Landmark Women: Elizabeth Reid
Elizabeth Reid AO, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, 18 October 2013
SANDY FORBES: Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Sandy Forbes and I am vice-president of the Friends of the National Museum of Australia. It’s a very great pleasure to welcome you this morning to hear our speaker in Landmark Women, Elizabeth Reid. In the last little while, we have heard about misogyny and we have heard about one woman in the cabinet, so I think it’s a very good time to have Elizabeth Reid speaking to us.
As you probably remember, Dr Elizabeth Reid was named by Gough Whitlam in 1973 to the post of his adviser on the welfare of women and children, the first such position in any government in the world, I have read. is that correct?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: It is.
SANDY FORBES: Dr Elizabeth Reid is currently a visiting fellow in the state society and governance in Melanesia program in the School of International, Politic and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University [ANU]. She graduated with first class honours in philosophy from the ANU and gained a BPhil in philosophy from Oxford. She taught as a philosophy tutor at the ANU before joining the staff of the Prime Minister in 1973.
Her work since then, and I am sure we will hear a bit about that today, has been as a development practitioner and social policy analyst. It has taken her to Papua New Guinea [PNG], Asia, the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Central America and Eastern Europe. Over the years she has also held fellowships at the Institute of Politics at Harvard and at the ANU.
Her research interests are in development, gender, HIV and ethics. She has published widely including, with Murray Goot, Women and Voting Studies: Mindless Matrons or Sexist Scientism?, 1974, and edited a book HIV and AIDS: The Global Inter-Connections, 1991. Her current research is on aid effectiveness, approaches to social change and engaging communities in conflict resolution and development. Wow! Please help me welcome Elizabeth Reid. [applause]
Dr ELIZABETH REID: Thank you very much for that. It actually covered some of the things I am not going to cover so that is very helpful. Good morning and thank you very much for having invited me to talk together with you this morning. My talk is a bit long so I will try to cut it back so we can spend some more time with questions.
Let me begin with the words of Jonathan Hill, an Aboriginal poet:
Such traditions of nourishing and teaching of the ancestors are in fact carried on by the National Museum of Australia and its Friends. This series of lectures is an important part of this nurturing as it ensures that women’s stories and spirituality can also flow through the imagination of this land.
My family came onto these lands here the year I started high school, 1954, and, ever since, here has been the place from which I have journeyed and to which I have come home. For me, therefore, when I stand on this podium, I stand on the lands of the Canberra Community Hospital, another place of nourishing, teaching and caring.
This was where my three youngest siblings - Mardhi, Joan and John - were born. I can vividly remember the drama that took place here of Joan and John’s birth. I can see Dr James coming around to see how Mum survived the delivery. I can remember that Mum ‘managed’ the timing of these three births - and in fact all six of her births - so that Dad did not miss a minute of his beloved science teaching at Canberra High School. So they too reside in the imagination of this land. My mother Jean Reid and my sister Joan have come back into this space to be with me today.
Later, I spent time here in the hospital when I suffered head injuries in a train crash in Queanbeyan. It was by then 1960 and I was in my first year at the ANU. I was a cadet in the Bureau of Census and Statistics, the only woman in a new scheme to train future Commonwealth Statisticians.
As soon as I got to university, I joined the staff of the ANU student newspaper Woroni. The editor, George Martin, and I had been in Sydney for a conference of university newspaper editors, and on the way back someone in Queanbeyan had forgotten to take a train off the line. As a result I spent quite some time in bed here with my head packed in sandbags to stop me moving it and with my eyes shaded from the light.
Just down there, to the east of here, was one of the most beautiful parts of Canberra, a place of dappled light and shade. This was Lennox Crossing where the road which passed by the hospital dipped down to ford the Molonglo River. And over there were the lucerne fields in which I played hockey. Over there was our backyard, Black Mountain. We lived on its foothills and we would set off - Mardhi, the twins and I - trespassing through the shade houses at the CSIRO on our way up to pick the everlasting daisies or to race to the top.
I left Australia in October 1975, but this space continued to care for and heal our family through to the unwanted demise of the hospital in 1991. So this space here is a space of many stories, many more than these. The ancestors who reside in the imagination of this land are many and flow through its history. This is an image of temporal layering or sedimentation in which the past, the present and even the future flow through a space.
Today I wish to weave together stories which reflect upon spaces, times and circumstances in my life: stories of social change, of resilience, of resistance; stories of working in other people’s cultures and societies; stories from the past - another territory. Through these stories, I hope to give you some glimpses into my life and also to capture some of the insights gained through its living.
There are other metaphors of space and time that have formed a part of my life and work. One very vivid one was gifted to me some years after I left Canberra. It was the mid-1990s and I was working at the United Nations and living in an apartment in the lower east side of Manhattan. It’s an unusual neighbourhood for a UN civil servant to be living in. But we, my son John and I, loved it. This was where our friend Billy played jazz trumpet in the sunlight on the footpath. Inside the tiny shop, his wife Jane presided over a magical cavern of Indian scents, fabrics, colours and trinkets. Old people sat in chairs on the sidewalk, their immigrant past to be seen not only in their faces but also in their beautiful tiled and gilded churches nearby. It was a space of community, coffee shops, bars and music.
It was also a space which constantly demanded the skill of moral discernment: the footpaths were full of beggars; the air was filled with the stench of rotting rubbish, an outcome of the mafia control of waste collection in the New York; and my ten-year-old son had become a close friend with one of the homeless men who haunted the neighbourhood.
George came to live in the apartment. George was a gifted young Kenyan, the son of a close friend of mine. He had won a scholarship to Harvard, the dream of so many Kenyans, but he brought with him to Harvard a lineage of alcoholism, an inability to master it, and he had no support. Time after time, he had promised to come and visit me and had failed to turn up. Finally he did, when he was destitute and desperate.
I offered him two alternatives: to pay his fare back to Kenya or to help him to get into a rehab program. The shame and loss of face involved in going home defeated, of failing the African dream, prevents most of the African diaspora from going home. So George chose rehab.
He came out of rehab with a determination to become a sober alcoholic. Now as we walked the streets around our apartment he would say, ‘Up there on the third floor is where they hold the 7 am meeting. Over there is where there is a midnight meeting. This is a hostel for alcoholics. Down in that basement there is where the three in the afternoon meetings are held,’ and so on. Same streets, same buildings, same space - but what George saw and how he lived in it was totally different from what I saw and how I lived in it. George’s world and my world co-existed in the same space, virtually without overlapping. George gave me the gift of an image of co-extension, of people being in the same place at the same time, differently.
George also offered me the gift of being open to difference, but I failed to listen. Every time I licked my toe or hit my funny bone or sneezed or tripped up the stairs or whatever, George would say, ‘Sorry’. It drove me to distraction. I probably snapped at him. I was trained as a logician and philosopher. By definition, I thought, you say ‘sorry’ when you have in some way caused or contributed to something harmful happening to others - you apologise. George, like most Africans, was saying sorry to me when I did something to myself. But to me this was nonsensical. Why did he persist in saying it when I objected so much?
I was to live and work in many more people’s spaces and cultures before I was humble enough to understand this lesson in cross-cultural interactions. Rather than standing back and asking myself what was happening, I was responding from within my own culture. I was not open to understanding the cultural dynamics of the situation. I was to experience the transformational potential of this openness to difference over and over, most recently in Timor-Leste.
This was not the first time that my training as logician and philosopher had dominated over other possible responses. In April 1973, I was asked by the press secretary on the staff of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, if I would agree to give a press conference. The announcement of my appointment as Adviser to the Prime Minister on matters relating to the welfare of women and children was about to be made.
I had reflected at length before applying for this position. I had been brought up in the passion of women’s activism. My mother had been an activist in the Catholic Women’s League, in Labor Women and in other women’s organisations. She had brought the tales home. Both my parents had been active in the trade union movement, in the Labor Party and in the reform of the Catholic education system - more stories.
I had cut my own activist teeth on single issue activism: abortion law reform, homosexual law reform and rape within marriage. I was an early member of the Women’s Liberation Movement and a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby. The activism of the Women’s Liberation Movement was concerned with the restructuring of society and the restructuring of personal relationships. It demanded the creation of a less sexist, less patriarchal society.
When in December 1972 the advertisement appeared for this adviser to the Prime Minister, we were uncertain whether such a position would advance or harm our goals. It was clear to us, however, that there was a desperate need for many of the reforms it might be possible to bring about through legislative and policy changes at the national level. We had been invited inside the system to bring about such changes. I felt a moral obligation to apply.
Now my appointment was about to be announced. This was a global first: the first time in recent history that somebody had been appointed to the staff of a head of state to advise on women and children. Already press and cartoon coverage of the advertisement and of the selection process ranged from unfortunate to offensive and hostile. The journalists arrived at the press conference. They asked their questions. I answered them honestly, thoughtfully. This is what I had been trained to do at the ANU, at Oxford, in my theological studies, and at home. The journalists sought my views on marriage, abortion, women’s liberation, marital rape, homosexuality and such like. The headlines in the paper the next day were distressingly sensational, and they haunt me still.
It was not a great way to start the job. I remember the foreboding with which I walked up the steps of Parliament House. It was Michael Delaney’s job on my first day to show me how to write a memo to the Prime Minister. The first paragraph states the part of the party platform the memo concerns, then a concise statement of the point of the memo, then brief arguments for the position, the whole no longer than a page.
I looked at him somewhat dismayed. I pointed out that the 1972 policy speech touched on only three issues of concern for women: equal pay for work of equal value, the lifting of the sales tax on contraceptives, and access to pre-school education for all children under five. The first two had already been addressed during Whitlam’s first days in office. About the third, I had serious reservations. The pre-school policy, I felt, transgressed Labor principles as only families in which the woman could afford not to work could benefit from it. The struggle would be for a developmental child care.
I suggested to Michael that I might have to look elsewhere for a legitimating text, and so I did. At one stage the Prime Minister wrote to the chiefs of the Defence Forces asking them to reconsider the social protection measures which prevented women from being deployed on active duty and in other sections of the defence forces. The Admiral of the Australian Navy replied to the Prime Minister of Australia that it would not be possible to carry women on naval vessels since there were no provisions for toilets for them.
‘Well,’ queried the Prime Minister? There was no party platform on this. I drew his attention to Herodotus’s account of Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in which one of his admirals was a woman. I suggested that if the Persians could have a woman on a fighting ship, so too surely could the Australians. We won that round but not the war. That struggle continues on, even today. In September 2011, it was announced that women would be allowed into combat roles by 2016.
Before I even settled into the position, the letters started pouring in. I was receiving more letters than anyone else in parliament other than the Prime Minister. Some of the letters I received from women all over Australia in the first six months of my job helped summon up the presence of the ancestors who reside in the imagination of this land of women. For example:
loans to single mothers were refused as there was no husband to sign; mortgages were refused unless there was a man to sign and guarantee the mortgage; single women were not eligible to the government grant to new home owners; married women who were temporarily unemployed were not eligible for unemployment benefits as they were not the breadwinners; working women paid the same tax as men but were not eligible for the same benefits; widows only received five eighths of a pension, while a widower received a full pension; ex-service women were not eligible for war service home loans;
applications for Commonwealth secondary scholarships had to be submitted with the signature of the father, and this was printed in heavy black type; women re-entering the country with their husbands could not fill in their own quarantine and customs declarations.
The letters also told stories of unacceptable dignity and subjugation. Two examples: first, girls who ran away from home were subjected to a humiliating medical examination, including an unnecessary pelvic examination. They were sent to institutions staffed only by men, deprived of education and subjected to all forms of brutality. Second, women in Queensland were disallowed from sitting on juries on the grounds this would give them the right to sit in judgment on men. This, it was asserted, would go against the teachings of the Bible and would be an abomination in the sight of God.
I have dwelt a little on these letters - there were many, many more – for they show us how profoundly the theological doctrine of the headship of men had been secularised and made a structuring principle of the State as well as of social relations. The financial, regulatory and institutional treatment of women and girls in this way is today inconceivable.
The rules and regulations of those times had embedded in them the canonical principle that men are the heads of households, the decision makers, the signers and guarantors of documents, those who sit in judgment - the breadwinners. Men are rational, men of reason. The concomitant of this canonical principle is that a woman’s place is in the home, her voice to be heard in domestic spaces rather than in public spaces. Women are vulnerable, emotional. Their role is to support and serve their husbands.
We can see the re-emergence of this doctrine in our own times. In the short time of the Whitlam governments, we sought not only to work from a sense of social justice and fairness but also to challenge and change social attitudes such as these which devalued and disadvantaged women. This involved not only changing the way that men see women but also changing the way that women see themselves. Each reform proposed was considered in light of how it would help in receiving this objective.
Reforms such as equal pay and conditions, free tertiary education, the single mother’s benefit, access to child care, women’s services including women’s refuges and rape counselling, maternity leave, the Family Court, and many others introduced during the short time of the Whitlam period aimed to lessen the disadvantages faced by women in their daily lives. However, as Whitlam said in a speech in September 1974:
That is what we aspired to do through initiatives such as the Royal Commission on Human Relationships - amazing piece of history - the program for International Women’s Year 1975 and the 1975 Women and Politics Conference.
The Women and Politics Conference in September 1975 brought together almost 800 women from across Australia from a diversity of backgrounds. It was rowdy, enlightening, uncomfortable and highly productive. It led to women becoming increasingly active in political parties, in political movements, in sing single issue politics, in trade unions, as lobby groups, in the bureaucracy and more.
The press coverage, however, talked of conflict and divisiveness of ‘the spectacle of 700 faction-ridden delegates squabbling amongst themselves and a disgusting display of vandalism in Parliament House’. Some of us here today lived through those passionate, turbulent and intensely life-changing times. But all of us here today are the custodians of its history.
The past is a difficult territory to enter, particularly when the past is so profoundly different from the present. But it can throw light on the present. The report for International Women’s Year 1975, which is still well worth reading, pointed out:
Ring true? Those words were written in 1975.
From before I was appointed to the position until I resigned, I was demeaned, parodied, insulted, belittled, patronised, judged, cartooned, lampooned - and more - by the press. The press coverage of the Women and Politics Conference led to my resignation. Some men in Whitlam’s entourage spread the more sensational press clippings over his desk and floor. They argued that his commitment to women’s issues, and to me, was becoming a political liability. They suggested that he silence me which shifting me sideways into a public sector position within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He wavered, and I decided to resign.
But I believe that we must look beyond the media in thinking through our lives to the culture that shapes and feeds it. Eva Cox, speaking recently about the treatment of Julia Gillard, pointed out that Australians have cultural problems with powerful women. I was a mere adviser. Was I powerful? Laurie Oakes wrote, but only after I had resigned and left the country:
After tendering my resignation to Mr Whitlam, I carefully drafted my press release to make clear to the women of Australia that there was no longer any political commitment to their issues, whilst being careful not to detract from the extraordinary record of the Whitlam government up to then. Then I fled. I left Australia feeling like a political exile.
I went to New York where I was to be a speaker on a panel at the UN. While in New York, I was invited by Princess Ashraf Pahlavi to come and work with her. We had worked closely together during the preparations for the first World Conference for Women and during the conference itself to which I led the Australian delegation. So, by the end of 1975, I found myself in Tehran, an adviser to the twin sister of the Shah of Iran, tasked to ensure that the decisions taken by the Mexico International Women’s Conference and adopted by the UN General Assembly were implemented. In particular, I was to assist with the establishment of an Asian and Pacific Centre for Women and Development.
From then until early 1979, I crisscrossed the Asia and Pacific region, first as an adviser and then as the centre’s director, consulting women, advising governments, commissioning research, mentoring, running workshops, meeting with government officials, women’s organisations, activists and more. All the time I was holding in my head the questions: how can these women improve their lives? How can their sense of themselves, of their worth, be strengthened? How can national plans better address their needs? How can the burdens of pain and shame caused by violence to them be lessened? How might they be able to use their skills, knowledge and experience as citizens to bring about the kind of world they wanted to be a part of?
Each time I returned home to Tehran. Tehran was a beautiful city, but culturally a difficult city for an outsider to live in. It was becoming a city of increasing discontent. The poor were finding it difficult to find accommodation so could not marry. They could not educate their children or get health care without bribing, which they couldn’t afford. The city was fast becoming a stronghold of the followers of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.
Unbeknown to us, a group of his followers lived in the lanes behind the house which I shared with an Australian woman diplomat. In mid-1978, I was home alone when a group of men forced their way in and hustled me out into the back lane. The women gave me a chador to put on. The men surrounded me with the women standing well back behind them.
The men started interrogating me in Farsi. My Farsi was barely enough to get me around. To make sure that I understood them, I would ask them in Farsi if they had just said what I thought I had heard. They were accusing Robin and me of being disrespectful to Allah. We were called infidels and accused of having men in our house unchaperoned, of drinking alcohol and playing loud music. The loud music was more often than not Robyn Archer’s witty, rowdy album ‘The Ladies Choice’, particularly the song The Menstruation Blues, for those of us who can remember it. The neighbours could not have known this, and this consoled me somehow.
Their voices rose, spit flew and the men became more threatening, the more the accusations were hurled. I was accused of being ‘haram’; that is, both unlawful and therefore to be punished, and indecent. I focused on understanding the words they were saying so that their intent would not overwhelm me. Finally they said that I was to convert to Islam before Muharram or else they would kill me. I said that I understood and I asked if I could leave.
Muharram was in November that year. As the months passed, each time the curtains in my bedroom rustled in the breeze, I thought that my time had come. My bedside reading went from Aristotle, to novels, to detective novels, to essays, to a poem, as my peripheral vision was taken over by the curtains. As the discontent spread and fuelled the revolution, the voices of the people singing ‘Allahu Akbar’, God is great, rose up each night to where I lived in the north. The stars were in the sky and in the distance I could see the flames from the oilfields. It was terrifyingly beautiful.
Our office was in the south, near the bazaar. But now, each morning the rioters would leave the bazaar moving past our office on their way north to pillage and burn. Smoke and flames leapt from piles of documents and furniture looted from banks and offices.
After the rioters had straggled back past our offices returning south, the women in the office would wrap themselves in chadors and pile in the car to be driven home through the flames, smoke and remnants of the rioters.
Each morning, the centre’s driver would pick me up and on the long trip down to the office, in my broken Farsi, I would tacitly negotiate the lives of the staff. The driver longed to become a martyr of the revolution, and this he could do by killing three foreigners.
As Muharram approached, and I was worried, I was asked by the UNDP office in Kenya if I could come and evaluate the Kenyan Women’s Bureau. I suggested the month of November. It suited them. I left Tehran for Nairobi just before the month of mourning and lamentation began.
Evaluation in those days, 1978, was a fairly crude exercise of power. We, the donors, fund you. So we will determine whether you are doing what we consider is worth doing. To do this, we will bring in an expert of our choice to sit in judgment on you. Such an abuse of power and privilege conflicted with feminist principles as well as the development principles of participation and empowerment.
So here was I, a feminist, a white woman, brought in to sit in judgment on a Kenyan women’s work, on the work of the Kenyan Women’s Bureau, knowing, from personal experience, that for anyone to do things of benefit to women was something very difficult to achieve. This work was to enrich my life as well as my approach to the practices of development. I knew that a space had to be created in which the abuse of power dynamics in such an evaluation situation were resisted, a space in which they and I could work together talking over the lives of women and the ways in which the Women’s Bureau was responding to them, learning together, strengthening what was working and finding other pathways forward. But it also had to be a space from which a report could be written which would be both respectful to the staff of the Women’s Bureau and acceptable to the donors.
Terry, the head of the Women’s Bureau, and I travelled from women’s group to women’s group, from one meeting to another, talking with women about our lives, laughing at the daft and the outrageous, querying the sexist and the racist, eating male goat curries for the female goats were too valuable to slaughter. It was a school without walls. I still tell the stories and use the learnings in my work.
During this time, Terry, the head of the Women’s Bureau, and I became friends. The friendship has lasted over the years and the decades since that first encounter in 1978. We care for each other’s children. George is her eldest son. She helped me look after Little Elizabeth. We care for each other.
When we were last together, only a couple of months ago in Nairobi, Terry was introducing me as the person who came to help the Women’s Bureau all those years ago not as the person that came to evaluate the bureau. It was a moment of intense joy, a testimony to a way of working together. It was a validation of the feminist and values-based practices for social change that have shaped my work over the years.
Little Elizabeth came into my life in 1995. By then, the main focus of my development work was the HIV epidemic and its social and personal devastation. She and her father were attending a meeting of the African Network of People Living with HIV in Kampala. I was the opening speaker. As I walked out, I asked her if she would like to come with me rather than sit around at the meeting. Her father agreed.
Off we went. The days past. Each morning she turned up to spend the day together. I was her namesake, and that to her was culturally very significant. She asked me if I would be her mother. Her own mother had died during her birth. Little Elizabeth had been born infected with HIV. She was about six when we met. She lived in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya.
Kibera was volatile, violent and dangerous, not a place for an outsider. It has been said that the real tragedy of poverty is not that the wealthy do not care about the poor but that we do not know the poor. Little Elizabeth gave me this as a gift. She took me into Kibera. By now, I was the director of the UNDP HIV and Development Program based in New York. My work took me regularly to Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. I mothered Little Elizabeth long distance, going to Nairobi whenever I could. She was in school and loved it. She wanted to be an airline pilot.
When, in 1998, I was made the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in PNG, the senior UN person, I asked Terry if she would co-mother Little Elizabeth as I knew it would now be very difficult for me to get to Kenya. There were five years of laughter, cheekiness, smiles and dreams. Five years without adequate HIV treatment, while I worked to change these systems, a race against death.
All this time, while so many like Elizabeth and her mother were suffering and dying, a mighty battle was ranging between the institutions of the United Nations over whether HIV was a medical issue or a development issue. From a woman’s perspective, it was clearly a development issue. It necessitated addressing women’s agency, women’s empowerment and challenging personal and national irresponsibility. The silencing of women continued.
Terry rang me in Port Moresby to say that Little Elizabeth was dying. I travelled as quickly as I could, but she was already dead by the time I reached Nairobi. I went to the hospital morgue to farewell her. There had been a major blackout, and the morgue had been without electricity for days. The pain of her loss had been compounded by the development needs of the country.
At the time I met Little Elizabeth, I already had a large family: Kathryn, my first-born child, born while I was studying philosophy at Oxford; my son John; Marisa, the adopted daughter of my husband Bill; Jeanne and her children Sarah and Meta, whose family had been close to Bill’s family as he grew up in Zaire; Marie-Jeanne, Tony and Joanna, a Senegalese familiy who shared my apartment in New York; George, Terry’s first born; and more to come. This is another of the life enriching gifts of living and working in other people’s cultures and countries.
It was through Bill, my second husband, that I was drawn to work on the HIV epidemic. We had met in 1980 when he was about to become the Director of Peace Corps in Zaire. In 1982, the first joint US and Belgium mission arrived in Kinshasa to identify and describe the HIV epidemic in Africa. On their first visit to Mama Yemo hospital, they clinically diagnosed 80 patients with HIV. A member of that mission was a close friend of Bill’s. He invited himself to dinner. ‘How could it be,’ he asked during the meal, ‘that half of those clinically diagnosed that day in Mama Yemo hospital were women?’ The mission had expected to find infected men as in the US and Europe. They could not come to grips with the fact that they had found roughly equal numbers of men and women infected.
But we were already knowledgeable about HIV in our personal lives, then 1984, at a time most people were not, for we lived in fear of Bill being HIV infected. We already did that. We did not talk about this fear to others but we knew that he had been transfused with blood products donated from hundreds of thousands of people when he had been medivac’d to South Africa and to Washington. Through the mission, we began to see the epidemic as it revealed itself in our surroundings, and I began to take it into account in my development world.
In early 1986, Bill’s health deteriorated. Each day I took a sample into the HIV ward at Mama Yemo hospital, stepping over the HIV sick and their carers lying or sitting on the walkways as the ward was overflowing. He was medivac’d eventually back to Australia and he died finally in Woden Valley Hospital on the last day of winter 1986. He was immediately double bagged in plastic and sealed, for fear of contamination, and so he lay double bagged and sealed in thick yellow plastic during his memorial service and so he was buried at Gungahlin. There was no possibility of intimate grieving. This was the protocol at the time, a time of profound fear of the unknown of HIV, and of social rejection.
The plastic still separates us. I rarely go to his graveside. John, our son, had just turned four. We had to start a new life for ourselves. Our family life, and my professional life, had changed irrevocably. John had lost his father and lost him to a stigmatised disease that marked John too.
My professional life was changed by this personal tragedy. Responding to the desolation caused by the HIV epidemic became a part of my life’s work, initially here in Australia and then throughout the developing world.
Over the years, since I left in 1975, I have returned time and time again for family milestones, to give birth to John in this space here, in Canberra Community Hospital, to be with Kathryn when she was in her final year at Hawker College, to have the help of my parents and family during Bill’s dying.
In 2000 I resigned from the UN and returned to live in Canberra so that I could spend more time with my parents, family and friends. I continue to work on social change and social justice, to work in other people’s cultures and countries, but now I return home here. It’s the place that nourishes, restores and cherishes me. Thank you. [applause]
SANDY FORBES: I think anything I can say is anti-climactic after that. This is truly a landmark woman who epitomises what we call our series of talks. Thank you very much, Elizabeth. Will you take some questions from the floor?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: Yes, I just need to change my glasses. Right.
QUESTION: Did the United Nations send you out to these various cultures at different times? Did they give you a rundown on some of the cultures you were going to encounter or did you get thrown in the deep end?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: Yes. I worked with the United Nations Development Program for many years, and it has an office in every developing country in the world. My job was to provide the backup to those offices so that they could better respond on gender, HIV and other social issues. I was always out of my office somewhere else working. But my job also gave me the capacity to initiate work, so we started all sorts of initiatives like the African network on ethics, law and HIV, or working on community conversations, developing approaches to get communities to come together to talk over their problems and to work out how they wanted to change.
I was an international civil servant. It was a multicultural organisation. Every office had lots of cultures in it. We worked with lots of cultures. So it wasn’t as if you were sat down and told ‘the culture here is’ which would have been almost not appropriate. We had to learn how to open ourselves up to difference, which I didn’t with George, to always be able to work across difference, across language, across gender, across age, across urban-rural, across religion. I worked in many Islamic cultures, both Shia and Sunni, as well as Hindu, Buddhists etc. It was just part of the work that we had to learn how to do it.
Even if we think back to something that seems less diverse, like the work with Whitlam, the issue I came to understand during those years was to work out how to do something. Perhaps I can illustrate that best with child care. We fought for that child-care policy, it was radical, and we had introduced in the 1974 election. It was in the policy speech. The only new policy that the Prime Minister took to the electorate in 1974 was the child-care policy. So we had it adopted; we got a budget through it; we fought through the bureaucracy to set up the structures to implement it; and then we thought our job was done. But it wasn’t. It was undermined by the bureaucrats who wanted pre-school because it was easy to administer. That follow through of really learning how something is done in a particular situation is really important.
When I went to Iran there was the same need for child care, the same problem, but it quickly became clear to me as I travelled around Iran that the way we had decided to do it in Australia was not going to be the way we could do it in Iran. You had to sit down there in the middle and start right from scratch working always within difference that you had never been given a lecture on, because in a sense it wouldn’t quite have captured that situation. You had to learn how to work in the situation in ways that facilitated people to move forward themselves.
QUESTION: Do you see any parallels between the way you were treated by the press as an adviser to Gough Whitlam and the way Julia Gillard has been treated?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: Clearly. Every type of thing that happened to me happened to Julia, but the technology of the media has expanded since my time so it was both the formal press and the social media. But I saw cartoons - Larry Pickering, for example – in a depiction that was so offensive, so disgusting and that level of moral degradation wasn’t really reached in my time. I had a lot of problems. For example, every time the Courier-Mail ran a story of me began it: ‘Elizabeth Reid, 33, not wearing a bra, said in Canberra today’ or ‘Elizabeth Reid, 33, whose daughter does not live with her, said in Canberra today’ - and so on. It was always that degrading and you had no come back. It was insidious.
But with Julia the technology is more diverse and the depth of degradation was unbelievable. That says something about ourselves. What are we becoming as Australians? How are we? I had a whole section in this paper about that which I had to cut out because it was too long. I will talk about it very briefly.
We, the Whitlam Labor government, introduced free tertiary education, which radically changed women’s lives. I could talk about that almost in itself. Now if you talk about that as a possible policy for Australia, people just dismiss it, ‘You couldn’t do that now.’ We couldn’t have done it then either, except that the values of the Whitlam government were about equity, fairness, inclusion, redistribution and so on. So if nowadays we are not even capable of talking about that as a possible policy option for Australia, what does that say about the values of the society we live in?
It made me think about refugees or asylum seekers. In the Whitlam time, we opened Australia up and created a space of refuge for people, the same origin as the word ‘refugee’, so we provided a sanctuary, a place where they could come and feel safe. But now we use the words ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seekers’ in a pejorative, excluding, ‘get out of my way’ sort of way, not in a way that says, ‘This is the space of refuge, of sanctuary.’ The values of our society have changed radically. The press, if you like, have continued to be part of the society that radically strips powerful women, or women who speak out, or on any gendered issue take an extremely hostile position - but there is more than that going on now in Australian society.
QUESTION: It is not just by the male journalists either, is it?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: No, as always.
QUESTION: Women don’t always support women.
Dr ELIZABETH REID: No. And you can understand that. I could say something about any patriarchal society, but in Papua New Guinea, which is a polygamist society, there are many women in jail for murder, but most of those women murdered the other woman, not the man that did it to both of them. It is an inevitable outcome for patriarchy that women attack women. As long as we are in a patriarchy, that will continue to happen. It just shows us what the values of our society are.
QUESTION: You commented on the development of a feminist understanding of HIV as against a medical understanding and you responded to the first question about the multiple cultures within the UNDP which suggests that the alternative male is monocultural, whether it’s medical or the mandarins in Whitlam’s office. The suggestion seems to be that women are better able to take on multiple voices, those of development and those of different cultures, than are men and that the opposition in a sense comes from an establishment that is threatened, whether it’s in medicine or in the bureaucracy.
Dr ELIZABETH REID: I misunderstood you momentarily when you said women are more able to take on more voices - I thought any one woman could take on. But if you think back to the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1969 and 1970 in Australia, what we wanted and what we tried to do with through techniques like conscience raising groups, et cetera, was to give voice to every woman but to create a space in which that was possible, a space in which articulate women like me couldn’t dominate, whether it was benign domination or otherwise. We learnt to create that space in which many voices could be heard because we valued that. That was really important both as part of the empowering of the personal but also as part of the understanding of the context in which we were living and therefore knowing how to move forward.
In development there are as many approaches to development as there are approaches to HIV. I characterised one or the other, but there are many. But the approaches in which feminist principles are embedded are approaches of voice, diversity and respect - of working from respect, encouraging diversity and perhaps of listening before speaking and even asking questions. Unless you know how to ask questions, you are leading, you are getting the information you want. As a feminist development worker you actually have to go right back and learn how to ask a question somebody else so that they can determine what they want to tell you in answer to that question, not you shaping it by saying, ‘How old are you? How many children do you have?’ It may not be what they want to talk to us about. They may want to talk to us about their mother or something. How do you ask questions that create that space?
This also conflicts with the dominant audit culture of our time, the audit culture as it applies in our bureaucracies, our work with Australian Aborigines in Australia and in our development work overseas. The audit culture says, ‘If I am going to give you this money, you have to tell me what you are going to do with it.’ A linear notion of causality, you do this and then you get that, and if we want that, we will fund you. Change is not linear. Change swirls and flows, recedes like the tide and splashes forward again. It is not linear; it is not causal; it is too complex and too chaotic. So any approach that demands linear accounting for what you have done is actually not going to capture the change that creates new values, new worlds, new lives for those who dream them.
QUESTION: I would like to start with saying a personal thank you. I was very moved by many of the things you said and particularly your interaction with Kenya. I also spent time in Kenya. Just on a personal level, what happened to George? Where is George today, are you prepared to say or is it difficult?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: I can say. I don’t think Terry would mind. I have been careful not to use surnames. George is a sober alcoholic still – 2013. That is something, but he is an utterly dysfunctional sober alcoholic. It’s tragic. We, of course, are still in touch.
QUESTION: Can I just ask a question. In the many cultures and places where you have worked, do you feel that in what you have done, have there any developments that have improved over all those years?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: Absolutely. Just like there were fabulous outcomes from the Whitlam. But the forces of patriarchy or whatever else it is, it is because of the other that you are resisting and pushing back when you go to do social change work, whether it is here or there, are very strong and powerful. A backlash is always inevitable. We are always fighting from so to speak the periphery, and the backlash from the powerful is always very strong. But it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself here (inaudible). Australian society has transformed in magical ways since the Whitlam years because of the Whitlam years.
QUESTION: But I was thinking more in places like Tehran and New Guinea. There have been some improvements?
Dr ELIZABETH REID: Absolutely, yes.
QUESTION: That is wonderful. Congratulations.
Dr ELIZABETH REID: Iran is an extremely interesting country because the women always have been and probably always will be very strong. It will get somewhere. The men are dominating it now but the women are resisting. They resisted in my day; they are resisting now; and they will continue to resist. As soon as any space opens up, the women will be there. There are more women than men in the bureaucracy in Iran. There were more women in the national planning office in Tehran when I lived there.
QUESTION: You just didn’t hear them.
Dr ELIZABETH REID: No, we are not told their stories but they are there. Don’t forget that we are too often told the bad stories and the good stories are not told. My basic principle when I worked in development is look for goodness because if we look and find goodness we know we can build on the good things. If we just look and find the problems, you are already in a negative situation that is already disempowered. You are forcing people to say, ‘This is the pain in my life. These are the problems in my life. These are my needs. Give them to me please.’ The minute you have done that, that is not development - it’s a charity. We have to learn these principles of functioning. This means looking for goodness.
I sat next to a young man on a plane to Brisbane two weeks ago. He was in the final year of high school. He was blind and as he told me he had Asperger’s. My mother set up the first unit in the ACT at (inaudible) Daramalan College for children with special learning difficulties, including what we called in those days children with autism. I lived with this all my life so I knew that that young man sitting next to me, who said to me, ‘This is only the second time I have ever flown alone’, I knew he had a gift. My job is to listen to try and find it so we could talk about it. Then he flew all the way to Brisbane – no problems – we just talked about his gifts. So looking for that goodness gives people that power, encouragement and strength to work forward in a positive light whatever the need is.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SANDY FORBES: On that inspiring note, I would like to say thank you again, Elizabeth, on behalf of all of us. We will have more question and answers downstairs as we have tea and coffee in the Friends Lounge. Thank you [applause]
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Date published: 7 November 2013