Before #MeToo: pioneering Australian women who used politics and activism to fight for progress
As a new wave of feminism rides on the coattails of the #MeToo movement, we go back in time with ACU’s Associate Professor of Journalism, Cathy Jenkins, to pay homage to six Australian women who fought against gender injustice.
More than a century before the #MeToo movement — the social media campaign highlighting sexual harassment against women — feminists used gritty, grassroots activism to fight for change.
Early women’s rights activists may not have had hashtags, says Associate Professor Cathy Jenkins, but they “used what they had at the time effectively to get their message across”.
“In the early days of the suffragists, women formed their own activist organisations, they contacted politicians by mail and in person and they organised public rallies, which would often be covered by the newspapers,” Jenkins said.
And when the mainstream media misrepresented them, they took things into their own hands.
“They didn't always get the type of media coverage they wanted, so they made sure they had their own outlets devoted to giving women a voice,” Jenkins said.
“Women like Louisa Lawson, who ran her own newspaper that pushed for the right to vote and equal rights in marriage, and Vida Goldstein, whose publication educated women on political issues.”
Pioneering women in Australian politics
After completing her PhD thesis on the newspaper coverage of Australia's first female politicians, Associate Professor Jenkins began to further investigate the lives of the women she studied.
Inspired by the early campaigners for gender equality, she wrote a book titled No Ordinary Lives: Pioneering Women in Australian Politics.
“Some of these women are well-known, others less so … some came from reasonably well-off families, others came from struggling, working class backgrounds, but all of them were inspiring,” Jenkins said.
And their activism helped to advance the rights of women all over Australia. We take a look at six political powerhouses who paved the way for progress.
1. Vida Goldstein: ‘Fiercely independent’ suffragette
Vida Goldstein’s activist career started at a very early age, when she helped her mother collect signatures for the 1891 Woman’s Suffrage Petition.
Goldstein became internationally recognised in the suffrage movement, and in 1903 was the first Australian woman to stand for election in a national parliament.
Despite polling well, she
was unsuccessful on five
separate election attempts, insisting on running as an independent.
“Vida was stringent in her independence and was quite uncompromising in her views,” Jenkins said. “She was an honest woman of great integrity, but I can certainly imagine she would have rubbed up some people in the wrong way.”
2. Edith Cowan: ‘Stoic’ advocate for women’s rights
Edith Cowan’s list of career achievements is long, despite
the fact that her childhood was
far from easy.
Her mother died in childbirth when Cowan was aged seven, and years later her father — who had descended into alcoholism — murdered his second wife and was hanged.
“She faced some difficult circumstances in a very disadvantaged family, but she was very stoic and managed to work through to help to get the vote for women in Western Australia, and to become Australia’s first female parliamentarian, in 1921,” Jenkins said.
Since 1995, Cowan’s image has featured on Australia’s $50 note.
3. Millicent Preston-Stanley: Parliamentary trailblazer
Millicent Preston-Stanley was the first woman to be elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1925, declaring in her first address that it was “an extraordinary thing that men claim they can interpret women's legislative ambitions better than women can do it themselves".
Preston-Stanley was a single woman during her three-year stint in Parliament, which was very unusual at the time. She married later in life, at the age of 51.
“When Millicent was elected, the reaction of the media was that she was just a touch masculine,” Jenkins said.
“One journalist described her as ‘sufficiently masculine to be decidedly independent’ and said she was ‘likely to heard from frequently and aggressively’, which says a little bit about the attitudes of the time.”
4. Zelda D’Aprano: Equal pay campaigner
Zelda D’Aprano is probably best known for chaining herself to the railings of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne to protest the Equal Pay decision of 1969.
Disappointed at the lack of women contributing to the court’s decision, Zelda later said: “Here are all the women … all sitting here as if we haven't got a brain in our bloody heads, as if we're incapable of speaking for ourselves … And here are all these men arguing about how much we're worth, and all men are going to make the decision.”
“Zelda was furious, and she took direct action by chaining herself up,” Jenkins said. “Even in the late ‘60s, when there was a mood for social agitation and change, it was a very brave thing to do.”
In 1977, D’Aprano wrote her autobiography, Zelda: The Becoming of a Woman. She died on 21 February 2018.
5. Anna Bligh: Proud Queenslander
“Domestic violence is deeply rooted in gender inequality. You don't hit people who you think are your equals.”
The above quote from Anna Bligh, Queensland’s first female premier, goes some way to explaining the roots of her feminism. Raised by her mother under the shadow of an abusive father, she saw the effects of domestic violence first-hand.
A proud Queenslander, Bligh rose through the ranks to succeed Peter Beattie as premier, having served as the state’s first female education minister.
“As a minister, she was instrumental in establishing the Forde Inquiry, which uncovered an awful litany of neglect and abuse of children in Queensland institutions,” Jenkins said.
Anna Bligh, Seselja Loui, National Library of Australia, NL40106
6. Julia Gillard: A polarising figure
Arguably one of Australia’s most polarising political leaders, Julia Gillard’s legislative record may always be overshadowed by the way she came into power.
Gillard became Australia's first female deputy prime minister in 2007, and in 2010 ousted Kevin Rudd to become the nation’s first female prime minister.
"Certainly her record as a legislator was impressive, but in my view that mark will always be there, that she got in by knifing a very popular prime minister,” Associate Professor Jenkins said.
Once criticised for being “deliberately barren”, Gillard fought against sexism in parliament. In what was perhaps her most popular speech, she famously accused the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, of misogyny.
Associate Professor Cathy Jenkins teaches journalism and communications at ACU’s School of Arts in Queensland. Her research interests include the media coverage of female politicians, journalism history and media ethics. Her book was published in 2008.