'Having It All' or 'Had Enough'? Blaming Feminism in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, 1980-2004

Article excerpt

In July 2002, the Age published an opinion piece by ABC journalist Virginia Haussegger entitled 'The sins of our feminist mothers' accompanied by the blurb that she was exposing the 'great lie' of 'having it all' feminism. Blaming feminism was nothing new in the pages of the Age. However, in this article Haussegger succinctly put into words what various journalists had been hinting at for decades. She asserted that feminism in Australia was responsible for a host of social and political problems, including the declining birth rate and the idea that an entire generation of women had supposedly found that after obediently following the dictates of their 'feminist mothers' that their careers were 'no longer a challenge', their single lifestyles were 'joyless', and they were 'childless', 'angry' and 'miserable'. (1)

Haussegger's ire was notable in that 'having it all' and getting women into the workplace were presented as the only goals or achievements of over two decades of second-wave feminism in Australia. Haussegger did not attempt to support her statements with historical evidence that this was indeed what feminists had promised. Instead, her personal narrative with its emotive language was presented as emblematic of all young Australian women's anguish, providing a focus for their anger: feminism.

Haussegger's article was in fact part of a much broader debate within the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald about the achievements and limits of the women's liberation movement and feminism in Australia. (2) Her article marked a turning point in narratives about feminism. 'Having it all', a long-standing cliche used to dismiss women's achievements and desires, had entered the social and political discourse as a powerful narrative. In this article I trace the way in which this narrative metamorphised in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald from 1980 to the present. It is my argument that this new narrative signalled a loss of actual historical knowledge about feminism and became, within the pages of these newspapers, not only a way of remembering feminism but also a way of dismissing it as a movement that held out promises that could never be kept. Haussegger's article gave a generation of women the words to voice their discontent. Blaming feminism for women's unhappiness, a strategy that has historically often been casually deployed, became the central approach to articles about women in the 1990s and 2000s.

Many scholars have explored the relationship between memory and historical knowledge. Paula Hamilton, for instance, has argued that in one way history is simply 'official memory', and that there is an 'essential interdependence between memory and history'. (3) Similarly, Peter Burke has argued that neither history nor memory is objective: both are consciously selected, interpreted and distorted; both are 'socially conditioned'. (4) Ann Curthoys has argued that as time passes the historicity of social events is lost. Over time, our only access to past events becomes an amalgam of 'personal memory with popular and academic imagination'; we no longer remember the event but only its visual and narrative representation in the public sphere. (5) Similarly, Bain Attwood has argued that as the gap between an event and its telling grows, popular explanations inevitably gain precedence over the work of historians, and in the process of 'narrative accrual' (6) the complexity of the past is lost. (7) It is for these reasons that many scholars, although acknowledging the usefulness of memory for reconstructing the past (particularly in understanding the construction of social identity) insist on the primacy of the historical account. Public narratives, Attwood argues, should not replace historical knowledge because of the inherent unreliability of memory. This does not mean that memory should be abandoned but, instead, always approached with care. (8) This article will submit the memory or narrative of 'having it all' feminism to a historical analysis, not in order to present an alternative more 'accurate' account of the past but, rather, to explore the complicated relationship between memory and historical knowledge. …