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Elizabeth Reid AO, Australian Women’s Weekly, 25 April 1973. Image: Picture of Elizabeth Reid with her daughter, Kathryn, by Peter Hardacre (trove.nla.gov.au)

Australian women’s rights: Elizabeth Reid’s pivotal role

Geoff Helisma|

They way men treat women has been a hot topic over recent times and, while women have made significant progress towards achieving equal footing, the shocking revelations emerging from Australia’s political classes only serve to amplify the words of Australian of the Year Grace Tame.

“I was abused by a male teacher. But one of the first people I told was also a male teacher, and he believed me,” she said during her acceptance speech.

“This year and beyond my focus is on empowering survivors and education as a primary means of prevention.”

Tame’s activism, a campaign called #LetHerSpeak, led to the Tasmanian Government amending legislation to allow sexual assault survivors, like Tame, to speak out publicly – previously, the Tasmanian Evidence Act 2001 prevented the naming of sexual assault victims.

Over the past week, many International Women’s Day (March 8) gatherings were held around Australia – and the events of recent weeks have been high on the list of discussions.

Professor Michelle Arrow, author of prize-winning book, The Seventies – The Personal, the Political and the Making of Modern Australia, and several others about modern Australian history, published a piece on The Conversation website last week.

Titled, Women are (rightly) angry. Now they need a plan, Arrow recalls the tumultuous times of the 1970s, when women took to the streets on their quest for equal rights.

When asked who played a prominent role in advancing Australian women’s rights in those days, many people would probably name Germaine Greer or Anne Summers, says Arrow; but there was another activist that played a pivotal role in advancing the rights of women, Elizabeth Reid, who worked within the mainstream power structure, albeit attracting reams of negative, sexist and misogynist criticism from sections of the media and conservative politicians.

Then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, appointed her as special adviser on women’s issues. Subsequently, the government allocated $2 million in the 1974–75 budget and $1.3 million in the 1975–76 budget for International Women’s Year (IWY) activities.

Reid was the convener of a national advisory committee, established in September 1974, tasked to publicise and coordinate the government’s IWY program, and to allocate funding to individuals and groups for projects that supported its three objectives: to change attitudes, reduce discrimination and encourage women’s creativity.

Arrow extensively covered Reid’s influence in her ‘The Seventies…’ book and in a March 2017 blog on the Australian Women’s History Network website.

There were no female MPs when Whitlam’s started his first term and “Reid became both the female face of the Whitlam government and an ‘official’ face of the women’s movement”, writes Arrow.

“The parameters of her job were opaque, but she needed the imprimatur of all women, both within and beyond the women’s movement. So, she travelled the country, seeking women’s opinions. They responded with hundreds of letters.

“Reid helped these women navigate a bureaucracy that was hostile to women and worked to make its structures more responsive to women’s needs” and also “secured significant government spending on International Women’s Year (IWY) in 1975 to change perceptions of women”.

“She wanted IWY to empower women, undo the social norms and values that constrained them, and to strengthen their creativity,” writes Arrow.

“While the celebrations had an enduring ripple effect, more immediately they led to Reid’s downfall. The growing scandal around the national debt under the Whitlam government meant that IWY looked increasingly extravagant.

“One of the year’s signature events, the Women and Politics Conference, exposed divisions in the women’s movement. Women protested about East Timor during Whitlam’s opening speech and left the statue of George V in Parliament House festooned with bras.

“The press had a field day caricaturing the ‘rabble’, and by the end of the week, the damage to Reid’s position had been done.

“Whitlam’s commitment to Reid and to women’s affairs had become a political liability.”

Faced with the suggestion to move out of the PM’s office into the public service, Reid soon resigned and left the country until the mid-1980s.

 

Women and their children marching at International Women’s Year in 1975. Image: courtesy Women’s Electoral Lobby NSW
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