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Freedom from Unreal Loyalties

Suzanne Bellamy

(A version of this essay was first published in Different Lives. Jocelynne Scutt (ed) Penguin 1987)

There were two voices ringing in my ears, as my twenties began: my grandmother: ‘Never marry, be independent'; and my mother: 'Get an education, don't ever have to rely on anyone'. They were my tradi­tion. The shape of my mother's life had touched me since childhood. We were in unspoken conspiracy together against a world which sat her at a sewing machine, on low pay, from the age of thirteen, for all her working life. It gave me a kind of political passion by 1970 far outweighing any books and theories. All it needed was a place to be heard and explored.

I found it at 67 Glebe Point Road, in Sydney's inner city. It was the meeting place of Australia's first ongoing women's liberation group, the Glebe group. Walking up from the bus-stop towards the front lawn of Sydney University, I heard Barbara Levy, through a microphone, say women's liberation', and I felt its meaning in my bones, right then. Even before my first meeting in March 1970, I had passed the point of no return.

It fitted like a glove, even though I could never have imagined the wild thrills of this new experience. Among the group, formed in December 1969, were Sandra Hawker, Julie Gibson, Deidre Fergu­son, Lyndall Ryan, Martha Kay (now Ansara) and Barbara. We talked and read and listened all at once, hungry for everything from the new American women's movement, yet inspired by our original selves. The methods and structures of men's organisations, so long used to silence, divide and depersonalise women and ideas, were thrown out the door. There was never great unity, and often bitter argument, but then this was the birth of a new politics - no books, no teachers. Women came from everywhere, a great mixture of ages and life experiences, mostly white, some confident and many speaking for the first time about them­selves. Early meeting impressions - what stands out still was the effusiveness, originality, humour and honesty of Gale Kelly, who taught us all more than I can yet assess. Scenes from a movie . . . full of smoke, dirty coffee cups, passionate talk into the night, weeping, deep laughs I had never heard from women before, a new body language. The Glebe group had a definite 'house style'. I see it as an embryonic separatism, the first glimmerings of radical feminism — anti-centralist, anti-male, anti-press, unaligned with any male left groups, tactically imaginative, stressing consciousness-raising, defining sexual oppression as basic.

On the surface, I fit well the presumed stereotype of the women form­ing those first groups in 1970 — twenty-one, involved in radical student politics, working on The Old Mole (a left newspaper), just left home, a history honours graduate just beginning post-graduate work. Two major differences stand out. I was a 'scholarship girl', awkward and self-conscious around the confident children of the bourgeoisie. I had been doing female factory work all through my undergraduate years, and was strongly class conscious, although my education had effec­tively made me alien in both worlds. I rejected the dry theoreticism of most middle-class intellectual socialists, and I liked it no better when I struck it in the women's movement.

My other difference was not being heterosexual. I know now I was lesbian, but at the time it felt more like confused resistance. I didn't know to whom or how to talk about my sexuality, though my pas­sions were all about women, and always had been. But I had lived among people who were cruelly anti-lesbian, mocking and ridiculing those many women I remember from my childhood who must have been lesbian, although the word was never spoken. I waited my time, holding safe that key to my energy until the coast was clear.

Those early years weren't easy to live through. My life suddenly had different levels of experience, impossible to harmonise. There was the living pulsing reality of the meetings, the other women, the visions and inky leaflets — my real new life. Outside those times, I was in tat­ters. I was writing a history thesis on a scholarship, yet I really wanted to be an artist and writer. From twelve years, I had been streamed into academic subjects and I knew it was the only realistic economic route. But, also at twelve, I had first vowed to sculpt and write. The bitter irony was that one path had made a kind of escape possible but seemed to bar entry to the other. Mistaking youth for health, I decided to juggle all the parts — apprentice historian, full-time women's liber­ationist, and artist. I kept us all on the road, including doing four years training in ceramics and sculpture. This was the one really quiet and private part of my life; never troublesome, just long in its gestation.

The tensions of this overfull life finally burst. I remember scream­ing out one night at a meeting: 'How can I write history when we're so busy making it!?' It was a pivotal moment in life: a sudden cons­ciousness of being a woman of my time, not on the periphery. We had all decided. We were actors, seizing our chance before the moment passed. This touch of consequence marked my first period as a feminist up to 1975, during which women's liberation and I were like symbi­otic partners. We went along together.

The historian in me didn't die at that point, but was revitalised. My research on women eventually made the university a place of confine­ment, but there were to be more performances before I solved my ambivalence about learning and universities, recurring battles sharpened by the gradual discovery that we had to control our own history, be our own teachers, in our own spaces.

The first half of the 1970s, then, was my New Education, learning on the job. Inventing and absorbing new ideas had a spiralling effect, gathering in everything we focussed upon. It felt like a new world view. Inequality, prejudice, injustice — these words gradually gave way to sexism, patriarchy, misogyny. We saw an all-pervasive culture reflect­ing maleness and imposed femininity — films, jobs, education, government, music, art, sexual politics, treatment of children, rape, homelessness, violence, body language, landscape, historical erasure, invisibility, crude humour, phallic architecture, animal abuse (`hus­bandry'), sanity and madness, theology and 'sin', language itself, the power to name what we see — 'the personal is political'. This new kaleidoscopic reality was like waking from a coma into a nightmare. The state of collective mind was impossible to catch in flight. Our feeling and belief in sisterhood and support for one another was a tac­tical necessity, rather than a practical reality. We were none of us in such good shape to offer the kind of caring you need in such times. We did what we could, found our priorities, acted out our differences from one another.

I continued to thrive on my transition from Glebe to Mejane, Aus­tralia's first women's liberation paper (first issue, March 1971, last in April 1974). I devoured new books — Valerie Solanas' The Scum Manifesto, Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, Robin Morgan's Monster, 'The Clit Papers' in Off Our Backs, Monique Wittig's The Guerilleres, Elizabeth Gould Davis' The First Sex, and Notes From the First Year. I recall great battles on the collective around pornography and censor­ship, academic style, printing lesbian material, should we print men's articles, how 'heroic' were the Vietnamese (an argument over the style of reporting on women and the war), how responsible were we to the rest of the growing movement, the autonomy of small groups, the nature of collectives. I really believed in the intrinsic power of ideas themselves rather than seeing change come only through the block power of masses of people. Counting heads, building 'the mass movement', making blueprints and tight lists of demands were not my first priority, though I wanted the movement to grow. I fought hard against the style and implications of single-issue politics and the dilution of our precious new thoughts before we had pushed to see how far they could take us.

I remember reading a paper by Jane Alpert, an American fugitive, about 1973. She said we were not so much building a revolution for power as creating a reformation in the consciousness of the world about power and life itself. It really mattered to me to be uncompromising about our ideas. They were so powerful and manifest, they would spread without watering down. Without underestimating our enemy's multiple power to deceive, I have come to hate the patronising idea that 'women in the suburbs' were ever any different from us. When I began running suburban classes I found I was right.

Our 'public image' was much discussed. We received many letters at Glebe and on Mejane about our style and 'language'. There was a great deal of hilarious 'bad language' at Glebe. We loved it. Kate Jen­nings was one of the women who created the definitive Glebe style. But there were more serious questions about images - the notion that in being ourselves we could hurt the movement. I feel this underlay the stormy growth of the debate about lesbianism, naming and claim­ing it as part of our politics and experience. True, there was a lot of heterosexual fear and prejudice within women's liberation groups dur­ing the first years, proving the slogan: 'Lesbian is the word that keeps every woman in line.' I remember my thrill and identification one night opening overseas mail at Glebe (we wrote and received thousands of letters) and finding an American pamphlet from a group calling them­selves Radicalesbians. Even so, it was a long process to be able to speak openly in groups, and even after I had begun my first serious relation­ship with a woman in 1971, there was an unofficial reticence operating. The story of the growth of lesbian feminism is too complex to capture in a few lines here. For myself, I knew that my political heart was always in the women's movement itself, and I never wanted to join gay liberation or any of the other mixed homosexual groups. I didn't feel lesbians and male homosexuals had much if anything in common, whereas I knew all women were affected by violence, war, rape, poor jobs, rearing children. I decided quite early that being a lesbian was a blessed state, and obviously heterosexual women (if such a fixed state existed) had a much worse time, given what we thought about male­ness! I knew enough early to see that the lesbian in me made me a dangerous woman in a man's world. A lot more living showed me how deep that ran.

My mistrust of men's politics meant I hadn't felt too much elation about the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972. I had already read too much women's history. When the money began to trickle and the carrots dangle, particularly around International Women's Year, my cynicism rose.

There was always the sense of containment, of energy pouring down bureaucratic drains, weakening our own autonomous initiatives. I rea­lised then that my politics had really taken shape: I had become what I called radical feminist. The endless arguments about paid govern­ment work versus voluntarism both seemed locked into the same system to me. I wanted to use my energy to create a new political culture, on our own terms. I could never grasp the idea of being paid directly by governments to be a radical feminist. I had a strong gut reaction against funding, and suspicion of the concept of women's advisers. Since 1972 I've been fascinated by this battle between feminists and govern­ment, but never chosen to be directly in it myself. I saw funding as the process by which we would have our teeth pulled; the oldest trick in the book.

In a time of general optimism among women, the Mejane collective (me, in particular) opposed the establishment of the job of prime minister's adviser. Liz Reid got the job in 1973. Elizabeth herself was an admirable woman, but I thought our uncritical acceptance of the position was wrong. The women's movement seemed to allow itself to be seduced and flattered, without critical discussion of what might happen. Ironically, after Elizabeth resigned on 2 October 1975, fol­lowing years of frustration, ill health and a sense that women had deserted her, she invited me to her farewell lunch at the Women's Club in Sydney, given by Ruby Rich of the League of Women Voters. I asked her why. (It was a very small gathering indeed.) 'Because you have an appropriate sense of history,' she said. It had many meanings.

How quickly we dismember our own history, continuing to make men's politics our landmarks. Some women still say women's libera­tion started in 1972, coinciding with the Whitlam years. By then I had lived three intense years in a growing national movement not solely or centrally dedicated to electoral change. As a date, December 1972 is no more important to me than December 1969, beginnings of Women's Liberation or March 1971, the first Mejane.

The most complex emotional experience of my years to 1975 centres on a plan to leave the city. I was sick (mainly from stress) by 1973, became a vegetarian, gave up orthodox medicine, and longed for a cleaner way to live, in community with other women. We tried to

extend the meaning of 'control of our bodies' to the air, water, food, environment and emotional psychic spiritual energies around us as women in connection with a deeply rich tradition of healing and magic.

My new lover and I, with a small group of other women, had found a place in the country where we began to plant, build and imagine an economically feasible life - at last a place to write and sculpt, but feel in touch with the city and the movement. Mid-1974 I made a difficult decision, taking what I thought would be a short-term job as a tutor in politics at Macquarie University. It would help get the equipment necessary to move to the land. I held my uneasiness about being back inside an institution. Other political work went on - working with Bessie Guthrie on organising her years of research and experience on the child welfare system since the 1950s, and through Mejane, build­ing a campaign which led to the closure of Hay Children's Prison and the end of compulsory virginity testing. I was working on organising the Women's Commissions of 1973, 1974 and 1975; founding with Gale Kelly the Art Workers' Group and the Radical Therapy group; teaching WEA classes and going to the land as often as possible.

In the middle of IWY, after three years work and hope, my vision of the new life in the bush fell in a heap - a combination of differing ideals and the traumatic break-up of a relationship. It was the end of my innocence. While others went off to the Women and Politics Con­ference in Canberra in August 1975, I went to the land for the last time to see if there was some way to salvage the dream. It was a damag­ing time, sorting out myths from reality, facing the knowledge that we women can be very cruel to one another. In the end I just left it all.

I was in shock for a long time. But by then so was the whole coun­try. I was back in the city in good time for the turmoil leading up to 11 November 1975, and to a vision of patriarchy more transparent than usual. There were women's emergency meetings, marches, fund­raising and finally eight memorable days without sleep on a collective which produced the first Mabel: 30 000 copies sold and distributed before the elections, reasserting our autonomy.

In the following three years I made a real shift in my relationship with the women's movement. The movement itself changed greatly with the times, with a size and diversity straining at the limits of its old structure. Artificially inserted funding under Labor had weakened some of the original independent structure around Women's Liberation House, and this in turn put an extra burden on the funded centres themselves. It was a time to move out into new territories and try a few experiments.

Ironically, the immediate context for this new enterprise was Mac­quarie University. I took on women's studies teaching in my department, but something more was pushing me. All those resources, all that space. There had to be something to do with it. My chance came at the beginning of 1977 when I decided to become national con­venor of a conference, which became the Women and Labour Conference held in May 1978. If the growing chasm between move­ment feminists and academic women's studies was ever to be bridged, this was the time, slowly building a network of enthusiasm and involve­ment, untapped before in any of our projects. The key was time and personal contact. I wrote a thousand letters. It was a new challenge because I had to make it acceptable to a wide spectrum of women and organisations. The university had to agree to provide free venues, the National Library to tape _everything, academic women not to try to stop me, movement women to catch on that this was really ours, older women activists of the labour movement to know that this could be trusted.

Mine was eighteen months of unpaid work, knowing that no matter how many women became involved, it was my responsibility to bring it all together. Among the hundreds who worked and the 3000 women finally coming over the four days there was a spirit of openness I will never forget. It may not have lasted, but at least we couldn't say it was never possible. I had wanted to prove we could go that big without government money and control — in fact it was not only self-supporting, but made a profit! As well I wanted to demonstrate organisational integrity despite the venue, and make visible to the wide range of women who came the changing forms of women's long political resistance. Then I could let it go.

The women's movement has given me unique opportunities to work creatively with women of very different ideas from my own. In 1977-8 Joyce Stevens and I began both The Awful Truth Show (a women's theatre project) and The First Ten Years (an archival collection), celebrating our long and fiery friendship. A socialist feminist in the Communist Party, Joyce Stevens is the most complex skilled and com­mitted political woman I have met, who taught me the practice of never settling for narrow sectarianism however passionate I might feel about an issue.

In the middle of many new and old projects, my dear friend Bessie Guthrie died at the age of seventy-two on 17 December 1977. She was the first of the friends from my real world to die. Close since the old Glebe group, we had become working partners on the child welfare campaign. The last two years had been about caring for one another, when she was going blind and I was going crackers, with loss and over-zealous organising. I found her body. We arranged a feminist funeral she would have loved (the police stopped the procession and hearse on its way — illegal to the end!). I have her ashes in my garden. She had no blood family — she belonged to us.

An owl flew into my garden the day before Bessie died, ancient omen of death, healing and a new life. Within three months I had begun a new relationship and, in the years since, found a new way to live my life. (My new lover had two children, now young women. We have been through much together — battles over custody, space, and learn­ing to understand each other.) There were tough old patterns to break, and I held my breath through a time of dramatic shedding. I remem­ber a surreal time in June 1979. I was writing two ABC radio programmes (beautifully produced by Jill Lennon) on Virginia Woolf's feminism, particularly in Three Guineas; reading Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecol­ogy; and teaching a WEA class with forty women and one man. The entire class of women had collectively resolved to ask the man to leave after weeks of tolerating his childish and voyeuristic behaviour. As a result, I was dismissed instantly on the man's charge that I was 'a les­bian extremist who prevented free speech', and the forty women's opinions discounted. We had to waste our precious time fighting a three-month battle after being given an ultimatum — take the man back or I was sacked. We refused both options, and I 'kidnapped' the class (their charge) by moving to a new venue. I decided it was harder to hit a moving target! I continued to teach, sent in roll sheets, demanded my pay — and the women (mostly inexperienced) gave the WEA heaps! They were inspiring, and I was deeply moved by their fierce loyalty to me.

It was exhausting, and I knew it had a deeper meaning for me. We completed our class. Finally I was paid, though shabbily (with an ex gratis payment, presumably to prevent me from suing for damages). Within a few months of this, inspired by Woolf and Daly, I made my decisions — no more easy set-ups, no more being forced to teach in the presence of men, no more working in men's institutions. It was time for this artist, writer, historian to merge as a free woman out on the road. I resigned from Macquarie and went to America and Europe with Janet Ramsay for five intense months of learning and renewal.

The world of women's diversity began to look bigger. It was a pil­grimage — Abiquiu and Georgia O'Keefe's erotic desert landscapes; Maria Matinez, great potter of San Ildefonso; Natalie Barney's old house at 20 Rue Jacob; the Standing Stones of Cornwall, Scotland,

Britanny; Crete; back and back in time stretched the evidence of women's lives. I sat in the New York Public Library's Berg Collec­tion, holding the manuscript of Virginia's Woolf s Three Guineas in my hands, vowing not to let our work be captured like this.

We visited many feminist archives and libraries (especially the inspir­ing and completely independent Lesbian Herstory Archive in New York), women writers and artists, new scientists and old campaigners. It broke the hedged-in feeling of all the years before. Whatever this thing was, it was big.

I could end there on a point of resolution, but it would be unreal. I'm still learning, have my best work ahead of me, and am part of a women's movement moving into new battles for the future. I had another important illusion to lose; one of the hardest yet. I still had a lingering desire for some observable unity among women. It was an ideal preventing me from seeing that our next battles would come in unimaginable ways, and not without facing our differences from each other. Women are spread across a fractured planet and we carry the scars of all those experiences.

My moment to face this came unexpectedly during the huge meet­ing in Sydney on 24 August 1981 addressed by American radical feminist writer Mary Daly. Janet Ramsay and I had invited her to visit us, following our time with her in America. The big meeting was one of those complicated decisions where you know the risks but are pushed by a kind of historical inevitability. All the drama of nuclear fission had nothing over that night — rage, insult, cruelty and paralysis. When I walked into the hall, overcrowded with a thousand women in every available space, it was like a Hollywood movie set of the French Revo­lution, a scene from the Assembly, an eerie surreal moment. What followed was something in the spirit of the trail of Danton. Was this our revolution's Thermidor? — when tearing each other to pieces filled the gap of lost directions. Mary Daly is a great scholar, not a cheap-thrills performer, but what were we? I watched the turmoil with detach­ment as though I had seen it before, with words of Virginia Woolf ringing in my ear. 'Freedom from unreal loyalties', she said. I felt a deep release, a surge of new energy, seeing women with their eyes and words of hate and passion far beyond the specifics of that one night. We had moved from a kind of respect and informal unity to what? Were we following the patterns of patriarchal revolutionary movements, from early days of passion and experiment, through con­solidation, and on to revision and purge — or was there another model of change? There is no reason to think this was any more critical a point of choice than any of the others over these women's movement years. The paradoxes have always been there. For me it was a moment in the great ugliness that is part of the beauty of the movement. There are two great imperatives - find each her own way, and see the mix. All the forms are there - revolution, reformation, renaissance, and some maverick wild new unnamed unknowable. That's what keeps it all going.

Whenever I go on an International Women's Day march, as I did in the middle of writing this, I feel the ever-present spirit of women's connections, old friends, new women, deep loyalties, old wounds. As I develop my own new work, like our Lesbian History Research Project, my sculpture, new writing, our archive, a new School for Women, the daily crises of response to this culture, I know I've never been more intensely engaged on the rough edge of the future, than now.

Endnote and Refs.

Sue Bellamy's work on these and other issues has been recorded in the following sources:

How Can We Get What We Want - The Neurosis of Having a Programme, printed discussion paper for general meeting, Sydney Women's Liberation, undated (mid 1970), copy in First Ten Years Collection; Women in Facto­ries, paper presented to Women's Liberation Conference, Sydney, January 1971, later published in Words for Women booklet, Women at Work (Glebe 1971) under the title 'Factory Work' (in First Ten Years Collection). The following appeared in Mejane: 'The Dawn and Woman Suffrage - Louisa Lawson', no. 1, March 1971; 'Children and Liberation' (based on taped inter­views), no. 3, July 1971; 'Women Cannot Paint . . no. 4, September 1971; `The Music Lovers' (review), no. 4, September 1971; `Tarzan and the Big Virility Myth', no. 5, November 1971; 'Intrigues and Censures of 1894 - Our Feminist Past', no. 6, 1972; 'Minnie Not Mickie - Must Men March?', no. 7,•April 1972; 'Nuclear Family Perspectives', and, with Bessie Guthrie, The Child Protection Racket - Child Rape' no. 10, March 1973; Response to let­ters: 'Nuclear Family Perspectives', vol. 2, no. 1, July 1973; 'Robin Morgan's Monster' (review), vol. 2, no. 1, July 1973; 'Through the Maze' (autobiographi­cal), vol. 2, no. 2, April 1974. The following appeared in Refractory Girl: The Heroine as Myth, or male cultural baggage we've been forced to carry', no. 1, Summer 1972-3; "Fucking Men is for Saints" - A Review of Elizabeth Riley: All That False Instruction', no. 11, June 1976. 'Opening Address', Syd­ney Women's Commission, October 1975, printed in Macquarie University Women in History Documents, 1980, 1981, 1982 (Social Sciences Resources Centre, Macquarie University); ' 1 Used to Quote Saint Paul". The Life of Mary Andrews' in Women, Faith and Fetes, Sabine Willis (now Erika) (ed., Dove Publications, Sydney, 1977) with G. Kelly, D. Caine, 'A Reply to "The Great Wave Cometh" ', Digger, no. 44, May-June 1975; 'Power' (anon.) and `The Moral CIA' (anon.) Mabel, no. 1, December 1975; 'In Memoriam Flor­ence Valeria Freeman - My Maternal Grandmother' (poem) in Women and Labour Conference Papers (May 1978); 'Form - "We Are the Thing Itself" ' in All Her Labours - Embroidering the Framework (Hale and Iremonger, Syd­ney, 1984, p. 69); ABC Television, Chequerboard Programme: 'Sisterhood is Powerful', three interviews: Sue Bellamy, Lesley Lynch, Tricia Egan, July 1971; Tape interview, 2XX Canberra, with Biff Ward, Sue Bellamy and Sara Dowse, December 1977 (tape distributed by Sydney WEL and held by the National Library); 'Virginia Woolf - A Profile' (two programmes), Coming Out Show, ABC Radio, July 1979; with Janet Ramsey and Sarah Gibson, `The Psychic Research and Gossip Show - Lesbian Artists in History', a visual and verbal performance/presentation, Alpha House, 22 November 1982, in the Lesbian Arts Festival, Sydney, 1982.