‘LESBIANS DON’T BITE,’ Margaret says. ‘Not as a rule anyway.’ She lifts the corners of her mouth with her fingers in a caricature of a smile. I ignore this provocation and go on folding the nappies. The pile is beginning to teeter on the bed because Margaret’s big bum is making a sag in the middle. I carry the nappies over to the chest of drawers and stand for a moment looking out the window. There isn’t much to see from the kids’ bedroom apart from the Hills Hoist in the driveway. Ugly things, how I hate them, the way they fill up backyards. Not that mine does anymore. That was the first thing I did after Brian and I bought this house, dug it out while my next door neighbour peeked over the fence with a shocked look on her face. Later I had to replant the thing in the driveway because Brian said we couldn’t afford a fold-down one. He can’t put the car in the garage now, but at least I don’t have to look at the damn thing lording itself over the only patch of grass my kids have to toddle on.
Anyway, how can I be sure that lesbians don’t bite? Women’s Liberation is full of lesbians as far as I know from reading the newspapers and I’m nervous at the thought of a mass encounter. I’m nervous about most things these days. Five years of being housebound and unable to drive has made me borderline agoraphobic.
‘I’ll come by at six,’ says Margaret from the bed. ‘All you have to do is get in the car.’
‘And get out again and walk into a room full of strange women with no bras.’ I look at her hopefully, wanting her to tell me this isn’t so.
‘Six o’clock,’ says Margaret, heaving herself off the bed. ‘It won’t do Brian any harm to take care of the kids for once.’ She’s at the door now.
‘Six,’ she repeats firmly as I pick up the nappies and hold them against my chest like a shield. I’m still holding them when I hear her car start up on the other side of the Hills Hoist. Margaret is so bossy. I wonder if I should wear makeup? Probably not. Women’s Libbers don’t dress up, I know that too. I kind of like that idea.
But later, sitting in the passenger seat of Margaret’s snazzy sports car as we purr along city streets, I’m not so sure about my daggy jeans. Margaret’s wearing a kaftan and looks quite smart. She swings the car into Ann Street and slides into a tight space beside the murkily lit footpath.
‘That was lucky,’ she says. ‘Right outside the door.’
I peer through the passenger seat window. We’re at the Valley end of Ann Street which doesn’t have shops and all the buildings here are shuttered and dark. A sheer cliff rises on the other side of the street towards Spring Hill. It looks like the kind of place where people get mugged.
‘I don’t see any door.’
Margaret’s waiting for me to get out so she can lock the car. ‘I think it must be up those steps,’ she says briskly. ‘See, where it says UAW Rooms.’
‘Haven’t you been here before?’
So that’s it. My old mate wasn’t game to come on her own, not that she’d ever admit it. I peer at the small sign above the dark opening.
‘Union of Australian Women. It’s an old Communist Party front. Used to be very active but not any more so they decided to make it available to Women’s Lib.’
‘Did you say…er, Communists?’
We’re climbing up creaking narrow stairs and there’s no light except for a faint glimmer at the top of the landing. My heart has gone into overdrive, my hand on the wooden rail is slippery with sweat. Communists! I’d give anything to be back in Dorrington putting the kids to bed. But we’re at the top of the steps now and Margaret’s pushing open a door and suddenly we’re in a large brightly lit room with nothing to decorate its bare boards except a long table in the middle and a whole lot of women sitting around it. Some of them look up but most are too busy talking. I follow close behind Margaret’s rear, which makes an effective cover until we get to the table. Then there’s nothing for it but to take a seat and become visible.
I look around. All the women are about my age or younger, in their early twenties. Some are wearing glasses but otherwise they’re dressed like me, in jeans and T-shirts. They all look like university students except for one woman at the head of the table. She’s small and dumpy with white hair and she’s talking to another woman who is definitely older than me, in her mid thirties surely, a Jeanne Moreau look-alike with a bruised-eye beauty. I’m staring at her when the dumpy woman stands up and raps on the table. She says she’s Eva Bacon, the President of the Union of Australian Women, and she gives us a little speech about women’s rights and equal pay for equal work and what the UAW has done to improve the lives of working women. I didn’t even know the UAW existed but apparently it’s been beavering away for years doing all sorts of things.
Eva pauses and gives us a warm, motherly smile. ‘And now,’ she says earnestly, ‘it is with real joy that I welcome you all, the new generation of women’s rights campaigners who will carry on the struggle and go further than we ever dreamed of.’ It’s almost as though she’s anointing us, all these mop-haired intellectuals who stare back owlishly. There’s something very comforting about Eva and I feel myself starting to relax. Eva turns to the Jeanne Moreau woman and hands her a large key. ‘Don’t forget to lock up, Merle,’ she says, ‘and make sure the cups are put away.’ Then she trots out of the room, smiling and nodding. Don‘t go, I feel like saying. Stay here and keep an eye on us.
‘She’s great, isn’t she?’ says the woman next to me. ‘I’m Katrina by the way. ‘
Katrina doesn’t look like a lesbian, but then, how would I know? To my knowledge I’ve never met one. But in any case, I like her calm eyes and handsome, almost androgynous face and I’m soothed by her voice which is soft and musical, the sort of voice you’d enjoy listening to even if it was reciting a shopping list. We’re just starting a chat when Merle calls everyone to order. She’s the chairwoman, she says. Chairwoman? That’s a new one. A woman in the Chair, if such a thing should ever exist, is called a chairman, but not anymore it seems. Language is important, Merle tells us, and begins a discussion about ‘sexist’ language, how to challenge it and how to replace it with ‘gender-neutral’ words. Everyone, including the soft-voiced Katrina has their say. Everyone except Margaret and me, that is. We keep quiet and listen though I can’t help wondering if this is the kind of campaigning that Eva Bacon hopes from us.
Margaret has her hand up and Merle inclines her tragically beautiful face towards her. ‘My friend and I are new here,’ Margaret says. She gestures at me and I feel myself going red. ‘We’d like to know if there’s a consciousness-raising group we could join.’
What the hell is a consciousness-raising group? It sounds like a Chinese re-education camp and now everyone is staring at us. A boyish woman on the other side of the table has a whispered conversation with her neighbour. ‘Are you from the suburbs?’ she asks. We admit we are and she advises us to form our own local group in, er, Dorrington, did you say? Merle calls for a show of hands to see if anyone else might like to join such a group.
‘I would,’ says Katrina. ‘I live in the next suburb.’
‘And I’d like to join,’ says another woman I hadn’t noticed before. I stare at her pale face in its cowl of dark hair as she tells us in a hushed monotone that her name is Sue and it would have to be Monday because she has meetings every other night. Her eyes are sombre, ringed with fatigue. From all the meetings, I suppose.
But our fledgling group will have to wait to exchange phone numbers, because it seems that suburban woman are less important in the Sisterhood than some others. The boyish woman who says her name is Sally gets up and makes an impassioned complaint about the way Merle and another woman called Pam have come to be the official spokeswomen for Women’s Liberation. Spokeswomen? There’s no such word but all the same I feel a small thrill. The role of spokeswoman should be rotated, Sally says, but Merle and Pam aren’t moved. ‘What can we do,’ asks Pam complacently, ‘when the reporters keep ringing us?’ ‘Pass them on to us,’ urges another woman and a long debate ensues about the anti-leadership principles of Women’s Liberation and how these are being violated by Merle and Pam, but it all comes to nothing and at 9.30 Leila declares the meeting closed.
Eva needn’t have worried about the cups because everyone hurries off, leaving the new Dorrington Consciousness-Raising Group to exchange details and set a date for our first meeting. At my place, it’s decided, because it’s the most central. We creak down the dark stairs and say goodbye on the footpath. ‘That was great,’ I tell Margaret when we’re in the car. ‘Those women are so knowledgeable.’
‘We’re all knowledgeable,’ she says in her decided way, switching on the ignition key. ‘We just have to take ownership of our knowledge.’ She swings out onto the deserted street and we roar off into the night. ‘Don’t forget that,’ she says and I nod. I don’t know what she’s talking about but it sounds exciting.
When I get home Brian wants to know about the lesbians. I think he likes the idea, because he doesn’t seem to mind that some of them might be coming to our house. ‘You won’t be able to sit in on our meeting,’ I tell him. ‘Is that alright? You don’t mind do you?’ The TV’s on and he’s watching Gerard Kennedy accept a Gold Logie Award so he just gives a grunt which I take to mean yes. But I feel uneasy. It is deeply wrong, I believe, for the man of the house to have to hang around in another room when his wife’s friends come to call. Best not to think about it. I pick up the book that Margaret has lent me. It’s a Penguin paperback with a plain cover, no picture, just the words: The Captive Wife, by Hannah Gavron. I open it and begin to read.
Next day, while the children are having their afternoon nap, I finish reading. I close the book and stare at the title: The Captive Wife. The words keep dancing behind shimmering boulders of splintered light because big fat tears are rolling down my face. So it’s not something wrong with me after all. I know that now because I’ve just read the words of six London housewives and their words are my words. Until now, whenever I’ve thought about the state of smothered unease in which I live these days, it has only made me feel guilty – what right do I have to be unhappy when I have two beautiful children? Now I know why. It’s because I’ve lost everything else; my independence, self-esteem, work, even my own name. Perfect strangers feel free to address me as Mum. Who is this generic mother? Where did I go? I’m crying tears of relief because I know I’m not alone.
‘Consciousness-raising is about sharing and it’s about trust,’ Katrina tells us a week later as we sit in a circle on the shag rug in the living room. ‘That means whatever is said here must never be repeated outside this room.’ I glance nervously at the closed door. Somewhere on the other side of it my husband is lurking, which is bad enough but now the possibility that he could overhear us is even more unsettling. There are six of us, three married women, Katrina, Sue and me, and three unmarried, Margaret, Anne and Mary, and we get things off to a lively start by describing our first fuck. The information we share is sometimes shocking (two rapes) but mostly corroborative and reassuring. By the end of the night we’re all friends though it’s more than that. Being completely honest with each other seems to have broken through some barrier that exists even between close friends. ‘We’re sisters,’ Katrina explains when I make this comment. ‘and sisterhood is powerful.’
I’m dazed with delight. ‘See you at the next meeting,’ I call as I wave goodbye from the front door, clutching the copies of Mejane and Refractory Girl that Margaret has lent me. Four weeks later it is time for the next General Meeting. By now I have read Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone and Germaine Greer, and have several other stars in my intellectual firmament – young American women academics whose clear, passionate prose has cut through my old confused notions like a knife. I see it all: the distortions of stereotyping; the feminist alternative whereby everyone will be encouraged to pursue their full potential; the gratitude men will express one day for our efforts.
On the night of the meeting Sue picks up Katrina and me in her rusting old hulk of a station wagon. The back seat is covered with sagging towers of leaflets and copies of Militant so we all cram in the front seat. Along with Katrina and Margaret, I now consider Sue to be my best friend. I like everything about her, her pale Pre-Raphaelite face, her petal-shaped lips as they inveigh in hushed tones against the evils of capitalism, her dark, brooding eyes which stare into mine while she speaks as if seeking the answer to the riddle of our shared existence.
In the UAW Rooms, Merle raps on the table for quiet. ‘As you know, Germaine Greer will be in Brisbane next week,’ she says, ‘so we need to talk about our position vis à vis a possible press release. And some of us will undoubtedly get asked to do interviews, so it would be good to think about the kind of points we want to get across.’
‘Let’s have a party for her,’ I say and hear muffled snorts of laughter.
‘A party?’ says Merle. ‘I hardly think-‘
‘But she’s our sister. And she’s coming to Brisbane. Of course we must welcome her.‘
‘Why would we do that?’ asks a woman on the other side of the table.
‘But-‘ I stare at her in astonishment. ‘But – The Female Eunuch! It’s helped liberate women all over the world.’
‘White middle-class heterosexual women, you mean?’
There are nods and murmurs of approval along the length of the table. Another woman leans forward earnestly and says, ‘What has Germaine Greer ever done about the ratio of women in male-dominated jobs?’
Katrina comes to my aid. ‘Do we want equality if it means having to live like men? Equality seekers may fight to get admitted to men’s clubs but that’s not the same as liberation, is it?’
The room goes quiet. Heads turn apprehensively towards Merle and Pam who gaze back impassively, apparently uninterested in defending their now famous act of chaining themselves to a men-only bar in a Brisbane pub.
‘Germaine Greer is an elitist,’ says another woman, breaking the silence. ‘We don’t believe in elitism.’ I notice the oversized badge on her T-shirt: FEMINISTS DEMAND IMMEDIATE WITHDRAWAL. I wouldn’t mind having one of those, I think – it’s rather fun.
‘And just how is she elitist?’ Katrina’s voice is dangerously polite.
‘She acts like a star. You can hardly turn on the TV without seeing her face. She has no right to speak on behalf of the women’s movement.’
‘I really think we should throw a party for her,’ I say again. I can’t believe we’re arguing about the world’s most famous feminist. Our big sister, so to speak. ‘Shouldn’t we welcome her home like the hero she is?’
Merle and Pam bend their heads together. ‘Well, it’s an idea I suppose,’ Merle concedes. ‘I don’t say that many of us will bother to turn up of course. What do people think?’
After a bit of mumbling and sideways glances at me, the motion is passed in an atmosphere of muted disapproval. But I can’t help feeling that the suddenness of capitulation means the idea is not without its appeal. Someone volunteers her share house in Indooroopilly as a venue, another offers to contact Germaine. There will be a party of sorts but no one wants to talk about it so we move on to the next item on the agenda.
When Katrina comes by my place the next day, she finds me in the driveway under the Hills Hoist. ‘I am oppressed,’ she announces as I unpeg nappies.
‘Has something happened?’ I ask, noticing her brooding look.
‘John’s been going through my things. When I got home from the meeting last night he met me at the door with my copy of The Female Eunuch.’
‘But I thought you put a brown paper cover on it.’
‘I did. And I keep it hidden in the wardrobe so he must have been having a good search. He was yelling and carrying on. Then he threw the book across the room.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I picked it up and threw it back at him and it hit him on the ear.’
‘You didn‘t?’ I stop unpegging nappies to stare at Katrina. ‘You did!’
‘Then I told him I was going to a party for the author and we had a huge fight and he ended up sleeping in the spare room.’
This is serious. I gather up the basket of nappies and we go inside to put the kettle on.
ON THE NIGHT of the party Sue comes by and we pick up Katrina and drive across town to Indooroopilly. There are lots of cars outside the house and all along the next street and we end up having to park a couple of blocks away. ‘This is a student area,’ Sue tells us as we stumble along the darkened footpath, ‘so lots of parties.’ But when we get to the house it’s obvious that it’s the honey-pot to which all the cars have been drawn. Lights blaze out from the rambling old house onto the frangipani and mango leaves of the garden, figures are silhouetted on the verandah and the wide hallway is so packed with bodies that we have difficulty getting through.
It’s no better inside. Crowds of women and quite a few men are squashed together beneath the pressed metal ceilings. It’s not exactly a party atmosphere; everyone is trying to look casual but there’s a hushed, expectant mood and the cool people keep glancing towards the hallway. They’re all waiting for Germaine. Sue has disappeared so Katrina and I squeeze across the room to join a group who are lucky enough to be sitting on the floor. We’ve just made a space for ourselves when a murmur runs through the crowd. It must be Germaine so we stand up again. Yes, it’s her. How stunning she looks. What lovely sea-green eyes. What magnificent unfettered breasts beneath her low-necked top that exactly matches her eyes. And she’s not alone. She’s pushing a wheelchair through the crowd and everone cranes to look at its occupant, a slight young man who stoically returns our gaze. Who is he? Why has she brought him? But it’s rude to stare so Katrina and I sit down again.
Through the forest of legs we realise that the guest of honour is coming towards us, the crowd respectfully parting before her and the man in the wheelchair like the Red Sea. Someone puts down a chair which just misses landing on my foot and Germaine sinks into it. I’m sitting at her feet, which is probably appropriate but it feels ridiculous, and I’m wedged in so tightly that any attempt to move would mean trampling my fellow guests. No one seems to know what to do. Perhaps they’re loath to appear fawning, or afraid of being thought sympathetic to an alleged elitist. Whatever the reason, everyone pretends not to notice the author of The Female Eunuch.
Katrina and I are having a strained conversation when I hear a familiar voice and look up. It’s Sue and one of her Trotskyist friends, the one with the hairy legs. Dressed in identical Che Guevara army shirts, the two women have come in through the French doors and are standing over Germaine Greer with pale expressionless faces. I listen in horror as they fire accusations of bourgeois feminism at her. Their voices are low and monotonous and I can only catch phrases – imperialist lackey, middle-class apologist, betrayer of the working class. Oh Sue! Sue! Please don’t do this!
Germaine looks up at her interrogators with a friendly smile, parrying their attack. But Sue is relentless. It seems nothing Germaine Greer can say will satisfy her. I look up at Germaine who looks up at Sue. I watch Germaine’s face lose its smile, see her lips tighten as she realises she’s not having a discussion but being put on trial. After a while she leans forward and whispers something in the ear of the young man in the wheelchair. They laugh together in the way that old friends or lovers might do, then she stands up and pushes the wheelchair away through the crowd. She’s had enough of her party and I don’t blame her.
‘That wasn’t very sisterly,’ I hiss at Sue.
She leans towards me and says in her slow, hushed voice, ‘Not all women are sisters, Julie. It’s time you learned that.’
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