All About Women at the Sydney Opera House has been running for 11 years. In recognition of International Women’s Day (March 8), it showcases some of the most inspiring voices in this ongoing fight for equality and opens up dialogue in the hope for change.
Some things have changed for women over that time:
- In 2019 abortion was decriminalised in New South Wales.
- In 2019 the Gender Equality Bill was introduced into the Victorian Parliament, placing gender equality in law for the first time in Australia.
- In 2022 affirmative consent laws were introduced in NSW, requiring parties to give and obtain consent.
It is important to recognise and celebrate what women in this country have achieved and All About Women does, in part, serve to remind us of how far we’ve come. But there is still a long way to go. So, in case you missed it:
- On average, one woman is killed every week in Australia by a current or former partner.
- People from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised because of domestic and family violence than non-indigenous Australians.
- People with a disability are almost twice as likely to be affected by physical and/or sexual violence from a partner than those without disability.
- 1 in 3 people who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community have experienced domestic and family violence, but are significantly less likely to seek help.
So often it feels as if we are having the same conversations, the same debates and nothing changes. Does that mean we stop talking? No. Does it mean we stop fighting? Absolutely not. That is why there needs to be more festivals like All About Women. We need to give women, especially marginalised women, an opportunity to speak out, to have a voice and to feel heard.
It is with this feminist fight song in my heart that I attended five talks at the All About Women festival.
Who is feminism for?
A Feminist Giant event moderated by feminist author and commentator Mona Elthawy (she/her) in conversation with Celeste Liddle (she/her), an Arrernte woman, opinion writer and public speaker and Santilla Chingaipe (she/her) who is a writer, filmmaker and historian whose work explores settler colonialism, slavery and post-colonial migration in Australia.
Liddle discussed her experience as an Aboriginal woman, commenting, “the minute I spoke up I was squashed.” Does this mean she stopped speaking out? Not a chance. She believes you need to learn to hit back because if you don’t hit back the world stays the same and you simply assimilate.
Elthaway, who described herself as a “brown, Muslim woman”, believes that white supremacy and misogyny are at the heart of Australia’s fragility and it’s why it is so difficult to have open dialogue in this country about race and gender.
Liddle continued, “Australia is monocultural. It is not multicultural at all”. We’ll allow you to live here and bring elements of your culture over but don’t encroach on our way of life too much.
This idea was echoed by Chingaipe when she commented that as a country, we haven’t acknowledged our history so we keep repeating mistakes. People lament about “free speech” but it is only allowed when it fits within a white, male agenda.
It was made clear by the panel that they where in no way attacking white people, but instead this racial construct of ‘whiteness’ that continues to exist.
Historically feminism has largely been dictated by white, straight, cisgender women and while there has definitely been a shift in recent years, as I looked around the room, it was still predominantly white women. A fact that did not go unnoticed by the audience or the speakers.
Perhaps the festival isn’t being marketed to marginalised communities? Perhaps it’s unaffordable and inaccessible for some people? It’s an interesting reminder that sometimes certain dynamics and power structures are enforced by well-meaning people who aren’t even aware they’re doing it. I include myself in this.
Chingaipe insists that one of the most radical acts a woman can do is accept yourself for who you are and that merely existing and taking up space is an act of resistance, commenting, “I have every right to take up space and will continue to take up space.” I want every woman to think about this the next time they are sat next to a man-spreader on public transport.
Whether or not a woman chooses to have a child has been the subject of public debate for decades. Moderated by award-winning host of All in the Mind on ABC Radio National, Sana Qadar (she/her) we hear as three women detail their own experiences with fertility and this social construct of what it ‘means to be a woman.’
Brooke Boney (she/her) is a proud Gamilaroi woman and a TV and Radio presenter. After a breakup in her early 30s she made the decision to freeze her eggs, commenting, “I wanted to give myself the best possible chance.” Like so many women, Boney had always just assumed she’d become a mother.
As gynaecologist and fertility specialist Dr Natasha Andreadis (she/her) began recounting the success rates of a healthy pregnancy from a frozen egg it became increasingly clear that it’s a miracle we have any babies from this process. And what’s the biggest myth about IVF? That it will work.
Editor, reporter and author Gina Rushton (she/her) who spoke with many men and women during the creation of her book The Most Important Job in the World, discussed how time is not a luxury afforded women when it comes to fertility. Even if you’re unsure about children, at some stage, you still have to make a choice. For some, this choice is easy, for others it can be crippling.
It was refreshing to hear from Andreadis that men also have a ticking biological clock – society just never talks about it – so gentleman, listen up. Sperm over the age of 45 increases the chances of autism, schizophrenia, among other issues. But don’t worry, you can freeze those swimmers for about $1000 while women will pay anywhere between $7,000 – $10,000 to freeze their eggs.
So what’s the answer? Well, there is none. No amount of talking will change biology but as Andreadis said, we can start to educate boys and girls about menstrual cycles and ovulation. Remove the stigma around periods, teach people how to track cycles, make understanding fertility a shared responsibility instead of the full brunt of the pressure lying solely with the woman.
And if the government would like to make it more financially viable for women below the age of 38 (the age at which women without fertility issues – also known as ‘social egg freezing’- are eligible for a Medicare rebate) to freeze their eggs and feel as if they have a choice, that would be great too.
Who made me spokesperson?
It’s never easy speaking up, but what happens when you inadvertently take on the role of spokesperson for your community? This is the question Clementine Ford (she/her), Dr Yves Rees (they/them) and Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts (she/her) addressed and the impact this has had on them.
Moderated by Milo Hartill (she/her), proud African-Australian, performer, model and activist, the panel discussed the pros and cons of being a spokesperson and how the ‘spokesperson model’ is fundamentally flawed. If this notion of a spokesperson was created by white patriarchy, can it ever truly be radical?
Turnbull-Roberts is a proud Bundjalung Widubul-Wiabul woman who is passionate about Human Rights, Indigenous peoples rights, children and young people, and she is one of the most engaging and inspiring speakers I have ever had the privilege of hearing.
Removed from her home at 10 years old, Turnbull-Roberts spoke passionately about how the trust and strength of her community helps her to speak out, commenting, “My survival gave me no choice but to speak.” She described being a spokesperson as a privilege and a pain – privilege in being a voice but pain in being persecuted for speaking out, she said, “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and that’s a privilege I will hold close to my heart forever.”
Award-winning writer, historian, lecturer and co-host of the Archive Fever podcast, Rees acknowledges that they hold a significant amount of privilege. Describing themselves as a “privileged Trans person”, Rees is against the spokesperson model, insisting it gives a limited and distorted view of a community. How can one voice represent an entire group? A sentiment shared by the panel.
Writer, broadcaster and feminist community builder Clementine Ford insists we have to push through the fear of speaking up, commenting, “I don’t think I’m a revolutionary out there saying things that just make sense.” She elaborates that so often people will thank her for saying things which they can’t – but she insists you can. One person cannot be all things to all people and ultimately it is here that the spokesperson model really fails.
But what if it wasn’t just one person? What if we stood together, united? What would that look like? As Turnbull-Roberts said, “Liberation is only real when it’s a collective.” So speak up.
Justice on trial
It is estimated that in Australia 87% of people who experience sexual assault won’t report the crime. This is unsurprising when you learn that the legal and judicial system in this country fails to support survivors in a way that makes them feel heard and safe.
Moderated by author and freelance writer Bri Lee, the panel discussed the legal process for victims of assault and the barriers that continue to make this process increasingly difficult.
Director of Advocacy at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, Saxon Mullins (she/her), a survivor and all round remarkable human, continues to fight for consent reform across Australia. Having successfully advocated for consent law reform in NSW, which came into effect in 2022, Mullins remembers a headline from a Sydney Morning Herald article which came out the day after her story was aired on an episode of Four Corners in 2018. The Clementine Ford piece said, ‘Let this be our moment of reckoning’ and five years later, with the Brittany Higgins trial still fresh in our minds, she asked – how many more moments of reckoning do we need?
Amanda Morgan (she/her), is a Yorta Yorta woman, survivor advocate, activist, speaker and writer. She insists that changing legislation is not a “silver bullet” and that there needs to be better education, cultural change and changes within the police force. Time and time again we attack the problem reactively instead of proactively. Instead of just changing a legal system to assist victims of sexual assault, perhaps we should also be focusing on shifting the cultural beliefs within our society which make, primarily men, believe they are entitled to other people’s bodies.
As Mullins said, if we don’t enforce cultural change and just “skirt around the edges, we’re just playing the violin on the Titanic.”
Morgan also made an important point when she said that the majority of survivors who are platformed tend to be white, attractive and articulate – there’s no representation from marginal communities, making it even more difficult for survivors to come forward.
Katrina Marson (she/her) is a criminal lawyer and author. She has worked in the criminal justice system for a decade, primarily as a prosecutor in the area of sexual offences. She discussed the role police play as “gatekeepers” to justice, with Mullins remarking that so much about what survivors go through is down to luck and it shouldn’t be. Morgan detailed how there is a Charter of Victim Rights available in each state, a fact she discovered through an article by the ABC. Lee asks the valid question, “What do we do when the profession is worse than the public?” Lawyers and police officers in Australia are not taught how to deal with trauma survivors, often ensuring that the only options available to a survivor are, according to Marson, “a process that will re-traumatise you, or nothing.” It’s simply not good enough.
After a day of heavy discussions, the satire and wit of Clementine Ford (she/her) was the healing balm I needed.
Ford detailed the history of ‘spinsters’ or unmarried women and proved that all the insults being hurled at women these days aren’t exactly ground-breaking. In fact, women have been branded sluts, whores, bitches, mouthy, prudes, old hags etc.. etc.. for 400 years.
Witch trials, common from about the 1500s, saw over 40,000 women murdered over a 150 year period. These women were usually wise women over the age of 40, and in particular midwives were targeted. The men of the time, unhappy that women were solely responsible for bringing new life into the world, created obstetrics so that men could feel more powerful and take back control from women.
A 17th century jurist by the name of Lord Matthew Hale is famous for, among other things, creating the law which allowed marital rape. A law that was only repealed in the 1970s in Australia. We learn from Ford that in America, Samuel Alito, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States cited Hale eight times in his opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade. He cited work that was 350 years old. He cited a man who described rape as “an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.” Or as Ford succinctly (and sarcastically) puts it – “Bitches lie”.
Ford continues that in the 19th century Dr. Edward Clarke’s Sex in Education or A Fair Chance for the Girls outlined how educating women would make them sterile and they would be unable to bare children, which is their sole purpose for existing. This sounds like a joke, but it’s not.
There are many men out there who would argue against what Ford was saying, but you can’t argue against history. And at the end of the day, that’s what this was – a history lesson. As Ford began to list off all the ways in which men attempt to make women small, you could feel the solidarity and potent female rage begin to rise in the room.
Don’t be too fat. Don’t be too thin. I like natural women. I like women who take pride in their appearance. You’re too much. You’re not enough. You’re a prude. You’re a slut. You’re ugly. You think you’re so attractive. She’d frigid. She’s easy. You’ve got too many opinions. Why don’t you have an opinion. You should talk more. You should talk less. You should be more independent. I want to feel needed. You’re so high maintenance. I want someone who looks after themselves. I want someone easy going. You should wear heels. I want someone with family values. You shouldn’t spend so much time with your family.
WE ARE SICK OF BEING TOLD WHAT TO DO AND HOW TO BE, BY MEN.
As Ford concludes, “Who gets to be people. Who has to be women.” You see, only men can be people because in our society, only men have true agency over their lives, their bodies and their careers.
But what terrifies these men more than anything? Freedom. Our freedom. Our collective freedom. When women band together we are a force, and there is nothing more terrifying than that.
While it may seem as if we are having the same conversations with little to no change that does not mean we stop talking. If anything, it means we simply speak louder. Because despite the fact that we exist within a society that has been engineered to hold us back and make us small, we will not give up. We will never stop fighting. Change is coming.
I felt it in the room when Mona Elthawy had everyone scream ‘Fuck the Patriarchy!’ I felt it as Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts spoke out against the treatment of Aboriginal women and children. I felt it when Katrina Marson questioned “who are the people holding a doubt and calling it reasonable?” And I felt it as Clementine Ford united a room in justified rage.
All About Women will make you believe change is coming. Ask yourself – which side of history do you want to be on?
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
All About Women was held on the 11, 12 and 13 March 2023.
For more information head to the Sydney Opera House website.
Photos by Jaimi Joy and Cassandra Hannagan.