Q&A: Catherine Dwyer and Elizabeth Reid

BY JOHNNY MILNER

In December 2020 the NFSA screened Brazen Hussies (2020), a documentary profiling a revolutionary chapter in Australian history, the Women’s Liberation Movement (1965–75). The screening was followed by a fascinating Q&A with the film's director, Catherine Dwyer and Elizabeth Reid, a famous feminist and one of the movement’s most influential voices. The Q&A was moderated by NFSA Program Manager Karina Libbey:

Go Deeper…

The Regatta Hotel protest

Brazen Hussies begins with two women (Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor) chaining themselves to the bar rail at the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane. The pair are protesting over the exclusion of women from public bars in Queensland. The year is 1965 – and women are not afforded the same rights, opportunities or status as men.

A women's liberation march on the streets of Sydney. Hundreds of women on the street. Some are holding a large sign that says 'Smash sexism'.

A women's liberation march in Sydney, c1970. Still from Brazen Hussies (2020).

 

Women cannot, for instance, own a chequebook (without a husband's permission). They are unable to apply for a mortgage, or to access affordable childcare. This is a world where women must fight to be treated equally in all facets of life.

The Regatta Hotel protest received significant media coverage and sparked a divisive reaction from the public.

It also represented an inflection point in gender equality within this country, marking a period of reform and revolution – a period which has come to be known as the Women's Liberation Movement (1965–75). Brazen Hussies, by first-time director Catherine Dwyer, chronicles this period.

The documentary interweaves freshly uncovered archival footage (some of which was accessed directly through the NFSA collection), personal photographs, memorabilia and lively accounts from the bold women who reignited the feminist movement in Australia, sometimes at high personal cost.

View the Brazen Hussies trailer on YouTube.

Watch archival news footage of the Regatta Hotel protest in this excerpt from the Seven News Brisbane special Queensland: Flashback 150 Years, broadcast on 30 May 2009:

Knowing Your History

The film and the Q&A recording emphasise the importance of historical context. We learn how the Second World War was a time of relative freedom for Australian women, allowing for time away from the family home. The war provided the opportunity for employment in roles traditionally reserved for men – in factories and call centres as well as hospitals.

Following the war, however, this employment disappeared and so too did that newfound sense of freedom and agency. Women were sent back into the private domestic world of the home – a world embedded with the canonical principle that men were the head of households, the decision-makers and signers of documents.

While women were pressed into this form of retreat, Australia was beginning to rebuild and expand its economy. By the late 1950s, the country was experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity, along with the opportunity for working-class men and women to enter university education. And through this opportunity, many women found a voice – a voice that, as explained in the Q&A, railed against the structure of the traditional patriarchal family.

Key players and Landmark Events 

In the film, we hear from the key players of the movement – including Elizabeth Reid, Anne Summers, Pat O’Shane, Eva Cox, Martha Ansara, Jeni Thornley, Margot Nash, Gillian Leahy, Barbara Creed, Suzanne Bellamy and many more. These women recount the tumultuous period with intelligence and humour.

A women's liberation march on the streets of Sydney. Hundreds of women on the street. Some are holding a large sign that says 'Sisterhood is powerful'.

Women marching in Sydney, c1970. Still from Brazen Hussies (2020).

 

We also learn how some of the women called for revolutionary tactics while others tried to change the system from within. The film showcases the landmark events that shaped the movement, including the introduction of the single mother's pension in 1973 and Kate Jennings' inflammatory speech at Sydney University in 1970.

Another event featured is the Women and Politics Conference in 1975. The event was organised by Reid, who at that time held the position of the world's first advisor on women's affairs to a head of government – working for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. It brought 700 women from across the country to Canberra. But the controversy surrounding the event led to Reid's resignation.

The Q&A does emphasise Whitlam's achievements in progressing gender equality in Australia. His significance is especially apparent when compared to the situation in the US, where a similar movement was taking place but had to contend with Richard Nixon’s conservative government – a government that, among other things, vetoed childcare centres.

For more on the women’s movement in the US, see Mary Dore's 2014 documentary, She's Beautiful When She's Angry. Brazen Hussies director Catherine Dwyer actually worked on the US film and it inspired her to tell the equivalent story of what happened in Australia.

Legacy 

Brazen Hussies explores the factions and tensions that developed inside the Women’s Liberation Movement. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, for instance, felt the movement was skewed towards white women and therefore didn’t achieve true inclusivity.

The documentary also makes clear that there is still much work to be done. But what becomes apparent when viewing Brazen Hussies is how far gender equality has come since the movement began.

Indeed, the world would be a very different place without these feminist trailblazers – whose impact was felt in areas from equal pay to reproductive rights, from affordable childcare to the prevention of family violence and rape.

We also realise that this movement has not only changed the way many women see themselves, but also the way men see women. Brazen Hussies is an important historical document to be watched and celebrated by all genders. 

For more on how the movement changed male perceptions of women, listen to this excerpt of Helen Reddy interviewed for our oral history program.

A perfect companion piece to Brazen Hussies is Robynne Murphy’s Women of Steel (2020), which also screened at the NFSA in December 2020. The film documents the legendary struggle of a group of AWU (Australian Workers' Union) members in the Illawarra, who fought for the right for women to work in blue-collar jobs in Australia. View the Women of Steel trailer on YouTube.