March 6, 2010
The Canberra Times & The National Times

It’s back to the future

A cranky old boss once yelled at me to stop yelling. I was on deadline, and the newsroom was noisy. So I bellowed to be heard above the clanking of typewriters and two-way radios. Everyone yelled back then.

Later, over beer and chips, the balding old hack told me that while he didn’t like loud, noisy women, it was the quiet, softly spoken ones that really scared him. “You just don’t know what they’re thinking. But you can tell they’re always plotting!” he said.

I wasn’t around in the days when the softly spoken Zelda D’Aprano chained herself to the doors of the Arbitration Commission in Melbourne, back in 1969, and later to the Commonwealth Building. But I suspect she was exactly the type of women Old Hack had in mind when he mused about women who scared him.

Married at 16, a mother at 17 and factory worker for years, Zelda D’Aprano had the appearance of any other struggling housewife. She was neatly groomed, buttoned up, and polite. Smiling sweetly, and with a hint of shyness, she explained to a television interviewer why frustration over the failure of an equal pay case led her to take action. “I thought that the suffragettes’ idea and what they did about voting wasn’t too bad, and I was prepared to give it a try”, she said with gentle matter of fact reasoning.” I decided to chain myself across the doors, because I thought that the Commonwealth Government should set the example first in giving equal pay to women”.

Her quiet, unassuming manner must have really bothered men like Old Hack.

D’Aprano was far from ‘scary’, or noisy. But she was determined. She became a prominent unionist and women’s rights activist. Yet how many young Australian women have ever heard of her? Or seen the old images of her lone protest and simple placard pleading for an equal pay rate?

Seeing it myself for the first time this week in the 1983 documentary film For Love Or Money, was both encouraging and alarming. Encouraging, because the film highlights and celebrates some of the gutsy work done by our feminist foremothers – whose names and faces have been mostly obliterated from our history.

But it’s alarming to be reminded of how circular women’s battles have been – particularly when it comes to women’s wages.

The figures may have changed: back in 1912 women’s pay rate was set by law at 54 percent of men’s; in 1972 the principle of equal pay was agreed; and by 1999 the Equal Opportunity Act was enshrined. Yet, currently the pay gap between men and women is stuck at around 16 to 17 percent, and has been for the past two decades.

This week the ACTU flagged its intention to put equal pay squarely on this year’s election agenda. This is one of the reasons screenings of the documentary film For Love or Money in Canberra throughout March, as part of Women’s History Month, is particularly timely.

But it’s also a stark reminder of that old adage – one step forward, two steps back.

The film provides perhaps the most comprehensive overview of women and work in Australia ever produced for broadcast. Given it’s now a quarter of a century old, the fashions have changed and so too have our story telling styles, but surpassingly the issues remain pretty much the same. Take for example the young university student Gillian Leahy’s response in the early 1970’s to a television interviewer who asks her “Do Australian women really need liberating?” Leahy explains that many women think they’ve already achieved all the liberation they need, and so don’t support a women’s movement.

“There are some women now who feel I’m alright now, I’m fairly liberated, I’ve got a job, I’m not the conventional housewife, I’m not tied down”, she says,

“ But in fact they’re probably having trouble getting childcare (and) in fact they’re doing two jobs at once.” Sound familiar?

But perhaps the film’s most profound moment is the 1974 archival footage of the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, lecturing women in his parliamentary office. It’s a lecture, mind you, that comes not long after a bevy of bikini bottom women in tee-shirts declaring “It’s Time!”, did high leg kicks to a catchy election jingle that helped usher in Whitlam’s Labor government.

Whitlam, who was no doubt grateful for the powerful persuasion of those leggy ladies, nevertheless attacked the issue of women’s liberation and equality with a seriousness that was unprecedented in politics. “I shall not pretend to you that any government can achieve immediately for Australian women the revolution required to allow them to develop fully as individuals”, he bellowed as the seated women studiously listened. “It’s a matter of changing community attitudes” he said.

Again, sound familiar? Over thirty-five years later we’re still grappling with “community attitudes” about women’s status and power. The yelling is over. I just wonder if speaking softly still scares anyone.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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