Philippa Martyr reviews Eisenstein, Kaplan and Lake on Australian Feminism


Hester Eisenstein, Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996. ISBN 1 86448 036X. $A29.95

Gisela Kaplan, The Meagre Harvest: the Australian Women’s Movement, 1950s-1990s, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996. 1 86448 062 9. A$35.00

Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: the History of Australian Feminism, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999. ISBN 1 86508 137 X. A$24.95

Reviewed by Philippa Martyr, University of Tasmania

In the shoe shop, the sales assistant and I were discussing my forthcoming trip to England. ‘Are you married?’ she asked suddenly. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Then perhaps you’ll come back a married woman,’ she said quite pleasantly, no mockery intended, as I struggled into my new Dr Martens. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said, and left it at that.

What would Eisenstein, Kaplan and Lake have made of that exchange? These three books all concern themselves with key issues around the history – both recent and more distant – of Australian feminism. They each offer distinctive insights, and reflect in and of themselves some of the blind spots of feminist dialogue about its own history as a movement. Like all histories, they are shaped in part by present concerns: the arguments for and against the existence of a backlash against women; the ‘stolen generation’; the frequent media publicity directed at infighting within the movement; the role of a home makers’ allowance in feminist thought and practice; and the bureaucratic institutionalisation of feminist ideas.

Reflecting perhaps the influence of the 1970s consciousness raising movement, each book takes as its genesis the personal experiences of the author. Eisenstein worked as a ‘femocrat’ from 1980 to 1988 in the Office of Equal Opportunity and the Education Department in NSW, and says that like many feminists, she has taken her own experiences as a starting point of inquiry. Kaplan draws upon her personal experiences of ostracism as a migrant, not just as a woman, and deliberately judges feminism’s success or failure by the status of its most ostracised participants. Of the three, Lake is the least obvious about the connection between her interest in feminism and her history of the movement, perhaps because it requires no explanation.

Eisenstein’s study is fascinating: it reads both as a history and as a critical ethnography of bureaucratic feminism in Australia in the 1980s. Eisenstein is careful to keep her readers reminded that, in terms of institutional infiltration and policy change, Australian femocrats achieved far more in a shorter period than their British or US counterparts. The interviews upon which the book is based – carried out with thirty-four past or present femocrats – present an engaging and at times very direct challenge to much accepted wisdom about the evils or virtues of femocracy.

Those whose voices we hear – albeit edited and possibly out of context; an inevitable query raised over any use of oral history, especially in the politically charged realm of feminist history – include Elizabeth Reid, Ann Summers, Pat Turner, Marie Coleman and Carmel Niland. Eisenstein has found a rich vein of candour and great humour in these women, most of whom can freely admit the mistakes and ideological high-handedness of which they were sometimes guilty, while showcasing at the same time their considerable achievements.

The fault lines open up. Is using the state simply kow-towing to the patriarchy, or is it a shrewd and tactical way of effecting social change? Public service reforms had on paper opened up jobs for those considered fit for ‘identified positions’, where, Eisenstein says, ‘his or her personal background ensured a special knowledge and understanding of the issues.’ (p 33) Niland was quite frank about how this operated in her favour, when she took up the headship of the Women’s Coordination Unit in New South Wales. Her work experience was as a teacher; she had never hired staff, and she ‘didn’t have the slightest idea how to run a women’s unit.’ So she turned to Anne Conlon, a co-member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

I said, ‘Annie, what’s policy?’ … She said, ‘Well, policy is like a map of what you’re going to do.’ And I said, ‘Is it like a shopping list?’ And she said, ‘No, it’s not exactly like a shopping list … It’s like instant coffee.’ She said, ‘You put it in the bottom of the cup and you pour in a lot of hot water and you stir and that’s how you make policy.’ So she said, ‘Here’s the germs of the stuff. This is the ALP stuff and the WEL’s stuff, do a cut and paste with that and we’ll pour in a lot of bureaucratic language and we’ll serve it up.’ That’s what we did. (Eisenstein, p 37).

Deborah McCulloch, on the other hand, used the knowledge she had absorbed as a child from her father, a public servant, and enlisted the help of a senior male public servant to help her achieve intended reforms.

The role of the party machine in manipulating (or attempting to manipulate) feminism to its own ends is a further issue discussed by all three authors. Eisenstein’s own interviewees are divided on the subject: Carmel Niland’s account of her briefing by Neville Wran is illuminating:

‘This is what your job is. You’ve got to raise the status of women in New South Wales’ … So you’ve got to do something for women. He said, ‘And in doing something for women you’ve got to increase the number of women who vote for me.’ (Eisenstein, p 35)

The chapter ‘Mandarins or Missionaries’ is candid in its exposition of many of the often patronising assumptions made by largely white middle-class femocrats, especially in their perceived role as the voice of womem across the nation. Too often, quotes appear headed with the words ‘What women are saying is’, with a cheerful disregard for which women were being spoken for, and this fault of femocracy is openly admitted by many contributors.

Alienation took place along class lines, party lines and ethnic lines. Solidarity among the enlightened sisterhood made for the exclusion of others – McCulloch describes, as one example, the ideological distance between the women’s unit and the typing room where she worked, and the superficiality of the friendships between the typists and the femocrats. What would a femocrat have done with the sales assistant in the shoe shop? Written a White Paper for her? Or introduced widespread sales education reforms that incorporated workshops on non-sexist customer conversation, which takes into account differences in marital status and sexual orientation?

An air of ownership filters through some of these recollections; a sense that younger feminists should be grateful to femocratic pioneers, and less pleasantly a sense of the missionary in the provision of women’s refuges and agitation for Aboriginal rights. Carmel Niland spoke proudly of keeping her grass-roots consciousness alive and well by visiting Aboriginal communities and women’s refuges (but not the Country Women’s Association). One wonders occasionally, reading these extracts, if these services provided any other function in the lives of those criticised as ‘fat cats’, benefiting from their own advancement into the senior ranks of the public service. At what point does equal pay become conscience money?

Sexual politics within the movement, and its often cautious approach to lesbian feminists, is a fertile source of discussion among male critics of the feminist movement, often in barely disguised pornographic terms. Eisenstein’s interviewees are quite open about their crises of sexual expression: I was reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s crisis – ‘They think I’m gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.’ But in the femocracy, there were real concerns at their identification with lesbian politics – the ‘hairy-legged dyke’ syndrome was and is alive and well, and the question of politically active lesbians as a media liability was frequently a source of concern.

Alienation and ostracism are key concerns in Kaplan’s study. Kaplan, herself a veteran of the Women’s Refuge Movement of Australia and the Women’s Advisory Council of New South Wales, speaks from personal experience, and has provided extensive documentation and statistical information about what she sees as the ‘meagre harvest’ of post-war Australian feminism. She devotes entire chapters to the role of migrant and Aboriginal women in the feminist movement, and also to the role of lesbian radicals and the often uneasy relationship they shared with mainstream feminism.

Kaplan is a critic of feminist egalitarianism, seeing it as at best a faint echo of the patriarchal model of the ‘fair go’, but being done only half as well as by men. It is a contentious claim, and only one of many made by Kaplan – another is her brief and rather facile account of Babette Francis’ movement, now known as Endeavour Forum. Francis describes herself as a feminist; Kaplan will not credit her with that title, and both she and Lake describe Francis as an enemy of feminism. Kaplan claims that Francis argues against equality on the grounds that men and women are biologically different; this is incorrect – Francis is known for her arguments against sameness, not against equality. Many 1990s feminists with impeccable qualifications as such would agree with her, Germaine Greer among them. Greer’s The Whole Woman, in fact, takes Francis-style arguments a step further, into total separatism based on the fundamental – and in Greer’s argument, basically incompatible – differences between the sexual male and sexual female.

Black, white, straight, gay, rich and poor – the fault lines continue to open. The sales assistant and I were about the same age and the same ethnic background, but my salary is probably twice hers, and I’ve got what passes for a better education – although how I would go at selling shoes remains to be seen. Yet that simple conversation revealed vastly different perspectives on the role of the Man In One’s Life. One more fault line remains, and it is one which is of perhaps the most pressing concern to contemporary feminism – the divide between old and young. This is a question all three writers deal with, albeit indirectly.

Eisenstein, Kaplan and Lake have all lived through many of the changes they describe, and can now reflect on the role of the older feminist and her acceptance or rejection. For Eisenstein, the older woman reflects on her past and her activism, often with great wit, and often with sadness or a sense of work left undone. On the other hand, they found themselves the target of hostility from younger feminists:

The femocrats get depressed. They say that when they try to improve things for women they get in trouble with the boss. They describe their crises of conscience over whether to wear, or not to wear, a pinstripe suit. They explain that the conditions of their job can make them lose touch with the grassroots women’s movement – like their pay being uniformly high in comparison with the income of most women, for example. (from Refractory Girl, 1993, cited by Eisenstein, pp 211-212)

For Kaplan, ageism is a reality in feminism (p 206), but what comes through most clearly is her account of when work outside the home was not a choice for women. This, if anything, sets apart the older feminist from the younger. I cannot remember a world when work outside the home was simply not a choice for a woman. Nor, for that matter, can many older working-class women, for whom the ‘luxury’ of staying at home and doing unpaid work was not an option.

Given that the role of the stay-at-home mother is one which is openly ridiculed by many sections of the feminist movement – although perhaps in less strident tones than before – the questions of choice still open up fresh problems in feminist thought. It may also explain its apparent attractiveness to many younger feminists, already burnt-out and enduring fresh oppression in the grip of the ‘superwoman’ doctrine. Certainly, the sales assistant couldn’t think of a nicer way for me to round off six weeks in the UK than to come back with a husband. I found myself wondering if they sold them at Harrods.

Lake is the most forthright on this issue: she shows that older feminists have often been accorded far greater respect in the past than they are now granted by the younger movement. In her extensive and generally very balanced study, Lake sets out to dispel several key myths which have arisen about feminism and its historical role in Australia: the existence of two waves of feminism with a lull between them; the idea that women did not use the vote to advance a feminist agenda, and its corollary – that women’s political history is thus one of failure; and, contentiously, that the feminist movement was chiefly concerned with the interests of white middle-class women.

Given the increasing dissatisfaction with the Labor Party among Australian intellectuals, it is not surprising that many things are now sayable that would have not been so ten or twenty years ago. Lake’s forthright expose of the often-appalling treatment of the feminist movement at the hands of the ALP and the union movement is refreshing in its candour. What is less convincing is her account of the white politics of feminism, and its relationship with Aboriginal women. While Lake has brought to light a body of evidence which suggests that some white feminists – notably Mary Bennett – were genuinely concerned about the removal of children from Aboriginal families, she grants a mere three pages to those who opposed it. Patricia Grimshaw, in Helen Irving’s recent study A Woman’s Constitution? gives the question of white supremacist ideas in early Australian feminism a more thorough consideration.

Lake has also passed over much of the active role of women in the military services in the two world wars, although she touches on the sexual emancipation of women during the American ‘occupation’ of Melbourne. One might draw from this the image that Australian women in war did not exist, and given the pacifist orientation of much – but not all – of the feminist movement at the time, this is understandable. But to acknowledge the right of women to sleep with American servicemen, while overlooking their work as nurses, in wartime industries, and their decorations for military service, seems unbalanced.

Where this history really shines is Lake’s frank account of the anti-sexuality stance of many Australian feminists, and the movement’s almost total basis in the problems associated with marriage. This distinguishes Australian feminism from British and American contemporaneous movements, and may also account for some of the modern hostility against the older feminists so clearly outlined by Lake. It is with an awful air of plus ca change that I read her description of the discourse of nineteenth century feminine vulnerability:

when venereal disease was widespread and dire in its effects, when ‘illegitimate’ pregnancies spelt shame and social ostracism for women, when public drunkenness was common and sexual assaults well-publicised, and when almost all women and girls depended on a man’s goodwill for their survival… (p. 56)

In Australia today, thousands of women annually are left sterile by the ravages of asymptomatic and untreated chlamydia and pelvic inflammatory disease. Last night, I watched yet another current affairs program which castigated ‘single mothers’ for welfare rip-offs. Last week, I had to lock my office door at 11 in the morning, when a gang of very drunk rugby club members stampeded through the building in a pre-grand final public celebration. No-one needs to be reminded of the reality of sexual assault in our community. And when I travel alone, I wear a wedding ring, if only to protect myself from the extremely boring chatter of airport taxi drivers. Plus ca change, indeed. Has baby come a long way, after all?

Lake also notes the introduction of fault-free divorce and the subsequent liberation of many women from marriages, whereupon they set up single-parent households – but Lake does not go on to point out that the majority of those households now live in a poverty trap of welfare dependence, expensive child care and the permanent insecurity of casual or part-time work. The fact that, as Lake admits, motherhood is now seen as a handicap to be overcome, is a further contentious issue.

All three accounts have much to offer any student of feminist history. They are frank in their ideological stances, and offer a first-hand insight into many of the currents and shifts of feminist thinking and practice in Australia over the past century. No one text purports to be the divinely inspired sole account of the state of play, and all are entertaining, irritating and thus very good value. On the other hand, I don’t think the sales assistant in the shoe shop will ever read them, which is another interesting reflection on the nature of modern feminism in Australia as well.

 Dr P J Martyr is an historian who works at the Tasmanian School of Nursing, University of Tasmania. She does not buy shoes very often, but when she does, it usually provokes an interesting philosophical debate.