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

The Nineteen Seventies and Eighties continued


IWD 1975 was the first introduction thousands of women throughout Australia had to the feminist movement and it brought together far more diverse strands than existed in the Women's Liberation Movement. The results for many were positive, giving new life to many groups and creating wide interest in feminist projects. But not all the results were positive as will be seen later.

There were two major IWD activities in Melbourne in 1975, At 10 a.m., 3-5,000 people, mainly women, assembled in the City Square and marched to Carlton Gardens where the Women's Theatre Group and Sisters Delight provided entertainment and food for thought.

Then, at 7.30 that evening, a reception to honour pioneering women was held in the Old Customs House Ballroom. Before it was known that the federal government would grant them $3,000 to help organise the function, Nell Johns, Betty Olle and some others spent long hours trying to raise funds. They bought shirts from a factory, stencilled them with the women's symbol, and then freighted them by train or plane to groups in Victoria and other states. The grant from the government came as an unexpected but welcome bonus, enabling them to cancel the entry charge of $3 so and allowing free entry to the function, as well as ensuring IWD a handsome dividend for the future. Along with the grant, the reception also got Gough Whitlam who made the opening address and chose that event to launch the International Women's Decade for Australia.

Some known and unknown names appeared on the list of pioneers who were chosen from the ranks of those who had helped open up fields of endeavour usually closed to women. The list included women from political, social and cultural fields and on the evening of the reception, some of them were present and Roslyn Watson, the first Aboriginal classical ballet dancer and Jean Schranh, the first woman piper in the Victorian Scottish Union, were introduced to the audience.

There was also a festival of women's culture and a women's dance. Prahran CAE organised a week-long women's festival, and speakers.

In Brisbane, a march through the city streets finished in the City Square where 29 women's groups organised stalls and activities and listened to speakers until a sudden downpour brought an abrupt end to the day. In the same year, Eva Bacon, who had played a hey role in IWD over the years, was the only Queenslander selected by the International Women's Year Advisory Committee to attend an IWY Tribune in Mexico City. The United Nations sponsored an international convention of official government representatives and, alongside it, a Tribune for other individuals and groups.

In Tasmania, an official state reception was held for IWD. In Perth, a march and rally took place around the theme of Women in the Home and Outside the Home, raising the issues of paid work and child care, rape, domestic violence, control of our bodies and sexuality. The front of the organising leaflet reflected some of the women's movement feeling about government sponsorship, saying:

International Women's Year Means:

  • Women actually exist (for one year)

  • Women don't have full human rights (imagine an international men's year)

  • Women are still struggling to survive (Do you feel free to walk alone at night?)

Sydney, 1975

The Perth activities were sponsored by Women's Liberation groups, WEL, the Women's Centre Action Group, the University of West Australia Collective, Abortion Law Repeal Association and the Women s Film and Video Group. One of the speakers at the rally was IWD pioneer Irene Greenwood who outlined the history of IWD. During the rally a small group left when Abortion Information Services spoke There was also a south-west seminar at Margaret River in West Australia.

In Canberra, activities planned included a Women's Picnic. a Baroque to Rock Musical Festival, stalls in Petrie Plaza, the opening of a women's refuge and a Playhouse concert.

In Sydney, 5-10,000 people marched from the Domain to the Town Hall where a women's festival and concert packed the upper and lower Town Hall. The organising collective, working out of Women's Liberation House, divided into two working groups, one to concentrate on the march and the other on the Town Hall activities. They distributed several small leaflets and programs, press releases, two badges saying "Womens March for Liberation" a poster and two broadsheets with a common inside section. The second broadsheet was distributed in the city on the day of the march and, later on, at a feminist stall at the Easter Show. It was a massive organising task for the collective, but there was also an enormous amount of energy from dozens of women who designed badges and posters, screen printed flags and shirts, painted signs, prepared for the concert and exhibitions, and helped to publicise it all.

Issues raised in the Sydney broadsheet combined earlier demands with others reflecting the impact of a developing recession and included: free 24-hour child care, free and freely available safe contraceptives, free abortion on demand, repeal of all abortion laws, free community health centres for women, stop violence free women's refuges, an end to discrimination against lesbians, an end to homosexual oppression, employment for all, the right to work, full benefits for all sacked women, equal pay - one rate for the job, no discrimination in education, training or employment.

Participants and sponsors included: Women's Liberation groups, WEL, Women in Solidarity for Peace (who sponsored a visit of Vietnamese women who, due to passport and visa difficulties, didn't arrive for IWD); ALP women; Young Labor Organisation; Left political party women's groups; Australian Postal Workers Union; Builders Laborers Federation; Metal Workers Union (AMWSU); Teachers Federation; Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF); Christian Women Concerned; YWCA; South Coast Labor Council; NSW Students Union; Newcastle Trades Hall Council; Mothers and Others for Peace; Women Artists Movement; the Union of Australian Women; New Theatre and others. A car cavalcade came from Hurstville, Leichhardt and North Sydney to join the march in the Domain, and buses brought women from Newcastle and Wollongong.

Despite the widespread interest in the day, the City Council and police haggled over granting permission for the march, and only after a number of personal and political interventions, was permission granted. This, however, set a precedent and IWD marches in Sydney from then on took place in the streets.

The festival and concert received a grant of $750 from the Australian Council of the Arts and, in addition to the organisations mentioned earlier, many individual women set up stalls to display or sell their work or added to the art and photo displays.

The concert included Chilean and Latin American artists as well as white Australian and Aboriginal women. The latter stressed that the demands of Aboriginal women were still not integral to women's movement priorities. A book of poems by Kate Jennings and Marjorie Pizer, and an anthology of women's verse compiled by Kate Jennings, were launched.

The concert opened to the words written for the front page of the second IWD broadsheet:

BECAUSE our work is never done & under or unpaid or boring or repetitious
and we’re the first to get the sack
and what we look like is more important than what we do
and if we get raped its our fault
and if we get bashed we must have provoked it
and if we raise our voices we’re nagging bitches
and if we enjoy sex we’re nymphos
and if we don't were frigid
and if we love women its because we cant get a real man
and if we ask our doctor too many questions we’re neurotic and/or pushy
and if we expect community care for children we’re selfish
and if we stand up for our rights we’re aggressive and unfeminine
and if we don’t we’re typical weak females
and if we want to get married we’re out to trap a man
and if don’t we’re unnatural
and BECAUSE we still cant get an adequate safe contraceptive but men can walk on the moon
and if we cant cope or don’t want a pregnancy we’re made to feel guilty about abortion
and for lots and lots of other reasons
we are part of the women’s liberation movement

Chilean Women performing at Sydney Town Hall, IWD 1975.

Not all of the artists at the concert were feminists and once or twice feminist sensibilities were offended by assumptions of universal heterosexuality and marriage and some nervousness about identification with feminism by one artist.

A few streets away the Festival of Light held an IWD meeting.

Women at the ABC put to air the first Coming Out Ready or Not show which has continued as a regular weekly women's radio program with a strong feminist content.

In Bankstown the local Council sponsored a luncheon that has become an annual IWD event.

The Sunday Mirror tried its best to trivialise it all by publishing a girly picture with the title - No.1 International Girl.

Proceeds from this IWD, along with a small grant from IWY funds, helped Women's liberation to move from rented premises to their own building, on time - payment, in Regent street Chippendale, Sydney.

In Adelaide, women's groups with diverse interests participated in stalls in the Plaza, and there was a large march and concert.  At the concert, some feminists conducted a noisy demonstration against the appearance of men in a band backing singer Robin Archer.  This was criticised later in letters to the Women's Liberation newsletter.

The 1975 Brisbane IWD brought together 29 women's groups in a festival, with stalls in the square and a march through the city.  Organised without government funding, it marked the most united and wide involvement ever achieved.  "The square was packed and alive with activities, including a childrens corner, until a sudden down pour brought it to an abrupt end at 2pm," wrote Eva Bacon. 

However, she said, the insistence by women's liberationists that structured organisation reflected male power and must therefore be rejected created many uncertainties. Diverse groups came together in a forum to debate "The tyranny of structurelessness".

Those attending were from the Union of Australian Women, Seamen and Waterside Workers Women's Committees, Children by Choice, WEL, Council for the Single Mother and Her Child, Humanists, Hospital, Meat and Miscellaneous Workers Unions, several Women's Liberation and CR groups and the Kangaroo Club (an Aboriginal women's group). The debate was sharp and lively and, according to Eva Bacon, a good sense of sisterhood was achieved, though this was not so evident in the following year's activity.

Australian Women's Broadcasting co-operative on Sydney's IWD march, 1975.

In 1976 rain washed out the Brisbane "speak out" in King Georges Square which was to have concluded with a march through the streets. Activists from Women's House then unilaterally organised an IWD march for Monday, March 8. Eva Bacon expressed the attitude of many of the older IWD hands in a contribution to the 1980 Women and Labour Conference. "Whilst many of us regretted that we were not told and that it was not an 'all-up' effort," she said, "it was nevertheless good that IWD was honoured publicly. The chanting and the red flag and banner-bearing women got good media coverage, which was very heartening." This action, however, clearly illustrated continuing political tensions.

These tensions had not been improved by earlier political events when the Governor General sacked the Whitlam government and it was replaced by a Liberal government openly hostile to the more militant sections of the women's movement. Conflicting opinions about government co-option through funding and official functions struggled with the realisation that it was going to be increasingly difficult to get any form of government co-operation in the future.

As a result, IWD activities in 1976 suffered a considerable drop in support over the previous year. It seemed that, for many who had helped to popularise IWD 1975, they had intended that it would be just one year, despite the popular feminist posters that demanded "A Life Not Just a Year" or "Life Not Just a Day". There was also considerable burn-out from all of the other International Women's Year funded activities and tensions about political forms and content still simmered under the surface.

Sydney suffered the largest reduction in IWD participants over the previous year when 2,000 marched from Town Hall to Circular Quay. A dance was also held in the Balmain Town Hall.

In Melbourne in 1976 about 2,000 marched to the Gardens for a picnic and meeting. In Adelaide a few hundred marched from Victoria Square to the Pioneer women's Memorial Garden where a festival was held.

Similar activity took place in 1977 in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney (where a leaflet in six languages was produced). A rally in Brisbane King Georges Square culminated in a march through the streets and a women's dance. In Newcastle and Wollongong meetings or luncheons were held.

The Union of Australian Women entertained a delegation of three women from the Women's International Democratic Federation who attended their IWD functions.

In 1978, Sydney's IWD activities diversified again. The IWD collective organised a march, a festival in the Paris Theatre and a concert in Martin Place Plaza amphitheatre. In addition to earlier demands, the broadsheet raised more strongly the problems of migrant women who were being seriously affected by growing unemployment. It emphasised their right to paid work, the need for on-the job English lessons, the dole and retraining for sacked women and multilingual and multicultural child care and schooling at all levels.

A week of activities in the Paris Theatre included women's theatre, films, poetry, a rock night and a Margret RoadKnight and Judy Bailey concert. After the march, films, items and speakers were presented in the theatre. This included a woman from the Queensland Solidarity Committee. This committee had been set up to give support to women arrested in demonstrations in Queensland following a state government ban on such activity, and a collection was taken up to help those arrested on IWD in Brisbane.

An historical women's pageant was also planned for the Paris Theatre, but time ran out. This idea re-emerged later as "The Awful Truth Show - or - After causing inflation and unemployment, it ain't no fun cooking dinner". It played to packed houses in the Union Theatre over two weekends.

The ABC's Coming Out Show presented a special IWD program and the Australian Migrant Women's Association held an IWD celebration at the Mandala Theatre. The Union of Australian Women held a dinner in the Public Service Association hall to which Premier Neville Wran and Anne Deveson from the Human Rights Commission were invited. The Women's Co-ordination Unit of the NSW government organised a Rape Forum on the proposed changes to rape legislation and a poster and photo display in Hyde Park. The Women's Employment Rights Campaign (WERC) held a demonstration outside The Australian newspaper building because of its attacks on married women s rights to paid work. "If Mum quit work there'd be jobs for the boys (and the girls)," it said. "The first reason why the school leaver is unable to get a job is his teacher. The second is his mother. She has already taken the job."

In response, WERC declared that, at a time when unemployment was climbing towards depression levels, women's employment was at double the men's rate, and attacks such as that in The Australian were simply designed to scapegoat women and avoid the real issue. A speaker on the footpath outside the building also pointed out that employers like The Australian had helped to maintain the strict segmentation of the workforce which made women's jobs highly undesirable to most men who lacked the skills to do them anyhow.

In Liverpool, the Women's Health Centre organised an open day for IWD with films, songs in Spanish and English, theatre, handicraft by Chilean women, South American literature and records, and balloons for the children.

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