There’s a Snake in My Caravan – Part 2

If nothing else,  I can claim to have done much to assist the establishment of a women’s refuge in Canberra. The physical presence of the Green Valley housewife, her baby, the nappies and disorder, and the endless recitations of my latest trauma as I fought for recognition of entitlements as a deserting wife with the ACT [Australian Capital Territory] welfare authorities were concrete evidence of the urgent need for a ‘real’ women’s refuge. (In 1972 only ‘deserted’ wives were entitled to welfare.)

… 1972 had been an extremely traumatic year. Separated from my children, I was often in despair. When meetings closed, usually in the early hours of the morning, I was left alone to cry myself to sleep: no future, no place to go. Too ‘working-class’ proud to ask for charity, I fed the baby sugar-water while humourously describing my latest battle with welfare. During the first nine weeks I received only two $10.00 food vouchers. Few women at the meetings noticed. I understand, but still resent, the pressures put on me to ‘move on’. Three or four weeks is insufficient time for a woman in crisis to get back on her feet.

The advent of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) caused the numbers of women at the house to grow rapidly. Consciousness-raising sessions were divided in two. The activity-oriented, newer, WEL women did not always succeed in grasping the ‘personal is political’ ambit of feminist theory. The potential growth of consciousness-raising ‘rap’ groups bogged down for lack of leadership and inspiration. And hard-core feminists were avoiding discussions about the role and validity of the position of advisor to the Prime Minister on women’s issues, the appointment of Elizabeth Reid to that position;  and the relationship of the Canberra women’s movement to both the position and the incumbent.

The last ‘rap’ I attended was on ‘my mother and me’. Many women sat silent, making no contribution. I suspect that the articulate, competent, well-educated Canberra women felt more threatened by the processes of consciousness-raising than I. I could only benefit (in the long term) by discarding the ‘shit’ elements of my socialised role as a woman, housewife and mother. By society’s chauvinistic criteria, my ‘inadequacies’ and ‘unworthiness’ had constantly been confirmed to me. Through consciousness-raising, I came to realise a new and autonomous self …

The Elizabeth Reid situation did not improve my relationship with the Canberra women’s movement. I was closely identified with Liz who had been a tremendous support to me in 1972, not only as campaign manager, but by sharing her home with the baby and me for many weeks prior to the election, and raising funds for my campaign. Labor Party feminisits were attempting to block Bremer Street involvement in my election campaign, using their influence to prevent any direct or specific endorsement of me from the Women’s Electoral Lobby. Other ‘sisters’ stood back and observed my campaign, amazed at my impertinance and gall.

In 1975 I was selected together with nine  other women of all backgrounds to attend the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. Even my few remaining feminist friends were disturbed that this may have been an example of ‘special patronage’. Well, whether by intention or not, the Canberra women’s movement actively destroyed any validity that my experiences in Mexico may have had, by the simple expedient of not listening when I returned. Two attempts were made to organise meetings on my behalf to discuss the conference, one at the Women’s House, one with the ANU Radical Feminist Group. Neither attempt even went so far as a date for discussion. The message was loud and clear: the women’s movement of Canberra just did not want to know what had happened in Mexico.

The information they rejected, the great news from Mexico in 1975, was that Australian feminist theory was leading the world. Liz Reid, Laurie Bebbington (the radical lesbian activist from the Australian Union of Students), Pat Giles (trade unionst and now ALP senator from Western Australia) and other Australian women caught and held the centre stage of world interest as their theory of feminism related to practice in their fields. At the same conference, American feminists were booed from the stage when, with chauvinistic arrogance, they attempted to align the weight of the international conference on one side or other of their internal schisms and disputes.

The Canberra women’s movement was predominantly middle class, educated and articulate, with an intimate knowledge of the public service structure and the complexity of its mechanisms. They participated in legislative reforms by submissions on family law reform, anti-discrimiantion legislation and others, and giving evidence at enquiries such as the enquiry into poverty by Henderson and the Australian Council of Social Service. However as time passed, many chose action in fields like child-care, the women’s refuge, abortion counselling and the rape crisis centre. Others took a more ‘revolutionary’ stance or withdrew under the guise of having to ‘sort out your own problems before you can solve the problems of society’.

The political assessment of the ‘correct direction’ for the women’s movement unfortunately led many Canberra women into ‘concrete’ activity or to a ‘self’-centred encounter group/meditation direction, and away from the ‘reformist’ submissions and other legislative processes where their unique talents could be fully utilised. Those women who did persist from within the bureaucracy were seen to be vaguely ‘invalid’. They were either not real feminists, or not really ‘Canberra’. 

I see the grand finale for the women’s movement as being the Women and Politics Conference in 1975. I was an official rapporteur on the ‘campaigning’ session of the conference, but throughout that week I was under constant attack from my Aboriginal sisters. Tolerance – if not complete forgiveness – was extended to me for my political consciousness of my working-classness and femaleness, as well as my Aboriginality. But then a sister started a rumour that I was not Aboriginal at all. This charge was not made easier by originating from a sister-by-blood (my biological sister) in a futile attempt to retain her Queensland country town eminence as a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and president of the local Parents and Citizens Association. (Years later my  mother accused me of ‘destroying’ my sister’s life by ‘coming out’ as an Aborigine: my sister was forced to retreat into the anonymity of Brisbane’s suburbia!) Fortunately, all but a few die-hards accepted the truth when confronted with it.

Personal traumas aside, the Women and Politics Conference was a triumph of feminist sisterhood. Over 800 women of almost all political persuasions found that their female identity gave them more in common than an abitrary division of party politics and ideology. That this groundwork was not followed up was the tragedy of the more recent years of feminism, even surpassing the competition for, and distrust of, the funding hand-outs of 1975-7 …

Pat Eatock (c) 1987

Pat Eatock spent the first years of the 1980s living on the land in Pillar Valley in New South Wales, Australia, then returned to Sydney to complete her MA in history at Macquarie University. At that time she lived inWoolloomooloo, an inner Sydney suburb. Most recently, she was lead claimant in a race vilification case launched against a prominent newspaper columnist in Melbourne, who had asserted that she and a number of other prominent Indigenous Australian activists and professionals were ‘not Aboriginal’.

This is an extract from ‘There’s a Snake in My Caravan’ in Different Lives – Reflections of the Women’s Movement and Visions of Its Future, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Australia, 1987 (Jocelynne A. Scutt, ed.).