Sunday, 2 March 2014

Ivy Day at St Columba's?

Ivy Day at St Columba’s?

Pine Cone from Ngunnawal Country
Being an ignorant young American when I washed up on Australian shores in the late 1950s, I'd never read any James Joyce.  His masterpiece Ulysses had been banned for a while in the States and was lifted only after a protracted court case in which writers and artists testified as to the novel’s literary merits – a groundbreaking victory that served to dismantle the intricate federal censorship system run by the American post office.  It was banned in Australia in 1929, released in 1937. then banned again until the 1970s, but it somehow got on my course list at Sydney University.  And, blithely unaware of the controversy that split the English department and sent some of Joyce's younger champions into exile overseas, I was a Ulysses fan and have been ever since.  But I’m not about to write about Ulysses today but rather a story of his - “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” - said to be his personal favourite.  It was pretty impenetrable to me at the time but the older I get the more resonance it has for me, and echoes of it fairly ring in my ears.

I’ve just returned from a reunion of Canberra Women’s Liberation, which way back in 1970 exploded on the local Canberra scene, and Canberra being what it is, beyond the ACT.  More than forty years had gone by and we’d never had a reunion before, but this one was prompted by the serious illnesses of two of our members, and the sudden, sombre realisation that they (indeed, any of us) might soon be facing death.  We are old now, few of us under 70, and unfortunately the women who spurred us into coming together again were both too ill to attend.  There were others who were missing as well. But the lucky seventeen of us who turned up to St Columba’s church hall in the Canberra inner suburb of Braddon went for a ride on some exhilarating time bends, hurtling us back through the past, only to catapult us forward again into an increasingly unfathomable future.  

Joyce wrote his “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” from the perspective of disappointment, loss and betrayal.  Charles Parnell was dead, and Ireland was divided.  There’s no comparing a group of septuagenarian feminists gathering, among other things, to honour our dead, and Joyce’s sots who wandered into Dublin’s municipal chambers on the anniversary of Parnell’s death, but there is a  parallel.  Parnell’s enemies had smashed his reputation with the scandal of his adultery, and for all our successes, we feminists endured years of calumny and backlash. In both these cases, the glory days were at an end.  With the death of Parnell Irish nationalism subsided, and, for us, in spite of the strides women have made since the 1970s, there was the sense in the hall that the ascendancy of naked capitalism and the all-pervasiveness of its values have worked to pervert the true aims of feminism.  It's that hoary old saw of being careful of what you wish for - that your prayers will be answered but never in quite the way that you intend.    

Our glory days were set out on tables around the hall's perimeter: prints of our posters, photos of the street theatre we'd performed in Canberra’s Petrie Plaza.  There were journals, minutes of our meetings and, creepily enough, snippets from ASIO files.  Seated in a circle surrounded by these, we each recounted our subsequent lives and how those early days had changed us.  Not many marriages survived them, and there was no little heartache involved.  Yet it was easy enough to pinpoint the ways in which society had radically changed for the better because of us. 

In 1970 there was not a single woman in the house of representatives, let alone a female prime minister.  You never saw a woman driving a bus, let alone an airplane.  Nor was it a woman’s voice delivering the news, or a woman’s face bringing it to us on the tv screen.  We women were invisible then, kept in our place, whether that was in the home, the lower ranks of teaching, nursing, the public service or academia, or in the ghettoised newspaper social sections.  So-called "women’s issues" such as discrimination or child care or rape or sexual abuse rarely made the front pages, unless sensationalised to increase circulation.  Women dressed to disguise their pregnancies instead of proudly displaying them as they do today.  A famous English model was excoriated for bearing her knees at the Melbourne Cup, and women were refused entry into restaurants and clubs for wearing trousers or slacks, not to mention jeans.  As for the public bars, we weren’t allowed in them at all.  We talk about women’s oppression in countries like Saudi Arabia but back in the fifties and sixties it wasn’t much better here. We didn’t go around in burkahs, but rape was legally countenanced in marriage and next to impossible to prove outside it.  Jobs were rigidly segregated and positions were advertised in gendered classified ads.  Differential pay was enshrined in industrial law.  We couldn't take out loans without a male guarantor, and our very bodies were circumscribed by a tax on contraceptives, dangerous backyard abortions and raids on the proper doctors who dared to flout the law and safely perform them.       

The press was a bugbear, much as social media can be now.  There were two pernicious consequences of media attention – the first and most obvious was how Women’s Lib was pilloried,  In vicious representations we were uniformly depicted as burly, hairy and man-hating.  But also middle-class, privileged, neurotic, sexless yet nymphomaniac - you name it.  Males on the left and right tried to contain us, with a range of tactics betraying their desperation.  Personally, I was amazed that anyone could consider me a threat, and yet we were threatening, even if we didn’t yet understand to what extent.  All this was scarifying, but we withstood it by recognising that we were not alone, and that history and numbers were on our side.  There’s a lot of talk about misogyny these days and it certainly does exist, but not in the openly consensual way it was manifested back then.

An equally damaging result of the media attention was its inevitable focus on ‘stars’.  We resisted having leaders and the stance may have been naïve, but its purpose was to allow as many women as possible to develop skills and confidence by sharing leadership’s responsibilities and rewards.  We were resolutely anti-hierarchical.  But because of the media, many were left believing that it was Germaine Greer, for example, who kicked the women's movement off.  She played her part, of course, but it was not a pivotal one – Women's Liberation was a grass-roots movement predating her book by several years, and there were many other women thinkers who contributed their ideas and helped to develop what became a body of feminist theory.  Shulamith Firestone was one of the most influential; it was she who argued that we should adopt the name 'feminism' so as to celebrate the generations of brave women who preceded us. 

Now we are history too, and while over the two days we met we retrieved many memories, the future seemed more challenging than any time in the past.  We couldn’t even describe to anyone's satisfaction just exactly what feminism is, though it was easy to agree on what it isn’t.  It isn’t equality or equal opportunity, though they are clearly part of it.  It isn’t about women gaining more influence and power, though that’s a part of it too.  Nor is it simply having certain issues of immediate concern to us like, say, reproductive rights, taken seriously.  All we could be sure about on leaving St Columba’s was the need to do an awful lot more thinking.    

Instead of Parnell's ivy that one of Joyce's characters sported in his lapel, we each took away a souvenir of the Canberra's Ngunnawal landscape - pine cones and feathers and leaves, some from native trees, some from introduced ones.  That was something that changed for us too, acknowledging the ancient and ongoing Indigenous presence, the women's especially, but not at all exclusively.  Nor did we overlook the difficulties men confront in a society that values material success above all, or dismiss the idea that the feminism we were trying to define may prove to be the necessary counter to the lunacy of unfettered capitalism and its host of harmful consequences.   I speak for myself alone, but mulling it over after those moving two days, I’ve come to see that feminism may be most about taking ourselves that seriously, and having the courage to lend our insights towards making the world a safer, less violent, less unjust, less inequitable place. 
A big ask, that.  But the times do seem to demand it.


  1. Great post again Sara. I loved your comment that "Personally, I was amazed that anyone could consider me a threat, and yet we were threatening, even if we didn’t yet understand to what extent." Sounds like you had a very special weekend.

    Regarding feminism, I like your "definition" at the end. It bothers me when people - mostly opponents - like to frame it as being about "sameness" which clearly we are not. It is, to me, about the right to be respected as an equal human being, but oh dear words fail us don't they? I like your framing it as something active, rather than as a passive description of rights, equality, choices. The latter should be givens. Feminism, I think you're suggesting, is about shoring these up.

  2. Thanks again, Sue. Yes it was an amazing two days. And yes it left me thinking a lot - still am. I'm supposed to be giving a speech in August to Emily's List and Have been mulling over a lot of these issues - not that I've got them straight in my head. But the idea that feminism is or ever was about women getting ahead in the corporate world and among its claqueurs has always been a dangerous one and dangerously misleading. That being so, what's the strategy now?

  3. Absolutely ... To define feminism as that is scary. I don't know what the strategy is now but to me, the fundamental issue is CHOICE. We should all have the equal right, and that of course encompasses a whole lot including the opportunity, to choose our lives. Women and men. We should be able to choose to have kids or not, to climb the corporate ladder or not, to cry or not, ... You get my drift? And we should all be safe and respected. Women and men of all colour, race, religion, age, etc. But strategy? No idea! Except as with everything a lot has to start with the young, with ensuring their expectations aren't limited by gender, colour, etc.