Inside Story

Then and now

A half-century’s perspective on this week’s protests

Sara Dowse 17 March 2021 1460 words

Labor figures join in the Women’s March 4 Justice in Canberra on Monday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

I must begin with a disclaimer. With the best of intentions, I didn’t make it to a March 4 Justice on this year’s momentous Ides of March. I toyed with the idea of travelling to Canberra and standing with my sisters in front of Parliament House, but at eighty-two I thought it best to stay in Sydney and go to the one planned here.

As things turned out, I didn’t make it to that one either. Though I’m spry enough, age has beset me with a host of devilish susceptibilities, one of them being severe hay fever, which had laid me rather low. It heartened me no end, however, to learn that my savvy fifteen-year-old granddaughter was there, marching in my stead.

Now for a plug — but a highly relevant one. Just over a week ago, for International Women’s Day, the documentary Brazen Hussies was released on ABC iView, as well as in venues around the country. Having a small part in it, I’ve watched it several times. It’s a startling, illuminating film, and it’s been great to watch all my brave sisters speak about that time and see their younger selves in action.

It’s relevant because there I am among them, one minute a bride, the next a mother, and then, totally transformed, sitting on the floor in jeans listening to speakers at a women’s liberation conference. It’s hard to believe it was half a century ago. The times were, in a word, incendiary: the huge Vietnam moratorium marches; the campaigns against censorship and in favour of decriminalising homosexuality; the fight against racism; and then, at the tail end and mixed up in all of it, there was us.

At one of my first women’s lib meetings a woman whose name I didn’t know, but who became a close friend, argued that the women’s movement was even more important than the protest against Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. At the time, as the mother of four children under six with scarcely a minute to spare, I felt I had to choose, and she convinced me. From that moment I was not merely an angry woman — if more than justifiably so — but a committed feminist.

Fifty years later, there I was at home watching the day unfold on my laptop. First were the female MPs, beginning with Anne Aly, honouring the hundredth anniversary of Edith Cowan’s taking her seat in the House, our first female parliamentarian. Aly made history herself by being the first woman of Muslim descent to do so. It’s an emblematic reflection on where we are today that the electorate of Cowan, which Aly represents, is one of two WA seats considered for abolition in the proposed redistribution of electorates. The other is the seat of Pearce, which is Christian Porter’s.

Several moments stood out for me. The first was protest organiser Janine Hendry’s stroll through Parliament House, where she buttonholed the hapless deputy prime minister Michael McCormack, who distinguished himself by agreeing to look at the sex discrimination commissioner’s report on sexual harassment that had been sitting around from the year before, and claiming that he’d meet the protesters outside if he found the time. Equally memorable was her encounter with the ever-ebullient senator Jane Hume, who took her to task for having rejected the invitation for a delegation of women to meet with the prime minister and the minister for women in Scott Morrison’s office. Why refuse such an exciting opportunity? Because, as Hendry so cogently put it, she had read the room: the women outside wanted the prime minister to hear what they had to say, out in the open. And, reaching for the impossible perhaps, they wanted him to listen.

Then came one of the day’s most inspiring moments. The original plan was for The Project’s Lisa Wilkinson to read out a speech Brittany Higgins had prepared for the event. But Higgins had decided she wanted to give the speech herself. And what a speech it was, and what a delivery. The words that have stayed with me — “these people were my idols” — cut to the very heart of the Coalition’s problems. As with so many of us, her employers had lost her trust.

From Higgins the coverage moved to Grace Tame speaking in Hobart — again, brilliant, eloquent and fiery. The irony is that these young women are dignified in ways that the men and women in power are not. And if yet more proof of this were needed, we had the prime minister in question time reciting the paltry sums of money we women have managed to squeeze out of him, then topping it off with a gratuitous lesson in civics.

As for Marise Payne, our minister for women, who tried on 7.30, and again in question time, to defend the indefensible, I can only contrast these chilling, prefect-like performances with those of an earlier minister for women. The late Susan Ryan would have immediately gone out on the lawn to be with the women — arguing with them if she needed to, but at least she’d be listening.

It’s been almost half a century since I first went to work in parliament’s far less imposing, much more crowded, but arguably more congenial old building. And the revelations over the past weeks have set me wondering, as it has others, whether it was better or worse there for women back in the day.

The women’s movement took off while William McMahon’s Liberal government was still in office, and was instrumental in voting it out. With the Whitlam government came many significant changes, but there was still much to do, so many demands to meet. We focused mainly on getting childcare up and running, but equal pay, legalised abortion, equal education opportunity and anti-discrimination measures were also sought. We began funding health centres and refuges. The canvas was so wide because our status as women had been so very limited before. A couple of women sat in the Senate, but none in the House of Representatives.

What happened in the years since then? After Whitlam came a backlash; and even after Hawke was elected and Labor was in office again, Ryan had to fight long and hard for sex discrimination legislation. These were the “post-feminist” years, when the feminism that remained was all about middle-class career advancement, and so many of the services that had made even that attainable were privatised and priced out of reach.

For all that, so many women aspire to lives that we had scarcely dreamt of. Progress is undeniable, yet significant barriers remain — and they help explain the fury unleashed. And that fury is more focused on the horrific violence women can be subjected to, physical and sexual, in the domestic sphere and in the workplace, and even at the very centre of our democracy.

After cogitating on whether things are better or worse, I’ve also come up with disturbing remembrances of my own. Yes, I was groped by a cabinet minister once and never said anything about it — largely because I could scarcely believe it was happening, but also because I sensed there wasn’t much point. Who was going to believe me? I was also stalked by a highly respected man who worked in the building, and I did say something about that and wasn’t believed. Years later the man in question apologised. Fortunately I wasn’t raped, because in a dangerous moment a decent guy accepted without question my final rebuff of his advances. Thank you, I say to the wonderful young women who have made this the serious issue it always should have been.

I can’t see how a government that has lied so much so often, that has lost the trust of so many, can survive. When report after report about life-threatening shortfalls in funding for programs and services has been ignored, and Zali Steggall’s bill to make sexual harassment illegal has been summarily dismissed by the prime minister on the very day women all over the country were telling their stories and taking to the streets. When rampant patronage has been encouraged, and money spent unwisely and corruptly, and the threat of climate change has been minimised. When lives have been ruined by programs like Robodebt, and people like Bernard Collaery are targeted by punitive lawsuits and cover-ups.

I could be wrong. I often am. But for what it’s worth, here’s my advice to our parliamentary masters: it’s never a good idea to infuriate the people — maybe half the population or more — who happen to be paying your salaries. •