Brazen hussies:

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

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