These were women who felt a respectful sisterhood with the First Nations women who, for decades, had led the battle for real acknowledgment, self-determination, and a voice in various formal and informal capacities.
This week, the courageous female heart of Australia was embraced by the nation on a national level. On the field as well as off it, the level of self-control, generosity, inventiveness, and bravery that was demonstrated was admirable and motivating. It was also deeply at variance with the norms that had confined women to the outskirts of society for the majority of the past 235 years; overlooked their achievements, ridiculed their advocacy, and failed to recognize the straightforward reality that what is good for women is good for everyone else.
A thousand women crammed into the lobby of Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre sixteen hours after Cortnee Vine scored the goal that put the Matildas in the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup. Vine’s goal put Australia in the final four of the tournament. As they took their places in the squeaky, red velvet seats, there was an audible commotion that went by the name “Go Matildas.” They were there to listen, applaud, and cry as Women for Yes began their campaign.
They were aware of the significance of showing up, as well as the fact that change can appear improbable and then suddenly take place. Some of these women were active members of the Victorian Women’s Trust during the time when the Kennett government was dismantling services, and they later assisted in the election of community independents to positions in the Australian Capital Territory.
This year, they, along with thousands of other people, participated in the Together, Yes kitchen table dialogues. During these conversations, they learnt the history that had been omitted from their academic curriculum.
In Australia, women have always been political activists, standing their stance in the same manner that Barangaroo did: when she was asked to supper at Government House, she proudly attended dressed in ceremonial ochre and a nose bone. As Vida Goldstein did when she advocated for women’s rights by speaking on stages in Victoria and throughout the world, both of which she did. In the same way that Judith Wright did when she convinced Jacaranda Press to publish the poems of Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal. In the same way that Jessie Street did when she mobilized the female population of Sydney to support Faith Bandler in the 1967 referendum.
The gathering at the Athenaeum was the 21st century equivalent of the demonstrations held in the neighboring Melbourne Town Hall in the 1890s by thousands of women demanding the right to vote and full citizenship. These rallies took place in the vicinity of the Athenaeum. White women in Victoria had to wait until 1911 for the Victorian parliament to pass 19 acts before they were granted the right to vote, and 13 more bills after that before they were allowed to run for office. It took another fifty-one years before Native American women could exercise their right to vote in the state.
These were not the Women Who Want to be Women who, in 1984, fought against equal opportunity legislation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts out of the fear that enjoying the same legal protections as males would be detrimental to women’s rights. Their successors were poisoning the digital hate machines with a toxic mixture of false information and racist tropes, and they were delivering that poisoned mixture to a device in your vicinity.
The women who preserved the culture by passing down the legends, songs, and songs, who gathered the food, who cared for the children, and who recognized the distinct roles that men and women had in society were valued.
As these women from Melbourne prepared to leave the theater, they braced themselves against the chilly wind in order to spread the word and encourage others to sign the open letter. They had compassion for the wrongs that had been committed against so many First Nations women over such a long period of time, including the theft of their children, the humiliation and emasculation of their men, the nonpayment of their wages, the prohibition of their languages, and the destruction of their homes.
The art historian Bernard Smith referred to it as Australia’s dishonor, describing it as a “sexual tragedy of enormous dimensions played out over the bodies of Aboriginal women,” who became the “tragic muse” of the nation.
The fact that so many First Nations women have, over such a long period of time and through so many generations, responded with discipline, courage, inventiveness, and charity speaks volumes about the character of this people. It is instructive to note that in the mythology of many of the First Peoples who inhabited this continent, the sun is portrayed as a woman who is a source of life.
Despite this, women from First Nations communities are among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society. There are around 3,500 Indigenous women now incarcerated, almost all of whom have a history of traumatic experiences and/or abuse within their families. They have a risk of death due to domestic violence that is six times higher than the average person, and despite the fact that they make up less than 4% of the population, more than 40% of children who are in foster care are Indigenous.
Indigenous women who were consulted by June Oscar, the Aboriginal as well as Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, in the preparation of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) report stated that the outcomes improved when women were in control of their own organizations, respected, and listened to in their communities.
More than two-thirds of university students from First Nations are women, and the majority of these women will eventually find employment in indigenously managed community organizations, which are the sites of the most significant positive changes. At the Women’s Voices summit, attendees brought attention to the magnitude of the issue. “The fact that we have a common past shows us that this country has constructed and is still building systems that were not designed for the purpose of our empowerment… However, our elders and our forefathers continued to stand up and fight those institutions even after they were established. The legacy of these systems that continue to let us down is something that we, as young people living in the 21st century, have inherited.
The final communique made the following statement: “As women and girls of First Nations, we sing out. We know we have a right to our voice, and we know we have a right to be replied to. You cannot ignore us since we are neither silent nor inaudible to you.
It is not Australia’s “tragic muse,” but rather its courageous heart that is poised to set the agenda.