In the official history of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), there is only one mention of the women’s liberation movement, amongst a collection of other social movements that emerged in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside the anti-Vietnam War and Aboriginal rights movements. However, we know from files released by the National Archives of Australia that ASIO heavily monitored the women’s liberation movement in Australia, just as it did with most social and protest movements that existed at the time. Concerned about the crossover between the women’s liberation movement and other protest movements, ASIO were particularly worried about the entry of the various far left groups, such as Communists, Trotskyists and Maoists, into the women’s liberation movement, even though these groups were very much divided about the issue of women’s rights during this period. This article examines the ASIO files on the Australian women’s liberation movement and the anxiety that the authorities felt about the ‘threat’ of the personal becoming too politicised.
In the volume of the official history of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) that deals with what Langley (1992) has described as the ‘decade of dissent’, 1965 to 1975, there is one mention of the Women’s Liberation Movement and ASIO’s surveillance of it. In his volume, Blaxland (2015) lists the Women’s Liberation Movement as just one of the social movements that were monitored by ASIO during the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside the peace movement, and the movement for Aboriginal rights. Blaxland does not go beyond this mention, but we know from autobiographical works on the material history of ASIO, such as Anne Summers’ chapter in Meredith Burgmann’s Dirty Secrets anthology (2014 ), that the security services did extensively monitor feminists and the Women’s Liberation Movement during this period.
ASIO were originally interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement because many of the activists first emerged from the organisations of the old and new left in Australia, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the Union of Australian Women (UAW), as well as the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA). A number of non-aligned feminist activists had also been politicised through the anti-Vietnam War movement, which ASIO heavily monitored. However, as the Women’s Liberation Movement grew in the early 1970s, ASIO’s perception of the movement changed. The threat of the Women’s Liberation Movement was not merely from its links to the Marxist (and anarchist) left, but also from its promotion of sexual liberation, which was seen as undermining traditional Australian values. Alongside an embryonic gay rights movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement challenged patriarchy and heteronormativity, arguing that ‘the personal was political’ (as articulated in a range of texts including Hanisch’s 1970 essay) and that all spheres of women’s life were to be liberated. Explaining its broad agenda, Curthoys (1992) wrote:
"The new movement demanded equality and justice for women more aggressively than had its predecessors; it developed a more thorough critique of existing society and the processes of male domination, and sought to empower women by changing their assumptions about themselves and their aspirations, dreams and abilities. It confronted questions of female sexuality in a direct manner somewhat shocking to the women’s organisations of previous decades."
As the Women’s Liberation Movement eschewed traditional forms of activist organisation, ASIO’s focus remained on monitoring the movement via the organisations of the left, as well as large public gatherings, meetings and demonstrations that the movement was involved in. After the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972 and influence of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) as an alternative reformist route for feminist politics, ASIO’s interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement lessened somewhat. By the late 1970s, ASIO had shifted its focus away from monitoring the movement and other movements of the ‘1968’ generation, which is reflected in the files from National Archives in Canberra getting smaller by the fourth volume that covers the period from 1972 to 1980. This article looks at the way that ASIO’s surveillance of the Women’s Liberation Movement changed over the 1970s, as the movement grew in stature and influence, before morphing into different strands of reformist, socialist and radical feminism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It will demonstrate that the movement defied the conventional approach that ASIO took political surveillance, which had developed during the early Cold War period, focusing on the Communist Party and its front groups.