Enough of the childhood clear-out and back to my travels!
I saw a photo today of racks of sweet corn cobs drying in the air, and it took me straight back to the first time I and my husband visited the People’s Republic of China, aka China from now on.
In 1978 my husband and I had the opportunity to tour China at a really low price (as it was early days in the tourist industry) for three weeks. We stayed with friends in Sydney, saw the start of the Sydney-Hobart Boat Race on New Year’s Day, then flew to Hong Kong , where we stayed overnight.
We were one of the first groups to visit China when it started opening up and it was less than thirty years since the PRC was established in 1949. We did a bit of the tourist stuff in Hong Kong with all its glitz, glamour and kitsch. The next day we caught a train to the border, got out and walked across the border. Suddenly we were faced with rather stern-faced Chinese soldiers in uniform and you realised you were in a completely different world. We climbed on to another train which took us to what was then Canton and is now Guangzhou.
To say we – and all the others on our tour – were excited and nervous would be an understatement. President Nixon had visited the PRC in February 1972 and Australian Prime Minister Whitlam had normalised relations with China when he was elected in November 1972. But China was still a bit mysterious, not very well known, and really quite exciting since no-one knew what to expect.
We got settled in our hotel rooms in Gangzhou (which were lovely and comfortable, in case you’re wondering what accommodation was like in those days), and found waiting for us flasks of jasmine tea, something which greeted us in every hotel we stayed in and every function we attended. We then met our tour guides in the evening. And all our preconceptions about stuffy Chinese officials went right out the window. We had four guides – the head honcho, his deputy, a young woman obviously being trained as an interpreter and guide, and a fourth man whose interpreting abilities were brilliant. As I’ve done simultaneous and consecutive translating at university when I studied French and German I could see that this interpreter had an intuitive gift to translate Chinese into everyday English, not simply translate the words which results in rather wooden conversation. We also thought that, as there’d been a period of turmoil in China just before we went on our tour, this guy was being rehabilitated from past difficulties under the previous regime, known as the Gang of Four.
Our translators/guides entered a meeting room with a trolley of drinks and hors-d’ouevres and proceeded to talk to us, crack jokes, and dish out the booze and tucker. One of the first things we tried was called Mao Tai, a spirit which tasted and smelled like rocket fuel and had to be sculled down to avoid the stench of the drink. Our translators quickly put us at ease, were great, convivial hosts, and much to our surprise, created a really pleasant atmosphere. They also looked on with slight smiles and benign gazes as one of our number, who’d downed four Mao Tai shots in a row and who was very voluble, suddenly went silent and keeled over on his side, skittled by the rocket fuel!
It’s such a long time since I visited China in 1977 that I can’t remember all the details. We were on the go from 9 in the morning until 10 at night and by the end of the tour we were completely knackered as each day became a blur. The Chinese seemed determined to stuff as much as possible into our visit, which was wonderful as we saw and experienced so much, but it was quite exhausting by the end.
We visited Peking (now Beijing), Shanghai, Shandong Province, Changsha, Dalian and finally returned to Canton (now Kwangchou). We saw schools, factories, potteries, artistic centres, villages, communes during the day, visited oil drilling sites, and in the evenings we watched movies or other cultural events. The one thing I really remember is the way the children were treasured and cared for. Although adults had pretty functional, dreary clothing, the kids were dressed in bright colours, padded clothing, looked like little dolls in their bubble-like parka jackets and were so delighted to greet and entertain us when visited their schools.
At communes we were taken around agricultural and engineering production centres and made so very welcome. People took great pride in their achievements and opened their homes and centres for us. I do remember visiting a private house and being amazed at the bright colours of the interior – as if the functional dress most people wore was balanced out in the privacy of the home by bright red, orange, gold, turquoise, blue and green bed covers, wall hangings and so on. I also remember plonking down on a bed (all the places we visited were very compact) and feeling like I’d jarred my spine from top to bottom. There was only a mattress stuffed with straw which was incredibly hard, a far cry from the interior sprung mattresses we were used to at home in Australia!
One of the noticeable features of that early tour was how people worked together collectively as labour was plentiful and cheap. We were in a small coach in one area where a whole heap of people were pushing up a telegraph pole. It was obvious that they’d never seen foreigners before as they stopped, looked at us, dropped the telegraph pole, and ran to the road to smile and wave cheerfully at us. We felt like kings until further down the road where we saw people in the approaching village scattering from a truck in front of us. We found out soon enough why they dived for cover – it was a truck collecting sewage (night soil) which had sprung a leak gifting us and the village with a most appalling stench.
In the following posts, I thought I’d break down our visit into Beijing, and then the provinces we visited, as well as one about food in China (yummy mainly but challenging on the odd occasion!).
As I said in a previous post, I finally managed to track down the Women’s Liberation group In Western Australia when I started working as the organiser for the Australian Union of Students in 1974 in that State. I have to admit that I jumped in the deep end and was pretty fanatical. I stopped wearing make-up and gave my poor old Mum a hard time with my liberationist views when my parents came for a holiday in 1975.
We were not, however, the hairy-legged, bra-burning, men-hating, humourless, ball-breaking Amazons depicted in the media. Yes, we were a varied lot, just as any movement was. But we wanted to improve women’s lot in society and address the very fundamental question of what it means to honour women’s qualities as terrific in themselves, not to compete to become sort of honorary man. Yes, women ARE different to men, but we need to celebrate those differences and honour them, not put down the qualities of either sex. Women’s strengths are often expressed through consensus, emotions, intuition, and co-operation. But feminine attributes aren’t as respected or accepted, not then and not now.
Why not? Bringing up children is a demanding, responsible position yet, because it’s not in the paid workforce, it’s not considered work. Yes, it’s great to see women in the top jobs like Hilary Clinton or Australia’s Julia Gillard, but they still operate on the old, male rules of combat and within the same paradigm. How different were Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Condoleeza Rice, Golda Meir? They play the hardball politics of a patriarchal society with its winner-take-all, back-stabbing, game-playing philosophy. They wage war not peace, just as male leaders do. Consider what would be the reaction if a woman in a leadership position started approaching political work and conflict through peaceful methods instead of beating the war drums? We all know they’d be criticized, denigrated and viciously attacked. You’ve only got to see the demeaning, sexist, derogatory treatment of Australia’s first women Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to see that women have a long way to go.
Back in the early ’70s we pored over the magazines Spare Rib (UK) and Ms (US), absorbing the contents like sponges. We inhaled the contents of books by Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Susie Orbach, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, Betty Friedan and many others. We started consciousness-raising groups to learn to support each other instead of compete, and to understand how we were oppressed as women. These groups were treated with great derision by the generally hostile media and by many men, but they were great because we operated on a non-hierarchical basis as much as possible. We wanted to democratize discussion. We empowered and supported each other instead of competing. The movement started to set up women’s refuges; women’s health centres; rape crisis centres; support for women to enter parliament; access to free, safe abortion; equal pay; good, affordable childcare; provision of family planning so that abortions were minimised. We lobbied the media to stop trivializing women in sexist advertising. And much, much more, often unseen, unremarked and unreported.
Patricia Giles, who was a health union organiser, activist in women’s affairs, and helped found the Women’s Electoral Lobby, attended the first United Nations World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975. The three main aims were:
• Full gender equality and the elimination of gender discrimination;
• The integration and full participation of women in development;
• An increased contribution by women towards strengthening world peace.
And at a Federal political level, the election of the Whitlam Labor government saw the appointment of a Women’s Advisor, Elizabeth Reid, to give impetus towards women’s equality in Australia. In 1975 a Women in Politics conference was organised in Canberra and I was lucky enough to attend.One of the prime movers for this conference in the WA region was, as well as Pat Giles, Irene Greenwood, a really remarkable worker for women’s rights. When I knew her she was in her senior years but she had an enthusiasm for women’s rights and an infectious passion which was truly brilliant.
It was inspirational to meet so many women activists in Australia at the conference in Canberra. We came into contact with truly brilliant women activists from overseas who had some wonderful ideas which we absorbed like women who’d just crawled through a desert to the edge of a pool in an oasis.
The attitude towards women in those days was pretty awful. The Canberra Times rubbished the conference. The idea of women’s liberation was treated with contempt. The Abortion Law Reform Association in Western Australia, led by Denise White, fought an uphill battle for a woman’s right to choose whether she had a child or not, and for abortion reform.
I know I was incensed when I’d been at one demonstration for civil liberties and found that, in the front bar of a city hotel, I wasn’t allowed to buy myself or others a drink, particularly as drinks in that front bar were much cheaper than the lounge areas and women generally earned less money than their male counterparts. Only men could buy drinks in the front bar. We organised sit-ins, got publicity and eventually the laws were changed to remove discrimination.
I could go on and on about what women faced in those days and the challenges of working for change. But it was our collective, not individual, stand that made the difference. I’ve seen women say: “Change your thoughts, and you change your reality. You don’t need feminism or women’s liberation.” All I can say to that is: “Bollocks, sister”. Because women on their own, divided from other sisters and played off against one another, got nowhere. It’s unity that’s counted in advancing women’s rights.
I said at the beginning, and it remains true, that nothing was ever handed to us women on a plate. And it’s never remained with us as a right, we’ve had to hang on grimly with our fingertips.
So now we still see the same old, same old: violence against women in India, Pakistan, Africa, Western nations; rape as a weapon of war; attacks on women’s right to abortion and free, safe contraception; calls for abortion providers to be murdered; undermining of equal pay; women activists getting abusive, trolling, threatening comments and tweets; women still being called “chicks”, “girls”, “ho’s”, when we are WOMEN; women being conned that it’s okay to join the guys in watching women being exploited as strippers or pole dancers or lap dancers; young girls still decked out in pink and expected to play with dolls or fake kitchen equipment; women terrorized into the “thin” straitjacket if they look womanly in any way; very young girls exploited in beauty pageants; perky cheerleaders in skimpy gear; women being conned that sexual freedom means it’s okay to have free sex when the guys still regard you as the town bike; talented women singers believing they have to show up in skimpy, tarty, demeaning gear; pornography stealthily being legitimized when it’s main function is the exploitation and denigration of women.
The Republican leader, John Boehner gets teary when he becomes House leader (you’ll pardon my cynicism if I say it’s my belief it’s tears of gratitude because he’s got his greedy paws on the spoils of office) and that’s considered okay and normal. Hillary Clinton gets teary during the Presidential campaign and she’s a wet/manipulative/cynical/typical female, and so on. Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard chokes up over the human losses in the Queensland floods of 2010-11 and analysis focuses on whether she’s real/cynical/manipulative (common for all women in office, obviously). And because she hasn’t had children, Ms Gillard gets assailed for being unfeminine, barren, unable to understand the needs of “real families”. And please, don’t get me started on the public , venal chatter about the dress sense of women leaders and politicians. Appalling stuff.
Nowadays there’s discussion about feminism – whether it’s okay to be a feminist, or is this a phrase with a use-by date. But here’s something which occurs to me whenever I see that phrase: “feminism”. I hate women’s liberation being nice-ified into “feminism”. How did the bright, sparkling rocket take-off of Women’s Liberation in the ‘sixties somehow morph back to earth as a damp squib? Heck – where’s the passion in this sanitized version of Women’s Liberation? It’s unchallenging, safe, respectable, accepted by the system because it’s non-threatening. And looking back, I somehow see the vitality of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies and our history is gradually being airbrushed out of existence and gentrified.
So that’s why I remain a Women’s Libber. I refuse to get co-opted into that nice, safe word “feminism” because I don’t want to be seen as nice or safe. I am in my crone years and enjoying – finally – being a misfit, a rebel, a revolutionista, a purple-wearing arty-farty drama queen, and a sacred warrior for fearlessness, feistiness and mad, mighty mojo. I remain passionate about true women’s liberation – freedom for every woman to be who she is without being stuffed into some prototypical image of what a woman should be.
Just to explain a bit further, I recently saw an article about how four ordinary-looking women could look great if they had more money to beautify themselves. For my part, the four women looked pretty terrific, and the end product was awful and depressing. All the women looked like clones – long blonde hair with extensions; similar make-up; squeezed into similar dresses. God help us, a prime example of The Stepford Wives, and what was frightening was that the producers thought they were doing the women a favour instead of working with their real, inner beauty and individual looks.
I sincerely hope young women also choose to be passionate, step outside the Good Girl cage and punch the air as they enjoy the freedom to be whoever they are, whatever they choose to do, listen to their heart and souls, and stay true to themselves in all their glory. Me? I remain an unreconstructed Women’s Libber!