A Personal View of the Women's Movement- FINAL EDIT COMPLETE

  






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SELF-EVOLUTION

 

 A PERSONAL VIEW OF THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT

 Vera Figner, a Sydney sister interviewed by Margaret Smith

 

Margaret Smith: Vera, what's been the nature of your involvement with the women's movement, and your feelings that have come out of it?  

 

Vera Figner: In late 1969, – some of us formed what was for us our first women's group. It was one of the first groups in Australia to use the name 'Women's Liberation'. Although there had been many other women's groups in Australia during this century, our group was part of a new movement, the second wave of women's struggle. At first we modelled ourselves very much on what was being done overseas. We were particularly influenced by pamphlets and articles from the U.S., especially those written by young women of the New Left as most of us were similarly young and connected with the New Left here—Moratoriums, non-communist political grouplets and so on.

 We were very inexperienced when we became involved in the women's movement. Sometimes we behaved almost as if we were carrying out our political duty. Initially, we didn't have much of a sense that in thinking about the problems of 'women', we were finally standing up for ourselves.  The only women we knew who called themselves 'feminists' seemed to us to be remnants of a bygone era—never did we apply this term to ourselves.

 This rather supercilious objectivity of ours was rapidly destroyed when we got down to discussing our own lives. It was then that our real feelings about being female came out into the open— sometimes much to our surprise. What enabled this to happen was our decision to hold all-female, no-men-allowed meetings. In the face of our own doubts and against opposition from women as well as from men, we were determined to meet as women and by ourselves. Almost by instinct, we realised that in mixed groups we would never be able to release our true feelings and identify our problems. 

You usually get rather peculiar kinds of discussions in an all-female group, no matter what you're meeting about. You mix gossip, personal experiences, plans and theoretical analysis all in together, frequently seeming to go off on disjointed tangents. A lot of what goes on in a women's meeting would be, according to male values, time wasted —not getting down to business. To some degree this is true but not that true. What makes personal experiences irrelevant?

In fact, personal experiences or problems (for example, worrying about getting fat) are, on closer examination, much more important when you understand their social basis. It is not necessarily trivial to worry about being fat, the less a woman conforms to the stereotypes of a female sex object, the less value a man places on her. And in a world where women are brought up to be dependent upon men, not conforming can be dangerous. Not only will you have a poor opinion of yourself, but you are more likely to be undervalued and passed over by the men who control jobs and institutions. And most successful men do not want a fat girlfriend or wife. That's hard reality, not just your neurosis. Once you know this, you may not immediately stop worrying, but at least it's a step towards accepting yourself as you are.

 This is an example of the sort of thing we uncovered by getting together in a women's group. These apparently trivial worries which we are often secretively bogged down in, are shared by so many women that we couldn't moan about our failures any longer. Surely, the failures lie in the society. And personal worries which once seemed so insignificant are, in fact, the tips of icebergs which stretch down, down and bigger and bigger into the most profound depths of social relations.

 

MS: Do you think that women don't take themselves as seriously as men? In a women's group there's always a slight sense of fun, of seeing the perspective of what you're actually doing. Men in a discussion group will often take themselves very seriously, and don't seem to have enough perspective of what's actually going on.

 

VI: I agree with you, although I might state it a little differently. Both men and women are conditioned from childhood to think that male things are important and female things are not. Men need to feel big and powerful, that the world revolves around their needs and opinions. But we women worry that we are being emotional or trivial because we half accept male-defined values of what is important. Because we have been brought up to revolve (along with the rest of the universe) around some man, it's hard to take women ourselves— seriously. However, in our meetings we try to accept the validity of our feelings are personal experiences—to not be so literal-minded all the time but also to bring seriousness and analysis to the things we discuss.

At some point in a women's group, with the raising of consciousness and the release of pent-up emotions, the time comes when either you try to do something about the problems you've uncovered or else you turn in on yourselves. Sometimes this happens in the women's movement, perhaps as a result of women's inability to take themselves seriously enough to assault the world with plans and declarations. Women have been private for so long, that bursting into public life is not easy. At that point, the group can fall apart with surprising viciousness.

We did not have any such hesitations in our first group. We had a messianic urge to tell the world we were there and to change it. We threw ourselves in to speaking engagements and campaigns. A typical issue was abortion formerly the concern of a relatively few humanists from the Abortion Law Reform Society. We held loud demonstrations and public meetings, we spoke on the question anywhere we could, we did our best to guide women to safe abortionists. We felt very strongly that abortion and contraception were every woman 's right and that no woman should be forced to have a child she doesn't want. Controlling one's own physical self instead of being controlled by it, as with years of child-bearing and child-rearing, is a necessary pre-requisite for the liberation of women .

So, as I said we went to meetings organised by all sorts of groups and then we held our own and we discussed every aspect of being a woman. Very quickly new women began coming to these meetings—women of different experience to us, different perceptions, and different political outlooks.

 

MS: Some of them would be quite desperate for help wouldn't they?

 

VF: Yes, sometimes a whole meeting would be taken up with a woman pouring out her particular troubles and as she'd never had a chance to tell them before, the rest of us, with perhaps other matters on our minds, were never quite sure what to do. Things would sometimes get very chaotic. As well as some confusion about what we were there for, we had certain problems about organisation which still persist in the women's movement. All organisations we'd been in formerly, from school to revolutionary grouplet, had suffered from a hierarchy of strong men on the top, then weaker men along with exceptional women, and on the bottom the rest of us women doing the shitwork. We decided that that kind of organisation was one of the things which had inhibited women's development and was not the thing for us. Perhaps we were throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because without clear alternatives, we ended up with little formal organisation but informally an organisation based on activity, friendship and status that was almost as rigid in its own way. Although good attempts were made to develop responsibility to collective opinion for instance, by not taking votes so that the majority didn't rule over the minority—often the reality behind our 'consensus' was that the stronger, more energetic, more socially acceptable women repeatedly did things their way.

 We tried hard to have the strong people listen to the people who were quiet and to relinquish some of their power. We tried hard to encourage quiet people to take a more active part than they otherwise would. We are still trying but this has been only partially successful. Periodically too, there would be onslaughts against the tall poppies women who were, in fact, leaders. Since we said we didn't want to have leaders, other women blamed them personally for the continuing imbalance of power instead of re-examining our structures.

Sometimes, women coming into the movement for the first time found the structurelessness frustrating. Repeatedly, new people would listen to personal experiences or deep arguments about new group forms and complain, 'But what are you doing?' Sometimes they left without giving it a chance. Still the groups grew and multiplied.

 

MS : What kinds of activities did you have?

 

VF : As well as small discussion groups, there were a number of action groups which came and went as there was enthusiasm and people interested. For me personally, my continuing interest has been in propaganda: pamphlet distribution and films.

Very early on, some of us started making Film For Discussion, a film on women's issues for just that: discussion. We made it in a way typical of the women s movement. Although different people ultimately had different jobs, from acting to taking sound, we all determined the content together. Since then there have been several film groups with a more or less close relation to the women's liberation movement. 

Generally, in the movement, a variety of campaigns have been waged through demonstrations, petitions, cultural events, and in some cases with work through the unions : abortion, one rate for the job, child welfare, child care, integrating the public bars, and so on. We've participated in the anti-war moratoriums and in May Day Marches— but generally we confine our activities to strictly women's issues.

 A Sydney newspaper, MeJane, was begun ages ago and periodically bursts forth with a new issue, while Refractory Girl, a more academically-oriented journal, appears quarterly. There have been all manner of events such as the forum on rape where women spoke out about their experiences with violence, or the Womenvision weekend for women interested in the media. In contrast, there are small, almost private groups such as the radical therapy group, in which women have explored their deepest emotions.

All of this is linked together through a monthly newsletter, the production of which rotates, and a monthly general meeting at the Women's Liberation House in Alberta Street. At least once a year there will be a conference of some sort. There are no stated aims or programmes—some people share some ideas but not others. It's all rather mysterious. To some, like me, this is a source of difficulty and frustration; but other women feel that this is what keeps the movement open and interesting.

 All in all, though, I'd say that most of the groups and activities in the movement are guided by the understanding that the changes which will truly benefit women begin at the grass roots with a widespread consciousness of a need for something different. This need cannot be interpreted by experts not even women experts but must be carried forward into pressure for change by masses of women themselves. To get what we want in Women's Liberation, we challenge not only the government, but the system as a whole. We are particularly critical of the institutions of capitalism and the patriarchal family.

 

MS : The women's movement has also initiated their own action centres and self-help projects— all done by women themselves.

 

VF: Yes, there have been several self- help projects, from the Women's Refuge to an all-female film production workshop. There are many benefits from self-help groups, particularly as an example of  some of the things which ought to be provided by  society for all people. On the other hand, sometimes people interested in self-help tend to find their own little comfortable corners and avoid the problems of changing the society as a whole. To me  this is like jumping into a fox-hole to avoid the atom bomb.

But more than this, it seems to foster a tendency in the movement for some women to feel contemptuous of other women who remain in the mainstream. There is an alienating tendency to criticise women  who haven't miraculously leaped out of their conditioning like newly born moths.

 

MS : It think there's a danger with all these alternative and radical political movements, that a tyranny  can form around the norms of liberation particularly sexual liberation. Really women are just as exploited now that they're on the pill because it means they're always available no matter what their own feelings are. Women often imply they're  liberated because they're on the pill, but it doesn't necessarily follow. And what's the pill doing to their bodies anyway? The long-term side-effects are still unknown.

 

VF: Perhaps one reason why some women talk about being liberated here-and-now and why they act superior to other women is that they are not yet confident about themselves. They have to knock somebody else in order to define themselves. Usually women who do this have managed to separate themselves from the world of men a very hard and difficult thing to do, even when it seems desirable. Perhaps they feel impatient with the rest of us, that it's our backward life styles which are inhibiting their revolution. They are often fairly well-educated or do not have family responsibilities, and they do not realise how limited most women feel their choices are.

 Idealistic but intolerant women have, on occasion, been incredibly destructive all in the name of being true upholders of sisterhood—tearing into women for a variety of sins : living with men , wearing make-up, knitting away at meetings like old ladies, trying to 'get ahead' in a profession, wishing to take votes at meetings, or believing in the existence of class struggle.

 

MS : What about the conditions of women in the larger society?

 

 VF: Well, this is it. Some women seem to think anyone can solve her problems just by thinking about them in a different way—by changing her consciousness. My answer to this is that it is true that people have undergone a conditioning process which has fixed certain pictures of themselves and the world in their minds and they need to discover that some of these pictures are not the reality, only illusions. Delusions. But we should also understand that this false consciousness arises from conditions which really do exist in the society— we didn't make them up in our minds. Just as you can't think yourself out of starving but must figure out how to get food, you can't think yourself out of being oppressed as a woman. You must create the social conditions which will enable you to change. I believe that it is the historical development of the possibility of change which gives us the new ideas and the new consciousness. 

But knowing what could be possible isn't going to make it happen. For instance, suppose one of the many women who is unhappy in her wife/mother role realises that this does not have to be the centre of her life. Perhaps, she is sick of the man she lives with and realises how much better off she'd be without him, (for any number of reasons which most married women know only too well). Fed up with drained emotions on top of physical exhaustion, what does she do? Try to find child care, or a reliable neighbour, or lock the kids in , or leave them behind when she leaves home? Only to work at shithouse wages because she wasn't given a trade or profession since she was only going to get married in the end anyhow? If she wants to be included socially, she'll have to be paired off with some man anyhow. And a woman on her own is more easily the object of violence and terror. Sometimes it seems almost better to be abused by a man you know than to be vulnerable without his dubious protection to the men who are prowling the jungle for you. The number of women who have been sexually assaulted is very much disguised by reticence and shame but rape is only an extreme form of everyday relationships between men and women. Be that as it may, this society is a lonely one for the 'unattached' female.

 

 MS : When I was in New Guinea, I remember noticing that spinsters and bachelors weren't an oddity, or excluded in any way from the activities of the village and the extended family. In our society, where the nuclear family has taken over from the extended family, people who aren't part of these small units are left out.

 

VF: You're particularly left out of human warmth . Even though people do not get along too well in their families, there is nevertheless some kind of emotional contact. When people are so alienated from each other at work or where they live everybody minding their own privatised existences, accumulating their own possessions what can you expect but people clinging to the shipwrecks of their families. 

   Suppose someone with no family falls sick? Who's to look after them in a society which doesn't provide real social security, not in human terms. Who wants to be chucked away into a home or a hospital? Suppose something happens to you; who's to pay the rent or feed the bloody canary'? So who can blame women for not striking out on their own?

In the women's movement, there has been a particular interest in alternatives to the family : group living situations—or as they say, 'communes'. The positive aspects of these are particularly sharing expenses and, when it can be organised, sharing the work which is otherwise duplicated in household after household all down the street. Particularly if you have children, it's good to have other people to share in their care. 

Unfortunately, much too often people in group living situations discover that they can't overcome their family-oriented upbringing. Their conditioning has given them certain rules and expectations which are what cause a family to adhere to the extent it does, even when its members don't really get along. But in a commune, which is held up as a substitute for a family, so often things fall apart. Perhaps this is because there is no substitute for a family and yet people carry family expectations in appropriately into the commune situation. But you can't simply will such deeply rooted expectations out of your mind.

 Although I do believe that there can be alternatives to the family, they need proper conditions to be viable. If the women's movement, in condemning the family, is not able to provide that much of an alternative, it's hardly the fault of the women's movement. Far-reaching alternatives can only go hand in hand with broad social changes.

 

MS : To me, the only communes which work are those where there's been some transcendence, whether it be filmmaking or whatever. It is something to unite people beyond ordinary everyday reality and individual needs. For me it's been meditation which produces this kind of harmony.

 

VI: I'm sure that a common purpose would help. But, of course, for most women the question never even comes up. You may split up with a man but it's hard to get over the notion that someday Mr Right might come along and take you away from all this. Women can be so passive! And Mr Right comes along and turns out to be just another Mr Wrong , but at that point you usually give up. It's hard to get along as couples and its hard to get along not couples. Yet the idea of having your ups and downs focused on something other than some one person is definitely appealing. There's no problem so difficult or elusive as that of an intimate relationship because you put all your expectations in to it and measure your sense of yourself on its success or failure.

 

MS : What about women like you, who are managing to lead quite a creative and fulfilled life. You have your filmmaking and political commitments, but what kind of problems do you really still face?

 

VI: I'm in a fortuitous situation; perhaps it might end next week. It's certainly not the situation I have been in before. I have a friend who shares the work of childcare and house—not that either gets done properly by either of us. But it means that although I may live in squalor, I can still be active outside the home. However, I'm dependent upon this relationship not just practically but emotionally. When my friend pisses off (which he does from time to time, couples being what they are) I do quite well but when he hangs around and rejects me (which he also does from time to time) I fall apart. I was once totally immobilised for eight months! I know the game by now ; I stick in there pitching curves for him to knock down my throat. But the rest of the time, we're friends.

 

 MS : I've found that the only way a relationship can keep going and remain at a fairly low-keyed and unemotional level is to have some understanding of what it would be like if it breaks up, so this isn't a devastating threat to you. You have to develop a sort of detachment to it, in the Eastern sense, that in fact allows the relationship to keep growing and enrich your individual lives. I'd like to ask you about the successful women you know, and what sort of difficulties they're encountering.

 VF: Obviously it's hard for women to overcome discrimination. To become successful, a female must overcome her own sense of inferiority, must deny the roles which are marked out for her in society, must somehow get training, and must be able to put up with male hostility and resentment both overt and covert.

 But there's something more insidious about 'success'. In this system success means power and status. When success is granted from above to individuals, it is very hard for a woman to retain her loyalty to other women, to be responsible to the interests and guidance of the women at the grass roots. It is rare that a woman can become a 'success' without fitting into male norms which are oppressive to women. A successful woman must survive her own constant betrayals of her sex in both trivial and not so trivial ways, without becoming schizoid or as hard as nails.

 Success in terms of power and control is utterly dangerous. Success in terms of doing what you do well is difficult but lovely. However, what woman with children can ever excercise her full abilities in this society? Lately, I have been imagining that I don't know a soul no friends and relations, no children, no obligations to the women's movement or the communist party, I'd just live in a room and work. But that's stupid really, because it's my friends and children and politics which give me the ideas I'd like to work on.

 

 MS: What different types of women's groups are in existence?

 

 VF: There seem to be three trends in the women's movement : one is what I'd call radical feminism: they are strong believers in women's culture they reject such male thinkers as, for instance, Lenin; they see the main division between people as one of sex.

 Another tendency is towards Socialist Feminism. Socialist feminists either subordinate sex divisions to class divisions or think of the two as very closely related . Although they believe in working with women on women's issues, other problems concern them and they unite with men who may nevertheless be sexist. In their view, only socialism can create the conditions necessary for women to have real choices. But socialism in itself is no panacea for the problems of women; these must be approached with a feminist ideology.

A third tendency is drawn from women who are better off in relation to jobs, education or husband's situation. Often they themselves are professionals. They are not concerned with changing the present social system as a whole but rather winning a better position for women within the framework of society as it is.

By contrast, socialist feminists believe that one look around the world will suggest the difficulty of making real social changes without reactionary violence being exercised by those who have the power and are protecting their profits. Radical feminists seem to feel that you can work around the society through alternatives; they are exploring female culture—women as witches and healers, the value of emotions, women as creators. They reject male structures, particularly political structures regarded as male.

Although in many areas there are important unities of purpose between these three tendencies, in other ways there are real antagonisms which shouldn't be glossed over. All women do not want the same things nor do we have the same ideas of how to get what we want. This is all right when it's in the open.

 

 MS : What about uneducated, underprivileged and Aboriginal women? Have any of them come in to the movement?

 

 VF: If you mean women without formal education, several of the most respected women in the movement, women who are truly influential, would not have gone to school beyond the age of fourteen most of these would be socialists. As far as being relatively under-privileged, there are not so many women in Women's Liberation who are in that situation. In part this is because we have not made a concerted effort to direct our work among such women , but have gone where it was easiest. However, feminist ideas are spreading through one or two of the unions, which should bring more migrant and working class women into the movement.

There are only a few Aboriginal women in the movement because their priorities are not the same as ours. Furthermore, they see the women's movement as a division between the sexes where they need unity. The threat to them is of being extinguished as a race, not only culturally but literally. They can be killed off by the horrible conditions under which they are forced to survive.

 To me, men and women have already suffered a division; it is the women's movement which may heal the split. For a female in almost any culture or any struggle to ignore feminist ideology is ultimately fatal. However, those black women who know about the women's movement do not see things quite this way. To them, questions such as parental participation in childcare are quite irrelevant until more children live long enough for this to be a consideration. And even then, Aborigines have different traditions and cultural assumptions to us. 

It would seem that the best way we can support Aboriginal women is to support the Aboriginal movement as a whole. It would be good too if they would stand by us.

 

 MS: What about women as consumers? This is unfortunately their role in society, to go to the supermarket and buy the family goods. What can women's groups do to educate women to buy better goods and be more politically aware of what the the food-making companies are actually producing for them? 

 

VF: The food-making companies are producing nothing for us women; they're producing non-nutritious crap for profit—often for remittance overseas. Generally speaking, this situation will continue until the companies are owned and run by those who work in them and need to eat the stuff. These companies put profit before human needs and create artificial needs through advertising. So in the end, it's a question of who controls the production.

 

 MS: What do you think have been the overall achievements of the women's movement?

 

 VF: The women's movement is very young, but it reflects feelings of women throughout society. Although many women would deny it, because they haven't learned to trace seemingly personal problems and failures to their social roots, most women want a change. Fundamentally the woman's movement is the articulation of widespread female discontent and vision of a better future: the feeling that 'things don't have to be like this'. 

As well, the women's movement tries to analyse these feelings of women and act to bring about social change. So far we've had limited influence in getting across our interpretation of things to other women. Nor have we yet created the organisation through which we can do so on the scale necessary.

However, we are a growing movement whose understanding of the task before us becomes clearer year by year. Basically, for a relatively small number of women, being in the women's movement has profoundly changed our outlook for a slightly larger number of non-movement women, feminist ideas are there to support them in what they do. For women who in no way identify with the women's movement, conditions are changing. Abortion and contraception have become more acceptable and marginally more available; educational and job opportunities are coming into question; pay rates are improving; childcare shaping up as a big struggle to be won; rigid sex roles crumbling around the edges... it's good, but it will be a long hard struggle. 


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