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Hidden from History: The Inner City and Sydney’s Second Wave Feminist Movement

A historical walking tour.

Art by Ellie Stephenson.

Sydney’s history is rife with hidden stories – notably, those of the Second Wave Feminist Movement. The very streets we walk on – around our homes, workplaces, and university – are laced with tales that exist only in the collective memory of a select few, not yet transcribed into  the history books. 

This article is a walking tour of Sydney’s lost feminist history. We must remember that it treads on stolen, unceded Gadigal land. While its sites acted as important spaces for white feminists to communicate and organise, many Aboriginal women felt that their voices were not heard in these spaces. As Kuku Yalanji activist Pat O’Shane has articulated, there remains “a huge gulf between the white women’s [experiences] and the struggles of Indigenous women.” First Nations women, and other minority women continue to play an extremely important role in Australia’s activist history, notably,  feminist history. 

STOP 1 – JESSIE STREET NATIONAL WOMEN’S LIBRARY

Named after the Australian feminist and Pacifist, Jessie Street, the Jessie Street National Women’s Library in Ultimo aims to “keep women’s words, women’s works alive and powerful.” 

Open Monday to Friday from 10 am – 3 pm, the library collects both published and unpublished materials which, according to the library’s website, “document the lives and experience of women of all ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds and of all socio-economic classes.” The collection also includes queer feminist histories and writings. 

While accurate funding remains a persistent problem for the library, the institution houses many feminist artefacts from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Some of these include women’s stories contained within books, letters, diaries, journals, pamphlets, feminist posters, and audio recordings. The majority of the library’s collection dates from the 1960s to the present day. 

The Jessie Street National Women’s Library reminds us not only of the possibilities of preserving and publishing Sydney’s female history but also, in its extent of collections, the breadth of women’s experiences not often recognised in our nation’s past. 

The library’s website is available here: https://www.nationalwomenslibrary.org.au 

STOP 2 – USYD 

Sydney University was arguably the original epicentre of Sydney’s 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement. Spurred by the challenge to generate new ways of thinking about women in a society which upheld patriarchy, it acted as a base for the city’s early ‘Subversive Sheilas’ to foster these counter-hegemonic ideas that quickly spread throughout the city.

Sydney University offered one of the first Women’s Studies departments in the country. The department pioneered in offering interdisciplinary courses, the first of these in 1974 being ‘The Political Economy of Women.’ The formalisation of a feminist academic discipline within Sydney University, the Department of Women’s Studies, propelled feminist activism on the university’s campus amongst both staff and students. This united feminist students with a shared body of knowledge. For example, the university’s Tin Sheds operated as a key organising space for feminist collectives, including the Earthworks Poster Collective, which printed and distributed posters embodying the movement’s aims. Feminist ideologies that manifested at the university proliferated into its surrounding suburbs. 

STOP 3 – THE WOMEN’S LIBERATION HOUSE 

The Women’s Liberation House, or The House, was first established at 67 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, in 1970. While moving to various locations in the inner city throughout the late 1970s, it continued to provide a centralised political organising space beyond USyd for Sydney’s Women’s Libbers across the 1970s. The space assumed a political role as an activist space and key epicentre for Sydney’s feminist ideas; ‘consciousness-raising meetings,’ were hosted, where women openly spoke on  their personal experiences. The House also acted as a publication site of Australia’s second-ever Second Wave feminist newsletter, Mejane, first published in March 1971 from The House’s Letraset press machine. This publication helped to spread the ideas and aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement beyond purely feminist spaces. 

STOP 4 – HOME OF BESSIE GUTHRIE

Bessie Guthrie, born Bessie Mitchell, was a pioneering feminist activist born in 1905. She mentored many of the young Women’s Libbers at the Women’s Liberation House. She lived at 97 Derwent Street, Glebe,  for almost her entire life until her death in 1977. 

Guthrie began her working career in the 1920s as a furniture designer, operating largely within the inner city Bohemian circles wherein feminist ideas were circulated en-masseGuthrie wrote for numerous Sydney women’s magazines in the 1930s, including the Australian Women’s Weekly. In her articles, Guthrie pioneered what is now termed to be women’s ‘social reproduction’ theory. In the feminist context, it  explores how the daily and generational human labour performed by women  in the domestic sphere is essential to capitalism, according to academic Susan Furgusan. 

With the onset of the Women’s Liberation in the early 1970s, Guthrie’s mentorship expanded to new heights and influence. She worked alongside other feminists and activists in organising mass protests fighting for the rights of girls who found themselves in so-called ‘girls homes’; institutions with a reputation for abusing their occupants. 

STOP 5 – ORIGINAL SITE OF THE ELSIE REFUGE 

The Elsie Refuge, first established in 1973 at 73 Westmoreland Street, Glebe, was Australia’s first refuge for women and children run by women alone. The refuge independently operated for forty years with limited government funding.

The establishment of Elsie aimed to raise public awareness of domestic violence and provide options to those fleeing violent situations.  Only six weeks after opening, Elsie had provided accommodation to 48 women and 35 children. This set a precedent for a nationwide refuge movement; by mid-1975, 11 women’s refuges had been established nationwide following Elsie. The founding of Elsie  simultaneously heightened public awareness and broke down stigmas surrounding domestic violence.

As a departing fun fact, the Elise Walk next to Glebe Public School was re-named in 2012 as an ode to the Elsie refuge.