In 1981, when I was a member of the Wood St Kids Co-op – a parent-run childcare centre – one of the other mothers asked if I’d be interested in helping to put out a feminist newspaper.
That’s how I got involved in the collective that produced the anarchist-feminist paper Everything.
Over those 12 months I worked on two issues. One had the theme of childcare, while the second focused on housing and how it affected women living mainly in the inner city, some alone, some in share houses and others with partners and young children.
Reading through issues of Everything in the Library’s collection has been a visceral experience for me. It has provided me with more than facts about early 1980s life, creating a portal into the feelings and sensations of another place and time.
The 1970s and 80s were exciting years, full of possibilities. Many people were looking for ways to join together in collectives or cooperatives to provide childcare, to express political viewpoints and share life experience, and to consume the freshest food in the most economical way. What we lacked in money, we made up for with time and youthful energy.
It was also a time when people of all ages and walks of life seemed to be realising that they didn’t necessarily have to wait for ‘somebody to do something’ about matters that concerned them. Banding together in groups, they could do something themselves. Years later, working as an editor on a heritage education kit, I was fortunate enough to meet the women from Hunters Hill who successfully joined with Jack Mundey and the Builders’ Labourers Federation to protect their local area known as Kelly’s Bush.
It was a time when the Workers’ Educational Association regularly ran courses on women’s health and feminist literature, including a series of classes I attended, given by sociologist Madge Dawson. The Women’s Press and Virago Books had kicked off and were publishing not only new authors but republishing neglected female writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and Madge led classes that introduced me to many wonderful writers.
In the Everything collective we had French and Spanish speakers, women who worked in refuges and health centres, singers, long-time activists, artists and illustrators, and enthusiasts like myself, eager to learn about getting a newspaper out on a collective basis. There were women experienced with printing as well as those with writing, layout and graphic design skills.
We all brought life experience to the task, along with the mantra: the personal is political. So we wrote about our lives and the things that supported or alienated us, and we shared what we had learned and observed.
Writing our stories meant opening ourselves up. Love and loss were apparent in the childcare issue, with one woman writing about the death of her daughter in a braver and more honest way than I may have appreciated at the time. In my case, contributing articles helped me to clarify my ideas and then write about them as objectively as possible.
I also learned about a key feature of collective decision-making: while it invariably takes longer, there is also time for the less experienced to learn from the more established members. We were able to share skills and I learned a lot from the collective.
Because I had been involved in the Kids Co-op for around four years at that stage, I was familiar with the process of discussing ideas with others while aiming for group consensus. And that was a skill I could bring to the Everything collective.
The Kids Co-op
The Wood St Kids Co-op provided high-quality, low-cost childcare to support the whole gamut of parenting experiences. There were full-time parents with between one and four children. Some parents worked full-time while their partners did shifts at the co-op, some worked part-time, others were students or self-employed builders or shopkeepers. But sometimes the co-op offered the simple but profound benefit of being able to leave your child for an hour or two while you had a doctor’s appointment, did your shopping or met a friend.
Looking back, I can see how much support fellow Kids Co-op members gave to each other and what a huge difference it made to my life. Sharing both your love for your kids and your frustrations with parenting was invaluable. As I wrote in the Everything article:
The Co-op definitely breaks down the isolation that many parents of young children feel. It also helps to fight against the competitive aspects of child-raising – the ‘my child is more advanced than yours’ – ‘how to have a brighter child’ mentality, that can be so destructive. When you know each other’s children so well, you know them as people, not as athletes in some kind of obstacle race – leaping over toilet training, weaning, bottles and thumb-sucking to emerge fully developed and reciting the ABCs at three and a half years old.
But with freedom comes responsibility. That meant turning up on time for half-day shifts three times a fortnight (or organising a replacement if you couldn’t make it), attending night-time meetings, coming to weekend working bees and running street stalls to raise the money needed to keep going.
We cooked healthy food for lunch and created wholesome snacks. We fed the children vegaroni and soyaroni with grated cheese and made sandwiches with grated cheese, carrots and hummus. We cooked and cleaned up, over and over, leaving everything as clean as possible for the next couple of people on shift.
Changing nappies, reading stories, supervising play, encouraging sharing. Comforting children after their parents left. It took commitment and energy and could be draining.
Hardly a perfect organism, the co-op’s numbers waxed and waned. At times strong personalities clashed, and patience could be stretched when a group of assertive two-year-olds was cooped up inside on a rainy day.
Yet, in my experience, optimism prevailed and people found ways to work well together. The co-op lived on (1977–88) developing cooperative work practices, can-do attitudes and the pragmatism needed to get through a shift with up to 14 children under four years of age, with only one other adult for company.
We all developed our arsenal of cheer-up weapons. Some played music or led painting or dress-up games. We read books to the children, with Where the Wild Things Are among the favourites.
We were also indebted to the co-op members, usually men, who didn’t do shifts but came in on weekends to build shelves, knock holes in walls, paint, plaster and mow the lawn. Everyone had something to contribute and this made things work.
We celebrated children’s birthdays at each other’s houses at daytime parties where the parents stayed and partied too. We formed a community and, for some, lifelong friendships.
That for me was 1981 and inner city living, captured in the Everything newspaper. A life of small children, collective decision-making, and a certain political earnestness. Writing this article, I was able to share Everything articles with my children, bringing back memories for all of us.
This was a time when men and women bonded together over shared childcare and life experiences, sometimes meeting lofty ideals, other times confronting the imperfections in themselves and their fellow humans – and then discussing it at length during long, lively co-op meetings.
These feminist newspapers – magazine is too glamorous a word for two-colour issues on low-grade paper – reveal some of the stories from a time that is relatively recent but now seems like another world.
Helen Cumming was an editor and the manager of Publications & Design at the Library from 1997 to 2017.