Changing Our Lives: Women working in the women's movement 1970-1990
Edited by Maud Cahill and Christine Dann
Bridget Williams Books, NZ, 1991
Reviewed by Bronwen Beechey
Reading this book was a nostalgic and enjoyable experience. Like the 21 contributors, I grew up in New Zealand and became involved in the women's liberation movement in the early 1970s, as a very shy and naive 18-year old.
The writers' descriptions of their experiences in the early days of the movement bring back very clearly the excitement and exhilaration of that time, the sense of sisterhood and the feeling that anything was possible.
The first stirrings of feminism began in the late '60s along with the growth of the movement against the Vietnam War and the general radicalisation of young people. It was in 1970 that the first women's liberation groups were formed, and the movement grew rapidly — 200 women came to the first women's liberation conference in Wellington in 1972, 1500 to the first United Women's Convention in Auckland in 1973. The contributors to Changing Our Lives all became active in the movement during this period.
Their descriptions of life before the women's movement serve as a useful reminder that, despite the gains still to be made, women have, in the words of the notorious advertising slogan, come a long way.
Many of the contributors speak of their alienation and isolation as suburban housewives and the unhappiness of traditional marriages. As long-time feminist and socialist activist Margot Roth says, "By 1970, at the age of forty-nine, I had been cut down to size so many times that I was somewhat short and scarred." Fern Mercier describes the trauma of a common experience suffered by many young women at that time — of being pregnant, sent away to have the child in secrecy, abused by medical staff, and having the child adopted out.
Involvement in the movement gave women the courage to transform their own lives. Mercier describes this process: "The feminist revolution opened the doors to change on personal and sexual, racial and cultural, social and political levels. 'Free Love!' and 'Death to the Nuclear Family!' were our battle cries. But for us the ends could never justify the means, and our revolution became the means, the process of the daily and local input of our most intimate and personal lives. This stuff became the eye of a revolutionary storm that carried us all along. Battles were fought within and without, and there was never any turning back."
As well as dramatically changing their own lives — joining the workforce, leaving oppressive marriages, experimenting with communal living, discovering lesbian relationships — many women became involved in broader political struggles. One of the most fascinating articles is by Viv Porzsolt, a frequent contributor to Green Left Weekly, in which she describes her evolution from "early-sixties middle-class wife" to university student and antiwar activist, followed by a stint as a worker and union activist in the male-dominated meat industry. For these women, the price of as often high, but none of them regret it.
Contributors such as Marilynn Johnson, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Viv Walker describe the difficulties faced by lesbians, Maori and working-class women participating in the movement. Some of the authors describe their frustration at the fragmentation of the movement into what Christine Dann calls "qualifying-adjective feminism" (radical, liberal, lesbian, socialist and so on).
Not all of the contributors have continued their activity in the women's movement, but none have turned their backs on feminist ideas. Many stress the need for a revitalisation of the movement, particularly in the face of the attacks on past gains by the current National government. All continue to look forward to a future in which women are valued and treated as the equals of men, and are able to make real choices about their lives.