Vietnam and the women's liberation movement


Continuing our historical features on Vietnam and the movement against the war in the '60s and '70s is this interview with SANDRA HAWKER and HELEN JARVIS. Both became involved in the fight against the Vietnam War while students at the Australian National University in Canberra during the middle and late '60s. As was true for many people at that time, radicalisation on the war issue led them to become politically active on other questions. At the end of 1969, both were involved in the first public action by the new women's liberation movement in Sydney. They were interviewed for Green Left Weekly by EVA CHENG.

Can you describe your experience in the antiwar movement in Canberra?

SH: Like many universities all around the world, in 1965 and 1966 staff and students came together to hold teach-ins and quite heated debates, and later we organised vigils, pickets and more vigorous protests. I remember there was a big demonstration at the Canberra Rex Hotel when LBJ visited just before the 1966 elections, when Harold Holt ran on the slogan "All the way with LBJ". Those opposing the war held placards ranging from "All we are saying is give peace a chance" to "Victory to the NLF".

HJ: We had to fight for our right to protest. For instance, there was one demonstration outside the Lodge in 1966, where we burned an Australian flag. About half a dozen of us were arrested for that. Unfortunately for the authorities, when they went to charge us, they found there was no law against burning the flag. The only possible charge was the misdemeanour of "burning rubbish in a public place". They couldn't call the flag rubbish, so they decided not to charge us.

Was that your only political activity?

HJ: I joined the ALP at the time, but it was mainly in order to oppose the war. There was a Liberal government prosecuting the war, and there was opposition to the war within the Labor Party, at least from its left wing, though the right was trying to water down or overturn the policy. We were also involved in a group called the Pluralist Society that linked together leftists of various hues, from Fabians to communists to libertarians, who had been strong in the Sydney Push in the 1950s.

How did you proceed from antiwar activism to feminism?

SH: In 1968-69, I became involved in a Marxist reading group with a number of people from the antiwar movement. We all would have thought of ourselves as to the left of the ALP and the Communist Party, but we weren't members of any particular group.

In 1969, a US woman who had been a member of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] there, Martha Ansara, came to Sydney and became part of the group. She brought with her documents and ideas from the women's liberation movement which was just getting started in the States.

The women in the reading group then formed a separate group where we could discuss feminist issues.

HJ: I was overseas for most of 1969, so I wasn't in the group with Sandra. In fact, when I came back in October, and she asked me to become part of the group, my first reaction was that women's liberation was a diversion from the really important issue, which was the Vietnam War.

You hadn't been interested in women's issues before that?

HJ: Well, back in 1965 in Canberra, I had been involved in a protest where a number of us chained ourselves to the bar in the Hotel Civic. Women weren't allowed to be served in the public bar — that was the law in both NSW and the ACT. We had to use the saloon bar or the ladies bar, where prices were higher, or to huddle out the back around the old kegs. They were also morose places, at least at the Civic, which was the only pub near the university. The public bar had all the spirit.

We chained ourselves to the public bar. The bartender wouldn't serve us, but there were some sympathetic men who bought drinks for us. The newspapers trivialised it, of course: they wrote it up with the headline, "Women breast the bar".

SH: But Helen was persuaded to join our women's group later in Sydney. We decided to announce ourselves to the public at a big moratorium march, which was held on December 15, 1969.

What did you do?

HJ: We distributed a leaflet. It was headed "Only the chains have changed" — the picture was of a woman wearing a jewellery chain.

The main point of the leaflet was making the links between women's liberation and Vietnam. It said, as activists in the antiwar movement, we've come to see that there are other kinds of oppression too. Class oppression wasn't everything; just as there is national oppression, there is also sexual oppression.

What were the main issues of concern in this new women's liberation movement?

SH: It started with women who had been radicalised by the anti-Vietnam War movement. They came from different parts of the left-wing spectrum, but they came together around issues such as equal pay, the right to abortion and child-care.

From the beginning we included women with different political outlooks, but we were all to the left of the Communist Party. The attitude of the CP was suspicious in the very early days. Later on they were won over to some of the ideas; they incorporated the issues that had been raised by the early left groups into their own ideological framework.

HJ: I think that's a distinguishing feature of the Australian women's liberation movement compared to the US — that it came from women who already considered themselves political activists and on the left. Certainly that awareness as a left movement, a progressive movement that had to have ties with other working-class movements, was taken for granted. The question was to make the other political movements understand the women's issue, rather than counterposing it.

What was the understanding of the origins of women's oppression and what needed to be done?

SH: There was a lot of excitement in the early days about discussing sexual oppression in consciousness-raising meetings. We found it very liberating. It was about the time when the pill became freely available, so it fitted in with changing attitudes to sexual behaviour. Women were starting to demand the right to have sexual freedom as they perceived men always had, and it actually became a possibility because of contraception.

We spent hours debating the origins of women's oppression, frequently starting with Engels' work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. We looked at capitalism and imperialism and then there were all the arguments about housework and child-rearing and the role of women in the paid work force. We started to do some work on the value of women's work to the economy which wasn't recognised, wasn't counted as part of the gross domestic product. We were discussing whether housework should be paid.

The other thing to remember is that the equal pay case was going on in the 1960s in the Industrial Commission. That involved women from the CP and also other women who were clearly feminists and not sectarian. Some of those women did come into the women's liberation movement, like many of the older women, especially those who had been with the CP and some from the Labor Party. But their previous activities were very much on the fringes of our consciousness. It wasn't an issue that we mobilised about, although it was one of our three basic demands along with child-care and abortion.

HJ: It was a very vibrant movement for meetings and discussions, and then of course women took those issues into every other organisation they were members of — trade unions, political parties, whatever. They started to question the prevailing assumptions of those movements and those organisations. How come it was always the man who was supposed to be the president and the woman the secretary? Even on what may appear to be a mundane level: who does the washing up? Who makes the cup of tea?

What was the role of the parties in the second wave of feminism?

SH: I think right at the beginning they were suspicious and hostile. Certainly the CP, I don't remember much about the Labor Party's attitude. But the Communist Party got on board pretty quickly and started to have their own formal discussion groups in the party.

HJ: The Resistance women were involved in it right from the start, and although some people might have thought that it was not a crucial struggle, I don't think there was any opposition. When the women started organising and started actually presenting a position, it was accepted.

SH: The US Socialist Workers Party had long held an orientation to include national liberation struggle and black struggle, and then women, and then gay rights as allies of the working class. The SWP in Australia was much more friendly and well disposed towards the whole issue than, for example, the group that I was sympathetic with at the time, the Socialist Labour League. They were very hostile to it. They counterposed it to the class struggle, and said it was a petty-bourgeois diversion. So organisationally and ideologically the women's movement was supported by Resistance and the SWP more or less from the start.

HJ: The screening and printing of the initial leaflets were all done at Resistance.