Interview with Sylvie Leber December 2008 (posted September 2009)
I am passionate about women’s culture and women’s expression generally ... I think I will always be a ratbag. I will never shut-up. I will always be opinionated and fight for social justice, whether it be for women, refugees, or anti-war activism.
I come from three generations of revolutionaries and activists, starting with my paternal grandfather who was involved in the first Russian revolution. He was a member and active organiser of the Jewish Labour Bund. My father’s mother taught at a kindergarten for disadvantaged Jewish children. Following the revolution many Jews were very disappointed with the outcome as anti-semitism didn’t disappear. As a result, my grandfather and grandmother moved to Paris.
Similarly my maternal grandparents left East Europe and went to Paris post the revolution , between the World Wars. My father was in the French Resistance during World War ll. Three of my grandparents were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz concentration camp.
All this was my background and formation. I belonged to a Jewish left wing youth group as I was growing up – called SKIF which was part of the Jewish Labor Bund. That was very influential. It turned me into a critical thinker. With a background like this I have no other choice but to be an activist.! Also very influential for me was the anti- Vietnam War movement. My first protest was at the age of fifteen when General Ky, the leader of the South Vietnamese forces and Prime Minister of S.V. came to visit Australia. I remember going to Government House with one of my teachers and a few of my friends. The movement was pretty much organised by and dominated by men and I think that sewed some of the seeds for feminism here.
My next early stirrings to do with feminism were around childcare issues – the lack of availability of affordable childcare. There was a movement in this area in the early 1970’s and I attended a couple of protests which were mainly focused on university campuses. Interestingly the leader of this movement was a man - Lou Costello.
Also very influential for my latent feminism was when I was in New Guinea at twenty one years old. I happened to visit a bookshop at the University in Papua and I found Germaine Greer’s book The Female Eunuch. This would have been in 1971-2.I thought: ‘Gee, this Germaine Greer is writing what I’ve thought and felt but she’s able to articulate it.'
Significantly, not long after reading this, I was violently attacked on my way back to Melbourne …. raped and almost murdered. I had a nervous breakdown as a result and it took me a long time to recover due to the inadequacy of the phsyciatric sytem in recognising post traumatic stress. One of the positive things that came out of it was that I joined with a group of women to form Victoria’s first Rape Crisis Centre. It was at the Women’s Health Centre, in Johnston Street, Collingwood in a room upstairs where we used to meet and organise and to staff the phones.
We had some significant meetings with Police Commissioners and various politicians. What was happening was that women were not reporting rape. When they DID have the courage to go to the police station they very often found the police unsupportive and disbelieving and were told to just go home and forget about it.
Around that time, I was involved with the first women’s refuge in Princes Street, Kew. That is where I met the wonderful Rose Stone, who was rostered on at the same time as me. I did have some confused feelings about the women who came to the refuge and after we supported them, assisted them to re-establish themselves on their own, put them in touch with services that they may need and found them suitable housing, all too often the women would return to their partners. I found that complex and difficult to understand. At times it was frustrating. Later I learnt about ‘battered wife syndrome’.
In 1975 I was on the organising committee of the Woman and Madness conference Melbourne University and gave a keynote address on my horrific experiences of sexual violence and the psychiatric sytem.
Alongside the need for changes in law and services for women who experienced violence, there was another part of me that felt very strongly about the lack of representation of women in Australian culture. I was working towards the establishment of women’s culture in the arts – in particular, music, theatre, film and the visual arts. I was in the founding group that set up the Melbourne Women’s Theatre Group (WTG), which existed for seven years. Many women from the Australian Performing Group joined The WTG because of the lack of good roles for women in Australian theatre.
We had a whole range of different sorts of plays. The first few shows had a quality of cabaret, with a lot of music, short pieces, high energy, lots of humour. We had some more serious pieces, too. We did a piece on young women incarcerated under the horrible regime of ‘being exposed to moral danger’. What that usually meant is that they were being sexually abused by a member of their family, and instead of that member being charged with a crime, the young woman was taken into an institution. The institution was called Winlaton. We named that the type of approach used documentary theatre. Members of the audience included police and young women who had been in Winlaton.
We also did street theatre. One show was about women in unions, I remember. We did street theatre related to abortion, in what is now City Square. We also did travelling shows around Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. One was the Migrant Women’s Show: She’ll Be Right Mate. We spend quite a bit of time with different groups for this, and the show was in different languages – Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and what was then Yugoslav We had songs and dances, gathering real stories to develop the show. Another travelling show was the Travelling Medicine Show, about women and health.
There was the Sisters’ Delight Festival. This was a week of wonderful activities associated with International Women’s Day, based in the Carlton Gardens. We had a feminist fashion parade, a bake-off, music, theatre. And we had the wonderful English actress Glenda Jackson give a talk . We had a talent show at the Pram Factory which was just wild.
At one point we decided we wanted to be independent of the Australian Performing Group so we moved out of the Pram Factory and found our own location ‘The Space’– an old warehouse in Faraday Street, Carlton. There was Wonder Woman’s Revenge looking at women’s mythology. We did another series where we called women from all over Australia to submit plays they had written and we selected three and produced Women Times Three. A lot of music was associated with the group, so coming out of the Women’s Theatre Group and associated with it were quite a few bands.
My next foray was into women’s music. I started up a band called Toxic Shock. I used to annoy my fiend Eve to come and start a band. I had been in bands before but I thought it would be good to have an all women’s band. We ended up with a seven piece group called, at first, the Girls’ Garage Band (because we used to rehearse in a garage in Northcote).
When we became Toxic Shock we performed at pubs, universities, women’s events and we even recorded three of our original songs. One of the songs, called Intoxicated, was a song I wrote with help with the lyrics from a friend. I recently listened to this song. It is very dated, but there a line critical of Malcolm Fraser and his policies. He was in power at the time. The irony is that in recent years he has become one of the ‘good guys’. In recent years, because of my refugee rights activism, I have found myself in the same venues and fighting on the same side.
Alongside Toxic Shock, I started up a radio program called Give-Men-a-pause on 3RRR. That was to try to redress the imbalance around women’s music. The show had a lot of women’s music although some of the band musicians were male, we had interviews with women performers and I think our program was probably the first radio program that recorded people performing live in the studio. This got us into a bit of trouble. We got into trouble a couple of times. One time I played Robyn Archer’s Menstruation Blues. It had the line in it ‘and I can’t even fuck’.
A journalist, Gerald Lyons, was listening. The outcome was that in the sensationalist paper we had at that time called The Truth, there was a photo of Robyn Archer on the front page with a big beat-up of this one word in one line in one song of one singer, and Gerald Lyons got a local bishop to talk, and I was hauled over the coals by the management of 3RRR and forced to listen to an audio tape about radio and the law.
That program went for a couple of years initially for two hours, then we were suddenly pulled off air without warning then when management learnt via a survey that we were the most popular program they had we were invited back to do three hours on Sunday morning, mainly with me and Claire Warren of the ‘amazing voice’. Then there was Woman Made – a three day exhibition of things made and collected by women. We had sculptures, paintings, crochet, even table covered by Anne Stephen’ collection of doilies. It was a huge labyrinth like display. It was one of the first women’s art exhibitions in post WWII times and located at the space as part of International Women’s Year.
At the IWY march we created a giant sculpture, all of ten feet tall, of a robed woman with one breast exposed and her fist up in the air – a strong Amazonian woman. She was made of a chicken wire base and covered in aluminium foil, plastic wrap and steel wool – all domestic materials. She represented all the women who had lost their lives in war. There seemed to be a large gap with women’s achievements underepresented in the ANZAC Day ceremonies; something, we wanted redressed. She was just so beautiful and powerful. (LIP magazine)
I am passionate about women’s culture and women’s expression generally. I have a short story in Stories of Her Life and I have also made a short film called We All Have Our Moments, an AFI ‘No Frills’ funded film. It was about famous and infamous women in history and their stories, a half-hour puppet animation made with paper cut-out dolls. There was Boadicea, Bessie Smith, Suzie Quatro, Amelia Earhart, Robyn Davidson, just to name a few. It was done like a theatrical production. Each woman had her moment. Charlotte Corday, Marie Curie, the writer Collette and Sara Bernhardt – showing my predisposition for things French.
I drank it all up. It was empowerment for me and for other women. It was an educative process and also an affirmation for women. When we took the Migrant Women’s show to Newcastle to the shipyards, in the lunchroom. The women had tears in their eyes. It was probably the first time their stories were being told. The responses we would get afterwards were enormous. We were innovative, doing stuff that had never been done before. It was exciting – incredibly exciting times.
On reflection, at times I did get disillusioned. After seven productive years I saw the Women’s Theatre Group Taken over and then destroyed by separatists – separatism from men. I was not a separatist and I thought, in the end, they were just playing to themselves. I also saw the rise of the Femocrat. Suddenly these women were compromising. They thought that by going into the ‘establishment’ they would be able to achieve substantial reform but they ended up compromising too much. Then there was the issue of seeking Government funding with our hands being tied and the compromises that arose out of that. It ended up the ‘tail wagging the dog’. We were trying to second-guess all the time.
Gough Whitlam certainly helped women a lot, I must say. He set up the Office on the Status of Women,, gave out grants without strings attached. It was a hey-day. It was a psychological liberation, too. We had mental freedom and our imagination was able to soar. We felt we were not being limited by Government, but in the end that all changed.
I became a single mother (by choice) and had the good fortune, when my daughter was about three, to land a Community Development job working for the Council for Single Mothers and Her Child. I worked on a tenancy self-advocacy project looking at single mothers in the private rental market – a multi strategic project that was fantastically successful in many ways. It didn’t solve all the problems but it certainly raised awareness.
We did an informative kit for single mothers and provide peer support for single mothers having problems in the private rental market. We also conducted a two day state-wide ‘Phone In’ and the data was the basis for a report which influenced changes to the code of conduct of the Real Estate Institute of Victoria and influenced Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Commission. We even met and lobbied the then Federal Minister for Housing.
Jeff Kennett was elected Premier and he hated self advocacy. He wanted the charity model with organisations like the Salvation Army looking after single mothers. He didn’t want single mothers helping themselves. He chopped the project and refused to refund it. Staff in the Department of Consumer Affairs were devastated. They thought we were doing a good job. Lorraine Elliot, a Liberal MP at the time who strongly believed in the project, lobbied for us but she was not successful in changing Kennett’s mind. I had the great honour of being one of the first cabs of the rank to be ‘Jeffed’.
I became ashamed to be an Australian citizen under the Howard years. Australia lost its soul. Those years were a nightmare and Human Rights went out the window. I was very upset when single mothers were forced to work when the youngest child reached six. I cried when I first heard about it . What sort of a job could a woman get with hours between when they have dropped the kids off at school at 9.00 and when they have to pick them up again at 3.00pm?,. What about when the children are sick and during school holidays? Very few jobs fit this. I thought that they’ll inevitably end up working in the sex industry. I’ve seen single mothers forced into the sex industry before.
Another thing that has diturbed me and a lot of other Australians is the treatment of Aboriginals. I never felt that I, as a white person, should be active in a high profile way but I always support in any way I can.
Most of my life I have been passionate about anti-racism. When I learnt of refugees being locked up in detention centres I threw myself fully into the Refugee Rights Movement. I became involved in the Refugee Action Collective, campaigning on many levels using both legal and illegal means. We are still discriminating against refugees and asylum seekers. Even now, why do we focus so much on people smugglers rather than on the refugees? My mother, my uncle and my grandmother were saved from the Nazis by people smugglers. Whether they are in it for the money or for social justice reasons, they are sometimes necessary.
The Tampa at the Federal level, the Siev X, at OUR September 11Victorian police being sent in to bash up Victorians (including breaking the bones of teenage kids, who were passionate about what they saw were the world’s economic injustices were being thumped by police who had taken off their numbers and their hats so they couldn’t be identified) at our S11 - the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, the Aboriginal situation, the way Australia works so closely with Indonesia when it shouldn’t, and still does, affects me.
Some of the feminist writers who have influenced me are Germaine Greer and Shulamith Firestone. Our Bodies, Our Selves is a very significant publication because it was about women’s empowerment and was a very practical book. Lip Magazine, the Melbourne based feminist art magazine was a strong and positive influence on me as were many women – including women from my own family.
I think I will always be a ratbag. I will never shut-up. I will always be opinionated and fight for social justice, whether it be for women, refugees, or anti-war activism. ‘If you don’t fight, you lose’ I have this half-serious, half-silly proposal about how to achieve world peace. I would like to see all the leaders of the world put into a large sports stadium and be told they have twenty four hours to sort things out to create world peace – if they don’t they will have a bomb dropped on them!
‘Fight the Power’ (thanks Public Enemy) is the bit of graffiti we did just before the last federal election in Footscray. Its still there. I love graffiti and am a big fan of Banksy. One of my favourites that used to be in Carlton in the 70s is ‘War is Menstruation Envy’. .
I look at young women like my daughter who are feisty, loving and strong and I am hopeful. I think love is a revolutionary emotion. Stay open-hearted, embrace people’s difference, live well, love much and laugh often.