Book talk: History of the 1970s

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Jeff Popple reviews a fascinating history of the 1970s. More of Jeff’s reviews can be found on his blog: murdermayhemandlongdogs.com

The Seventies by Michelle Arrow

Newsouth, $34.99

The 1970s are usually viewed as a decade of political turmoil and economic upheaval, with most historical attention being paid to the election and dismissal of Gough Whitlam and the economic downturn that led to the Hawke/Keating reforms of the 1980s.

In her engaging study of the decade, The Seventies, Sydney historian Michelle Arrow argues that the seventies were also the era when the personal became political and when social movements tore down the boundary between public and private life.

According to Arrow, the seventies saw the re-emergence of many social movements, most prominently those against the Vietnam War, but also those in support of women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, environmental protection and Aboriginal land rights. It was also the decade in which many of our fundamental ideas about marriage and sex were challenged and when many Australians began to accept the reality that their country was no longer just “White”. Social norms were reshaped and our perspectives on the private experiences of women, children, gays and lesbians and Indigenous people were changed to recognise their distinctive needs.

As Arrow notes, the 1970s began with heterosexual white men advocating for modest reform for men charged with homosexual offences and ended with the radical feminists of Women Against Rape trying to lay wreaths for rape victims on Anzac Day. In between those events, there were wins for the social movements, including the appointment of the first women’s advisor to the Prime Minister, the ground-breaking Royal Commission on Human Relationships, improvements in some services, but also conservative backlash in the late 1970s.

Views changed in the 1970s, but as those of us that lived through it can attest, that change was not uniform, and as the Prime Minister recently indicated in his speech on International Women’s Day, not all of that change was lasting.

In all, a fascinating account of an important decade that still reverberates today.

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