As President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, I frequently have the privilege of speaking at a range of events here and abroad, on topics far and wide.
This week, I was asked to speak in Sydney for the Union, University and Schools Club about why we have International Women’s Day and whether it is still relevant today. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own life, the women who influenced me, the suffragettes and, of course, how life for women has changed, and how much more needs to be done.
This is some of what I had to say.
Just days ago, I was in Parliament House in Canberra—for the March round of Senate Estimates hearings. Outside the main committee room is displayed the magnificent Women’s Suffrage Banner of 1908. Painted in England by ex-pat Australian artist Dora Meeson Coates, it was so big that it required four people to ‘stagger under its weight’ to carry it. Written across the top in red lettering are the words ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ and below it, ‘in shouty caps and quotation marks’, the words that Australia, portrayed as Minerva, holding the heraldry of the newly federated Australian states, speaks to England, portrayed as the white-gowned Mother Britannia holding her sceptre: ‘Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done’.
It was a time when Australia’s daughters led the world. The banner was carried proudly at the head of the Australian and New Zealand contingent of women suffragists, including Mrs Margaret Fisher, the wife of the Australian Prime Minister, in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession in London on 17 June 191, which saw 40,000 suffragists march from the Embankment to Albert Hall, to urge England, as the ‘mother country’, to accept a young country’s advice on the wisdom of adopting women’s suffrage. ‘Mother’ did not trust her women until 1918.
International Women’s Day was born out of the women’s labour rights and suffrage movements of the first decades of the twentieth century. In February 1909 a ‘National Women’s Day’ was celebrated by the Socialist Party of America, on the anniversary of demonstrations by hundreds of women in New York City, demanding the right to vote, and better pay and shorter working hours for needle trade workers, which led to over a year of strikes. In 1910 at an International Working Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, attended by women from over 17 countries, it was proposed that an ‘International Women’s Day’ be celebrated in all countries. Then in 1911, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
In Australia, the first IWD commemoration was held in March 1928 in the Domain in Sydney. Organised by the socialist Militant Women’s Movement, the women who attended called for equal pay for equal work, 8 hour days and welfare for the unemployed. Bigger marches took place in Sydney and Melbourne three years later.
This was the period when my mother was born.
Like many of the women she encountered at University in the late 1930s and early 1940s mother had left leanings (but also strongly anti-communist) which she abandoned later in life, greatly disillusioned.
All through my high school years in the 1960s two things I remember, apart from school things, were my mother’s PhD and the theatres. Mother won a scholarship to undertake the history of medical organisation in Australia. She was in her mid-40s with four children between the ages of four and 12. From this emerged a whole range of whitegoods (clothes dryer etc) and school holiday trips in our red and white Volkswagen microbus to all parts of Australia where mother did research on her monster topic of a thesis. She used a manual typewriter. The tap-tapping of the keys punctuated many evenings over many years. She graduated in 1977.
Although mother was not in the ‘paid’ workforce she was a writer—and kept writing. She was Secretary of the P & C. She ran a theatre in our backyard, and then another one when the backyard was too small for the enterprise for showcasing Australian playwrights.
Mother almost reached her 98th birthday last year, missing it by only a couple of weeks. She was a fine poet and, as my sisters and I came to appreciate, so many of her poems were a continuing love poem to our father, to whom she was married for almost 75 years. She wrote plays, novels and musicals and also wrote on politics; on food; just about anything really. She had no time for editors and published everything herself. As a writer, she had, in Virginia Woolf’s terms, ‘a room of one’s own’ which she managed through dogged persistence, commitment to her craft and amazing time management skills. She set the bar very high for me and my three sisters.
Returning to the theme of International Women’s Day—
Thinking of that suffrage banner and the mission it embodied to make the voices of women heard in the corridors of power, I am reminded of another significant and large artwork of recent times calling on political leaders to listen—the Uluru Statement from the Heart—which is also about having a voice. Painted by Anangu artists on canvas, the Uluru Statement is vast in physical size and in the power of its demands. It calls on the Australian people and our political representatives to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are heard in the making of decisions that affect them. It is a reminder that, although we have come a long way in the area of women’s rights and the rights of Australia’s first peoples, there is still a long way to go.