Portrait

A visit to writer and activist Eva Cox's house. By Sarah Price.

Author and academic Eva Cox

A small card dangles from sticky tape on her front door, on which her name is scrawled in swift cursive: Eva Cox. Inside the house, tacked to one of the bookshelves that line the narrow hallway, is a fabric poster. In bright red lettering it reads: FEMMO – STIRRING THE PENIS POT. Bustling around her cluttered kitchen, Eva jams the bunch of lavender I’ve brought into a glass jug. “I love lavender,” she says, and I agree. She fetches napkins and a knife for the cake. She chats and smiles. Other people have written about the affection they’ve felt for Eva when they interview her, but the suddenness of it is unexpected.

We sit in the dining room, where there are more books. Among them, an old leather-bound tome called The Ladies’ Handbook, and, nearby, a photo of Eva’s stepmother, who was a famous pianist. Beyond the verandah, high-rise buildings rear above terrace houses that are linked along the streets in Sydney’s inner city. Eva moved here in 1979, when she was 41. Before the casino was built, she could see the Harbour Bridge. For 38 years she’s watched the city skyline, “go up and up”.

“I stick my neck into all sorts of things,” Eva begins. Her sense of justice was born from experience. As a refugee child in England, she was very much the outsider. “There was that sense of never quite belonging and of being a bit strange, of feeling you were not part of it.” She was the subject of some prejudice at school, she says, and from a very early age began to question things. “I tried to work out why the world was like it was.” Later, in Australia, she grew up with a single mother, an absent father, and a strong belief that the only way she would get through things was by taking care of herself. Reading Simone de Beauvoir when she was a teenager explained it all to her: “That women are not born, they are made. They are made by men into the second sex.” She got involved with various political movements, and the Sydney Push. She learnt about abortions when she needed one, after becoming pregnant to a writer.

Eva has had more success with political activism, she says, than with intimate relationships. “I’ve always had a strong idea of not allowing anybody to dominate me.” Her ex-husband was a press photographer, “but he preferred to get on the piss. Eventually, I chucked him out.” By then she was deeply involved with politics, and had a young daughter. “I was unfazed about being a single parent. I had a strong idea I would cope. And that I wasn’t going to drop out of the workforce.”

In the 1970s the feminist movement had lots of wins and influenced things that changed women’s lives quite dramatically, Eva explains. Many of the members were emphatic that the movement was not there “to fix the status quo”. Their badge summed it up: “Women who want equality with men lack ambition.” Now, she says, feminism has lost its way. It deals with too much superficial stuff. “There’s not the sense that we’re a movement united around certain issues. Everything is seen as legitimate, including the pussy hat. It’s the ‘orgasmic experience’: going along to a march to protest. And it’s a really great feeling – ‘Ohh! I’ve done something feminist or political’ – but there’s no follow up.” We’ve slid back, she says, and a lot of people don’t realise we have. We may be wealthier, but we’re also more unequal. We’ve got more women in top positions, but most of them are not changing anything. “They say feminism is the broad church and we’re all part of it. Well, it’s too bloody broad for my liking.”

She continues: “Feminism is about the social side of life. We need to get back to a focus in the community on building good, solid relationships. The best thing we could do is to look at the use of time. We need to redefine time in terms of paid and unpaid roles, and start using all our wealth and additional technology to create societies where we have enough time to be good people.” Most of that, she explains, fits into feminism. “It’s about the social, the relational and the female – the feminised. If we actually revalued this stuff, we’d immediately get a gender shift. We would start valuing the sort of skills you need to do these things, instead of just the skills to make money.

“There’s a general feeling of discontent at the moment. On the right it is coming out with people voting for the populist party, which scares me. On the left side we want to create a better society, but there are too few people working out how to do it. A lot of the distrust of governments at the moment comes from the fact that governments have disappeared from view. They are no longer obviously there to do things for us. We need to start putting good social policy back on the agenda, so that people will have faith again that governments can do the right thing.”

Eva laughs and tells me she still has the absurd view that she can fix the world. “But there are times I can get angry and depressed, and feel excluded. I know I upset other people and groups by being critical of them, but sometimes that’s necessary.” It’s hard being a difficult woman, she says, because you’ve got to cop a lot of shit from other women, as well as men. “I try not to let it get me down. I think, ‘Bugger the bastards, I’m going to keep at it, because I’m good at it.’ And I think it’s important. It’s important to try and create good change. Otherwise you’re equally culpable when things get stuffed up.”

A lot of people at the moment have come to the “Doona verdict”, she believes: “It’s all too bloody hard and I’m going to crawl into bed or tend my garden, or learn the flute. But we need to have that sense that change is possible. If you don’t think it is possible, you don’t try. I think it’s important that people get back to the idea of the possibilities of Utopia, of thinking we can make a better life.”

How does a small child with a political awareness push through until she’s old? “It’s the lifelong story of my being a bit of a rebel and bit of an outsider, a stirrer. It didn’t come to me suddenly; it grew.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 18, 2017 as "Adament Eva". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is writer-in-residence at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney.

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