Performing consciousness raising: the Australian women's liberation movement's cultural renaissance on stage and screen
At the beginning of the 1970s, Australian women’s liberationists adopted the technique of consciousness raising to create theatre and film as part of the women’s liberation movement’s ‘cultural renaissance’ (Curthoys 1994b; Magarey 2004). In the first major comparative study of the Carlton Women’s Liberation Group play Betty can jump (1972) and the Sydney Women’s Film Group’s Film for discussion (1973), often credited as the Australian movement’s first play and film, this thesis asks what role consciousness raising played in the movement’s cultural activism. Using archival research and oral interviews, it examines a moment when women strategically used collective processes to tell women’s stories and explore the notion that the personal was political. It argues these collectives innovatively synthesised internationally circulating movements of countercultural politics, avant-garde art practices and consciousness raising. They experimented with new kinds of collective authorship, they blurred divisions between professional and amateur, and divisions between life, art and politics. These works were also consciousness raising events that collapsed divisions between performers and audiences. And in taking the storytelling practice of consciousness raising outside of the small group rap session and into the performative worlds of film and theatre, they revealed the social construction of gender. Australian women’s liberation history has paid comparatively little attention to the movement’s cultural achievements compared to its social and political achievements (Henderson 2012), yet these works were financial and critical successes that were seen by thousands. They also created transformative feminist moments for their makers, for audiences and for Australian film and theatre. The ephemeral and collectively authored character of these works has contributed to their marginal position in the historical memory. Yet, in considering them anew, and placing them in an international context, we gain significant insights into the use and impact of consciousness raising in the Australian women’s liberation movement.