“It’s important to remember that this happened by accident”. Chanel Contos stares into space, as she tries to explain what thrust her into the national spotlight last year, and led to the most profound change in Australian schools’ sex education program imaginable.
In spearheading the ‘Teach Us Consent’ campaign, 24 year old Contos has not just changed the national curriculum, she is fundamentally changing our culture. The ramifications of embedding physical and emotional respect into the sex lives of our young sons and daughters cannot be overestimated.
And she calls it an ‘accident’.
Unlike many of the women whose lives I’ve been picking apart, trying to x-ray the events and challenges they’ve faced in order to understand what turns an ordinary Aussie girl into a formidable ‘changemaker’, Contos can point to a pivotal ‘moment’. When her social media post asking about incidents of sexual assault in private boy’s schools immediately drew thousands of explicit, shocking testimonials, she was overwhelmed. Then, a gut-wrenching moment of furious realisation kicked her into action.
But for many Australian women who have, one way or another, forced significant change on our cultural, social, political and policy landscape, that is not the case. For many their advocacy and activism doesn’t kick off with the sound of a siren. Rather, it’s a slow build. Or, as Mary Crooks puts it, “a dawning realisation”.
For over two and half decades Crooks has led the Victorian Women’s Trust, a powerhouse of policy innovations and experimentation in democratic participatory processes to advance gender equity. Under Crooks stewardship the VWT developed a powerful model of ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’, that has been adopted by numerous political candidates, and is now a central feature of the ‘Voices for’ campaigns.
But unlike some of Australia’s younger women changemakers, whose personal profile is central to their campaign of change, Crooks is old school. For her it’s all about the collective. And that changemaker mantra – ‘collaboration’. Crooks insists she never stops at consultation: “it’s not just about listening to the views of others”, she says, “it’s about working together, collaboratively” to design solutions to complex social and community problems.
As for why her? Why has Crooks taken up the mantle, dedicating her life to changemaking, while the rest of us stand back? Well, as with many Australian women changemakers, the reason seems to be buried in their DNA. They are just born to change the world.
‘Destroy the joint’
Or, as Jane Caro puts it, “destroy the joint”.
Some years ago, after copping rounds of social media abuse for being outspoken about sexism, misogyny, agism, private school privilege and social inequity, Jane took to the stage at the Sydney Opera House to set the naysayers straight. “Tragically, I couldn’t give a shit whether you think I have a right to speak up or not,” she told the audience, “I am constitutionally incapable of not speaking up… if I see injustice, if I see something wrong, I can’t shut up about it.”
But why are some women infused with a passion to set wrongs right and fix the world? Particularly when it gets a mouthy girl into trouble?
“I don’t know” says a baffled Jane. “Maybe there’s a gene for it. Maybe I’ve got some crazy ‘speak up about it’ mental illness.”
Far from a ‘mental illness’, the seething anger at injustice and inequity that Australian women have displayed, throughout our history, demonstrates a palpable sense of hope.
Underneath the expression of anger and the myriad and creative ways women push back against cultural, social, political and policy injustice, are the roots of hope: a belief that things can be better. It’s a profound show of faith in a world that is kinder, fairer and more equitable – for all.
The holy grail
In my long study of Australian Women Changemakers, as guest curator of a timely new exhibition to open this week at the Museum of Australian Democracy, I initially went in search of some kind of feminist holy grail. I was looking for that special ‘thing’ that imbues some women with more steely courage, determination and changemaking chutzpah … than the rest of us. I desperately wanted to know what it was. Because, if I’m to be perfectly honest, I want a piece of it!
Who doesn’t want a sliver of that steely spine Australian women have demonstrated over and over: that tough nut resilience against pervasive and entrenched misogyny and the sexist and racist culture imposed on this nation since the bullies and bulldozers first arrived over two hundred years ago?
Right now, with Australian women still reeling from a particularly shameful period in our political history, in which females were not only marginalised but brutalised by government contempt and gender ignorance, it’s often forgotten that Australia was once a world leader in gender equity.
Under Gough Whitlam in 1973, Australia appointed the world’s first government advisor on women’s affairs, Elizabeth Reid. In 1984 the first woman in a Labor Cabinet, Susan Ryan, changed the course of history by pushing through the world’s first Sex Discrimination Act, which expanded the Human Rights Commission to include a Sex Discrimination Commissioner. A role later filled by Quentin Bryce, one of our star changemakers.
Australian ‘femocrats’ were the envy of their US sisters. Beyond lobbying from the sidelines and making headlines with noisy Women’s Liberation protest marches, the Aussie shielas were infiltrating government bureaucracy and altering policy from within.
By focusing on our living examples of leading Australian Women Changemakers, this exhibition, albeit small in space but big in spirit, hopes to nudge every woman and young girl who visits to know that they too can be a changemaker.
As young women such as Grace Tame, Brittney Higgins, Saxon Mullins and Tayla Harris have shown the nation, you don’t have to occupy a privileged seat among the patriarchal elites to shakeup the system. Indeed, the stories of our diverse collection of changemakers, young and old, are testament to that. These are all ordinary women who looked injustice or a personal challenge in the eye, and rose up to do extraordinary things.
Central to my choice of Australian Women Changemakers are women whose work has found its way into my journalism over the past three decades and shaped my thinking about the role, status and power of women in our nation. As such, my list will no doubt be different from yours. But here is something I have found to be universal: changmakers are shaped by an emotion, not a plan. There is no roadmap. Changemakers fail and fall over. But they get up again. And again.
Among my leading changemakers Dame Quentin Bryce is a standout: a feminist giant, with an enduring passion for social justice and women’s rights. Her unyielding faith in the courage and strength of Australian women is awe inspiring and serves as a powerful lesson in hope.
Germaine Greer also takes a top spot. A serious ‘bad-ass’ woman, who doesn’t apologise for the ferocity of her feminism and seems unbothered by criticism, Greer forces us to think.
Another giant of the second wave feminist movement, Anne Summers’ meticulous journalism and tireless dedication to improving women’s lives has never faulted, as she continues to collect evidence and forge new pathways. Similarly, Natasha Stott Despoja has devoted a career to fighting the good fight for women’s rights, innately attuned to where feminist energies are best deployed.
Grace Tame too is glorious as a changemaker role model: powered by unwavering conviction and sisterhood connection. As is refugee advocate Nyadol Nyuon, whose bold call to reimagine Australia is one of the most inspired speeches I’ve ever heard.
But its indigenous leaders such as Megan Davis and national treasure Lowitja O’Donoghue, whose changemakers journeys leave me breathless. The intersecting challenges and injustices these women have navigated to forge new chapters in Australia’s history takes us beyond political and policy changemaking. It’s soul shifting.
What does it take?
So, what is a changemaker?
She is a trailblazer, who boldly shapes a new path in which others will follow. She is not afraid to swim against the tide of public opinion, venturing out alone if necessary, unshackled by cultural norms and social expectations.
She is an agitator who sees a pattern of behaviour that needs to change and sets about finding a solution. She leads by example.
For her the issue is bigger than self, but she’ll use her singular voice and efforts to push back when necessary. At times she will enlist the help of others, knowing collective effort is central to transformative change.
She thrives on the power of women and proudly stands on the shoulders of women who have gone before her. She devotes her own energy to nudging others forward.
In the face of patriarchy, she is a system changer and a rule breaker.
A little bit of her lives in every woman’s heart.
The article was first published in The Canberra Times, 19 June 2022