Feminism as Cultural Renaissance

Article excerpt

'Truly, it felt like Year One' wrote English novelist Angela Carter; 'towards the end of the sixties it started to feel like living on a demolition site - one felt one was living on the edge of the unimaginable'. There was 'a yeastiness in the air that was due to a great deal of unrestrained and irreverent frivolity', and 'an air of continuous improvisation'. 'I can' she wrote, 'date to that time and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968 my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my "femininity" was created and palmed off on me as the real thing.'1

To begin what is predominantly - but not exclusively - a white story: in January 1971, at Australia's first Women's Liberation conference in Sydney, postgraduate students Ann Curthoys and Lyndall Ryan spoke of forms of 'cultural oppression': 'it is here' they proclaimed,

that the oppression of women goes beyond the traditional class barriers. And it is here that we have to start to smash those myths for unless we can change the whole cultural orientation of women, no revolution is going to bring us the liberation we are seeking.2

The language was that of the new New Lefts and the popular movement against Australia's participation in the United States' war against the Vietnamese people - except for its emphasis on 'culture'. That emphasis pointed towards a dimension of the movement for the liberation of women that is seldom recognised. [Fig. 1] Look at Chris Westwood and Sue Williams: they've abandoned their skirts and stockings, not to make coffee for men at an anti-war meeting, but rather to sing - and on stage, not at home in the bathroom - in drag.4 Young singer/songwriter, Robyn Archer sang on a subject previously un-mentionable in public, 'The Menstruation Blues'.5

See Ann Curthoys: she made more than speeches; she made a spectacle of herself on the cover of Mejane, volume 1, number 1.6 [Fig. 2] All over the country, but especially in the cities, women took to their pens, typewriters and gestetners; to their easels and kilns; to their guitars; to their classrooms, and - breaking all the rules about separate spheres - to the streets and the stages.

Such activism could be seen as an extension of the Youth Movement of the late 1960s, with its insistence on its countercultural distinction from the mainstream.7 Such activism could be seen as an extension of the cultural revolution of advanced industrial capitalist nations and its debates over what would come to be called 'Euro-communist marxism'.8 The chronological overlap of the new New Left, the Youth Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement makes the association inevitable.

But the disorderly conduct associated with Women's Liberation distinguishes it from such chronology, if only because the women continued to erupt through the bounds of convention over and over again, throughout the 1970s and beyond. The Coming Out Ready or Not Show put together by the Australian Women's Broadcasting Cooperative to go to air on Saturday afternoons signalled in its very name what Julie Rigg and Julie Copeland noted as 'that new tone we could hear in women's voices: a boldness and enthusiasm for the possibilities of change'; it was launched on International Women's Day in 1975,9 in Sydney. Refractory Girl had been coming out in Sydney since 1972 and in Brisbane Hecate launched itself as one of the first international journals of academic feminism at that same point in 1975. The South Australian Women's Art Movement's vision arrived in 1976.10 The Sydney Women Writers' Workshop got themselves together when, 'with a bit of a bang', they organised a reading at Bondi Pavilion in May 1978.11 Sisters Publishing, a cooperative of five women publishers based in Melbourne, established themselves to national fanfare in 1979.12 It was as late as 1989 when Jackie Huggins took time out from writing her honours thesis in Women's Studies at Flinders University to erupt onto the stage as 'a Cherbourg Girl' in Ann Dunn's Black and White Women's Show in Adelaide. …