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?
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