- Katie Bell
Brazen Hussies (2020)
Ever heard of Merle Thornton or Rosalie Bogner? I sure hadn't, until I watched Brazen Hussies. Sure, I'd heard of the suffragettes and the women's liberation movement. I knew that women fought hard for the right to vote, and the right to equal pay. I even knew a little about Germaine Greer. However, after watching this documentary about the history of women in Australia, I realised just how little I actually knew about my rights, and how hard my foremothers fought for me to have them.
So, in case you were wondering, this is Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner. These two women chained themselves to the bar at the Regatta Hotel, Brisbane. They were protesting the legislation that made it illegal for women to drink in pubs. AND THE YEAR WAS 1965! Are you kidding me? How did I not know about this? Maybe I was raised under a rock, but I've always taken this privilege for granted. Sure, next to the right to vote or equal pay, it seems somewhat insignificant, but... in some ways, I find it more important to know about these little battles that were fought during the 1960s and 1970s. It was all of these battles, that will make it possible for me to sit in a pub with my partner, his parents and grandparents this evening, to watch the State of Origin. Oh, and by the by, the legislation wasn't changed for another five years. So, in the year 1969, when my mother was born (sorry, Mum), and man walked on the bloody moon, women still weren't able to walk in the door of a bloody pub in Queensland. It actually boggles the mind. And my ignorance toward this fact, prior to viewing Brazen Hussies, makes it sting all the more, because these women deserve my thanks, and yet I didn't even know that they existed. So, officially, right here, right now, thank-you Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner, tonight when I (responsibly) drink my schooner, I'll be thinking of the two of you.
Tangent about things I am/was ignorant to aside, Brazen Hussies is a documentary that is certainly worth a watch. It delves into the women's liberation movement between the years of 1965 and 1975 in Australia. It discusses many of the battles that were being fought (including the battle that the movement/s had with the press), looks at Gough Whitlam and some of the changes that he made when elected and contains some really interesting interviews with the women who were there, at the time, working on the ground. We also get to see how progress was made, through consciousness raising, meetings, and through some of the publications that originated in the decades of focus.
One of the most enjoyable elements of Brazen Hussies is the variety of footage that has been sourced and included from the '60s and '70s. It would have been no mean feat sorting through it all and finding the best parts, so director Catherine Dwyer certainly deserves praise for this. It's through all of this old footage, that Australia's sexist beliefs are highlighted, as well as the passion of the women who were fighting against these beliefs. There were some interviews that had me opening my mouth in shock, and some interviews that had me wanting to applaud in the cinema. Meanwhile, Dwyer also includes excerpts from news reports such as, "The girls of the women's liberation movement are getting organised," as well as repeated references by the press to Gough Whitlam's women's advisor as "Australia's supergirl". The practice of women being referred to as girls, certainly still exists in the 21st century. However, the frequency with which it appeared to be happening in news reports of this time is alarming, and certainly undermined the work of the women who were fighting so hard for things like equal pay for equal work.
The footage that I found to be the most alarming and scary in this documentary, was that of marches. There are numerous shots of numerous marches where people hold placards in the air. I was horrified by the fact that a lot of these placards mirror those that I've seen in 2020. Abortion. Equal pay. Childcare. Aboriginal peoples' rights. All of these topics make appearances. Sound familiar? We've come a long way, but this documentary makes it so clear that we are still fighting many of the same battles that people were fighting fifty years ago, which is kind of terrifying.
The only thing that I really wanted from Brazen Hussies was more interviews with Aboriginal people and other people of colour. On several occasions Dwyer does include excerpts with Aboriginal women, and on more than one occasion these women highlight that the battles that they are fighting are totally different to those that white women are fighting. This is great. But I wanted more. I wanted to know how life was different for Aboriginal women at this time, what were their most important fights? With the Stolen Generations occurring well into this time period, I hardly think these women were considering chaining themselves to a public bar. Sure, I could make assumptions, but I wanted to hear it from them. It may be the case, that not enough footage exists of Aboriginal women explicitly stating what they wanted to change, to the press, and that Dwyer included what she could find. If this is true though, I would have loved a 2020 interview with an Indigenous woman who was fighting for Indigenous rights at the time, to fill in those gaps, and make explicit the differences between being a white woman in 1970s Australia, and being a black woman in the same place, at the same time. Indeed, my partner's first criticism when we left the theatre, was "I wanted to know what things were like for Asian women at this time". To be fair to Dwyer, this is a 90-minute documentary, and it certainly doesn't skim the surface. It also doesn't marginalise the thoughts and experiences of Aboriginal women, as there are quite a few interviews shown. We just wanted more.
The documentary finishes with some strong words. A plea and a reminder, that we must "understand and defend the progress we have made". I think Brazen Hussies is a great first step in developing this understanding, and if you're a woman, and you live in Australia, I'd give this one a go. I learnt a lot about our history and it's made me far more grateful for everything that I have.