Theme Women's Liberation Movement

Written by Susan Magarey, The University of Adelaide

On 21 January 2011, the Australian carried an article about 'four feminist heavy-weights'. As part of the Australia Day celebrations, Dr Germaine Greer, Professor Eva Cox, Dr Anne Summers and Justice Elizabeth Evatt had been chosen as 'Australian Legends' for their commitment to 'gender equality'. Each was being honoured by a decision to issue postage stamps bearing an image of her, and each could be considered a leader in the Women's Liberation Movement.

Greer's first and ground-breaking book, The Female Eunuch (1970), impelled many women- and not only in Australia- into a socio-political activism that came to be called Women's Liberation. Cox, an early activist in the movement, has maintained a steady stream of pronouncements about, and analyses of, injustices confronting women in Australia. Summers, another early activist in the movement, an award-winning journalist and author of Damned Whores and God's Police (1975), held the post of women's advisor in the government of Prime Minister Paul Keating in the 1990s. Evatt was the first chief judge of Australia's Family Court and a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. But the Australian's article did not mention either leadership or women's liberation. Perhaps the Women's Liberation Movement could be considered too long ago; at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the salient term is 'gender equality' not 'women's liberation'. And even if the article's author- social affairs writer Stephen Lunn- did not already know it, those four women could have told him that the concept of leadership was as deeply problematic for feminism as was the question of organisation.

The two issues were closely inter-related. As Anne Summers wrote in Mejane, no. 10, March 1973:

From its inception Women's Liberation has been anti-organization in the sense that we have had no elected officers, no formal membership, no rules or platform to which people must adhere, and no theories determining the relationship of factions or opposition groups to the movement as a whole. We have justified this stance by pointing out that formal organizations is [sic] always oligarchical in that it inevitably produces an elite of leaders who cling to their powerful positions more tenaciously than they adhere to the principles of the organization they purportedly represent (Summers, in Mercer, 408).

'In trying to overcome these deficiencies in other modes of organization we have in our own political methods tried to prefigure the kind of social relations which would prevail in the kind of society we are trying to create', she observed. We had learned this wildly optimistic goal from the United States of America. 'We are committed to achieving internal democracy', trumpeted the New York Red Stockings Manifesto in 1970. 'We will do whatever is necessary to ensure that every women in our movement has an equal chance to participate, assume responsibility, and develop her political potential' (Morgan, 600). Sue Wills was an early participant in Sydney Women's Liberation; she described how that commitment to 'internal democracy' led to 'characteristic' 'patterns of interaction and ways of doing things'. These were:
a strong element of spontaneity; the admixture of personal experience and political ideas, not only independently important but also essentially inseparable; the lack of adherence to formal meeting procedures and structure, and the chaos, sometimes productive, sometimes not, in which that can end; the emphasis on working collectively and co-operatively within the group rather than in competition with one another, on having many women speak rather than a single spokeswoman; a personal enthusiasm and commitment that can come only from a sense of fighting for your own liberation, not someone else's; and a streak of evangelistic euphoria which produced a conviction that if other women were simply "told", they too would experience a "conversion" (Wills, 20).

These methods were entirely appropriate for small groups primarily engaged in consciousness-raising, a process that involved personal narratives and required a high degree of trust among its members. Even in the ranks of the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), which in some accounts is seen as an off-shoot of the Women's Liberation Movement but was primarily concerned with political intervention rather than consciousness-raising, there were, at least initially, attempts to avoid forms of organisation that would inevitably replicate patriarchal modes of structure and leadership. At a WEL conference in Canberra in 1973, a group from New South Wales declared:
We are determined to avoid having leaders- (either convenors or permanent spokeswomen-and any form of power hierarchy). Like many other radical feminist organizations, in setting up a structure we want to move on from competitive masculine power politics, involving aggression and backstabbing, to true egalitarianism. All of us in NSW would like to see this ideal carried through to the national structure (Summers, in Mercer, 411-412).

The Canberra participants thought the same: 'Pyramid power structures are anathema to WEL's basic aim of involving all women'. We 'have tried to abolish leadership-and-led structures', wrote Caroline Graham about WEL, 'resisting minority arguments which claim that this will mean less efficiency'. She considered that they were attempting something both different and more radical: 'We are in the interesting process of re-defining efficiency' (Graham, in Mercer, 424). One of the ways of enacting such a commitment was to have all participants in a meeting sitting in a circle on the floor, taking it in turns to speak; this 'blurred' any distinction between leader and led, noted Summers. Nevertheless, problems emerged with such determination, problems around differences in Women's Liberation's goals. As Summers observed, there were:
problems of differing interpretations of the "real cause" of women's oppression and consequently of the means that should be used to overcome it. Some of us have felt that nothing short of a complete overthrow of the existing system will improve things for women; others have felt that they would be satisfied is the existing system worked more equitably for women.

Ultimately, that dichotomy resulted in the broad distinction drawn between Women's Liberation as 'revolutionary' and WEL as 'reformist', and the reformists learned, pragmatically- in order to get anything done- to accommodate elements of structure and leadership that Women's Liberation continued to refuse. But even participants in Women's Liberation could find meetings that were structureless and leaderless distinctly antipathetic. Martha Ansara, a founding member of Sydney Women's Liberation, 'found it very difficult', she said:
because you could … be involved in the group that was organising for International Women's Day and some new mob of people would come in and throw everything that you decided open to debate, and more than that, they didn't have children, they could go on all night if they wanted and wear you out (Ansara, Interview).

Kay Daniels, a founding- indeed, a leading- participant in Women's Liberation in Hobart, reported on Women's Liberation's national conference in Sydney in June 1972 in the pages of the monthly Hobart Women's Liberation newspaper, Liberaction, in tones of exasperation. 'Some', she commented,
who weren't sufficiently mellowed by sun and sisterhood found the non-organisation immensely irritating and time-wasting. The mornings were often a mess; the discussions when they got going always started from somewhere behind square one and sometimes didn't get much further. The interminable introductions around the circle made me feel like a brownie on my first day out. Disagreement was softened and total irrelevance suffered to an incredible extent (Liberaction, no. 3, 4-5).

In time, it became clear that there were greater difficulties to encounter in the refusal of leadership and structure than provocation of impatience. Again, we were to learn from the United States of America where, as early as 1970, pioneering activist and brilliant political analyst, Jo Freeman, wrote what became an extremely influential article titled 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness', initially circulated anonymously under the pen-name 'Joreen' (Freeman, in Baxandall and Gordon, 73-75). 'Contrary to what we would like to believe', she announced, 'there is no such thing as a structureless group'. Any group of people coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will 'inevitably' structure itself 'in some fashion'. The concept of 'structurelessness' then 'becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others', a 'way of masking power'-the power of informal élites within the group. These, because they are informal, and seldom recognised, 'have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large'. Unstructured groups, in an unstructured movement, are, ultimately, she argued, 'politically inefficacious, exclusive and discriminatory against those women who are not or cannot be tied into the friendship networks'. It was that lack of political efficacy that so irritated Martha Ansara, wanting to get things organised for action to take place; in 1970, she was one in a little group formed to publish pamphlets, because, she recalled, 'we knew that we wanted to distribute a lot of reading material'. 'I've always had this impulse to organise everything, and to have everything be organised, and some people do this job and some people do that job', she reflected: 'It never came to fruition. If you want to get something done, you need to divide up the tasks and have clear lines of authority and so on, and I remember the last pamphlet we published was called The Tyranny of Structurelessness. But it did no good' (Ansara, Interview).

Further, Freeman pointed out, the 'idea of structurelessness has created the star system'. In the absence of an elected leader or spokeswoman, the demand by media and general public to know what Women's Liberation was about produced, in response, statements or comments by individual women 'who have caught the public eye for various reasons'. Those women did not represent any group or body of opinion, she continued, and they usually said so. But press and public perceived them as spokespeople for the Women's Liberation Movement as a whole. That could lead to a host of misconceptions both in the past, and subsequently about the past.

Anne Summers concurred with Freeman that 'de facto elites have arisen' in the small leaderless groups of an unstructured movement, and Sylvia Kinder, dynamic historian of the Women's Liberation Movement in Adelaide, agreed with Freeman's analysis of the way structurelessness and the absence of leaders engendered 'stars'. '1971 was very much the year of the "star" in Women's Liberation', she wrote. 'The media took up the coverage of Women's Liberation and presented it in as sensational a manner as possible, using the publications by Kate Millett and Germaine Greer as focus' (Kinder, 52). It was not helpful for those activists in local groups, she complained:

This tendency to dwell on the statements and lifestyles of a few noteworthy feminists detracted from the activities of small groups such as the one in Adelaide. The distribution of a "Mother's Day Card" on May 8th calling for maternity leave, an end to job discrimination, child-care, abortion, and a critique of the low status of mothers, received no media coverage.

Worse, de facto elites and 'stars' within any supposedly leaderless Women's Liberation group could lead to strife and distress in and around that group. The Canberra Women's Liberation group had stopped meeting as a general group in the years immediately after International Women's Year. We did form other groups, all with Women's Liberation goals, over the following years. But a general group meeting once a week had disappeared. There were many reasons for this. One of them was 'trashing', a phenomenon that can be related directly to informal elites and stars within the initial group. Biff Ward, one of the founding- and leading, perhaps even starring- participants in the Canberra Women's Liberation group, a gifted teacher who would be appointed principal of the Australian Capital Territory's experimental School Without Walls, took a paper to the Marxist-Feminist Conference in Sydney in June 1977. She had written it with the help of a Women's Liberation group called 'The Survivors', echoing the title of Doris Lessing's novel depicting post-nuclear holocaust London, but also alluding to the need to provide support to those Women's Liberationists who still worked in the federal bureaucracy, after the fall of the Labor government of Gough Whitlam. The paper was called The Way Forward for the Revolutionary Women's Movement: Understanding Trashing and Sectarianism (Ward, in Ryan Papers).

'Sectarianism' in the analysis advanced in this paper referred simply to divisions within the Canberra Women's Liberation group. Some were over participants' connections with different elements of the Left, which could range from the Communist Party of Australia to the Trotskyists to the Anarchists and even included attachment to the Australian Labor Party. Some were over the 'heterosexual/lesbian split' which, 'when used in trashing often goes deepest'. Then, as a prelude to discussing 'trashing', the paper asked 'Where Has Sisterhood Gone and What Was It Anyway?' The answer had four elements. First was 'acceptance': 'the consciousness-raising mode, the speak-out, the sharing of our experiences as women'. Second was 'support', 'the key aspect of sisterhood': 'Other women heard, accepted, what we each said, and we thereby felt validated and supported'. Third was 'change'. Feminism, the paper noted, changes people. 'Sisterhood encompassed that; we watched and listened as we each reassessed our own lives, our present situation, and our view of the world and how we now thought change and revolution could be achieved.' Importantly, it observed: 'We changed our own politics'. Fourth, 'development': 'sisterhood meant group/collective development of feelings, ideas, strategies, praxis'.

But sisterhood was being 'replaced'-destroyed-by trashing. 'Trashing' is defined in A Women's Thesaurus as '[p]olitically motivated, destructive criticism or character assassination, often in the guise of honest conflict' (Capek, 480). The paper conveys all the hurt and anger attendant upon personal disagreement, even personal attack. Trashing, it told us, destroys and prevents development of the kind that sisterhood fostered. Instead of acceptance and support, trashing 'produces fear and inertia and bitterness'. It 'stops people changing any more since they need to spend so much energy on merely surviving at the point they have reached, personally and politically'. The way out of the impasse that trashing produced, the paper concluded, reaching back to Women's Liberation's first principles, was remembering the belief 'that the means is the end; that we create the revolution in our own image; how it is made determines the future society'. We have 'hurt and maimed each other with our own trashing', it noted, and therefore 'I believe that we can never work too much on understanding how repression of individuals works'.

Clearly, in this analysis, trashing would render the position of a star within a Women's Liberation group extremely difficult, personally painful; equally the existence of a star would be highly likely to erode a group's cohesiveness. It was better, maintained Jo Freeman, for the movement to stop clinging 'tenaciously' to 'the ideology of structurelessness'. Then it would be possible 'to develop those forms of organisation best suited to its healthy functioning'. Perhaps there could even be an occasional leader.

In recent years, feminism has been redefining leadership, and structure, in more female-friendly ways. As the women celebrated on the 2011 postage stamps demonstrate, women have exercised various and effective form of leadership, contributing- in the years since the 1970s- to major changes towards gender equality.

Archival Resources

In the possession of Susan Magarey

  • Ansara, Martha, Interview with Tristan Slade about the Women's Liberation Movement, 29 September 1997; In the possession of Susan Magarey. Details

National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection

  • Ward, Biff, 'The Way Forward for the Revolutionary Women's Movement: Understanding Trashing and Sectarianism', 1948 - 1993, MS9140; National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • Greer, Germaine, The Female Eunuch, MacGibbon and Kee, London, England, 1970. Details
  • Kinder, Sylvia, Herstory of the Adelaide Women's Liberation Movement 1969 - 1974, Salisbury Education Centre, Adelaide, South Australia, 1980. Details
  • Summers, Anne, Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1975. Details

Book Sections

  • Freeman, Jo, 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness', in Baxandall, Rosalyn and Gordon, Linda (eds), Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement, Basic Books, New York, United States of America, 2000, pp. 73 - 75. Details
  • Graham, Caroline, 'Borrowing from Each Other', in Mercer, Jan (ed.), The Other Half: Women in Australian Society, Penguin Books, Richmond, Victoria, 1975, pp. 421-426. Details
  • Summers, Anne, 'Where's the Women's Movement Moving To?', in Mercer, Jan (ed.), The Other Half: Women in Australian Society, First published in Mejane, no. 10 (March 1973), Penguin Books, Richmond, Victoria, 1975, pp. 405 -419. Details

Edited Books

  • Capek, Mary Ellen S (ed.), A Women's Thesaurus: An Index of Language Used to Describe and Locate Information by and about Women, Harper & Row, New York, United States of America, 1987. Details
  • Morgan, Robin (ed.), Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, Vintage Books, New York, United States of America, 1970. Details

Journal Articles

  • Magarey, Susan, 'Women's Liberation was a Movement, not an Organisation', Australian Feminist Studies, forthcomming. Details



  • Wills, Sue, 'The Politics of Sexual Liberation', PhD thesis, The University of Sydney, 1981. Details