A History of International Women's Day
in words and images

The Nineteen Seventies and Eighties

From 1945 to the end of the nineteen sixties, Australian society changed in a number of important ways. Up to 1966, over two million immigrants (often in the worst conditions and the lowest paid jobs) brought new influences and contributed to an unprecedented period of prosperity:

  • cultural traditions matured and television brought the world, or a version of it, into the living room;

  • many more women participated in the strictly sex-segregated paid workforce and many more of these were married (1947-22.4 percent of the workforce were women and 19.8 percent of them were married; in 1971, 31.7 percent were women and 56.8 percent were married);

  • the contraceptive pill became available on a wide scale;

  • people stayed at school longer; and

  • a higher percentage of the population went to universities and colleges.

In other important ways Australia hardly changed at all. The groups who benefited least from abundance were Aborigines and those on social welfare, particularly single women and children. Women's share of prosperity was at the "female rate" for those in paid work child care was a vastly under-supplied commodity; family violence and rape was barely acknowledged publicly; abortion was illegal and childbirth and contraception had become the tight preserve of a male-dominated medical profession which excluded home births and midwives, and virtually turned childbirth into an illness.

In 1965, the Liberal Australian government decided to send Australian troops to back up the escalating United States armed intervention in Viet Nam. Much of the fodder for this gesture was chosen by a form of Russian Roulette. Marbles went into a barrel for all the 20-year-old males, and if their numbers came out they had to go to war.

Around the world, young people, mostly on campuses and in colleges, many with privileged backgrounds, began to question the purposes of prosperity if wars, racism and alienation were the results. Alternative life-styles, sexual liberation, long hair, unisex dress or no clothes, dropping out, sitting in, and confrontation were some of the features of this revolt.

Many women took part, but slowly some began to realise that the liberation being talked about was largely in the interests of men. Women still produced and looked after the babies, had the worst jobs and lowest pay, did the cooking, made the morning tea and serviced the revolution. Small disgruntled groups of women met together to sort it all out. Experiences of the newly-emerged women's liberation groups in the United States and Britain influenced some Australian women and the first women's liberation group formed in Sydney at the end of 1969, and the first public meeting to get the movement going was held early in 1970. Similar events were taking place in Adelaide and Melbourne, and women's liberation took off in other cities and centres as well.

Unlike the movements that had preceded it, the Women's Liberation Movement expanded the critique of the division of labour that kept women in segregated jobs and on low pay into a consideration of the division of labour in the family, of sexuality and the division between the public-political and the personal and private-political.

The movement has produced an unprecedented volume of written material, not only describing oppressive aspects of women's lives such as rape and violence, and taboo subjects such as sexuality and lesbianism, but also developed a body of theoretical work that attempts to redefine the whole arena of politics.

This includes a critique of traditional forms of hierarchical organisation, producing a strong emphasis on the collective, and sharing of skills. While this has had many positive effects, it sometimes reproduced old problems in new forms. On IWD committees where Women's Liberation had a strong influence, these groups became open-ended rather than representative bodies, without secretaries or presidents, as these were seen as entrenching bureaucracy and inhibiting the sharing of responsibilities. Speakers platforms also reflected these attitudes and were comprised of rank-and-file activists while "stars" or famous women were taboo.

The emergence of women's liberation helped to break up old alliances and to form new ones. In Sydney, the IWD organisation became an open-ended collective with no connections in the early years with the Union of Australian Women who continued to organise its own less demonstrative IWD activity. In some centres the UAW helped to initiate marches or participated in open collectives.

There were often tensions between the new and the older groups, Some of this was due to differences in dress and language, but it was mainly over politics. The criticism of the family, and slogans like "better dead than wed", and the open discussions about sexuality and lesbianism were not easily accommodated by more traditional groups. The challenges that this represented to the established roles of women at home and in public life threatened many older women and their younger sisters were sometimes intolerant.

Sydney, 1972
Sydney IWD March, 1972, leaving Town Hall

The first of the large IWD marches took place in 1972. From then on, IWD marches generally took place on the Saturday morning nearest to March 8. The name March is really a misnomer for mostly they were more like a walk through the streets with a party atmosphere.

In Sydney, the march was organised by an ad hoc open-ended group of women's liberationists who formed the March Action Campaign for IWD. They issued a sticker, a badge, a broadsheet, other smaller leaflets and a poster inspired by the image of Angela Davis, a Black revolutionary in the United States who had been in prison facing a possible death sentence, but was later released after an extensive international campaign.

The March Action Campaign was taken up in some other states and focussed on the following demands:

The Right to Work:

The broadsheet referred to all the polishing, sweeping and other work performed by women for no wages and argued that women should have access to all paid occupations without having to carry a double burden of paid and unpaid labour.

Equal Pay - one rate for the job:

Some 20 percent of women workers, such as the NSW teachers in 1959, and the meatworkers in 1969, had won equal pay for equal work, but the average award rate was still $45 for men and $32.57 for women. In both these industries women were performing the same or similar work to men but no advance had been made in revaluing the traditional areas where the majority of women worked. One rate for each job, irrespective of the age, sex, or race, was demanded. While, in December 1972, the Whitlam government began to phase in equal pay for all women workers, its long term effects still left a gap between male and female rates and a new equal pay demand still needs to be made.

Equal opportunity for work and education:

Most of us are under educated and so we work at unskilled, semi-skilled and dull jobs said the broadsheet. Only two percent of Australian women had tertiary qualifications. At 15 most of us leave school. It is not that training and higher education isn't available'', but, rather, that social attitudes and lack of work opportunity hold us back.

Free child care and pre-school activities:

In New South Wales, only enough child care centres existed to cater for 2.8 percent of all pre-school children. Comprehensive child care centres with flexible hours, user control and paid for by the government was the alternative suggested.

Free, safe contraceptives:

At that time there was a luxury tax of 27 1/2 percent on the birth control pill, the law prohibited the general publication of contraceptive advice and information, and contraception was seen as a problem for women. The broadsheet said that this should be changed and safe contraceptives be freely available in birth control clinics.

Safe, legal abortion on request:

A study by the World Health Organisation had disclosed that, due to illegal abortion attempts, Australia had the highest maternal mortality rate of developed Western countries. While contraception was described as being more desirable than abortion, in many cases abortion was seen as being more desirable than childbirth. This IWD broadsheet had nothing to say about sexuality, which took increasing prominence in later years.

Estimates of the numbers who marched from Sydney Town Hall to Hyde Park in 1972 ranged from 2-5,000, while the organisers said 4,000. Marchers wound their way through the city, mostly on the footpath, with bodies, flags, children, banners and dogs mingling with the Saturday morning shoppers. Police permission for any but established (or Establishment) marches was difficult to secure at that time, and IWD was not so favoured. Police had estimated that a few hundred might march and they must have regretted their way-out prediction as the thousands of marchers caused havoc with the traffic.

Sydney IWD


As they marched, women greeted old friends, conversed, sang or chanted One of the favourite chants was:

Men like birds; birds live in cages,
They have done for ages; on second-class wages;
Women's Liberation's going to smash that cage,
Came join us now and rage, rage, rage.

Few of the daily media treated the politics of the march seriously or reported it accurately. Most focussed on an incident with Germaine Greer who happened to be in Australia at that time. Contrary to press mythology, she was not a founding sister of the women's liberation movement in Sydney, although her book The Female Eunuch played an influential role. On IWD she walked in the body of the march, a thug threw an egg at her and the splattered dress captured the headlines. While the march was in progress, another Nazi Party member pelted red dye at the Abortion Law Reform truck, but this was nowhere near as newsworthy as Greer's egg-stained dress.

When the march reached Hyde Park, as part of a picnic, concert, meeting, a small group of women delighted the audience with street theatre on The Stages of a Woman's Life. It began with a coffin-like glory-box, traversed each stage of acquiring "womanhood" and marriage, and finished with the woman's addiction to Bex powders which had been provided to get her back on her feet when she faltered or collapsed along the way.

The Stages of a Woman's Life - Street theatre in Hyde Park, Sydney, 1972

As the items and the speakers proceeded in the warm sunlight, a young woman rose and removed her T-shirt, denouncing the taboos which permitted a man this privilege and denied it to women. Police moved in and other women followed her example. The audience closed ranks to block off the police and valiant men rose to defend the women. Six of them were arrested .... no women. Another man from the New Theatre had been arrested earlier when, clad in a bear-skin, he had wheeled a giant prick through the streets in a wheelbarrow. The constabulary were not amused at his send up of their Manhood and used the outdated Crimes Act to arrest him.

Many women were also angry or uneasy at the male interventions on their day; and women themselves provided the most effective block to police threats in the park. Two women, one of them Aboriginal, walked to the front of the meeting, breasts bare, feeding their babies. The police were checked.

As in the years to come, IWD was a time for women's theatre, music and arts. Part of the activities that year was a presentation of the musical play The Match Girls by the New Theatre.

Sydney IWD made a profit and these funds were used to rent the first Women's Liberation House in Alberta Street on the edge of the city area.

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