Writer, broadcaster and social commentator Jane Caro; journalist, broadcaster and author Julia Baird; historian Michelle Arrow; and lawyer and constitutional reform expert Shireen Morris; with ABC RN presenter Paul Barclay, 26 August 2017
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Hello everyone. I’m Michelle Hetherington. I’m a senior curator at the National Museum of Australia, in the Australian Society and History unit. I would like to welcome you all here tonight and to the latest in our series of Defining Moments panels, this time themed around the role women have played and continue to play in defining Australian culture and identity.
I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet tonight and to pay respect to their elders both past and present. I would also like to welcome and expend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance tonight. I would also like to acknowledge our partners, who are ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] Radio National’s Big Ideas program and journalist Paul Barclay, and the Canberra Writers Festival.
As many of you will know, this series of panels with Radio National’s Big Ideas program is part of the National Museum’s headline Defining Moments in Australian History project. For tonight’s panel, we’re delighted to also partner with Canberra Writers Festival and include among our panellists some eminent writers and thinkers, who will bring their own unique perspective to the role women play in Australian society.
A little background: through Defining Moments, the Museum wants to engage the public in a wide-ranging discussion about Australian culture and identity, and the events and developments that have shaped it historically and continue to shape it today. Through this debate we see that Australian history is not simple or one-sided, but a complex, nuanced and debatable narrative that we should all have a say in. Indeed, where we go from here is as intriguing as where we are right now. I can’t wait to hear the views of our panellists tonight on all these issues.
Unfortunately, Nikki Gemmell couldn’t make it tonight and we’re delighted to welcome Julia Baird, who has kindly stepped in. I’ll now hand over to our host, ABC journalist Paul Barclay, to formally introduce our panel and start the proceedings.
PAUL BARCLAY: Thanks very much. I’m Paul Barclay from ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program. Terrific to be here at the National Museum of Australia. Women make up over 50 per cent of the Australian population, but you wouldn’t know it if you just perused the history books. Tonight’s discussion aims to rectify this. RN [Radio National] and the National Museum in conjunction with the Canberra Writers Festival are shining a light on some of the defining moments and trends in Australian history involving and affecting women.
In 1894, South Australia became the first place in the world to extend equal political rights to women. In 1943, the first women were elected to the Australian Parliament. In 1961, the pill arrived giving women control over their fertility. In 1970, Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch was published. Women were granted equal pay in 1972, although that hasn’t quite worked out as expected. Sexual discrimination was outlawed by federal laws in 1984. These are just a handful of defining moments randomly selected. Others, like say the influx of women into the workforce which changed society, defy a specific date.
We’re going to discuss some moments and movements that mattered for women viewing them from the vantage point of the present. We have a brilliant panel of guests to help us do it. On my immediate left is Michelle Arrow, Associate Professor of Modern History at Macquarie University. She is author of Friday On Our Minds: Popular Culture in Australia Since 1945 amongst other publications. Next to Michelle, we have Jane Caro: author, novelist, journalist, broadcaster, columnist, advertising writer and social commentator. No wonder you’re exhausted, Jane, with a CV like that.
Next to Jane, we have Julia Baird, broadcaster, journalist, columnist and political commentator. Her latest book, which is fabulous, by the way and which is for sale later is called Victoria the Queen. She has a PhD in history by the way, like Michelle does. On the end of the panel here, we have Shireen Morris, lawyer, constitutional reform fellow at the Cape York Institute and researcher at Monash University. Will you please make our panel welcome?
Michelle, there’s a kind of canon of key moments in our history. Generally, it involves men. You know Federation, Captain Cook arriving in 1770, Gallipoli, the Snowy Hydro, we hear this all of the time. What changes though, do you think, when we look at Australian history through the lens of women? Does our perspective change?
MICHELLE ARROW: I think it does. Historically, we’ve always had this idea that nation building, which is kind of what defining moments are. They’re moments in nation building or in national change. We’ve always tended to think of nation building as men’s business, if you like. I guess one of the things that’s interesting and part of what feminist historians were trying to do when they mounted an assault on this idea, was to try and think about how does the frame look different if we look through it on a feminist lens?
The very famous feminist history of Australia called Creating a Nation, which was written a few years ago – I think it might be out of print now – that book doesn’t start with the First Fleet. It starts with an Indigenous woman giving birth on Sydney Harbour near where the Sydney Opera House is today. By doing that, it makes us rethink the idea of what are beginnings? What are defining moments? What might look different if we look through Australian history with a feminist lens or a women’s lens.
PAUL BARCLAY: – Remind us of how old the country is and the fact that it, of course, existed well before we Europeans arrived.
MICHELLE ARROW: Exactly.
PAUL BARCLAY: Julia, Federation in 1901 is the moment really when the nation comes into being, but at that point we are still very much tied to the mother country. It was Queen Victoria who gave royal assent to our constitution in 1900. She’s the subject of your current book. Although she’s not an Australian, is she an important figure in our history do you think?
JULIA BAIRD: That’s interesting. As you’re pointing out earlier, she died just a few months after giving that assent proving that signing Federation is indeed a risky business [laughter]. I do think she’s an important figure in the early part of a country, in a way we haven’t really understood; and especially with Indigenous people, who have always claimed a strong affinity with her. There’s a lot of mythology surrounding Indigenous people and Victoria and the granting of land. The fact that we had a woman signing the beginning of our country – which is also an excellent and very strong argument that that’s when Australia Day should be, on that day of Federation, that’s another matter entirely – I think is really interesting because it puts paid to the suggestion that not only women were invisible, but that they were entirely powerless.
One thing I’ve really tried to challenge is the suggestion that simply because she inherited power, that she was just a vessel. That was not the case at all. At a time when women had none, when they didn’t have property rights, they didn’t have rights to custody of their own children; they were completely robbed of any financial autonomy, here was this woman who sought the crown, who claimed it and who fought for – even its peripheral powers.
She demanded to be at the centre of what was going on politically. She sacked prime ministers, tried to prevent others from becoming prime minister, most unsuccessfully of course with [William] Gladstone. She directly corresponded with generals in the field. In some way that we haven’t really grappled with that. It’s as though she’s this ephemeral, stout, stern figure that dots our streets instead of someone that was very much present in the psyche of those that were trying to bring the nation together.
PAUL BARCLAY: I’m interested in the observation you make about Indigenous Australians feeling like they can relate to Queen Victoria. Can you tell us a bit more about that? This is something I’m shamefully unaware of, I must say.
JULIA BAIRD: Yes, and it’s something that I’ve been meaning to dig into more too because I was trying to find the journey of two Indigenous Australians that were brought over to visit Victoria. Her interest in her empire was also an interest in then what was termed to be exotic. Even though she was genuinely often concerned about the plight of people at the far end of colonialism or at the sharp end, I should say, often when people were paraded before her, it blinded her to what was actually going on and to a lot of the excesses and the brutality of empire.
There’s only a couple of historians who have looked into this. I am actually not entirely sure how it worked mechanically, because to me it seems that there seems to be a very prevalent myth or understanding that somehow Victoria was offering protection in terms of any land 150 years ago. In fact, about three or four decades before Federation, but again, I’d need to dig more into it. If you speak to a lot of Aboriginal elders they will talk about Queen Victoria as a totem and as an emblem. I’m interested in that.
PAUL BARCLAY: Jane, one of the moments that made it onto the National Museum’s initial list of the top 100 moments was the visit to Australia of Queen Elizabeth in 1954, the first time a reigning monarch had come to Australia. That Queen Elizabeth shares the name of the first Queen Elizabeth, who I understand is a bit of an idol of yours, is that right?
JANE CARO: I write young adult fiction about Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Tudor, who I think actually legitimately can be claimed as part of Australia’s European history. Of course, as are known in the world outside of Australia itself, not then called Australia indeed, we weren’t here. That’s basically where we came from. Elizabeth I, I adopted her as a young girl because I was desperately looking for female heroes and there aren’t any, or any that there are tend to come to a sticky end. If you think about it, Joan of Arc is the screaming example of that.
Elizabeth was remarkable because she ruled on her own. She refused to marry. She refused to have children. She was universally considered at the time and to some extent since, to have ruled well, which is extremely unusual – women leaders are usually demonised – and she died in her own bed of old age. That struck me as kind of, ‘Ah, thank God there’s one.’ [laughter] I devoured everything I could about her, so I’ve ended up writing these novels arrogantly in her voice. The third one comes out next year and then she – spoiler alert – she dies at the end, so it’s the last one in the trilogy.
She, of course, was also at the beginning of empire, the beginning of the great British naval legend, which started with Francis Drake and the exploration and all that kind of thing. Of course, Walter Raleigh going into America and founding Virginia, which was named after her, Virgin, Virginia. This whole outreach of the British [Royal] Navy that eventually led to Captain Cook. You can see that she has some relevance to the forming of European Australia.
PAUL BARCLAY: Let’s juxtapose the monarchy to Indigenous Australia, Shireen. We spoke in May here at the National Museum about the 67 referendum being a defining moment in Australian history, so we won’t dwell on it again, but it was a woman who was at the centre of that movement, Faith Bandler, a woman who’s an important figure to you. It just got us both thinking really about the idea, to what extent are we seeing women stepping up as Indigenous leaders in Australia today? This is an area that I think it’s fair to say has been rather dominated by blokes.
SHIREEN MORRIS: Absolutely. Faith Bandler was an extraordinary historic figure, really the face of the 1967 referendum campaign that was a decade-long struggle for Indigenous rights. Most people think that she was Aboriginal herself. She wasn’t strangely. She was a South Sea islander who also had Scottish heritage. I think one of the extraordinary things that we’re seeing in the Indigenous rights constitutional recognition movement at the moment, you’re right – it’s traditionally an area that has been quite dominated by men.
We’ve seen these extraordinary powerful Aboriginal women stepping up, Professor Megan Davis, who is this UN human rights international guru from Queensland, Indigenous lady. Running the dialogues alongside Pat Anderson, AO, who’s a veteran of Indigenous rights advocacy. Also, this year, for the first time ever, we have a female social justice commissioner in Indigenous affairs, June Oscar, which I think is integral because what it does is it shifts the Indigenous rights, equality, discrimination, discourse, which is often centred on group rights, to a focus on the woman, the child, the vulnerable within the group, whose rights so often get overlooked.
Paul, I just wanted to respond to something Julia said, which I think is so true in the debate we’re seeing at the moment about statues and Australian history and defining moments. Our defining moments are very male. They’re usually handpicked through a male lens, but they’re also very white. That’s what we’re seeing at the moment in the backlash against Australia Day and the statues. Julia, I think the reason they can’t put it on the first of January is because then we’d lose a public holiday. New Year’s Day, what would happen? [laughter]
JULIA BAIRD: There must be some way around that.
SHIREEN MORRIS: You would think so. You would think so.
JULIA BAIRD: Double up.
SHIREEN MORRIS: But the interesting thing is that history was more complex than that. It wasn’t just evil and good.
JULIA BAIRD: Of course.
SHIREEN MORRIS: As you say, the ‘Honour of the Crown’ was a real thing. When Arthur Phillip sailed his ships to Australia, he carried secret instructions from the British king instructing him to treat the natives with amity and kindness. There is this other side to those statues and those symbols. There were good intentions even though those good intentions weren’t followed through with. I think we need to rebalance that history and tell the good with the bad.
JULIA BAIRD: If I can just add that when we talk about women in history, we are very fundamentally redefining what history is, which has been part of a project of the academy for at least the past five decades. Nonetheless, it’s completely wrapped up in statues and civic monuments and even the notion of what a defining moment is. The entire framework is about volume and visibility and public activity. If you’re going to be a prime minister. If you’re going to be a judge or a general, you’ve got a lot of odds in your favour. It took a long time to get a statue of Harriet Tubman up at the end of Central Park – just to flip to the US for a moment – in which it’s entirely empty of any female historical figures except for Alice in Wonderland. You have to be fictional.
JANE CARO: It’s like the Order of Australia, the Australia Day honours, there’s still this very small percentage of women who even get recognised. While you were talking, I was thinking about women who so quickly get forgotten like Bobbi Sykes, who was such a pivotal Indigenous activist and writer, and yet I haven’t heard her name for such a long time. I think that a lot of women disappear.
SHIREEN MORRIS: I think part of that too – when you think about Faith Bandler, for example, she was this face of female respectability. She was the pearls and handbag kind of, ‘vote yes.’ Made it almost irresistible to vote any other way. A few years later you have the Tent Embassy and the leadership of Indigenous movement in Australia becomes a lot more blokey. It’s more young, so it’s a changing of the guard in generational terms, but I think it’s fair enough to point out that there’s an issue around sexism perhaps in the Indigenous rights movement too. I think that that transition of leaders and people like Bobbi Sykes do get overlooked.
PAUL BARCLAY: Some of the events and moments that we’re going to talk about actually are events that are the result of struggle as well and that even when we talk about those defining moments, even after they occurred, there are still complaints from those who feel that their interests have been trodden on. We are going to wander through a range of moments here. I want to bring us to more contemporary times to the middle of the 20th century. Michelle, the [contraceptive] pill was introduced in 1961. I was curious, I don’t know whether you can answer this. This is a question without notice. What effect did it have on fertility rates in Australia? Then as a follow up, more broadly, what was the social impact of the introduction of the pill to Australia?
MICHELLE ARROW: I’m not entirely sure what the impact on fertility rates were, but I know one of the impacts on it was that the decline in babies available for adoption, for example. That’s one of the big changes that we see. Adoption becomes something much less common than it was in the earlier part of the century. Certainly, I think one of the big things about the pill – and this is where it’s a really interesting defining moment because it’s actually a moment that happens in millions of households around Australia – it’s about giving women control over their fertility in a way that doesn’t require male cooperation. Basically, it’s a contraceptive method that women can use and they don’t need to persuade anyone else that that’s in their best interests.
I think one of the things about the pill that is hugely significant is that it gives women the ability to control whether they have children, when they have children, how many children they’re going to have. Then that gives them control over their lives. We see more and more women entering higher education, more and more women entering the workforce in the wake of that ability to control your fertility.
PAUL BARCLAY: It gives them control over their fertility actually at a time when some women were forced to have backyard abortions. It’s worth mentioning, Jane, and I know you’ve followed this, that there is no federal law. There is no federal moment in Australia like ‘Roe versus Wade’ giving women the right to choose to have an abortion. I think it’s almost worth pointing this out that two of the more popular states in the country still have abortion in their criminal code.
JANE CARO: That’s New South Wales and Queensland. Abortion remains a crime. Certainly, a young woman was prosecuted in 2010 in Queensland for procuring her own abortion.
PAUL BARCLAY: Just recently in New South Wales as well.
JANE CARO: That’s right. Yes, people take it for granted that we have this right, but actually in New South Wales and Queensland, we don’t. Particularly in rural and remote areas, it can be very, very difficult for women to access safe abortion, even with the RU-486 and all of that. Actually, there’s a defining moment. That vote in parliament for RU-486 when all the conservative women and the Labor women joined together and actually got that approved. Even with Tony Abbott who was dead against it as Health Minister. I think Amanda Vanstone said something very salty and terrific to Tony. I think she said to him, ‘Tony, this is not about you.’ [applause]
JULIA BAIRD: That happened in New South Wales parliament too. There’s a number of occasions when there’s been bipartisan support. Can I say Queen Victoria would have loved to take the pill. Without a doubt, she would have taken that pill. She would have taken it straight away when she was married. She was so depressed when she got pregnant so quickly.
She had nine pregnancies, carried them all to term. She only had chlorophyll for the last two. She described it as a blessed relief. This was in a climate in which clergy opposed it because women should suffer in childbirth because of original sin. The doctors opposed it because they feared that women’s libidos would be aroused and they would approach them inappropriately in the delivery room. As anyone who’s ever given birth knows, there’s a temptation [laughter].
Victoria tried it and made it respectable. The man who administered it to her, the first woman he gave it to was so thrilled that she called her child Anaesthesia [laughter]. Again and again, she was unable to perform her official functions. She was worried that she’d have to stop and as she said to the doctor, ‘Can I have no more fun in bed?’ Victoria, I don’t know how many she would have had, but without a doubt, I think she would have employed whatever contraceptive methods were at her disposals.
She described to her daughter – now this is the domestic queen that was this icon of domestic joy and she did love her husband in quite an obsessive way – but she said, ‘When I see a woman walking down the aisle, it is like a lamb to the slaughter.’ That, I’m convinced is because of what happened to women’s bodies and their sheer lack of control about what would have happened.
JANE CARO: Exactly, Elizabeth I loathed all this marrying. She was really opposed to it. She hated her ladies getting married. She dealt with the whole dilemma of – because women died like flies in childbirth in the period when Elizabeth was alive. She saw a couple of her stepmothers die that way, all that kind of thing. I think when she had the opportunity to be able to say, ‘I don’t have to,’ she decided not to. That was really the only way that you could practically save your own life. She also realised that having a son would have meant curtains for her. Mary, Queen of Scots, had a son and then nobody was terribly interested in her after that. We know how she turned out.
PAUL BARCLAY: Did the pill also bring about – as we’ve been taught over the years, or facilitate – the sexual revolution? Did everyone start bonking like crazy when all of a sudden –
MICHELLE ARROW: Jane’s nodding yes.
JANE CARO: Michelle, that’s one for you.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think it did for at least one member of the panel anyway [laughter].
JANE CARO: Definitely. The only thing I’d say about that is that the two doctors – I do know this – the two doctors who are credited with inventing it originally intended it to be used by married women.
SHIREEN MORRIS: Yes, it was for married women.
JANE CARO: So they could space their families, and they were shocked when single women got hold of it [laughter].
MICHELLE ARROW: Yes, and I think for women trying to get it in the early years, it was a little more difficult, if not impossible, to get if you weren’t married. Some historians say, ‘Yes, the pill is the gateway to the sexual revolution. It’s the thing that makes it possible.’ Other people say, ‘Well, the pill is a sign that something is changing in social and sexual mores around the pill,’ so I think it’s one of those ongoing debates. I think if you think about the world before and after the pill, it did certainly give women more freedom to be able to enjoy sex without worrying about getting pregnant necessarily, which is a huge shift I think.
SHIREEN MORRIS: The technological advances now though – the way that egg freezing technology, for example, has just opened up women’s options in terms of career and when they think about having children – have freed them up on this whole other layer where the biological clock is now less of a concern for educated professional women too.
PAUL BARCLAY: Actually, your university, Shireen, Monash University is at the forefront of what were called back in the early days, test tube babies. A lot of the critical research was done at Monash.
SHIREEN MORRIS: Right, I didn’t know that.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, indeed.
JULIA BAIRD: It was not that long ago that I realised that my young daughter – I had so many of my female friends having babies on their own – that she actually thought that women spontaneously combusted [laughter]. I was like, ‘How should I have this conversation with her?’ She’s like, ‘No, no, Mum. I know. I think the man sometimes is involved and sometimes is not.’ Anyway, it’s a whole new different place to begin to talk.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s a challenge for sex education clearly.
JULIA BAIRD: Honestly, yes. It’s the same thing with … we were watching the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That. It’s about children of gay and lesbian parents. It’s all about –
PAUL BARCLAY: – It’s a terrific show, actually.
JULIA BAIRD: It’s fantastic.
PAUL BARCLAY: Really terrific show.
JULIA BAIRD: That was an interesting one to have it with my little boy then. We had to have the discussion. When someone said, ‘I’ve got an anonymous donor,’ and he went, ‘Oh, that’s what I want. An enormous donut’ [laughter]. We had to talk then. That began our sex talk.
SHIREEN MORRIS: A conversation for another day, perhaps. I was going to add too. I think one of the things that’s important to remember about something like the pill is that a lot of Indigenous women said, ‘Well, we actually want to control our fertility, but we actually want to have more children. We want to keep our children. We don’t want to be subjected to forced sterilisation. We don’t want to be given long-term contraceptive implants and things like that. I think, on the other hand, we go, ‘Yes, isn’t this great? The pill does all these wonderful things for women.’ I’m not saying that it didn’t, but I think there’s a flip side there that this cuts both ways. It means different things around control of fertility for different women .
PAUL BARCLAY: I’m going to move onto another issue, women getting the vote. I mentioned in the introduction that that occurred in South Australia very early. Interestingly, the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1912 gave men and women the vote in Australia upon the formation of the Federation, but it excluded Indigenous people, who were included in the right to vote in South Australia. It was an active act of actually excluding them from the vote. It wasn’t until 1965, I read, when Queensland amended their laws, that Aboriginal people could vote in all elections in Australia. It seems, Shireen, like we went from, what was it? 1894? Then finally resolving this in 1965. We kind of went backwards for a long time, didn’t we?
SHIREEN MORRIS: Yes, it’s extraordinary when you think about it how comparatively early women got voting rights, or white women at least. Then in certain jurisdictions in Australia: Queensland, Western Australia and at certain times the Northern Territory, not only Indigenous Australians actually, but non-white nationals from other countries as well were specifically denied the vote.
This bizarre case happened around 1924, where an Indian man – I think an Indian national, but a British subject – challenged his exclusion under the Commonwealth Franchise Act under Section 41 of the Constitution. He went to court and said, ‘The state law lets me vote, so this Commonwealth law is invalid under the constitution.’ The government freaked out, changed the act to allow Indian people the right to vote. Indian people only, not Indigenous people.
PAUL BARCLAY: Wow.
SHIREEN MORRIS: I know, incredible.
PAUL BARCLAY: That is incredible.
SHIREEN MORRIS: Indian nationals got the right to vote in Australia at the Commonwealth level decades before Indigenous Australians.
PAUL BARCLAY: Were they planning to just go through nationality by nationality? Individual pieces of legislation. That is bizarre, isn’t it?
SHIREEN MORRIS: Only when people kicked up a fuss. I often thought to myself, gosh, if only that litigant had gone to court and made the general argument on behalf of his Indigenous counterparts as well. He could have changed history.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s also striking that when we talk about defining moments for women, often we’re talking about just conferring upon them basic rights that should have existed from the beginning. I was thinking about this with the anti-discrimination laws, the Sex Discrimination Act came into being in 1984. That is well within our living memory, isn’t it?
MICHELLE ARROW: Yes, absolutely. It was in some ways a little bit of unfinished business left over from the [Gough] Whitlam period. Whitlam passes the Racial Discrimination Act in, I think 75. Of course, they’re gone by the end of 1975. I think there were moves around women’s rights under the Whitlam period, which get left behind. Then [Bob] Hawke takes them back up again. Yes, Susan Ryan is instrumental to the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act in 84 but yes, it’s late.
JANE CARO: Actually, what is interesting – I’m going to go to America again quickly – is that when the Civil Rights Act in America was passed, and I think LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson] around about 1964, women were included in that literally as a joke. I’ve just been doing this research and I’ve read this incredible story where in the Congress, they were passing the Civil Rights Act, which was about not discriminating on the basis of race, religion, country of origin, that sort of thing; but sex wasn’t there.
A guy, a segregationist, who was trying to shoot the bill down, got up and laughing his head off to this all-male Congress, apart from 12 female members, in 1964, said, ‘Well, why can’t we add sex to it? Ha, ha, ha.’ All of them roared with laughter, thought this was hilarious and as a joke passed it. One of the women Congress members got up and said, ‘Well, if there was any doubt that women are the second sex, the laughter and hilarity that has just ensued confirms it.’
PAUL BARCLAY: Oh god.
JANE CARO: Literally as a joke in 1964.
MICHELLE ARROW: But then of course the Equal Rights Amendment in the US doesn’t –
JANE CARO: – Didn’t get up. Didn’t get up.
MICHELLE ARROW: Doesn’t get through either and partly from campaigns from conservative women.
SHIREEN MORRIS: I think it’s interesting because you talk about how the Racial Discrimination Act was kind of the predecessor and then the Sex Discrimination Act came. It’s almost like the Sex Discrimination Act has become much more embedded. I always marvel at the fact that [Section] 18C, the clause outlawing racial vilification, comes under attack for prohibiting offensive speech as an unfair hindrance on free speech; but the equivalent provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act that also outlaw offence and humiliation and things like that, using very similar language, nobody ever mentions it.
JULIA BAIRD: Is it because so few people actually use it? Think of –
SHIREEN MORRIS: – I don’t know what the reason is.
JULIA BAIRD: Think of the epithets hurled at Julia Gillard when she was prime minister.
SHIREEN MORRIS: I wonder what would have happened had Andrew Bolt got in trouble under, for example, the Sex Discrimination Act rather than the Racial Discrimination Act. Perhaps it would have been a different story. You may be right, but I think it’s interesting that racist speech seems to still be up for grabs in the free speech debate, but sexually discriminatory speech seems to be off limits. I think although we’ve got further to go in the gender equality struggle, I think that shows that it’s done very well. It’s become part of the accepted norm in a sense. Would you agree with that?
MICHELLE ARROW: If you think about the way that women are treated online, I suspect that there’s a lot of disgusting sexist hate speech that gets thrown around. I guess, partly because those acts are complaint-based, I think women talk about their own remedies to deal with it. Julia and Jane complain –
SHIREEN MORRIS: Maybe the complaints aren’t happening.
MICHELLE ARROW: – more sense of how that works.
JULIA BAIRD: It’s normalised, I think, especially for a woman to have an opinion and have a position that’s in any way public now involves a degree of hatred that is astonishing. You need to have a secure house. You need to have the security for you children wrapped up. You need to be psychologically fortified against it. Your employers need to be aware of it. People say this is just part of the workforce now. They just have to suck it up. It’s just trolling. It’s just online. It is feral. It is destructive. We seem unable to stop it.
Without a doubt, it is impacting who speaks in public life and how often and if ever. I sometimes have people who will not come on my show because they’ll just get trolled. Just last week, I had a historian on. She hadn’t been on The Drum before. I thought, ‘Fantastic, expert voice, that’d be great.’ The next day she contacts me and says, ‘How do you do it? I couldn’t sleep last night. These things were said and these things were said. This person attacked me.’ I honestly –
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s the very question I put to Clem [Clementine] Ford recently –
JULIA BAIRD: It’s ugly.
PAUL BARCLAY: – When I was talking to her, ‘How do you do it? How do you cope with the abuse that you cop?’ I think this is moving us into the arena that I wanted to talk about of women in politics and in public life. Of course, they cop it. Before we come to the contemporary moment though, Michelle, the first two women were elected to the Australian parliament in 1943. Enid Lyons was elected to the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney was elected to represent Western Australia.
Enid Lyons would go onto become the first cabinet minister who was female. Dorothy Tangney, who people may not have heard of, she had an enormously long career in the Senate. She was the longest serving senator at one stage. Both of them remarkable women and there is, I have to say, the most fantastic photo on the Museum’s website – you should check it out – of both of them entering the front doors of the old Parliament House together on the 24th of September, 1943. Isn’t it a wonderful shot of the two of them?
MICHELLE ARROW: Yes, it’s fantastic, where they would get inside and discover there were no women’s toilets that they could use because the building was –
PAUL BARCLAY: Is that right?
MICHELLE ARROW: No women’s toilets in the members’ area. I think one of the interesting things about Australian political history is that we’re one of the first countries to give white women the vote, but yet the lag between women getting the right to vote and the right to stand for election – that was again an early victory if you like for women’s rights. The lag between actually winning that right and actually electing a female MP to parliament is one of the longest in the world. I don’t quite know why.
I think it’s probably still very long, deep seated ideas about women’s place and a lot of the arguments that women used when they were campaigning for the vote is that women have specific needs that only women can represent and all of those arguments around women have a special contribution to make to political life. It’s a fantastic image, but it took a really long time. I think interestingly that it happened during World War Two when there were so many changes happening in women’s lives.
PAUL BARCLAY: I know Jane wants to come in.
JANE CARO: Yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: Before you do, Jane, you talked about the fact that they arrived in Parliament House and found there were no toilets that they could use. Interestingly, when they built the new Parliament House, I’m told the first thing that they knocked off due to budget cuts was the childcare centre that was meant –
JANE CARO: Yes, that was what I was about to say about the New South Wales parliament currently, where there was a fuss recently because they wanted to extend the women’s toilets and a few of the male members objected, which is quite extraordinary. I do happen to know that one of the female members of the New South Wales house, Jo Haylen has had a baby and the only place she could breastfeed her baby was in the ladies’ toilet. They put a chair in there, where every time anyone came in, the door banged into her as she tried to breastfeed. This is now, so the fact that those two women went in and there was no toilets, it’s still like that.
JULIA BAIRD: I love the thing about Enid Lyons as well, which is so remarkable, is how many children she had. You can have a dozen children and go into federal parliament when actually following her example. She was so talented.
PAUL BARCLAY: She’s incredible.
JULIA BAIRD: She was the most remarkable orator and I think far better in oratory than her husband. Her speech writing and delivery capabilities were fantastic. She was incredibly efficient. She was very well-loved and she was an excellent representative for Tasmania as well. Since then, it’s been extremely difficult for women to get into the upper echelons. We’ve had many cabinets first devoid of women and certainly devoid of mothers. I think that’s been a really interesting subsequent struggle.
PAUL BARCLAY: Julie Bishop, who is an over-achiever in her pre-political life and in her political life, someone who has, regardless of your political stance, she’s done exceptionally well professionally. She made the statement not long ago that women can’t have it all. She was kind of referring to her own position –
JULIA BAIRD: I know. It’s just that they’re always asked this.
PAUL BARCLAY: They are always asked this.
JULIA BAIRD: But the men are not asked that question. It drives me crazy. You’re absolutely right.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s a good point and it’s a point about the narrative around women in politics.
JANE CARO: Can we define having it all? Having it all just means having interesting and meaningful work and a family, which is what men take for goddamn granted they’re going to have [applause].
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, it’s a good point. It’s the way we divide the issue of caring up, isn’t it? It’s still so incredibly gendered. Julia, you’ve written a book kind of about how the media frames women in politics. I’m interested in how the narratives are different in how we present women and men in politics.
JULIA BAIRD: The book was really up through the 90s, so it was the first few decades of Australian political life. It all came to fruition in Julia Gillard. I went through all of the media files of every woman elected to parliament in Australia. They’re fat and thick and dusty and sit in usually the bowels of parliament houses around the nation, unpleasant an image as that may be, now I say it.
I found that really the problem at the heart of it is a cultural inability to understand or a discomfort with the idea of women exercising power or exercising authority so that when they do, it is seen as somehow surprising. Oh, housewife superstar – not housewife, sorry – the ‘Iron Lady’, the ‘Steel Butterfly’, the ‘Steel Magnolia’, the ‘Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove’. What an extraordinary contradiction and how bizarre and peculiar. She wears high heels. Watch how many profiles of female politicians describe their high heels walking down the parliament.
JANE CARO: Remember when Julia fell out of hers in India and the fuss?
JULIA BAIRD: Who hasn’t? It’s surprising or it’s secondary. It’s someway derived from the men around her, the men in the cabinet, the men she’s related to. In Queen Victoria’s case, it’s her prime ministers and it’s her husband. Or it’s severe and it’s unpleasant. It’s excessive. It’s somehow a savage and a bizarre thing. I think the flip side of that is the fact that we expect women to be more moral and above the political fray. A mistake is far worse and far more egregious.
They’re judged more severely for it. That again is often the problem with analysis of gender in politics. It’s not that these women are faultless. It is not that they are perfect individuals. It is just that their sins are regarded as far more egregious. It’s the volume and the protracted nature of the criticism I think is far more extensive. Because we’ve always thought of them as interlopers in a male world, it is assumed that their position in parliament is far more precarious. If we’re going to talk defining moments, I think that Julia Gillard’s misogyny piece, the speech, was one of the greatest moments in Australian political history [applause].
FEMALE: Hear, hear.
PAUL BARCLAY: ‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not.’
JULIA BAIRD: It was the most electrifying thing to hear and we all heard it and all understood. The press gallery didn’t to this day. That perplexes me. I do not understand how they missed that story. All of the main newspapers the next day, it was all about the speaker imbroglio. They missed the significance of her words to a generation of women. I instantly put on my shoes and went for a six-kilometre run [laughter]. I didn’t know where to put that energy. It was so extraordinary.
She was so particularly speaking on behalf of any woman who’d been slighted or diminished or silenced or put down. Then at that moment to have misogyny used against her. It wasn’t like a dog whistle. It was like a ‘bitch blast’. It was like a massive noise that we all heard and we understood. I’m not calling her a bitch. I’m saying that the female dogs, the women who were listening to that understood it.
MICHELLE ARROW: That’s why it went viral, wasn’t it? Social media was where the story went.
PAUL BARCLAY: Shireen, do you think that’s right that the misogyny speech … ? Do you see that as a moment?
SHIREEN MORRIS: It was an incredible moment, but for her as a politician, I remember thinking to myself, ‘That is the first time I’ve seen her personality really shine through.’ It seemed like she broke through of the constraints of this image we have of women. As you say that we somehow view the feminine person as being antithetical to power and ambition. If you’re a woman who seizes power, then you’re some kind of Lady Macbeth character with milk for gall or whatever the … you’re unfeminine and you’re cold.
Gillard, after she wasn’t prime minister anymore, talked about the incredible abuse. She talked about getting rape threats. She warned aspiring female politicians to be prepared for that, which I thought was pretty extraordinary to say that that’s part and parcel. In terms of the childbearing and family balancing issue, she made the point that you just can’t win. If you don’t have kids, then it’s like you’re disconnected. You’re not part of the real –
JULIA BAIRD: – ‘Deliberately barren’, I think was the phrase used. The ‘old fruit bowl’.
SHIREEN MORRIS: If you do have kids, well then, who’s looking after them and how are you going to balance all of these competing … ? But exactly, Jane, this is what every man does.
PAUL BARCLAY: I wonder too – politics has become so toxic in the last ten years or so, the esteem in which we hold politicians has fallen so dramatically – that I wonder whether the fact that she was our first female prime minister, whether the historical import of that has been lost. We were talking to a bunch of millennials here at the last Defining Moments conversation we had. It was just interesting to hear one of them say when I asked her, ‘What would you pick as your handful of moments?’, and she said, ‘Look, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, the election of the first woman as prime minister of this country has got to be seen as a tremendously significant moment.’ Yet, I wonder given everything that she went through, do we see it that way?
JANE CARO: I think unfortunately that’s deliberate. While we all resonated and rose up and went for six kilometre runs and were inspired by the misogyny speech, unfortunately there are another group of people in our society for whom it merely confirmed their prejudices about her being shrill and strident. The same thing as Hillary Clinton talking – just in the last couple of days – about, ‘Should I have turned around and told him to back off, you creep, when Donald Trump … ’ I think what she did was right, but it doesn’t matter what you do. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
I think that the message that was being sent by a lot of conservatives right across Australia, whether it was conscious or unconscious – and some of it was conscious, some not so much – was to every woman and girl, ‘Don’t you dare aspire to lead because we will eviscerate you if you do.’ There was a purpose behind that bullying just as there was a purpose behind the bullying of Hillary Clinton. That is to actually keep women in their place. We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t recognise that.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when the second wave of feminism hit the public conversation, but perhaps it was around about the time of Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch being published in 1970. I think it’s a convenient marker. How do we all assess the importance of that book? I think, like a lot of books, I suspect its impact far exceeded those who read the actual book, but is that a big cultural moment, Michelle?
MICHELLE ARROW: I think a lot of men probably had it thrown at them in anger and frustration [laughter]. I think there’s that. It’s interesting because social movements are very hard to distil down to moments like that. What would you pick out as the defining moment of second wave feminism? I think something like Germaine Greer, she was so iconoclastic. She took no prisoners. She had that real larrikin element to her I think. She was a global celebrity. She was probably the famous feminist in that period.
PAUL BARCLAY: She was charismatic too, wasn’t she? Enormously charismatic.
MICHELLE ARROW: Hugely charismatic, and sexy. She was on the cover of Life magazine as the ‘Saucy feminist that even men like’. That was her claim to fame there. I think that what that as a moment tells us is that something was changing. Then that book resonates and plays out in a ripple effect over lots of different lives. In terms of Australia, she wasn’t necessarily part of the movement in Australia as much. She came out here a few times and was always well received when she got here, but I think she’s a really important feminist celebrity. She tells us something about the social change that’s going on in that movement.
PAUL BARCLAY: The 70s really was the decade when feminism made it to the lounge rooms of middle Australia in a way, wasn’t it? I suppose that book played some role in that.
JANE CARO: It was huge. I remember reading it. I suppose I was a teenager at the time and what an impact it had on me was quite extraordinary. The only other book I remember having a similar impact a few years later was The Women’s Room, if anyone remembers that book? That had a similar kind of ‘hit you between the eyes’.
There is a seminal moment I think around that time, which is when Whitlam made university education free. The number of women – I went to university at that time and unfortunately my mother came to university with me [laughter] because she had done mature age matric. Because it was free, she got the opportunity. A lot of women went to university in 74, 75, 76, 77 because they got the chance, because it was free and they’d been prevented when they were younger. I think we haven’t given credit to what a change that has made to Australian society, to the workforce and to women getting into positions of power, that ability to get a degree.
PAUL BARCLAY: We’re getting to that stage in the discussion where I’m having to rush through events. In 1915, Shireen, the New South Wales Government got the unfettered power to remove Indigenous children from their mothers and families, a bleak defining moment and one we’ve been dealing with ever since. That’s over 100 years ago now. Do you think the intergenerational trauma remains for Indigenous people and the fact that we still have a generation of kids who don’t know who their mother or grandmother was, for example?
SHIREEN MORRIS: I think that the trauma goes on. The interesting thing about the apology was that, yes, it was a win, but it was a symbolic win and it wasn’t accompanied with the practical action or the just compensation that it should have had. I do think that’s a lesson for the current debate in constitutional recognition, and even in a sense the debate about tearing down of statues and changing dates and so on. I think the extraordinary thing there is that – and I’m not totally sure of the statistic, but more Indigenous children are being removed today than were back then.
JULIA BAIRD: I think that’s right.
SHIREEN MORRIS: That is not often noted. I think that is testament to the fact that despite the billions and billions of dollars spent in the name of Indigenous Australians, we are not succeeding. This area of policy is broken. The system is not working to produce good results. Until we get deadly serious about structural reform of the kind that the Uluru Statement [from the Heart] called for – structural empowerment; serious empowerment, to ensure that Indigenous, not only women, but families and communities can take charge of these issues for themselves and have real input in policy making – I just think we will never crack this as a country. That will forever be our shame if we don’t get serious about that now [applause].
PAUL BARCLAY: In 2015, Rosie Batty was named the Australian of the Year. We all know her story and are astonished at her courage at deciding to become a figurehead to promote greater discussion and awareness around domestic violence. Jane, do you think this is a defining moment in terms of turning the public conversation around on family violence?
JANE CARO: Yes, and I think there’s been a number of those turning points in terms of the way we speak about things that we never spoke about openly before. I think domestic violence is a really important one. I also think that sexual assault, we’re talking about in a much more open and direct way than we ever have. I’ve just put together a collection of stories of women talking about domestic violence, but also sexual assault, stories they’ve never told anyone before. Suddenly we’re in a safe enough place where women feel they can do that and that’s really important.
I also think, however, we’re starting to notice things for the first time. We’re starting to notice how many poor old women there are in our society, how many women are living under fear of losing the roof over their head as they age. I suspect this isn’t new. I’m sure in your research into the Victorian era, the workhouses were full of old women, but we are now starting to actually look and be concerned for the first time. All these things: sexual assault, domestic violence, poverty in old age for women are gone on for God knows how long, but for the first time, we’re starting to look at it.
PAUL BARCLAY: Julia, you’ve done some work on this recently, on the attitude of the church to domestic violence. Women, I’m told from having read one of your articles actually on the ABC website, are being told to endure violence in the name of God. Have I quoted you correctly there?
JULIA BAIRD: That’s right. I’ve been working on this for the past year, but it’s been looking at religion and domestic violence. When you dig into the work that has been done and there really hasn’t been that much. She was like a powder keg, Rosie Batty, that year. It was fantastic. The discussions were unbelievable. The sobering gradual realisation about the prevalence and also the tolerance, even the term domestic, ‘They were just having a domestic,’ around the criminality, the pervasiveness, the different forms that this took was all really crucial.
There’s a couple of different times they’ve looked into the Royal Commission as a result into family violence in Victoria, also Quentin Bryce’s task force in Queensland. Both of them had a disturbing finding that was overlooked, which is that women in faith communities have very particular challenges. They’re more likely to talk about it to their leaders. The leaders are often ill equipped and advise them to stay.
We found that in Islam, when we looked at that first of all, during which there is considerable confusion in some quarters about the interpretation of the Koran. Absolutely, the mainstream view of scholars being that it’s not acceptable, but the fringe extremist elements and that Imans overall did not understand domestic violence and were telling them to stay. When we looked at the Christian community, still half of the country, we found that women were much more likely to stay in violent and abusive relationships, much more likely to blame themselves.
Some of the good things about the church, being told to forgive, being told that marriage is important and that you must stick at it and you must endure, were in some ways making them vulnerable. Some of the teachings around, say the doctrine of headship, where a woman is to submit to a man and a husband is to lead his wife as Christ led the church in a sacrificial and loving way, was being twisted by abusers to tell women to submit and to be obedient. Women literally telling me they would come home from a sermon and have these bits ripped out and thrown at them and saying, ‘You must obey.’
PAUL BARCLAY: God, that’s disturbing.
JULIA BAIRD: It was actually quite shocking especially in terms of sexual abuse, financial control, emotional abuse. That seemed to me to be significant. A lack of urgency amongst many of the hierarchy. What then devolved as we reported on it, it became a question about statistics and about prevalence, of which there are none that are significant in Australia. It was fascinating to see that defensive response when I think we have to recognise culturally it is everywhere, it takes different forms. We have to hear from as many women who survived as possible so we understand the challenges and we understand their vulnerabilities, and we can protect them better.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, very much so. One of the things we haven’t spoken about is once again an impossible moment to put a time on, but the profound social change that was brought about by women entering the workforce at about the middle of last century and then continuing participation rates. We had that moment where they were granted equal pay. I think 1972, as I said, we know that there is still a – is it a 17 per cent wage gap?
What reflection, Michelle, would you like to make on that fact about how society has changed and shifted with women becoming more active participants in the workforce, but basically becoming more active participants in society generally? Is there something hopeful that we can take from this that in spite of all the miserable stuff we’ve been talking about tonight, domestic violence and so on, that women are clearly so much more a part of the social discourse and society generally today than they were 100 years ago?
MICHELLE ARROW: Yes, I think that’s right. Things are changing slowly. We know that there are still problems in relation to things like superannuation and that’s going to be something that is going to flow through and have a really long trail of really discriminatory treatment. Men and women don’t have the same amount of superannuation and women still do bear that financial burden of taking time out of the workforce to care for children and all of those things.
Things like childcare, childcare used to be seen as, ‘Well, it’s your problem. You have to sort that out yourself.’ The idea now that there is an expectation that childcare will be, not necessarily always provided by the state, but that there is some financial assistance around childcare and things like that. That’s huge. My working life looks very different to my mother’s. It’s unrecognisable from my grandmother’s. There have been changes obviously keeping in mind that there is still unequal pay. We still have a very sex-segregated workforce although it’s not as extreme as it used to be. I don’t know. What do you think, Jane?
JANE CARO: I think things have improved vastly in some areas. The very fact that we’re paying attention and that we’re listening to women’s voices in a way that we never have before, and their stories and taking them seriously matters. On the childcare thing, though, I’ve a daughter with a 16-month-old, who’s having to pay more for childcare than her actual return to work salary would be. That is a systemic disincentive for women to return to work, which in the long run ends up with them being poor when they’re old. We have this nasty, vicious cycle, which traps women.
MICHELLE ARROW: It’s neoliberalism.
JANE CARO: Yes, it’s neoliberalism.
MICHELLE ARROW: It’s the neoliberal model for childcare.
JANE CARO: The neoliberal model does not work out well for women. I think those kinds of things we still have lots to fight for, but in a funny way, what a wonderful thing to have something bigger than yourself to fight for. It is – I hate this word, but I can’t think of another one – empowering. I have been so delighted by the charging back onto the world’s stage of feminism since the internet and the unmediated access to the public conversation that women and other groups that aren’t white men have also been able to get hold of. That is starting to change everything.
PAUL BARCLAY: I really need to wind up the discussion, but being a sport fan, I can’t leave it without talking about sport because let’s face it, some of the defining moments in Australian sporting history have been around women. Cathy Freeman winning the 400 metres at the Sydney Olympic Games, Shireen, I could talk about that event for the rest of my life and still not stop getting the tingles up the back of my spine.
SHIREEN MORRIS: What an amazing moment. For a woman, an Aboriginal woman … and she looked like some kind of alien superhero charging around in that amazing outfit that she wore.
PAUL BARCLAY: She was totally dressed for the occasion, wasn’t she?
SHIREEN MORRIS: Then after that she carried with pride the two flags, which in itself, started a whole national conversation that we needed to have, that needed to be started. What an amazing moment. PE [physical education] at school used to be the bane of my life and I think I harboured some dreams of going out to run, only to have an asthma attack [laughter].
MICHELLE ARROW The grace with which she carried the nation’s expectations in that moment – remember the moment at the opening ceremony where she’s lighting the cauldron and she looked like she was going to be set on fire by that thing that she was riding in between? I just think that moment, it really did bring the nation together in a way that seemed historically perfect, which was why it was such a special occasion.
JULIA BAIRD: We can’t forget how visceral that was. I just remember walking through Martin Place, walking through the city. For the couple of days beforehand, everyone felt sick.
SHIREEN MORRIS: Yes.
JULIA BAIRD: People were clustered around those … and people were distracted and couldn’t sleep.
SHIREEN MORRIS: What if she doesn’t win?
JULIA BAIRD: It was like we were carrying that in our bones.
SHIREEN MORRIS: Exactly.
JULIA BAIRD: There was something so remarkable about how we were running with her.
PAUL BARCLAY: There was something very special about Sydney actually during that time. The great Australian songwriter Don Walker of Cold Chisel fame wrote a song inspired by Sydney during the Olympic games called ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, which is that double entendre about a beautiful woman and a beautiful city. He said there was just that time when after Cathy Freeman had won the Olympic Games and everything just seemed right in the world, in this beautiful harbour city. A wonderful, wonderful moment in history.
That is 200 years of history crammed into an hour, not comprehensively, but certainly a lot of fun. Thanks for coming along today. It’s been a great conversation. Please put your hands together for our fantastic panel of guests. I think there are book signings occurring for those people who have books, pretty immediately. I do apologise for the absence of a Q&A session. I know that that was conspicuous, but the authors tell me that you might be able to sneak in a question or two of them when you buy their book from them. There you go. Thanks again. We’ll see you next time. Cheers.
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Date published: 16 October 2017