much of it wasted on wrong turns,
back roads riddled by ruts.
I had adventures
I never would have known
if I proceeded as the crow flies.
Super highways are so sure
of where they are going:
they arrive too soon. A straight line isn’t always
the shortest distance
between two people.
Sometimes I act as though
I’m heading somewhere else
I narrow the gap between you and me.
I’m not sure I’ll ever
know the right way, but I don’t mind
getting lost now and then.
Maps don’t know everything.
When David Cameron announced his cabinet reshuffle a short while ago and more women were appointed to Cabinet, the headlines talked about “girlpower” and, of course what the “girls” were wearing. No talk of “womanpower” because so often we women are described as “girls” as we are not supposed to become fully-grown, mature, strong WOMEN. (I might add I am wholly cynical about the promotion of women as I see it as a cynical attempt to garner women’s votes rather than a genuine dedication to women’s equality.)
If you have a look at the photos on the right, the top row is of girls, the bottom is of women. The images in the top row are a vision of us as girls, never growing into a womanly shape, shaving our pubic hair so we look like constant teenagers, torturing ourselves with ripping out that hair (and I can tell you, I had my pubic hair shaved once, when I had my tubes tied at 27, and the constant itching of it growing back made me swear NEVER to shave that hair again!) and keeping us confined in the straitjacket of thin as desirable and right.
In the bottom row, the images are of mature women but now, in the same vein of keeping us as eternal girls, it is not considered appropriate to talk about women as “luscious”, “juicy”, “reubenesque”, “curvy”, “succulent” – because they all imply – shock, horror” – women who aren’t thin and possibly look like (whisper) mature, adult, powerful women.
I decided to follow up my posts on women’s liberation with one about weight issues because, looking back from the time I got involved in women’s liberation in the early 1970s until now, I got to thinking that the focus on diets and thinness is an act of sabotage – it has been a misogynist weapon to dis-empower women and keep them focused on weight issues instead of on living up to their full potential. A woman focused only on her weight and shape if far less powerful than one who is at home and comfortable with herself and makes her way in society as a formidable, strong individual.
The cult of “thin is good” didn’t always exist. Because I grew up in the ’50s and 60s, I have a perspective which isn’t possible for younger people, and that is, I can remember when women were weightier than accepted cultural norms now. It was accepted that as you had children and headed to your senior years, that weight gain was a normal process of life on earth. So it seems to me that the focus on thinness (mainly for women but now affecting men too) started getting stronger around the time women’s liberation erupted and started questioning women’s status in society. But thin is “in”, so to speak, at least on the part of women’s magazines, the diet industry, the medical establishment, the fashion industry and so-called fashion mavens who we’re supposed to follow like headless chooks.
While we’re busy focused on diets, size, weight, fatness or thinness, we are diverted from standing strong in our own right – as juicy, strong, powerful women, at ease with ourselves regardless of our weight, getting to know our own bodies intimately so we know what weight is right for us, and leading full, adventurous lives . As this quote from Naomi Wolf puts it so succinctly:
Marilyn Monroe would now be considered obese – which sounds ridiculous given the sex goddess she was. Yet we are repeatedly lectured that what I see as normal women are obese/morbidly obese/likely to peg it overnight because if they’re overweight they must be harbouring god knows how many life-threatening health challenges, and so on and so on.
This of course is a godsend to the enrichment of the diet industry, Big Pharma and medicos who see what is considered a fat woman now (but wasn’t when I was young) and like Pavlov’s dogs immediately start talking about diets, losing weight, yada, yada, yada. I know when I’ve walked into so many doctor’s room, their eyes light up as they order tests for diabetes and cholesterol levels and heave out the good ol’ blood pressure apparatus. Sadly for them, and they look quite taken aback, all my health signs are, well, healthy!
And as we’re on the subject of medicos, I have to say that I personally find the term “obese” quite offensive. It’s as if doctors conjure up a word which is designed to make normal/not so fat/ and fat people seem as sub-human as possible and to cow us into submissive slaves of thin worship. I sometimes wonder if the medical industry creates such words as “obese” or “geriatric” to elevate the power of medicos and reduce us patients to obedient, malleable, cowed, uncertain, unquestioning clients. I also despise doctors who lazily judge the health of overweight women by their size rather than their uniqueness and medical history.
I can remember having a meal out with some other women, all good-looking, fairly slim, about my age when I was in my late ‘thirties and the whole damned dinner talk was about weight, thinness and diets. I mean – what a ruddy great waste of women’s lives to spend it worrying about weight and what diet you’re on and whether you’ve gained or lost a couple of pounds from one week to the next. Being frightened of food, obsessing about calories, fat levels, carbs and all the other catchphrases of the thin mafia is absolutely ridiculous.
All the research which gets pumped out about what makes you live longer,what causes cancer, how to avoid heart attacks, etc., simply doesn’t take into account that people are individual, have their own genetic heritage and shape, and need to consider what their heart and soul tells them about what is good for them, not scientists and health gurus who change their minds a few years down the track or even from year to year and, dare I say it, month to month, week to week.
And having gone through some literature on this subject, I have found out – and this will no doubt amaze you – that if you carry more weight than that which is supposed to be healthy these days and you are fit, you are far more likely to live longer than a socially acceptable thin, unfit woman. Also, wasting your life on a yo-yo of dieting, losing weight, then gaining weight again and often extra weight than before you dieted, is putting your health far more at risk than a woman who looks at herself, smiles, smacks her booty gleefully and tells herself she’s a yummy individual with far more to do with her life than waste it on worrying about what is a current societal obsession about thinness.
Plus we need to get a perspective on the health hysteria which prevails at the moment – new food fads, super-foods, how to live longer, anti-ageing tucker – and so on. You can be the healthiest, fittest person around and then drop dead of a heart attack or get a life-threatening illness for no apparent reason. And everyone says it’s unfair because someone who doesn’t exercise or is fat doesn’t die at an early age. But it’s LIFE, outrageous, unpredictable, unfair, fair, dropping surprise health bombs into our lives – our time of death is unpredictable so get the most out of each day and you’ll have a wonderful life – exciting, adventurous, questing, humorous, fun, loving, fully adult, powerful and, above all, SATISFYING.
I can pretty much guarantee that when the truth comes out about – as it will – that the current BMI holy bible is a heap of old cobblers with no scientific foundation, and thinness is recognised as a trumped-up cultural creation to control and disempower women – the pendulum will swing towards an acceptance of women as they are meant to be – short, tall, medium, thin, fat, stocky, lean, weighty, or whatever is their natural, womanly shape. And if they’re pink with purple spots, or orange with red stripes, or green with turquoise hair – so be it!
FAT HATRED, THIN WORSHIP
This week I saw that the National Health Service in the UK is to offer gastric bypass surgery to obese patients. I also saw a headline in one newspaper which read: “Drop the staple gun, Doc, and Tell Fatty to grow some willpower”. The article contained such comments as:”I have also found fat people funny”; “it is something they have imposed on themselves through a combination of gannetry, indolence and stupidity”; and “sometimes I even go to places where I know there will be lots of fat people and sit on a bench watching them clumping around, sweating and gasping, and snigger to myself.”
As you can see, it’s okay to be bigoted about weighty people because somehow, being not thin, we have ceased to be human beings and can be ridiculed, insulted, discriminated against and then be told to have surgery which can be life-threatening and possibly lead to our deaths. Doubtless if weighty people died during gastric bypass surgery the fat haters would be gleeful to have less fat people to pollute their perfect lives.
The reason why I feel infuriated by the headlines is because I have been reading a couple of books and other material which actually show that “obesity” and the much-vaunted BMI are a recent creation and a nice little money earner for the medicos and diet industry based on shonky health research. At the same time, the low-fat, high carbohydrate diet extolled to Western nations like the UK, US and Australia over the past few decades also has feet of clay, a big con trick by the food industry to protect their profits despite research showing that people following what they believe are healthy diets are actually endangering their own health.
BLAME THE VICTIM
But hey, let’s blame the victim, then you don’t have to look at the food giants, the pharmaceutical industry and the diet industry who have all colluded to squash research showing the health dangers of a high carbohydrate, high-sugar diet to protect their god-almighty profits.
And let’s not mention that people also eat for emotional reasons such as stress, long working hours, job insecurity, low wages, unemployment, social interaction, homelessness and so on, because then you have to look at the social reasons for over-eating and lack of exercise because people are knackered by the end of the day trying to cope with the pressures of life in Western society today.
This has tied in with the fact I wanted to follow up my posts on women’s liberation with some material about diets and thinness stifling women’s creativity and power, and also how eating can be emotional, as I witnessed when I got as fat as butter when my Mum was dying of lung cancer.
So what I’m intending in my next few posts are:
1) Feminism, women and weight;
2) My own weight battle;
3) Dealing with my mother’s death from lung cancer & my own (fat) emotional response;
4) The giant con trick perpetrated on Western society by the dietary, medical, pharmaceutical and food industries to protect their profits regardless of the ill-health of people following what they believe are health diets.
I have no doubt that questioning the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet and the all-powerful BMI is tackling sacred cows, but I really hate being conned and both of these are con tricks, not exposed by the industries involved, but brought out into the light of day by individuals doing independent research and publishing their findings.
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!
This post has been a long time in the making because I’ve been bogged down with sciatica again. It’s thrown my sleep patterns out, left me feeling very tired and also lethargic and aimless. So I decided to go with the flow, simply tread water and wait until I felt the urge to start writing again. Which is now. And at the same time, I’ve decided to make space for new adventures in my life by getting rid of all the shelving with my crystals on and storing all my crystals in my cupboard space. I’m focusing on my art and writing my book as blog.
New beginnings, new paths, new energy. I probably needed the break to process where I really want to work in my life right now. So now on to my adventures with Women’s Liberation in the early 1970s.
I had my teenage rebellion in my ‘twenties when I moved to Australia. Until then I’d pretty much been Ms Goody-Two-Shoes, not rocking the boat, head down and studying assiduously to get a good degree as I was the first in our family to go to university, and fairly conservative. At least, that’s the image that I have of myself but I’ve been interested to catch up with old friends from my University days who see me quite differently – organised, organising people and quite adventurous. Weird how you see yourself and how others see you!
I guess working on a kibbutz in Israel, which is what I did prior to travelling to Australia in 1972, and then hopping off Downunder could be considered quite adventurous although at the time it just seemed to me that both were interesting things to do. Perhaps I also did this bit of travelling as I had no idea of my direction in life. In fact, I never did find a direction until my mid-fifties – late starter, you might say!
I began throwing over the traces with gusto when I joined the Australian Union of Students as the organiser for Western Australia and subsequently got involved with Women’s Liberation. I had seen a news report of women in the movement handing out contraceptive advice at secondary school gates and it interested me.
Why did I become interested in Women’s Liberation?
It’s so easy to forget what life was like for women back in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, so here are a few reminders that Women’s Libbers rocked the boat because women:
• Were denied equal pay
• Were clustered in low paying work
• Were paid less for the same work done by men
• Weren’t allowed to open their own bank accounts without permission from their husband, boyfriend or father.
• Couldn’t get a mortgage as a single woman.
• Were victimized all too often if they were raped, labeled as the “temptress”, “seductress”, or whatever, because rape wasn’t recognized as an act of violence.
• Had to leave the public service when they married.
• Had to leave the workforce when they had children.
• Had to leave the workforce when menfolk came back from war and wanted the jobs (see the move Rosie the Riveter and a documentary about women pilots in World War II flying planes around the UK to the various aerodromes where they were needed)
• Were invisible in history, the media and film. Apart from a few odd exceptions like Katherine Hepburn, women were pretty much bitches (Betty Davis) or goddesses up on a pedestal (June Allyson)
• Were sex objects
• Were forced to resort to illegal abortions because of unwanted pregnancies, often dying dreadful deaths from scepticaemia.
• Were vilified if they chose to have an abortion despite the vast majority of women agonizing over such a choice.
• Were denied free, safe contraception and planned parenthood.
• Had enormous difficulties accessing advanced education
• Were going off their rocker in the suburbs with frustration and boredom.
And we in Women’s Liberation were impolite, rowdy, feisty, hollering, rollicking, loud, raucous, marching, holding demonstrations, rejecting ideas of being “nice” and “lady-like”, and standing together in large numbers to organise for women’s right to be treated with respect, dignity and equality.
This is one of the songs from those time:
“Don’t be too polite, girls, don’t be too polite,
Show a little fight girls, show a little fight,
Don’t be fearful of offending, in case you get the sack
Just recognize your value and we won’t look back.
All among the bull, girls, all among the bull,
Keep your hearts full, girls, keep your hears full
What good is a man as doormat, or following at heel?
It’s not their balls we’re after, it’s a fair square deal.”
In early 1978 I went on a tour to China just as it was opening up. We visited a women’s brigade on an oil field in Shandong Province (one of the coldest places I’ve ever been by the way!). The women’s brigade was set up as Chinese leaders in the oil industry found that men looked down on women workers and sidelined them. So the aim of the women’s brigade was to encourage emancipation in the industry and self-respect among the women workers.
We sang the above song to them, and they sang back women’s revolutionary songs to us. Our interpreters told the Chinese women the meaning of our song, and then translated the Chinese songs to us. We had a wonderful time, laughing, singing, talking (via our interpreters) and shaking hands when we left with many waves as our mini-bus drove away from the oilfield.
“Don’t be too polite, girls” is a fighting song from the history of working women in Australia. I use the term “fighting” deliberately, because we women have never been handed our gains on our plate. We’ve had to organize, fight and stand together as sisters to achieve anything. I don’t ever want young women to forget that because, as a young woman myself, I stood on the shoulders of the mothers, sisters, grandmothers and great-grandmothers before me who took action, in big and small ways, to advance women’s interests, including the right to vote. And I honour and remember them with pride.
Jack and I arrived in Australia in 1972 a month or so before the Whitlam government was elected. This was the government of the Australian Labor Party and its ascent to power came after the Liberal-Country Party coalition had been in office since 1949. We knew stuff-all about Australian politics but, nevertheless, when we listened to the L-CP advertisements on radio with their “reds under the beds” theme, it was like leaping back a few decades. We’d look at each other and mutter “Blimey, they’re a paranoid bunch” when these crazy-sounds ads for the L-CP came on without understanding that the L-CP had relied on the “reds under the bed” them to stay in office in the decades since 1949.
When the Whitlam government came into office, we really had no idea of the upheaval such a government would unleash. It undertook quite revolutionary action which left the conservative Establishment beside itself with rage and determined to restore what the L-CP believed was its right to rule which had, in the 1972 election, been usurped by a bunch of upstarts.
If you’re wondering why I’m commenting on this, it’s because, once we decided to stay in Australia, I got caught up in the excitement of the early Whitlam years when great social change took place, particularly to the benefit of women and Aboriginal people.
Those who may have read that the Whitlam years were ones of complete chaos may be a bit surprised to read anything good about the return of the ALP to office in Australia. But history, as they say, is written by the victors and the conservative forces in Australia have done their best to portray the years of Whitlam rule as chaotic, unhinged and run by a bunch of ignorant nutters. In the process, they’ve carefully played down the way in the conservative Establishment in Australia set out to undermine and, ultimately, knock off what seemed at the time a quite revolutionary Labor government. In this the forces of reaction were helped by the fact that the Senate was controlled by the L-CP which did its best to obstruct legislative measures by the Labor-controlled Federal Parliament and eventually refused to pass supply bills which provided for government expenditure..
To give you some idea of the upheaval in the very staid, stiff upper-lip approach of former conservative governments, here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia which shows a little of the gusto with which the new government started out in office:
“On 5 December, once Labor’s win was secure, Whitlam had the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, swear him in as Prime Minister and Labor’s deputy leader, Lance Bernard, as deputy prime minister. The two men held 27 portfolios during the two weeks before a full cabinet could be determined.
During the two weeks the so-called “duumvirate” held office, Whitlam sought to fulfill those campaign promises that did not require legislation. Whitlam ordered negotiations to establish full relations with the People’s Republic of China, and broke those with Taiwan. Legislation allowed the Minister for Defence to grant exemptions from conscription. Barnard held this office, and exempted everyone. Seven men were at that time incarcerated for refusing conscription; Whitlam arranged for their freedom. The Whitlam government in its first days re-opened the equal pay case pending before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and appointed a woman, Elizabeth Evatt, to the commission. Whitlam and Barnard eliminated sales tax on contraceptive pills, announced major grants for the arts, and appointed an interim schools commission. The duumvirate barred racially discriminatory sport teams from Australia, and instructed the Australian delegation at the United Nations to vote in favour of sanctions on apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It also ordered home all remaining Australian troops in Vietnam, though most (including all conscripts) had been withdrawn by McMahon.”
The Whitlam government appointed a women’s advisor, established universal health care, eliminated military conscription and criminal excusion, set up fee-free university education, implemented legal aid programmes, gave legal recognition to de facto relationships, and recognised Aboriginal land rights. Other measures were introduced but just these few gives you some idea of the sweeping changes implemented by Whitlam’s government. Those were heady days!
I have to be honest and say that in our early days in Australa a lot of this went over my head as we simply enjoyed our hedonistic holiday in Australia, with work and good pay, a fantastic climate, partying and making new friends. In 1973 we intended to book a cruise home to the UK and resume our normal lives. But in that year, as we were sorting out what cruise line to use to return home, my mother wrote and told us to stay in Australia for the time being. She said that there were strikes, a 3-day working week, power cuts and very few job vacancies. She told me years later that it was one of the hardest letters she ever wrote but, ironically, it was the decision to extend our stay which saw us loosen our ties with the UK and settle down in our new country.
In the days of the “Ten pound Poms”, people could pay £10 for travel to Australia, but they had to stay for two years. In those two years, your ties with friends back in the UK tended to die away because there was no internet, no e-mail and no Skype. You’d start making friends in the new country and get more settled. Which is exactly what happened to me and to Jack.
We got to know people, made friends and developed a social life. I enjoyed my work but, as time wore on, I became restless, particularly as we were staying longer than expected. I’ve always been the same. As soon as I’ve mastered a job, I get bored and want another challenge. I tried to move to being a storekeeper at the engineering company I worked for, but was passed over for someone who, truth be told, had more qualifications than I ever would have.
And finally I threw in the towel after a dust-up with one of the salesmen. He had written a draft letter which I automatically translated into better, grammatical language. He was beside himself at the changes and ordered me to type his original letter. I refused and told him it was load of old cobblers. Eventually, the acting boss at the time backed the salesman, although someone else did type the letter, but I knew my time there was limited. And I remember the acting boss saying to me: “You’ll leave now, won’t you?” And I nodded. He said: “I’m sorry, I had no choice, but in any case you’re too intelligent to stay here for long.”
I ended up applying for two positions, a secretarial job with a petroleum exploration company and one as an organiser for Western Australia with the Australian Union of Students. The secretarial job was the safe, predictable and conventional job. It also had higher pay. The AUS job was unconventional and meant a pay cut. Jack didn’t go too much on the pay cut but, for the first time, I struck out on my own and stood firm. My intuition was working overtime (although I didn’t know anything about intuition in those days), so I took a punt and went for the AUS job. It was a big unknown, working as the union organiser in Western Australia. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. All I knew was that it looked incredibly interesting and it seemed to call to me. I did actually get the secretarial job and turned it down. They begged me to take the position but I refused. It was a big risk as I hadn’t actually got the AUS job. But somehow I knew that I couldn’t take conventional work any more. The excitement and exhilaration of the Whitlam changes had infected me too and I was eager to head in new directions.
I got the job and it was a turning point for me. While I may have had illusions that I was the best candidate, I found out later that I’d been picked because the only other person in the running was a member of the Communist Party. So I was the lesser of two evils, if I can put it like that. As I said, I actually had no idea whatsoever what a union organiser was supposed to do. I faked it big-time at the interview. The final question asked by the interviewing committee was to summarise why I was the best candidate. I knew what the question was going to be because I’d eavesdropped on the previous candidate. I told them that now they’d interviewed me, they knew I was the best of the lot. It caused a laugh but actually I gave that response because I had no idea what else to say and it worked quite successfully as a diversion from my absolute ignorance about the work involved.
And so I quit my job at the engineering office and jumped feet first into my new work as the organiser in Western Australia for the Australian Union of Students. I felt like I’d come alive and I really came out of the closet once I started this work! I had somehow always felt drawn to the path of service, but not in a family setting. For me, work outside the home had always been the priority and the work with AUS was right up my alley although I had never realised it before. I loved the political atmosphere and, at the time, I felt that politics was the way to serve.
I’ve had quite a long break because I’ve had a lot of trouble with severe sciatic pain and I’ve been concentrating on my artwork at:
because basically it keeps me sane when things get somewhat painful.
Suddenly, however, a fair few comments have popped up about this blog so I decided I’d better get myself into gear and get writing again.
Since my last post was about leaving Australia for the UK in 2002 (it lasted two years, by the way!) I decided to continue with the start of my adventures in Australia in which:
The Intrepid Life Traveller, Ms Goody-Two-Shoes,
Stepped into the Telephone Box in Perth, Western Australia,
in dreary, conscientious, reliable clothing
With Purple Hair
And Bright Red Knickers over the Purple Tights
Founding Member Arty-Farty Brigade!
To be very honest I was quite surprised recently when the guy I travelled with (we broke up but remain good friends) told me recently he was really grateful I’d suggested a holiday in Australia. I actually don’t remember this but I guess Australia had always been on my horizon knowing my parents had got all the approvals to emigrate Downunder in the post-war period until my mother changed her mind at the last moment.
SHIP-JET TO PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
We, Jack and I, travelled to Australia for a working holiday via jet to Singapore and then ship to Perth, Western Australia. It was dirt cheap and, in those days, because we were British, we could enter Australia without visas and work also without needing any visa.
The jet part was one of the early budget flights and I remember it going on and on seemingly forever. I’d muddled up time change so had no idea how long we’d been in the air and how long we’d keep flying. I do remember feeling a bit airsick and had just got a glass of water to take some tablets when we hit severe disturbance. The jet dropped god knows how many feet, the water stayed in the air while the glass went down with me, and looking up it was like slow motion as the water – free of the constraints of the glass – fell down on me and left me soaked to the skin!
Finally we arrived in Singapore to warm, humid weather and a hostile Customs officer who decided that, as Jack’s hair was a bit too long, his passport would be confiscated and only returned when the ship set sail. I remember Singapore being squeaky clean and full of flowers but really was too jetlagged to take much notice.
We set sail on the Patris ship, full of excitement at embarking on a sea cruise, but I have to tell you that it was utterly, utterly boring. I don’t like constant entertainment and every available public area had something on – nightclub, movies, bingo, etc., etc. I spent a lot of time lolling around in deck chairs or down below in the cabin. We were also, by the way, segregated. Women-only cabins and men-only cabins. The only thing to fill the endless days and empty seas were food and booze, and the food was not particularly brilliant. It was even less brilliant when we hit rough seas and meal times were more an exercise in not throwing up rather than getting food down as the restaurant was towards the prow of the boat! So it was with a sigh of relief that we both emerged above decks early one morning in the hazy light of sunrise, to see the shoreline of Australia squatting hazily on the horizon.
And it was THEN I thought to myself, what the heck have we done? Set sail to a strange country the other side of the world, without too much in the way of back-up funds, where we need to find work and accommodation pretty much pronto! Bit late for commonsense to hit but I remember really getting butterflies in my stomach as the dark coastline of Australia came closer and closer, looking quite mysterious and a bit malevolent, until finally we sailed into Fremantle port, south of Perth, and docked at the quayside.
Disembarkation took a while but soon we were traipsing across to Fremantle train station to buy our tickets to Perth. We had a great introduction to Australia: when we asked for our tickets, the ticket officer asked where we’d come from. We said England, just arrived via ship-jet, and his response was: “More Pommie bastards. The place is sinking with ’em. Why don’t you all stay at home?” We were somewhat taken aback but found others we met later were, luckily, a lot more friendly and helpful.
We stayed in a cheap hotel the first few days and got ourselves acclimatised to Perth while we looked for a flat and jobs. Perth at that time was more like a big town than the big metropolis it is now. It was like stepping back twenty years in time as it was old-fashioned, parochial and very quiet after the hustle and bustle of London where Jack and I had both lived and worked prior to our Australian adventure. On Saturdays, shops closed at midday, older ladies wore really old-fashioned dresses (frocks) with long sleeves, stockings, ghastly shoes, prim hats and gloves, all this in really hot temperatures! When we first came across The West Australian, the local newspaper, we thought it was a weekly local rag, a bit like the newsy local publication which appeared once a week in Canterbury. But, no, this was the daily newspaper and it was pathetic – bad layout, anti anything from “the Eastern States”, utterly WA-centric, and hostage to the mining cowboys starting to make their mark. Actually, when I last saw the newspaper when we stopped in Perth on our way to North Cyprus, it hadn’t changed much except to get worse!
JOBS AND SETTLING IN
We found a flat quickly as in those days they were plentiful, cheap and cheerful. After the miserable digs we’d experienced in London we thought we were in clover – a nice bedroom, separate shower and bathroom, fridge, and it was clean and bright. What we didn’t realise was that the flat we’d found was the bottom of the pile, the flats that young people and young couples moved in to to start an independent life. To us, though, it was absolute luxury after the really awful housing you used to get in London if you weren’t among the super-rich. We rapidly bought some more necessities like kitchenware, coffee tables and so on, and then turned to the question of jobs.
On the Monday after we arrived we caught the train to Perth (we’d found a flat on the Fremantle-Perth line) and started haring down the platform when we arrived. Then we noticed the looks of surprise on the faces of other train passengers and realised everyone else was strolling along at a gentle pace! Yes, life was in the slow lane in Perth in 1972 and we soon adapted.
Jack found a job delivering bread to houses which was common in those days while I found a job working in a French company quite a way from where we lived, but it was a job and we both had an income coming in. We were amazed to find how high wages were and how low income tax was compared to the UK. In London I’d been earning £26 a week, with nearly half going on taxes. In Australia I was earning $70 a week and when I saw I’d only paid $3 in taxes, I approached the accountant as I thought there’d been a mistake. But no, tax was minimal and, even more surprising, a couple of weeks later I got a rise to $75 because there was something called an Award which was regulated by a commission and they’d given my class of office worker a raise without my even having to ask! Neither of us could believe our luck!
THE STIRRINGS OF REBELLION
Australia was, however, a huge turning point for me. Until we arrived in Perth, I’d been conventional, conservative and pretty myopic in my thinking. The first stirrings of rebellion in me happened when the guy I worked for in my first job called me “the girl”. I was mortally offended by this term as it was so derogatory. I remember one day my boss and his partner went to a liquid lunch (i.e., they went to a pub and got stuck into the booze) forgot an appointment and when the guy turned up he was ropeable. He rang back later that day and I heard my boss blame “the girl” so I leaned over, grabbed the phone and shouted down it: “I’m not the girl, I didn’t forget, they went and got drunk”. Amazingly I didn’t get the sack, but it was the nail in the coffin for me as far as that job was concerned. I also got further impetus to leave when the accountant, who’d acted rather oddly at times, turned up late one morning as pissed as a parrot and I found out he was a raging alcoholic.
I had a look in the local paper, The West Australian, for a job and found one as the office supervisor and secretary to the Managing Director in a small engineering firm not far from where I lived and, best of all, it had air-conditioning! The first time it hit 100F/37.8C in the brick block which was my first place of work, I thought I’d die with the heat. I stuck it out for a while then crept into the restroom, whipped my pantyhose off and scuttled back to my desk with bare legs which I thought was incredibly daring. Actually, no-one noticed and young women in 1972 had started going without pantyhose in the summer as it was so much more comfortable. It was only the older generation of women who turned out in pantyhose and how they managed to look so cool was quite beyond me!
I also got cranky when I stayed in our flat on a Sunday while Jack went out to play football and have a good time. I did try going to one football match which I found incredibly boring, it seemed to last forever and I had no interest in the women who only talked about their babies, nappies and homes. And so, when I saw a report on members of Women’s Liberation, who had picketed schools to hand out contraception information, I felt the first stirrings of interest. I wrote to them via the newspaper but never heard back. However, when I quit my office job, because the area organiser for Western Australia for the Australian Union of Students and came into contact with members of Women’s Liberation, it was as if lights went off for me and I was off and running on the path very much less travelled!