CAUGHT IN THE ACT

SOUTH AUS­TRALIA LED THE WAY OUT­LAW­ING SEX DIS­CRIM­I­NA­TION 35 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK. WE’VE COME A LONG WAY SINCE – OR HAVE WE?

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - CONTENTS - SAMEL A HAR­RIS

Has 35 years of SA’s ground-break­ing Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act re­ally made life bet­ter for women?

ONCE upon a time I was thrown out of a bar for the of­fence of be­ing a woman. I had dared to broach the male en­clave of the Sturt Arcade Ho­tel and ask for a hock and le­mon. That was a chic women’s drink of the 1960s – al­ways con­sumed in the Ladies’ Lounge and of­ten while the men were loudly con­vivi­al­is­ing in the ex­clu­sively male do­main of the front bar. A gen­der seg­re­ga­tion as strict as apartheid used to rule Aus­tralia. Women were barred from those iron­i­cally la­belled “Pub­lic Bars”. We could stand at the bar door and wave to get the at­ten­tion of our men­folk, but were never to en­ter, let alone ask for a drink.

Women did not gain en­try to the front bar of the Aussie pub un­til the 1970s, af­ter the long fight for equal­ity and when the Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act was passed on Novem­ber 4, 1975. South Aus­tralia, un­der Don Dun­stan, was the first state to pass such leg­is­la­tion.

I was not ex­actly a suf­fragette chained to the rail­ings of Par­lia­ment House in those early years, a life­time ago. My chal­lenge was small pota­toes in the grand scheme of fe­male equal­ity. I was just a young Ade­laide fem­i­nist push­ing a bound­ary of pa­tri­ar­chal tra­di­tion. There’s a photo of it some­where – a burly bar­man with a vice-like grip on my el­bow firmly oust­ing me through the doors of the front bar.

Of course, as a re­porter work­ing for The News on North Tce, I wrote a story about it.

I had the odd dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the first woman they had taken on as a full-time gen­eral news re­porter. The news­room on North Tce was an­other male do­main. Fine women jour­nal­ists ex­isted – Mar­garet Brenton, Ma­rina Craig, Helen Covern­ton, Carol Cameron, Beatrice Jay, Rae Atkey, Pat Dun­stan and Christa­bel North among them – but they dwelt in some frus­tra­tion be­hind a glass wall, their days pre­dom­i­nantly con­sumed by phon­ing so­ci­ety ma­trons and ask­ing what they were wear­ing to the con­cert or the may­oral re­cep­tion. That was deemed women’s in­ter­est in the af­ter­noon news­pa­per world of the 1960s. Things were a bit more eman­ci­pated on the morn­ing paper, but the most fa­mous ’Tiser woman jour­nal­ist of the day, Mary Ar­mitage, nev­er­the­less spe­cialised largely in women’s busi­ness.

The News found it­self break­ing with its male tra­di­tion by de­fault. It had as­sumed that editors of the Ade­laide Uni­ver­sity news­pa­per, On Dit, re­cip­i­ents of an elec­tive Murdoch Schol­ar­ship, would be male. The le­gendary edi­tor of The News, Ron Boland, and the gen­eral man­ager, Ken May (later Sir Ken­neth), were slack-jawed when this rather hip­pie-like girl ar­rived to take up the of­fered po­si­tion. “You’d bet­ter be good or there’ll be no more,” said Sir Ken.

That was 45 years ago – and I must have been OK, be­cause there is a throng of in­tel­li­gent and tal­ented young women around me right now. In fact, women tend to out­num­ber men in news­rooms these days.

Heaven for­fend, there are women editors. The very idea was in­con­ceiv­able in the 1960s. Aus­tralian so­ci­ety was a male strong­hold. But women were split­ting into two ex­tremes – a grow­ing camp of feisty fem­i­nists was fight­ing for equal­ity while a camp of stay-at-home women thought things should stay the way they were.

In the man speak world of the news­room, “fem­i­nist” was pretty much a dirty word which would be ac­com­pa­nied by rau­cous de­scrip­tions of hairy armpits. Fem­i­nists were re­viled and de­creed to be “un­fem­i­nine”.

The gen­der game played out just as it is now recre­ated

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