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

The Nineteen Seventies and Eighties continued

On Wednesday, March 8, in the most militant action of the week, sixteen young women from Elsie Refuge occupied a house in Derwent Street, Glebe They were protesting about the impossible housing conditions for young women in Sydney. Federal police smashed their barricades, dragged them out and arrested them.

The participation of the women from the NSW Women's Unit in IWD activity in 1978, and some of the events before the day, led to a spate of rumours and criticisms about a possible selling out of radical feminist politics on the day. Criticism took on a new quality as groups from within the women's liberation movement demonstrated against one another during IWD actions.

The first demonstration took place at the concert in the Plaza where one feminist group sang "Beware young maidens they're fooling you", while another group of feminists performed songs and mime about housework, unemployment, the perfidy of Bjelke-Petersen and Malcolm Fraser, rape, lesbianism and a tribute to Bessie Smith's spunkiness and pride in her music and blackness.

Another group took over the front of the march, drowning out attempts to chant any slogans but theirs which included "Lesbianism not feminism"

The third demonstration took place in Liverpool Street outside the Paris Theatre when some women sat down and blocked the traffic with no apparent motive but to denounce the Paris Theatre activities.

The basis for these actions appeared to be a concern that discussions with the Women's Unit would lead to co-option and a watering down of radical politics.  Rumours had spread about these discussions where there had been some debate about the content of IWD - whether it was simply a day for women or one that had radical and feminist politics. This debate had been resolved with agreement that the day should broadly reflect feminist concerns. There was also suspicion about the content of the concert in the Plaza which Town Hall officials had tried to censor, but when everyone, including the women from the Unit, stood firm, they caved in. Others were critical about the way lesbianism had been dealt with in the broadsheet and whether finishing the march at the Paris Theatre meant culture rather than politics.

Some of these issues were taken up in the Women's Liberation Newsletter where it was suggested that, while there may have been some weaknesses in the broadsheet about lesbianism and other questions, the issue really seemed to be about separatist politics which were not supported by the whole women's movement. Further, that there was no wall between feminist politics and the cultural expression of these. The organising collective was also upset by the fact that the criticisms and actions had come from groups which had been invited to participate in the organisation of IWD and none had come to meetings to raise their views.

The changed political circumstances were partly responsible and had brought to the surface long-standing differences. The radical sections of the women's movement were now faced with a hostile conservative government and rising unemployment among women. There was more concern being expressed for bread and butter, class and race issues creating fears in some that other radical concerns of the movement about lesbian rights, sexuality and patriarchal relations in personal life would be plastered over. The manner in which many women responded to this situation was not productive as groups pulled further away from each other rather than attempting to clarify the issues and establish new bases for working together.

In Brisbane, the contentious issue in 1978 was whether to march on IWD in the face of government bans. Street marches had been banned in October 1977 after 800 people were arrested at an anti-uranium march and this action set off a brutal and protracted confrontation between the police and radicals in that state. A meeting of 400 in the City Square debated whether to march or not. Some argued that marching meant shifting the emphasis from women's rights to civil rights. Those who thought that these two issues could not be separated, about 200, decided to march. Fifty were arrested after police caught up with a march that had deviously changed direction.

In Melbourne, an IWD march of 600 stopped outside the Queensland Tourist Bureau in solidarity with the Brisbane women.

In Perth, where legislation had been invoked to prevent public assemblies (aimed mainly at the unions), seven women were arrested when 80 marched.

In Adelaide, nearly 1,000 marched on Friday evening protesting about rape and on Saturday a similar number attended an IWD march and rally, where the rights of Aboriginal and migrant women were featured among other issues.

The first South Coast IWD March in 1979

In 1979, differences over how to organise IWD in Brisbane led to the IWD committee being disbanded. The Union of Australian Women held its own hall meeting and Women's Liberation organised a rally and march where 23 were arrested

In Adelaide, 1,500 attended a rally, march and concert. In Wollongong, 300 participated in the first march held there, followed by a concert. Sixty marched in Hobart, 500 in Melbourne, and 2,000 in Sydney during the day and 150 in a Reclaim the Night March in the evening. Rallies in other states continued to take up collections to support women arrested in Brisbane.

In 1979 in Wollongong, where IWD meetings had taken place since the formation of miners' women's auxiliaries in the '30s, the IWD committee issued its first broadsheet and held its first march. The broadsheet featured the ACTU Working Women's Charter which was adopted in 1977, Aboriginal women's rights (including land rights), rape, occupational health and sexism in education

During the 1980s, IWD continued its endeavours to raise women's issues within the prevailing social and political conditions A world-wide recession was reflected in severe youth unemployment in Australia (particularly among young women), high unemployment of migrants and even worsened work opportunities for Aboriginal workers.

The women's movement struggled to absorb these changes into its politics, producing intense debate, sometimes hostile, about feminism and its relationship to class, race, peace and environmental issues. Ronald Reagan's arrogant assertion that a limited nuclear war, backed up by US missiles, was possible of a favourable resolution in Europe, inspired world-wide peace protests. Feminists in Australia pioneered new forms of activity in opposition to US bases, uranium mining and the threat of nuclear war.

Melbourne IWD march, 1979

In Sydney a gradual increase in numbers participating on IWD continued and, each year, the Women's Unit of the state government contributed a few hundred dollars to the IWD collective. Marches or meetings were held in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth Newcastle, Wollongong, Hobart, Brisbane and Townsville. In 1981,100 marched in Townsville, and 4-500 in Brisbane where nine were arrested.

In 1980 and 1981 in Sydney, marches totalled around 3,000 and concerts were held at the end of the march in Hyde Park or Victoria Park and meetings preceded the march. Dances were held in the Women's Warehouse and pre-lWD publicity took place in Martin Plaza with street theatre and leaflets.

In the face of rightwing anti-feminist backlashes from groups declaring themselves "Glad to be women", the 1980 Sydney marchers distributed purple and white gladiolas to women shoppers, with a leaflet headed "Glad to be women" which discussed the good and bad sides of being women and what needed to be changed. New issues (along with others on this leaflet) included the need to end violent pornography, and end the threat of a third world war. The weekend after the march, a Women and Violence Conference discussed rape, domestic violence, pornography and prostitution.

Townsville QLD IWD, 1980

In addition to the official Council luncheon in Bankstown in 1980, 200 women and men attended an IWD concert. During the previous years the NSW state government had also established a regular IWD reception to which selected women were invited.

In Liverpool, the Women's Health Centre organised a multi-lingual exhibition and stalls, as well as other activity.

Liverpool NSW IWD, 1980

The 1981 Melbourne march of 1,500 to Flagstaff Gardens added to their program of demands an end to the medical manipulation of women. IWD in Melbourne that year received official recognition through the giant screen in City Square where the women's symbol was shown. There was also a women's dinner at the Kingston Hotel, a film evening by the Disabled Women's Group and a seminar on "Women in the Current Economic Crisis".

In 1982 the Sydney broadsheet added to its program support and services for victims of domestic violence; rape laws which place responsibility on criminals not victims; an end to tacit endorsement of domestic violence by police and courts; and an end to discrimination against lesbians in child custody cases, between 4-8,000 marched. Seven hundred marched in Adelaide and functions were held in Melbourne, Newcastle, Wollongong, Townsville and Perth.

That year feminists in Darwin organised an IWD picnic, film night and street theatre.

In 1983, in response to a call in a broadsheet to rally and fight for paid jobs, decent housing, women's services, childcare and an end to the war drive, 8-7,000 marched in Sydney. The day was also the focus for another major debate within the women's movement. The dispute was provoked by the calling of a federal election on the same day the march was to have taken place and which would have assembled near the Town Hall where crowded polling booths were to be erected for the elections.

The organising committee reported that considerable debate and discussion followed the notification to a large list of women's groups that the issue of changing the date would be considered. The date was ultimately brought forward one week to avoid the elections. This undoubtedly helped to rally many women to the march who saw it as an opportune occasion to focus some attention on women's demands in the course of the usual election discussions.

Some others in the women's movement saw the change as a sell-out and a critical poster was produced. On the day itself there was a dispute over the placing of a banner "Dead Men Don't Rape" directly behind the International Women's Day banner, giving the impression that this was a main theme for the day. Altercations took place about this during the march and an open debate was published in the feminist paper Girls Own.

There was criticism about the change of date which was described as "submitting to patriarchal politics" The broadsheet was also criticised because it didn't mention rape, male violence, lesbians or lesbian custody, and men's participation in the march was attacked. 6

The main issue underlying this seemed to be about the character of IWD as a day to enable a wide variety of feminist and women's groups to raise their demands and have them represented in the march. The fuss over the positioning of the "Dead Men Don't Rape" banner reflected a broader argument about the relevance of separatist politics for the whole movement.

The practice of convening open-ended discussion of all women interested, who developed and determined the focus of the march, was defended and on this and other occasions proved to be the most effective way to mobilise large numbers of women. This practice of focussing attention on particular issues had never precluded others in the march from featuring their own priorities and politics. The open-ended form of organisation had also been effective in providing an opportunity for developing more adequate attention to under-represented areas of concern. A recent example of this had been the participation in IWD organising of the Black, Immigrant and Third World Women's Group.

In 1948, slightly fewer women marched in Sydney, between 4-6,000 and 2,000 marched in Adelaide with meetings in some other centres.

If we are to take officialdom at its word, 1985 will mark the end of a Decade for Women. Many women will not even be aware that they have been living through such a decade, nor has it ensured world-wide advancement for the majority of women.

IWD 1985, to many, will simply mark the beginning of a new decade in women's political activity.

The fact that IWD has endured for so many years cannot be taken as an automatic guarantee that it enhances feminist goals. The goals in themselves are controversial for feminism is not a monolithic theory or movement, and is often beset with contradictory priorities.

However, there have been some common expectations of what IWD might contribute to the advancement of women's politics. The day has been variously seen as a time for reassessment and reaffirmation of broadly based goals; a day for the celebration of gains, or of women's potential and creativity; and as a time for direct and radical action. In contrast to this, the main thrust of "official recognition" has been to use IWD to plaster over the sex, race and class contradictions affecting women's lives with platitudes.

While at one time or another, IWD has performed all of the above functions, its major contribution seems to have been in raising and popularising feminist issues on which there is fairly wide agreement within the women's movement, and for providing a cultural and social venue for diverse groups within that movement.

The effectiveness of this role has largely depended on the existence of a strong and widely-based women's movement which has groups within it who see the need to find the connections between diverse strands in the movement and to work for some continuity in political forms and activity.

IWD has been part of the general process of women's politics, rather than a catalyst. It sometimes suffers from too few having to interpret the wishes of the many and reveals that this questionable form of delegating authority can arise both within open feminist structures as well as hierarchies.

Nevertheless, despite these problems and all attempts to trivialise it or make it respectable, IWD survives as a point of reference and some measure of progress in the longest struggle of all - the liberation of women.

Sydney IWD march, 1975
Newcastle, 1984
Sydney, 1984

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