One of the reasons it's coming out in such a rush is current politics.
I just dipped out of a discussion that was turning into an argument on the same subject. I was trying to explain that the Australian women's movement had a system in place in the 90s and early 00s that is worth considering for its capacity to effect positive change in a climate like this. We were talking about different things, I think, though. The person I was talking with was arguing about specific issues and groups that need to not suffer and I was talking about systems. Twitter didn't work. We were just getting further and further from each other. That's Twitter - it can be amazing, but it can also lead to trainwrecks. I decided to leave before it became a trainwreck, for the things we agreed on were not obvious, because our underlying assumptions were different.
What precisely am I talking about, then, when I talk about my little part of the women's movement? Why do I think it was such a (relative to today) success?
First, let me state up front why it ended. For me, I had burn-out, needed to write and got PTSD from related stuff (as some of you know). The Liberal government undermined it systematically and without warning - this rather suggested that Howard thought it was a danger, and Howard set up a lot of the politics that gave us the current Liberal government. We didn't know that it was under attack until it was too late. It was all done quietly and politely. Lulu and I were talking about this the other day, in fact.
Because of the way it worked, however, those with knowledge from it are still around. Some of my friends are still very operational and still doing amazing things. Others are more like me. As a system, it has more capacity than most to not-other (note my careful phrasing - it othered, I saw it other, but I saw it other far less than anything else I've encountered). That was what I was getting at and what my friend was missing. Complexity is not always reducible to tweets.
Let me tell you how it worked. Well, some of it. Complexity is not always reducible to essays, either.
I was heavily involved in the training part of it from 1994-2001. Some moments stood out. A uni had offered to help prepare delegates for the Beijing and Beijing +5 meetings (the big UN conferences on women) and this was seen as a Good Thing in PR terms by the Federal Govt. The department responsible had two staff members who did most of the work, and they got us on board. Me specifically (for reasons that will become obvious). I ran workshops, and they were on very specific lines. I needed to give some women the skills to make their voices heard and other women the skills of listening.
It was that simple.
I didn't go to Beijing +5, because my voice was already being heard through Australian delegates and through Jewish delegates. I've always regretted that personally, but it was the right thing in all other ways. I got to mind the feminist shop back home, which was a fascinating experience in and of itself. I ran CAPOW! during the B+5 meeting, but that's another story.
Why were workshops so important?
One of the reasons some groups lag behind in human rights is because they don't know whose door to knock on. My lesson in this came when a fringe men's rights groups got significant funding. Their people went to Parliament House, met with every single MP and Senator they could, which was most of them - privilege includes doors that open, and thus, when the proposal came up, their names were known etc. They got their funding.
This is a part of privilege - the capacity to knock on doors and get meetings. It's what I'm missing in academia in Canberra, by the way, which is yet another story.
So what we were doing as activists was partly capacity building - sharing the knowledge part of privilege and developing links ie increasing the influence part of privilege.
This was not one-sided by any means. What I got from that weekend where I gave workshops was a lunch with the representatives from Bougainville and from Papua New Guinea. When we talk about people who are left out and hurting, they are there, so very high on the list. Learning from them made me think about tags and issues from an entirely different light and it's why I prefer systems that enable changes and new understanding to be brought in.
Issues-based change mostly deals with the problems that are currently visible, not with the endemic and not with the invisible. From a personal view, until that moment I thought in rather imperialist terms - "I shall go to PNG and help!" These days I'm more likely to think "I won't go to PNG. The aim isn't to make others more like me, it's to enable them to be themselves with equal rights to me. PNG is dangerous for Western women and how can I help if I have to live a gated existence? I'll have to change the world from my strengths, instead."
What I would like to see is the return of capacity building so that we expand society's ability to challenge problems and find equitable solutions. So that more people have the skills and are involved. So that the privileged aren't taking care of others, but we're all taking care of each other. Everyone's learning.
What did we do everyday? What precisely was the CAPOW! element? CAPOW! comprised nearly seventy women's organisations. In theory, it was like any other peak body, except it was for Australian women's groups. It was open to all national level women's organisations, regardless of their politics and regardless of their level of activity. We often met by telephone, because conference calls were possible then and some other things that are common now, were not.
How we dealt with a given matter varied. Basically, what it came down to was when more than one group had something in common, they could choose to share their resources and to work more effectively. This, again, at its best, opened those doors for groups that didn't previously have that aspect of privilege in Australia. Around that time, I talked to representatives of a Muslim group at a local meeting about this, and we were stunned by how much knowledge wasn't passed across or down, and how much that knowledge confers privilege. Trickle down and trickle across just doesn't happen the way it should in leftish circles. It's easier to pontificate than educate. And this is how I got into workshopping and getting the workshopped to find shared goals and to find working buddies with complementary skills and... all sorts of things.
But I digress.
We not only encouraged different women's bodies to work together, we shared a lot of knowledge about what was happening in government. This is where governments helped us. We had Federal Government funding (a Labor legacy) and this was eventually our downfall. The door knocking thing. It gave power to people who didn't have it. The Liberal government found it threatening. Some times what we did was quite small, like stating in a meeting that these Parliamentary inquiries were open to both individual and community outside submissions and that this is how one makes one's submission stick. Sometimes it was facing uncomfortable realities, such as the fact that we all make mistakes and that anger doesn't get results as a rule. All the time, it included thinking and re-thinking of the constant need to be aware of whose needs are being missed and to find ways of including them and making sure they have voices, too.
I wasn't the only one who worked on the educational side. We all did.
It was a flexible changing system based on the need to be politically knowledgeable and to help make everyone's voice heard. It was not about anger. It was not even about right vs left.
We worked together when we had shared goals and didn't when we didn't. How this was possible was because national organisations sent representatives to meetings, suggested agenda items and chose what they wanted to be involved in - and then did their own thing as well.
I saw my teaching taken on by right wing, left wing, activities from minority groups - so many people. That was what it was for. It was not about listening to Important Voices. That's what we do in this decade. It was not about putting issues in order of importance - it was about enabling as many women as possible to work on the issues they knew needed change and to bring people together who have common interests.
It was far from perfect. It was, for one thing, exceptionally unwieldy. It also missed some voices, because some people were (with reason) scared to put their names down.
If anyone asks me, I'd suggest a different set-up. Safety would be addressed in a different way, for one thing. I was rocked (in a very bad way) when the aunties at a meeting wouldn't sit at the table with the rest of us. They insisted on sitting in a row, away from the table. I talked to them about it and part of it was it was a safety issue and a not-understanding-how-things-work issue (the other parts are even bigger issues - but are other stories). For the safety part, education would have had to be given to us (the non-Indigenous people) and for the not-understanding, well, we needed more skilling, more workshops, but to make them effective, again, mainstream Australia would have to stop and listen.
When I say that there are many kinds of privilege and some without most kinds still have privilege that can silence even their friends, this is one of the moments I have in mind.
One of the things I took from those years is that unintentional othering happens regardless and that everyone (whether political or not) needs to be constantly learning to avoid it. This is why I'm writing my current novel. There's stuff I have to learn and, for me, writing is a good way of learning it.
Another thing I took from it is why and how focussing on issues is not the best first approach to problems. When we approach each issue separately, we lose the wider contexts and we lose adaptability and we tend to focus on it to such an extent that we lose sight of other needs.
And a third thing is that burn-out is burn-out, and PTSD is PTSD. Once the threats get dangerous, those who can't deal still have to get out. Self-care is not something we considered nearly enough, and that was the downfall of quite a few of us. This is why I and some others didn't come out fighting when we were undermined.
Some of the work that was done by this big unwieldy group of women (and a few men) way back then, however, is holding Australia back from the abyss. It's worth revisiting. And maybe more than that.