couldn’t take conventional work any more. The excitement and exhilaration of the Whitlam changes had infected me too and I was eager to head in new directions.
I got the job and it was a turning point for me. While I may have had illusions that I was the best candidate, I found out later that I’d been picked because the only other person in the running was a member of the Communist Party. So I was the lesser of two evils, if I can put it like that. As I said, I actually had no idea whatsoever what a union organiser was supposed to do. I faked it big-time at the interview. The final question asked by the interviewing committee was to summarise why I was the best candidate. I knew what the question was going to be because I’d eavesdropped on the previous candidate. I told them that now they’d interviewed me, they knew I was the best of the lot. It caused a laugh but actually I gave that response because I had no idea what else to say and it worked quite successfully as a diversion from my absolute ignorance about the work involved.
And so I quit my job at the engineering office and jumped feet first into my new work as the organiser in Western Australia for the Australian Union of Students. I felt like I’d come alive and I really came out of the closet once I started this work! I had somehow always felt drawn to the path of service, but not in a family setting. For me, work outside the home had always been the priority and the work with AUS was right up my alley although I had never realised it before. I loved the political atmosphere and, at the time, I felt that politics was the way to serve.
I’ve had quite a long break because I’ve had a lot of trouble with severe sciatic pain and I’ve been concentrating on my artwork at:
because basically it keeps me sane when things get somewhat painful.
Suddenly, however, a fair few comments have popped up about this blog so I decided I’d better get myself into gear and get writing again.
Since my last post was about leaving Australia for the UK in 2002 (it lasted two years, by the way!) I decided to continue with the start of my adventures in Australia in which:
The Intrepid Life Traveller, Ms Goody-Two-Shoes,
Stepped into the Telephone Box in Perth, Western Australia,
in dreary, conscientious, reliable clothing
With Purple Hair
And Bright Red Knickers over the Purple Tights
Founding Member Arty-Farty Brigade!
To be very honest I was quite surprised recently when the guy I travelled with (we broke up but remain good friends) told me recently he was really grateful I’d suggested a holiday in Australia. I actually don’t remember this but I guess Australia had always been on my horizon knowing my parents had got all the approvals to emigrate Downunder in the post-war period until my mother changed her mind at the last moment.
SHIP-JET TO PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
We, Jack and I, travelled to Australia for a working holiday via jet to Singapore and then ship to Perth, Western Australia. It was dirt cheap and, in those days, because we were British, we could enter Australia without visas and work also without needing any visa.
The jet part was one of the early budget flights and I remember it going on and on seemingly forever. I’d muddled up time change so had no idea how long we’d been in the air and how long we’d keep flying. I do remember feeling a bit airsick and had just got a glass of water to take some tablets when we hit severe disturbance. The jet dropped god knows how many feet, the water stayed in the air while the glass went down with me, and looking up it was like slow motion as the water – free of the constraints of the glass – fell down on me and left me soaked to the skin!
Finally we arrived in Singapore to warm, humid weather and a hostile Customs officer who decided that, as Jack’s hair was a bit too long, his passport would be confiscated and only returned when the ship set sail. I remember Singapore being squeaky clean and full of flowers but really was too jetlagged to take much notice.
We set sail on the Patris ship, full of excitement at embarking on a sea cruise, but I have to tell you that it was utterly, utterly boring. I don’t like constant entertainment and every available public area had something on – nightclub, movies, bingo, etc., etc. I spent a lot of time lolling around in deck chairs or down below in the cabin. We were also, by the way, segregated. Women-only cabins and men-only cabins. The only thing to fill the endless days and empty seas were food and booze, and the food was not particularly brilliant. It was even less brilliant when we hit rough seas and meal times were more an exercise in not throwing up rather than getting food down as the restaurant was towards the prow of the boat! So it was with a sigh of relief that we both emerged above decks early one morning in the hazy light of sunrise, to see the shoreline of Australia squatting hazily on the horizon.
And it was THEN I thought to myself, what the heck have we done? Set sail to a strange country the other side of the world, without too much in the way of back-up funds, where we need to find work and accommodation pretty much pronto! Bit late for commonsense to hit but I remember really getting butterflies in my stomach as the dark coastline of Australia came closer and closer, looking quite mysterious and a bit malevolent, until finally we sailed into Fremantle port, south of Perth, and docked at the quayside.
Disembarkation took a while but soon we were traipsing across to Fremantle train station to buy our tickets to Perth. We had a great introduction to Australia: when we asked for our tickets, the ticket officer asked where we’d come from. We said England, just arrived via ship-jet, and his response was: “More Pommie bastards. The place is sinking with ’em. Why don’t you all stay at home?” We were somewhat taken aback but found others we met later were, luckily, a lot more friendly and helpful.
We stayed in a cheap hotel the first few days and got ourselves acclimatised to Perth while we looked for a flat and jobs. Perth at that time was more like a big town than the big metropolis it is now. It was like stepping back twenty years in time as it was old-fashioned, parochial and very quiet after the hustle and bustle of London where Jack and I had both lived and worked prior to our Australian adventure. On Saturdays, shops closed at midday, older ladies wore really old-fashioned dresses (frocks) with long sleeves, stockings, ghastly shoes, prim hats and gloves, all this in really hot temperatures! When we first came across The West Australian, the local newspaper, we thought it was a weekly local rag, a bit like the newsy local publication which appeared once a week in Canterbury. But, no, this was the daily newspaper and it was pathetic – bad layout, anti anything from “the Eastern States”, utterly WA-centric, and hostage to the mining cowboys starting to make their mark. Actually, when I last saw the newspaper when we stopped in Perth on our way to North Cyprus, it hadn’t changed much except to get worse!
JOBS AND SETTLING IN
We found a flat quickly as in those days they were plentiful, cheap and cheerful. After the miserable digs we’d experienced in London we thought we were in clover – a nice bedroom, separate shower and bathroom, fridge, and it was clean and bright. What we didn’t realise was that the flat we’d found was the bottom of the pile, the flats that young people and young couples moved in to to start an independent life. To us, though, it was absolute luxury after the really awful housing you used to get in London if you weren’t among the super-rich. We rapidly bought some more necessities like kitchenware, coffee tables and so on, and then turned to the question of jobs.
On the Monday after we arrived we caught the train to Perth (we’d found a flat on the Fremantle-Perth line) and started haring down the platform when we arrived. Then we noticed the looks of surprise on the faces of other train passengers and realised everyone else was strolling along at a gentle pace! Yes, life was in the slow lane in Perth in 1972 and we soon adapted.
Jack found a job delivering bread to houses which was common in those days while I found a job working in a French company quite a way from where we lived, but it was a job and we both had an income coming in. We were amazed to find how high wages were and how low income tax was compared to the UK. In London I’d been earning £26 a week, with nearly half going on taxes. In Australia I was earning $70 a week and when I saw I’d only paid $3 in taxes, I approached the accountant as I thought there’d been a mistake. But no, tax was minimal and, even more surprising, a couple of weeks later I got a rise to $75 because there was something called an Award which was regulated by a commission and they’d given my class of office worker a raise without my even having to ask! Neither of us could believe our luck!
THE STIRRINGS OF REBELLION
Australia was, however, a huge turning point for me. Until we arrived in Perth, I’d been conventional, conservative and pretty myopic in my thinking. The first stirrings of rebellion in me happened when the guy I worked for in my first job called me “the girl”. I was mortally offended by this term as it was so derogatory. I remember one day my boss and his partner went to a liquid lunch (i.e., they went to a pub and got stuck into the booze) forgot an appointment and when the guy turned up he was ropeable. He rang back later that day and I heard my boss blame “the girl” so I leaned over, grabbed the phone and shouted down it: “I’m not the girl, I didn’t forget, they went and got drunk”. Amazingly I didn’t get the sack, but it was the nail in the coffin for me as far as that job was concerned. I also got further impetus to leave when the accountant, who’d acted rather oddly at times, turned up late one morning as pissed as a parrot and I found out he was a raging alcoholic.
I had a look in the local paper, The West Australian, for a job and found one as the office supervisor and secretary to the Managing Director in a small engineering firm not far from where I lived and, best of all, it had air-conditioning! The first time it hit 100F/37.8C in the brick block which was my first place of work, I thought I’d die with the heat. I stuck it out for a while then crept into the restroom, whipped my pantyhose off and scuttled back to my desk with bare legs which I thought was incredibly daring. Actually, no-one noticed and young women in 1972 had started going without pantyhose in the summer as it was so much more comfortable. It was only the older generation of women who turned out in pantyhose and how they managed to look so cool was quite beyond me!
I also got cranky when I stayed in our flat on a Sunday while Jack went out to play football and have a good time. I did try going to one football match which I found incredibly boring, it seemed to last forever and I had no interest in the women who only talked about their babies, nappies and homes. And so, when I saw a report on members of Women’s Liberation, who had picketed schools to hand out contraception information, I felt the first stirrings of interest. I wrote to them via the newspaper but never heard back. However, when I quit my office job, because the area organiser for Western Australia for the Australian Union of Students and came into contact with members of Women’s Liberation, it was as if lights went off for me and I was off and running on the path very much less travelled!