This paper was first presented to a Women's Studies Association Conference at the University of Queensland in 2003, then published in Hecate: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Women's Liberation, vol. 30, no. 1, 2004. I am grateful to Carole Ferrier, editor of Hecate, for permission to republish.
'Truly, it felt like Year One', wrote English novelist Angela Carter; ‘towards the end of the sixties it started to feel like living on a demolition site — one felt one was living on the edge of the unimaginable’. There was ‘a yeastiness in the air that was due to a great deal of unrestrained and irreverent frivolity’, and ‘an air of continuous improvisation’. ‘I can’, she wrote, ‘date to that time and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968 my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my “femininity” was created and palmed off on me as the real thing’.
To begin what is predominantly — but not exclusively — a white story: in January 1971, at Australia's first Women's Liberation conference in Sydney, postgraduate students Ann Curthoys and Lyndall Ryan spoke of forms of ‘cultural oppression’: ‘[I]t is here’, they proclaimed,
[t]hat the oppression of women goes beyond the traditional class barriers. And it is here that we have to start to smash those myths for unless we can change the whole cultural orientation of women, no revolution is going to bring us the liberation we are seeking.
The language was that of the new New Left and the popular movement against Australia's participation in the United States’ war against the Vietnamese people — except for its emphasis on 'culture'. That emphasis pointed to a dimension of the movement for the liberation of women that is seldom recognised. Look at Chris Westwood and Sue Williams: they've abandoned their skirts and stockings, not to make coffee for men at the anti-war meeting, but rather to sing — and on stage, not at home in the bathroom — in drag. Young singer/songwriter, Robyn Archer sang on a subject previously unmentionable in public, ‘The menstruation blues’. Ann Curthoys made more than speeches; she made a spectacle of herself swinging from a tree on the cover of MeJane, volume 1, number 1.