Brazen Hussies: women seeing then what was unseeable before

By Felicity Neale

Monday March 22, 2021

“The domestic setting belies the conviction of the members as they set out to crack the cosy male chauvinism of Australian politics.” (Image: Brazen Hussies/Catherine Dwyer)

It’s 1970. The situation is at boiling point. Pockets of young women have begun organising in suburban lounge rooms, sitting cross-legged on wall-to-wall carpeted floors right across Australia. The groups are like small grassfires, crackling away, building momentum rather than fizzling out. Soon, the grassfires join up and spread across the land, and before the men know it, there is a raging bushfire of feminist purpose and resolve. The rage is real.

Brazen Hussies is a 58-minute film made by documentary maker Catherine Dwyer and narrated by actor Sigrid Thornton. In the late 1960s, Sigrid’s mother, Merle Thornton, was one of the two women who famously chained their ankles to the kick bar of a Queensland pub to protest that state’s policy of the term ‘public’ referring to men only, which meant women were forbidden from being in a public bar. Men were the public, women were not.

The documentary is a riveting hour of the strong birth and immediate thriving of the women’s rights movement in Australia. A who’s who of Australian feminist leaders lend their time and voices to relate how the very heavy lifting of gaining the most basic sovereignty for women in Australia was done in the 1970s. This year’s March4Justice was done in the shadow of 1975’s massive boulevard march in Canberra held for International Women’s Year. As well as that march, the Whitlam government hosted the giant Women in Politics Conference, where Whitlam addressed the throngs and mingled among the attendees afterwards. And no mention of any participant being lucky for not being shot for showing up.

The Whitlam prime ministership was when a lot of women’s revolutionary breakthrough was made. In 1973, Whitlam selected feminist leader Elizabeth Reid as his top advisor on women’s affairs. She was the first female to have that role in Australia.

Reid says that for her interview with Whitlam she wore a long Laura Ashley dress, and underneath it she wore underwear that had the Women’s Lib symbol printed on the crotch. She wore it to give her courage. When she got back to the staff clubhouse, in a state of nervous energy she jumped on top of the piano, lifted her Laura Ashley dress right up and flashed her underwear to the room, yelling, “Look what I wore to protect me!”

Elisabeth Reid consults with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
Elisabeth Reid consults with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. (Image: Brazen Hussies/Catherine Dwyer)

But Reid took her advisory role deadly seriously. “The practice of conscious-raising had taught me to listen to other women. And so I travelled around Australia talking to women.”

“Women started writing, and they started pouring out their problems – ‘I can’t get a loan for my house, I can’t even sign my children’s forms’ – and it didn’t take long before I was getting more letters than anybody else other than the prime minister.”

Daniela Torsh, a journalist in the 1970s, continues, “Having the women’s advisor at the federal level, overseeing all the papers that came into the prime minister’s office, and looking at the impact that those policies would have on women, was a first. No one had ever thought of that before, and that was a major, major advance.”

Sara Dowse, then with the Office of Women’s Affairs, adds, “There was no such thing as a women’s policy, so everything, all those letters, formed the basis of policy development.”

Revolutionary reforms for women had already been achieved by the time of the huge International Women’s Day march in Canberra in 1975. The gains had been made by putting immense pressure on Whitlam’s government, which had granted millions of dollars for community health centres in every state, gotten underway anti-discrimination legislation for women in the workplace, and created a new benefit for single mothers that meant young women could now keep the child if they wanted to rather than have their baby taken and put into the adoption system. Reid says, “A small change like that was radical in its impact.”

But the changes were happening too quickly for some. The Whitlam government was accused of financial mismanagement, and fierce opposition was growing.

Sara Dowse: “The press was hostile. It was hostile to anything that the Whitlam government did but particularly about women.”

The fear is palpable. (Image: Brazen Hussies/Catherine Dwyer)

Reid was accused of being elitist towards women who are white, Anglo-Saxon and heterosexual.

“Eventually they brow beat the prime minister down, and he agreed, and they offered me a position in the bureaucracy, which of course I wasn’t going to take,” says Reid. “I had been speaking with the trust of the prime minister – I didn’t know, didn’t aim to become a bureaucrat. And so, I resigned.”

Brazen Hussies has very stirring footage of an Indigenous woman rising to speak at a microphone in the audience at a massive town hall conference; she says with tears of frustration in her eyes:

“We sat around here today and listened to people talking about women’s oppression. But the most oppressed people in this country is the black women … then the black men … and then way above us is a white woman. She’s got everything that we haven’t got.”

The ‘Lesbians are Lovely’ concurrent 1970s movement is covered more than the Aboriginal and migrant women’s movements are; there is a bit about how the feminist cause is intersectional with further diversions from the white, hetero male experience. But at the heart of it all is the dismissiveness of the female sex as being common to the 51% of Australians who share the bond of being female.

The traditionalists of 1970s sensed how powerful angry women are. Says a male TV news presenter: “These are the mobilised forces of WEL [Women’s Electoral Lobby]. The domestic setting belies the conviction of the members as they set out to crack the cosy male chauvinism of Australian politics.” ASIO too, felt it had to get involved. ‘Covert’ male agents turned up to women’s rallies attired in dusty pink suits, stretching their arms out to accept Women’s Electoral Lobby leaflets from the women who knew full-well where these men were from, and thought them hilarious.

Real ASIO agents ‘infiltrating’ a WEL event. (Image: Brazen Hussies/Catherine Dwyer)

The 1970s feminist movement awakened Australia to equal pay, abortion rights, contraceptive rights, unmarried mothers’ rights, and mother and infant welfare. These women were the dam busters, the castle stormers.

I’ll finish this review with my other favourite quote, from a woman at the microphone in a town hall audience. This one is from the 1971 Sydney debate on abortion rights:

“I would like to address my remarks to the man who said he was a Catholic father of nine and is happy: I have had eight children in 10 years, one hysterectomy, one rectocele, one cystocele, and 2000 spay operations and I’m not happy.”

For every wang, there’s a win.

Brazen Hussies is screening freely on ABC’s iView until April 7.


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