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Michelle Arrow’s towering examination of our past also illuminates the vibrant, caustic rolling country we became.
One evening in 1973, my sister came home with a shocking story. She had been invited to dinner at a friend’s place and because she was nine and loved people, she had been looking forward to it immensely. Now she was crying and in desperate need of a hearing. So she sat all of us down and between furious wails told us about a world we never knew existed. It had been quiet during the meal, she said. Only the father was allowed to speak, and he used that privilege to read from the Bible in a loud, authoritative voice. We always had discussions at the table, so halfway through my sister had interrupted with a comment, only to be urgently shushed by her friend. Then the worst thing happened. After dinner, and after the girls had cleared the table, all the children, and the mother, had lined up in front of the father. One by one he had hit them. Some once, some multiple times. It was their daily punishment for their daily crimes. He never told them what they had done wrong, and they had to say “thank you” at the end. My sister, as the guest, had been spared—“this time”—he had said, but was nevertheless stunned by what she had seen.
In our family, hitting was out of the question. My parents didn’t do it, and the children weren’t allowed to do it either. Problems were discussed (sometimes a little too much), and if you had asked us who the power in the household was, our answer certainly would not have been our father. Nowadays, of course, this is an accepted family “protocol” and the situation at my sister’s friend’s house would be a reason to call the police. In the 1970s, it was almost the other way around. People who visited us would often tut-tut at the “extraordinary” freedom of the children and the amount and breadth of topics discussed between roast and dessert. They would also often comment on the fact that especially my father was always keen to show us the connections between our experiences and the larger world around us. He had spent most of his teenage years as a forced labourer in a German weapons factory, so if anybody understood that the personal was political, he did. This is what his main pedagogical message was during our upbringing: very little of what you do, think or feel is unique. Most of it is embedded in and bred by the society surrounding you, and that has consequences. If there is a wrong, try to right it. If there is suffering, don’t whinge about it, but act.
For most of us, now, that connection between the individual and the wider world is a normal thing—and taught by television (Oprah comes to mind) and social media, we have learnt to talk (incessantly sometimes) about everything. It has become so ordinary that most of us have forgotten that there was a time when there was a very distinct separation between the personal and the political. A time, too, where even talking at all, about anything more intimate than the weather, was considered bad manners. That is the first reason why Michelle Arrow’s The Seventies: The Personal, the Political and the Making of Modern Australia is such a valuable book. It reminds us of a world, only five minutes ago, really, when much was hidden. And I’m not just talking about what happened behind the drawn curtains of the family home. Arrow also points to the now almost inconceivable lack of knowledge about simple things, like our bodies and sex. Of course, one of the clichés of the 1970s is that a lot of feminist women spent them on the floor, investigating their clitoris. That makes us laugh, and squirm a little, but then it was a necessary tool for liberation. In order to understand the world, and themselves to begin with, women had to start by looking in the mirror. And after they had done that, they talked. To each other, in consciousness-raising sessions, and to the world.
Religious leaders suggested it was “aimed at removing the Christian influence from Australian society and government”. It was never properly discussed and in 1982 it died.
In tracking that development, Arrow chooses a forgotten phenomenon as the heart of her book: the Royal Commission into Human Relationships. It was set up by the Whitlam government in 1974, strongly supported by the country’s (and the world’s) first Women’s Advisor to the Prime Minister, Elizabeth Reid. The Commission tapped into the newly found need to talk and asked people to tell Canberra what they thought about “sex and sex education, abortion, family life, family planning, parenthood, child care, women’s rights and homosexuality”. They did so in their thousands, in open sessions, on the phone, on paper, by participating in research. Commission members even went to sports fields and shopping centres to give citizens an opportunity to tell their story, and again they did so with relish. Soon, it became clear that there was a lot of pent-up frustration in Australia. Women especially were confused about the difference between the roles they were expected to play and the life they really wanted for themselves. Gays and lesbians were now not asking to be tolerated, but demanding to be accepted. But the most startling revelation was that the family, that sacrosanct place of shelter and love, was often the opposite. Arrow quotes one of the organisers of the 1974 Women and Violence Forum and March, who wrote that “The safety of the home, the protection, indeed chivalry, of men for ‘their’ womenfolk is a screen behind which the most protracted and hideous violence against women occurs.” The “happy family” was a myth, and that shocked a lot of people. Suddenly the foundation of Australian society was undermined, and with it the reputation of white, heterosexual males in particular.
So when Whitlam’s protection of the Commission’s work dissolved after the dismissal, conservative forces immediately set out to bury the findings and try to stop the deluge of personal confessions. Whitlam’s successor, Malcolm Fraser, cut off the Commission’s funds and asked for an interim (and then a final) report. When it was finished in 1977, it carried more than 500 recommendations, from law reform to better child protection services, but it was not released. Instead, carefully chosen details were leaked to members of the press who could be relied upon to stick the boot in, and that is exactly what happened. After that, it was easy for the responsible Minister to warn the public that he was convinced it would “cause a lot of deep offence to the people in Australia—I think a majority of them”. Although his boss hadn’t read it, he agreed that the report “would fill every family in Australia with horror”. In the newspapers, religious leaders suggested that it was “aimed at removing the Christian influence from Australian society and government” and the Premier of WA was convinced that “decent families” would reject it. After it was tabled in Parliament in 1978, “without comment or debate”, it was soon clear that it didn’t, in fact, contain a description of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nevertheless, it was never properly discussed and in 1982 it died.
Yes, white, heterosexual males are no longer the power or the norm… Not only do we know that “the nation is not the economy”, but the idea that there are boundaries between the private and the public sounds odd and even a little dumb to us.
But, of course, history tends to be a river instead of a series of ponds, and as I am learning in my own research for a book on Australian mavericks, resistance, once awakened, is never really silenced. So, as Michelle Arrow rightfully writes, without the 1970s we wouldn’t be where we are today. That is a positive and a negative. After all those years, these State and Federal elections are still about abortion and family—and institutional—violence, against women and (the last group up for liberation) children. Crime statistics show that every single illegal activity is trending downwards, except violence against women. Populism tends to be right-wing, repressive and dismissive of “others”, whoever they might be. And Fred Nile is still in politics, still convinced that everybody who disagrees with him is a “deviant”. Those are disconcerting facts, but they are dwarfed by the good that has come out of the 1970s. Granted, sometimes the relentless sprouting of opinions, personal, political or a mix of both, can be a pain in the neck. But at least we are talking, not fighting. And listening, whenever we can bring ourselves to do it, usually results in more understanding and the “there but for the grace of God” we need to keep us on an even keel. Despite the losses, particularly women and people in the LBTQI+ group now have more knowledge and more choices. And yes, that does mean that white, heterosexual males are no longer the power or the norm, which is also a gain. But more than anything, for us, now, the 1970s adage that Michelle Arrow reminds us of in her book, “the personal is political”, is a given. Not only do we know that “the nation is not the economy”, but the idea that there are boundaries between the private and the public sounds odd and even a little dumb to us.
Even before this book was published, we knew that Michelle Arrow was an important interpreter of Australian history. Friday On Our Minds was a dazzling ride through the country’s post-war popular culture, a breath of fresh air on what Claire Wright calls the “dick table”, books by and about men, usually ones in uniform. With The Seventies she does it again: showing us that our past is about more than ANZAC myths and male egos. Here, almost everybody is included in our history, and more people have a voice than in comparable attempts to describe who we are. This way, it is a missing piece of the puzzle.
Not only of the Australia of almost 50 years ago, but that of the here and now.
This piece was first published by Australia Explained.