Feelings of Nostalgia: How the Personal Became Political

This week I attended the symposium run by the ANU Gender Institute, How the Personal Became Political: re-assessing Australia’s revolutions in gender and sexuality in the 1970s.

Unfortunately I was quite busy with some other things over the two days of the event, so was only able to attend a few of the talks. However I saw some really great talks. 

I went to the excellent key note from Elizabeth Reid, in which she reflected on the birth of the women’s liberation movement and the integration (and the problems with this) of that movement into bureaucratic structures. I then went to a great plenary of ‘questioning gendered structures’. This involved talks from Amanda Laugesen on campaigns to change sexist language, a great reflection from Julie McLeod on introducing discussions of gender and sexuality into schools (something is very relevant for right now) and a really fascinating talk from Georgine Clarsen, where she spoke about working class women, particular those involved in trades, and their involvement in the feminist movement. Finally, on the second day I went to the final plenary, where I heard Jon Piccini talk about the legacy of Dennis Altman and his role in the liberation movements of the 1970s, and then ended the day with a talk from Carolyn D’Cruz on the origins of gender, sexuality and diversity studies in Australian universities (again something that is very relevant with the cuts to those studies today).

Overall, the small amount of this conference I went to was really interesting. Over forty years since the birth of the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1970s, it was quite fascinating to hear the perspectives of those who were at the forefront of those movements, in particular in the context of where we are today.

One of the most interesting parts of this was what I can only describe is a dominating feeling of nostalgia for those times. The speakers throughout the conferences often I feel reflected on these times not just as the birth of the gay and women’s movements, but also as the pinnacle of them. There was a clear perception from so many that things had gone backwards — both in terms of broader political debate, but also of the politics of the feminist and gay movements as they exist today.

This is something I’ve noticed a bit recently. At the Homosexual Histories Conference I went to in late November I noticed the very same feeling. A lot of the talks (naturally) focused on this era, with participants gleefully looking at that time as one they’d like to revisit.

My initial reaction this nostalgic turn was one of a bit of annoyance. Part of this feels a bit like a generational difference — one in which those of older generations look down in derision at those who have come after them, with a thought that basically says ‘we did this much better than you’. It feels a bit like folks throwing stones from the outside of movements that are currently happening.

But once I got over my generational insult, I looked at this with a clearer head. That is because I think there is a lot to be said about this nostalgia, it is a feeling we should certainly respect, and absolutely learn from. This is for two reasons.

First, it is because I think a lot of the politics, strategies, and tactics of the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1970s were significantly superior to those of the predominant identity politics that exists today. The language and politics of collective liberation is one that is much stronger, in my view, than the language of identity that exists today.

Secondly however, and more importantly, I think the nostalgia reflects very strongly on identity-based social movements today. This nostalgia represents, in many ways, an isolation and distance many feel from identity-politics. It’s not just the ‘old guard’ saying ‘we did this better than you’, but instead reflecting on the fact that identity politics puts up huge barriers to participation and collective action, even for those who have led these movements in the past. Identity politics has become one obsessed with political and identity purity, something that is not provided to early leaders of the women’s and gay liberation movements, whose politics are regularly questioned. Many of these leaders are therefore left out of identity-politics today, naturally making them feel isolate, and nostalgic for a past that was seemingly more inclusive. 

This is the real learning point, and the real shame, of this conference for me. What was presented was fascinating accounts of ground breaking movements. They provided essential lessons for feminist and queer today. But I fear these lessons are not being listened to — you just had to look at the age profile of the symposium to see that — largely because identity politics puts up so many barriers that the message will never get through. We all lose when that happens.   

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