In her next project, filmmaker catherine dwyer explores the history of australia’s feminist revolution.
The history of Australia’s feminist revolution
Forty-three years ago, at a pub in Brisbane, Merle Thornton chained her ankle to the bar and kickstarted a movement. Now known as the Regatta Pub Chain-in, this action was in protest of the Queensland law prohibiting women from drinking in public bars. When a minister laughed them out of his office the day before, Merle and her friend Rosalie Bogner took matters into their own hands. And feet.
“That was the first time Australian women took a militant action by being confrontational and risking arrest – it was inspired by what the British suffragettes had done,” explains Catherine Dwyer, a Melbourne-based documentary filmmaker whose debut feature, Brazen Hussies, will explore a decade of formative action in Australia’s women’s liberation and feminist movements. And it all begins with that Brisbane pub in 1965.
This wasn’t, of course, the origin of women’s rights movements in Australia – that can be traced back to what we now call the First Wave, when suffragettes around the world campaigned for the right to vote. In 1894, the colony of South Australia became the first anywhere in the world to grant women this essential right, with the rest of the country following suit. But 70 years later, things still weren’t exactly equal.
“Women couldn’t get bank loans; they couldn’t get credit cards in their name; they couldn’t get abortions,” Catherine says. “Marital rape was legal. Domestic violence was rife, but just not talked about.” She ticks off a list from the top of her head, capturing just some of the inequalities and injustices women of the Second Wave sought to correct. “One of the most interesting things women did for themselves – without any support from our government – was starting women’s shelters for victims of domestic violence,” Catherine explains. “That was a grassroots thing women did just for them.”
The movement here mirrored those that had gained steam around the world a couple of years earlier. Catherine found herself becoming incredibly familiar with the feminist movement in the United States while working on the 2014 documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Directed by Mary Dore, the feature- length film chronicled the birth and legacy of the women’s liberation movement. Catherine was living in Brooklyn, New York when she became aware of a fundraising campaign to aid in producing the flick, and immediately wrote to the team, offering her services. As an intern, she undertook research and organised photographs and archival material, all the while wondering what was going on closer to home during that period. “I thought, ‘There’s probably just as good a story,’ but I didn’t know any of it.”
Back on home soil, where She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry played at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2015, Catherine summoned the courage to approach stalwart producer Sue Maslin (known for flicks like Japanese Story and The Dressmaker). “I told her my idea and she took me seriously. After that it was like, now I’ve got to do it!” Catherine says. “She’s really supportive of
women filmmakers and just makes you feel like you can do it.” Sue suggested Catherine connect with Andrea Foxworthy and Phillipa Campey, two highly skilled and experienced documentary producers, who jumped on board as well. “I’ve never directed a film before, so it’s amazing that they’re coming on this journey with me,” she says.
It’s essential for Catherine that her crew is comprised of women – not only because of the historical under-representation of ladies in the film industry, but also because the era they’re dealing with had the catch-cry, “Jobs for women!” echoing throughout. “It was amazing for me to work with all women on the film in the US,” Catherine says. “I didn’t feel like it was easy to get into that industry and feel comfortable, but working alongside these incredible ladies really inspired me. So many of the stories we consume, especially films, are made by men. It’s really important that more women make films and tell stories.”
In She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, audiences were introduced to central figures in the American women’s lib movement, including Susan Brownmiller, Rita Mae Brown, Judith Arcana and Jo Freeman. In her Antipodean version, Catherine will ensure the likes of Elizabeth Reid, Pat O’shane, Zelda D’aprano, Lilla Watson and Beatrice Faust are household names, and that we know who to credit for our modern freedoms.
“Elizabeth Reid was the first women’s advisor to a head of state in the world – ever,” Catherine says in amazement. She wells up while talking about the effect Elizabeth had on Gough Whitlam’s Labor government from 1972 to ’75, clearly affected by her legacy. “To be in that position was incredibly challenging. A lot of the women liberationists, especially the more radical side, were very skeptical about it having any actual benefit to women, because they were so cynical about the government taking women seriously – and fair enough! But no one really realised just how progressive the Whitlam government was, and how he did really take the women’s movement seriously.”
Beatrice Faust, meanwhile, was the founder of a reformist group called the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL). “There were the radicals and then the reformists,” Catherine explains. The reformists advocated for the need to work with the government to make change, “whereas the radicals were like, ‘We need to stay outside of it, otherwise we’ll be corrupted and sell out’. So that was a whole philosophical debate within the movement. It’s fascinating.”
In 1972, Beatrice and the WEL decided to survey candidates in the upcoming federal election, with a specific focus on any proposed policies that would affect the lives of women. Equal pay, employment opportunities and access to education; free contraception; and access to abortions and childcare were the topics up for discussion in the survey, which drew its inspiration from the first issue of Ms. magazine, the American feminist publication Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes launched in 1971.
“It just took off like wildfire,” Catherine says. “All over Australia, women got together around this project, surveying every political candidate about their views on women and how their platform took women into consideration – which most of them had not thought of at all.”
Not content with only circulating the results amongst themselves, the WEL worked with the media to publish the survey’s findings in a special lift-out section of Melbourne newspaper The Age. “They were really clever about it; they did survey matrixes and ranked all the candidates to show which ones were really sexist,” Catherine says – and, unsurprisingly, a lot of them were. Pat Etoch, a leader in Canberra’s Aboriginal tent embassy, rated best, while the eventual winner of the election, Gough Whitlam, also scored well. In his first three days in office, as a significant and not-justsymbolic gesture, he removed the 27 per cent tax on contraception that had previously classed it as a ‘luxury’ item.
This was the first of many successes for the movement that improved the lives of Australian women, and nudged us ever closer to achieving gender equality. The introduction of the Single Mother’s Pension (now called the Parenting Payment) also contributed to a decline in illegal – and dangerous – abortions that women felt obliged to carry out because of the lack of financial control they could exercise. And in 1975, the Family Law Act established the principle of ‘no-fault divorce’, making it easier for women – especially those in abusive marriages – to separate. “We still don’t have equal pay,” Catherine reminds us, “but there were laws put in place that gave it to some women and tried to correct the imbalance.”
As much as Brazen Hussies will enlighten us all about this formative and revolutionary period in Australia’s feminist history, it’s also making a larger statement about the stories we value and prioritise. Not teaching these stories, Catherine says, contributes to an erasure of women from history. “Because we don’t value what women do, their work doesn’t become part of the greater narrative of Australian history. And then we feel like we didn’t do anything, and we’re told we didn’t do anything. When actually, we fucking did.”
It’s about time we honoured the ones who put their jobs and lives and bodies on the line just a few decades ago. The ones who knew that changing the course of history required they be loud, difficult and brazen.
we’re told we didn't do anything, when actually, we fucking did