Herstory at a glance

THE BACKGROUND HERSTORY OF FEMINIST WOMEN’S HEALTH CENTRES (NSW)
(Speech delivered by Nola Cooper at the Women’s Health NSW’s launch of “The Nature of Women’s Health Past, Present and Future Training Program” on 6th March 2003)

As an older feminist with a long herstory in women’s health, I have become aware of gaps in the knowledge of many younger women working in our services.  They seem to have little awareness of the factors that shaped the thinking and actions of the women who set up the early feminist women’s services in NSW.  I thought today might provide me with an opportunity to fill in some of those gaps.

The earliest of the feminist Women’s Health Centres arose directly from the WLM (Women’s Liberation Movement) of the early to mid seventies.  To understand why this happened we need to have some appreciation of the times and circumstances that precipitated a new wave of feminism in this country.

From the end of WW2 up to the late sixties Australian society changed in a number of significant ways:

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While these changes were occurring many other important aspects of Australian society remained relatively unchanged.  The groups who gained the least from the new prosperity were Aborigines and people on social welfare, particularly single mothers. Women’s share of prosperity was at the “female rate” (at this time women were paid 75% of the male wage and were excluded from many jobs and industries).
In addition:

Added to all this was the impact of the Vietnam War.…
In 1965, the then Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies decided to send Australian troops to Vietnam to assist the US forces in their military campaign.  In conjunction with this decision, the government introduced conscription for 20 year-old males.  They were chosen through a birthday ballot system.  If their birth date was selected from a barrel of marbles they had to go to war.

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Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War polarised the country and had a profoundly radicalising effect on many young people especially high school and university students.  Like their American counterparts, they questioned and rejected many of the values and priorities of their society, a society that through a lottery system could send them to wage war against a peasant people that had never threatened them.  Television regularly brought vivid images of the killing of Vietnamese women and children into our homes – it was not a pretty sight.

Alternative life-styles, long hair, unisex dress, sexual liberation, dropping out, sitting in and confrontation (as illustrated in the musical HAIR) were some of the features of this revolt by the younger generation.

Many young women were part of this revolt, but after some time a number began to realise that the liberation being talked about was largely in the interests of men.  Women still produced and reared the babies, had the worst and lowest paid jobs, did the cooking and cleaning, made the morning tea and serviced the revolution. 

Small groups of women started to meet to discuss these issues.  Influenced by the newly emerging WL (Women’s Liberation) groups in the US and the UK, they formed the first WL group in Sydney at the end of 1969.  At this time similar developments were taking place in Melbourne and Adelaide and later in other cities and centres.  The WLM had arrived in the land of OZ, albeit very quietly, - well at least initially.

Unlike earlier movements this new WM (Women’s Movement) expanded the analysis of the division of labour that kept women in segregated low paid jobs into a consideration of the division of labour in the family, of sexuality and the division between the public-political arena and the personal/private – political arena. “The personal is political” became one of the Movement’s catchcries.

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In addition to organising campaigns, meetings, conferences and a variety of protest activities, the movement produced a large amount of written material, (newsletters, magazines, broadsheets, discussion papers) that not only described the oppressive aspects of women’s lives and taboo subjects such as sexuality and lesbianism, but also developed a body of theoretical work that attempted to redefine the whole arena of politics.  This included a critical analysis of traditional forms of hierarchical organisation resulting in a strong emphasis on the collective as a preferred model of organisation coupled with information and skill sharing.  

The SWLM (Sydney Women’s Liberation Movement) grew rapidly. In the early days it was comprised mostly of young educated women many of whom had been active in student politics and the anti-Vietnam War movement and a group of older women with experience in left-wing politics and trade union activities.  Together they formed a potent mix.

By the end of 1971 around 16 WL Groups had formed in Sydney.  The release of Germaine Greer’s book “the Female Eunuch” early in 1971 brought much public debate and media attention, which undoubtedly helped to swell the ranks.  In 1972 the movement held its first IWD march through the streets of Sydney, culminating with a concert at Hyde Park.  Estimates of the number of participants varied from 2,000 to 5,000.  The organisers put the figure at 4,000.  The issues promoted by the marchers included:

The following year 1973, feminists in Sydney decided to have a different form of activity for IWD – a Commission held over a weekend where women could share their experiences and grievances.  It was organised by the existing women’s liberation groups and WEL, which had formed in Sydney in July 1972.  Somewhere between 400 – 600 women came during the two days of the Commission to talk about Women as Mothers, Women as Workers (paid and unpaid), Women and Marriage, Women as Sex Objects and Other forms of Discrimination.

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The weekend was an exercise in mass consciousness raising about areas of women’s lives that had generally been ignored and hidden.  One hundred and thirty-eight (138) women, many of whom had been unable to reveal physical and sexual assaults to their closest friends or family, rose to speak.  The stories poured out.  Young women spoke of moral lectures or implied immorality and promiscuity when they asked their doctor for contraceptive advice.  Many single women were refused contraception because they were unmarried.

Married women talked of the run-around, expense and moral lectures they received from doctors in response to a request for an abortion when contraception had failed.

Middle aged women spoke of their search for information, understanding and where necessary treatment, during the “change of life”.

Women of all ages spoke of their distress at being made to feel dirty, shameful, unbalanced, neurotic, stupid and guilty.

Others spoke bitterly about treatment from abortionists, of the despair and isolation arising from domestic violence and incest, of the widespread ignorance and discrimination directed at lesbians and of inappropriate referrals for psychiatric treatment.

In her book on the history of IWD, Joyce Stevens describes scenes from the 1973 Commission; “Women sat taut and breathlessly silent as speakers struggled to overcome their grief and pain.  Some sat alongside the speakers, holding their hands, caressing arms and legs in silent support and sisterhood.”

As one of the women who attended the Commission, it was for me profoundly moving.  I felt I had been a part of an extraordinary experience, one that connected me with the hundreds of other women present as we listened to and shared some of the most private and painful areas of our lives.  It proved to be an experience that was to fuel my personal commitment to women’s health for at least the next 25 years.

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The Commission had a lasting impact on the shape and direction of the Sydney WLM for many years to follow.  Issues previously regarded as personal and private were put out into the public and political arenas.  The concern and energy generated by the Commission was indeed dynamic.

At a follow up meeting of around one hundred women, groups formed which later established a range of women’s services – the first of their kind in Australia.

One of these groups was formed specifically to work around issues relating to health services for women.  Their goal was to establish an abortion referral service and a self-help clinic for women. They decided to initially work on the abortion referral service whilst pursuing the possibility of obtaining funds from the newly elected Labour Federal Government lead by Gough Whitlam. (It should be noted that by this time the now famous ruling of Judge Levine on the Heatherbrae Clinic Abortion Case in 1971 provided a more liberal interpretation of the abortion laws thereby making abortions far more accessible to women in NSW.)
The group adopted the name CONTROL, suggesting women’s right to control their own bodies and fertility.

By early August Control began operating an abortion referral service run by women volunteers out of Women’s House then located in Alberta Street, Sydney.

In December 1973, Control received formal approval from the Federal Minister for Health, Dr Doug Everingham, for the establishment of a women’s health centre as part of the Community Health Program.  This was followed by a cheque for $33,000 one month later.  The group was astonished by the government’s response. But when it was decided to make March 8th 1974 (IWD) the date for the centre’s formal opening, there was no time to savour their unexpected success - there was lots of work to do.

Leichhardt Women’s Community Health Centre was packed with rejoicing women when the centre’s official opening became one of 1974’s IWD events.  What an extraordinary achievement – and it had all happened just one year from the Women’s Commission.

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Two more health centres were funded under the community health program the following year.  These were Liverpool Women’s Health Centre and the Working Women’s Centre in Newcastle.

Other first-of-their-kind services to begin operating in 1974 were:

Initially, neither of these services was government funded and both started with committed women volunteers.

Over the years the number of government funded WHC has increased, spreading over the state of NSW.  Today’s launch of a Training Program on Women’s Health represents a further development in a story that now spans over 30 years.  In spite of difficulties along the way, we are still here doing what the early feminists set up these services to do – which was, to provide a place where women could receive skilled health information and advice and speak freely about their lives and experiences with other women in an atmosphere of warmth, acceptance and understanding.

To the question - Is feminism and particularly feminist WHCs alive and well? – my answer is ‘YES’ and my prognosis is they will continue to be so for many years to come.

In formulating this speech I have drawn on some old documents in my possession, memories and information and excerpts from “A HISTORY OF INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY  in words and images by Joyce Stevens, published by IWD Press 1985.

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