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Chronicling the Sydney Push and other vignettes: my grandma’s stories

From a melting pot characterised by disdain for the parochial suburban ethos of the 50s was born the Push: an intellectual subculture (and set of avid-pub goers) comprising University of Sydney and UNSW students and staff, trade unionists and leftie personalities.

Art by Ellie Stephenson.

CW: this article contains discussion of complications from illegal abortions

It was Australia in the 1960s. Forty per cent of the population was under twenty years of age.  Sydney and Melbourne were rising cities, hubs for international migrants, cosmopolitan industry, arts and subversive politics. The baby boomers were reaching adulthood and free love; libertarian thought and a healthy distrust of authority were burgeoning amongst young bohemian Sydneysiders. The women’s liberation movement would soon explode onto the Australian scene, but progressive ideas of reproductive justice and gender equality were still way off – abortion in NSW wouldn’t even be mildly decriminalised until 1971. Casual racism, widespread homophobia and the ubiquity of Christian family values still dominated the zeitgeist, despite challenges from more progressive sects of the Australian intelligentsia. In Sydney, such intellectual and political battlelines were often drawn, tested and defended at universities by staff and students alike – perhaps more freely than they are today. 

From this melting pot characterised by a decided disdain for the parochial suburban ethos of the 50s, the Push was born: an intellectual subculture (and set of avid-pub goers) comprising University of Sydney and University of NSW students and staff, trade unionists and leftie personalities. My grandmother, Steph, was a student at UNSW from 1961-63, having started there as a 16 year-old. Ever a go-getter, she rubbed shoulders with various Push characters throughout her time at university. She started telling me stories from this time when I started at USyd, and as a chronic hack and general enjoyer of Sydney countercultural history, I thought it all sounded pretty dope. I decided more people should know about the Push. Not to emulate, but to grow our own student philosophies, movements and pub-hang vibes. 

So, let’s Push on.

The movement’s name was inspired by the quasi-criminal gangs that operated in Sydney at the end of the 19th century (e.g. The Rocks Push, the Argyle Push, the Straw Hat Push), but became somewhat of an affectation, with most of the Push’s members being young middle-class or upwardly-mobile working class students and staff of philosophy and psychology. The hardcore Push parked up at the Royal George Hotel (now the Slip Inn). Steph remembers it as “a very intimidating place, people seemed to practically live there”, while “us lightweights” preferred Lorenzinis: a wine bar and coffee shop on Elizabeth Street. 

The Push might not have amounted to much if it wasn’t for the ideological origins they found in the work of John Anderson, Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1927 to 1958. Where Melbourne-based philosophy academics at the time seemed to gravitate more formally towards Marx, Anderson propounded and shaped a Sydney-esque philosophical system that engaged primarily with the theories of Neitzsche, Sorel and Bakunin amongst the usual 1960s Cultural Revolution suspects. He had a ‘conflict theory’ of the world and attacked all forms of what he perceived to be ‘bourgeois society’: morality, religion, tradition, loyalty, business, marriage, monogamy, censorship and civic responsibility. Basically, he criticised everything, relentlessly.

Fellow philosopher James Franklin wrote that according to Anderson: “The world was going downhill fast. It was the age of socialism, religion, communism, rationalism… In Australia the Labor and Liberal parties were both committed to destroying freedom and independence. The churches, the universities and the media were servile to ruling interests.”

USyd’s Free Thought Society and Libertarian Society spread Anderson’s ideas amongst their circles and the Push developed from there. Despite this base, they emphatically refused a singular political category. My grandmother recalls that in their insistence on being so fringe, they often capitulated to doing very little beyond bevs and pub chats late into the night: “You didn’t want to really belong to anything, [lest that] would subvert your freedom of thought… but not belonging to anything is a useful moniker for what was more aptly coasting.” 

Diving into the strange leftist internet archives of Sydney proves the Push was divisive, in ideology and composition. Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna) dismissed them as jobless poseurs, “a fraternity of middle-class desperates, journalists, drop-out academics, gamblers and poets manqués, and their doxies”. By the end of the 1950s, ASIO was keeping a close eye on the Libertarian society and their close overlap with the Push. A report excerpt from 1959 reads:

“At first meeting with these people one is inclined to regard them as an offshoot of the “beatniks”, but after knowing them a short while it becomes obvious that they are well above the average “beatnik” intellectually. Their knowledge of Marxism is surprising and their ability to discuss this subject on levels not encountered in the C. P. of A. is both stimulating and educational.

“[Their membership includes] a few anarchists who wouldn’t hesitate to drop a bomb on the Sydney Harbour Bridge or de-rail a train … and the Libertarians have absolutely no standard of ethics. Their behaviour and conversation in mixed company would be regarded as `shocking’ even in `modern’ society.

“They have no respect for property and live entirely within their own periphery of standards, which can only be described as obscure … The Libertarians should not be underestimated despite their base outlook.”

It all sounds rogue and exciting, but this was also the 60s, so we have to keep in mind the reality of the Push. For largely white, male, middle-class university students, clashes with police and the law would inherently carry less risk than for other groups involved in political agitation around Sydney. Free love was an easy sell when the majority of the Push’s membership were young men. 

“It was all rather chauvinistic, they would have multiple partners and the girls would be putting up with this because of the idea that everything was free, if you objected you were bourgeois,” said Steph.

Sex is fun and free love is great, but “people would get pregnant and they would need an abortion”. The consequences of the Push’s promiscuous philosophies were carried by women in and around the Push far more than anyone else. Despite their radical signalling, the Push shied away from the grit and taboo of the underground abortion scene or practical modes of reproductive justice.

In this light, Steph told me the story of her best friend’s shock pregnancy. “We were all terrified of getting pregnant, and what that would mean for us in a life or death sense. A sister of a school friend had died having an abortion.” The social stigma of the process ran so deep that Steph remembers that friend’s mother as having said of her own daughter “she shouldn’t have done anything like that [ie. have sex]”. Common non-lethal outcomes from botched abortions were lifelong sterility or permanent reproductive complications. 

My grandmother and her best friend were 17 and 18 respectively, her friend the daughter of a high-profile Catholic businessman – “bleeding heart above the dining table style”. An unexpected pregnancy was not on the cards. At 4.5 months along, her friend divulged she desperately needed an abortion. A UNSW academic friend associated with the Push knew someone who knew someone, and the girls were running short on options. Her friend borrowed 200 pounds from him to pay for the procedure and was told to stand on the corner of Castlereagh and Market in the city at midday wearing a blue skirt and hat. She was picked up by an unmarked car, blindfolded and driven “to what she imagined to be a large house the south or southwest of Sydney”. Girls and women of many backgrounds populated the house in various stages of termination or abortion. Steph put it simply: “we all knew about the knitting needle and the coat-hanger but the situation was so far gone that she needed to actually give birth”. After the birth of the foetus induced by injection in the early morning, she was given a few hours to recover. Then she was blindfolded once again and deposited back on the city corner whence she came with some aspirin and the advice that “if anything goes wrong, go to a hospital and say you had a miscarriage”. 

When she started lactating in the days following the procedure, my grandma took her to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where they did end up lying about a miscarriage to get drugs to stop it. The RPA staff didn’t bat an eye but “everyone knew what was really going on”. My grandmother’s friend never told anyone else about the abortion and failed university at the end of that year. It would be another decade before abortions even on the strictest medical or welfare grounds became legal in NSW.

Steph also told me about her first major relationship at that time, when hormonal contraception was only just entering the Australian market. My grandmother insisted she would “not get pregnant… if [she] had one goal for her uni days that simply was not going to happen”. Her connections to the Push became useful here, looping her into a supply of hormonal contraceptive pills smuggled across from America. The oral contraceptive pill was only approved for distribution in Australia in 1961, with a prescription from a doctor. The granting of this prescription was totally dependent on their attitudes, particularly with regard to prescribing for unmarried women. As one can imagine, many doctors remained ardently conservative and would often refuse young women birth control. As a result, Push doctors and other progressive medical professionals who would grant prescriptions offered a scarce and necessary service to women that we now take entirely for granted. 

As the 1960s rolled on and women’s liberation gained momentum, the Push waned. The denouncing of Push men as unthinking sexists by feminist members cut to the quick of the group’s self-image, as its purported ideological rationale was liber­tarian and ‘militantly egalitarian’, especially in the realm of sex and relationships. Of course, they did not reflect the politics they preached in many instances, and were not keeping with the times. 

Ultimately, it was this feminist critique, the invention of the Pill and the ageing process that led to the dissolution of the Push, but not before it had provided some of the ideological and psychological foundations for the resolute individualism that still influences the political culture of Sydney. That individualism is probably not a great thing, but can inform an understanding of the fractious nature of the left in our city today. Perhaps it’s time to forego macho libertarianism and envision a new type of struggle and pub politicking: one guided by collectivism and good faith. One that recognises although we’ve come far since the material conditions of the 1960s, we still have ways to go before there is true liberation for many of us.

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