Essay

Not just good girls

Frankly we don't think you'll ever make the top

Hidden by cloud (or smog) we were unable to see it; there's vertigo in those verticals.

So we identified a certain ceiling

Beyond which we consider settlement will be impossible

– Judith Wright, ‘Report of a Working Party'

 

THE ANNOUCEMENT IN March 2008 that Quentin Bryce, Governor of Queensland, was to be appointed Governor-General of Australia was thrilling news for scores of Queensland women. To have ourwoman as the first since Federation to hold the highest non-elected position in Australian public life felt like sweet vindication. Those years where Queenslanders felt defensive or apologetic may now end. Queensland can now dress in designer clothes and strut down the national catwalk without even the shadow of a cringe.

Nowhere had the perceived backwardness of Queensland been more obvious than in its treatment of women. They were invisible in the public sphere attained much earlier by women elsewhere. Some impediments were probably mythological, but during the 1970s and 1980s, everyone in Australia knew that if Joh Bjelke-Petersen needed policy advice in relation to women, he turned to his wife Flo and his pilot Beryl Young. We also knew that Mayor Rex Pilbeam of Rockhampton sacked his female staff when they got married.

Now its public stage is comparatively strewn with women. Although women occupy fewer than half the seats in Parliament, they are there in numbers unimaginable even twenty years ago. Janine Walker, who twice unsuccessfully stood as a candidate in the 1980s, said: ‘The view of the ALP in '83 was that putting up a woman candidate meant you lost at least 1 per cent of the vote ... Too risky ... and very convenient!'

Women were permitted to stand for Parliament in Queensland in 1915, yet until 1989 only eleven had made it through the doors. The first, Irene Longman, a member of the Progressive Nationals, was elected in 1929. Thirty-seven years later, in 1966, the next arrived: Vi Jordan, the ALP Member for Ipswich. For eight years she sat alone, mostly silent. In the election in 1974 she lost her seat, but Vicky Kippin was elected as a National Party member, and Rosemary Kyburz as a Liberal member. Over the following decade, six women were elected: four Nationals, one Liberal and one Labor. Anne Warner, the Labor Member for South Brisbane, was the first – and for three years the only – woman in the Goss cabinet. By the time Goss lost government in 1996, there were two female Cabinet ministers and two female directors-general of departments.

During this time women, in steadily increasing albeit comparatively minute numbers, filled positions of great importance. Liberal Party activist Sallyanne Atkinson became the first woman Lord Mayor of Brisbane in 1985, a position she held until 1991. Joan Sheldon was elected as the member for Landsborough, north of Brisbane, in 1990, and the following year became the first woman to lead a political party in Queensland and the first female leader of a Liberal Party in Australia. In 1996, she became Treasurer – the first time a woman had filled this position in any state.

Women in public life in Queensland experienced criticism and ridicule that was sharper and more personal than that directed to their male counterparts. They were often said to have abandoned their rightful roles as wives and mothers, were accused of being too noisy, too silent, too dumb, too much of a smarty pants. It was suggested that wealthy women had a ‘silver spoon', while the few working-class women who struggled into the ranks above were said to lack grace and class. Often, women venturing into this male-dominated public world were outrageously and quite cruelly portrayed by cartoonists, journalists and their political opponents, including those within their own parties. A former member of the Canberra Press Gallery invoked a brutal and provocative image when explaining to Julia Baird, author of Media Tarts (Scribe, 2004), that entering politics was like a female social circumcision – ‘women had to cut off their most sensitive parts to fit in'. The small numbers of women in Queensland public life made the scrutiny even more intense. Anne Warner, who from 1983 until 1995 held the seat that Premier Anna Bligh now occupies, described her time in Parliament and Cabinet as ‘bad', though she adds that the heat came largely from her own colleagues. The media mostly left her alone.

They commonly reported the ‘invisible woman' treatment, contributions simply ignored until a man took them up or presented them as his own. Kathy Martin Sullivan, a Liberal Member and Senator from the Gold Coast for twenty-six years, including six years as the only Queensland woman in Federal Parliament, explains: ‘The dawning realisation came to me slowly and painfully: many of my male colleagues had not actually heard what I had said in the previous twelve years, whether in Parliament, in the Joint Party Room or in committee meetings. Nonetheless, they all thought they knew what I had said ...'

Nowhere are the contrasts between the lives of men and women in public life so marked or so vividly represented than in a story told to me, and a small group of other women, by a prominent, feisty and experienced woman parliamentarian. She described an occasion when she was travelling alone, late at night, in her electorate in the days before mobile phones; her car broke down on a lonely stretch of bush road. Concerned for her safety and unwilling to risk flagging down a stranger, she beat her way into rainforest and spent the night, awake and fearful, propped up against a tree, waiting until daylight. 
It seems an unimaginable fear for a man, then or now, but was totally understood by all the women listening to her story.

Queensland women were not only missing in action from the Parliament, but few made it to the Bench or to senior positions in the law. There were some women in the senior executive of the public service, and just one woman Director General of a government department in 1990. The culture strongly rejected women in positions of public responsibility, although there were a few, singular exceptions. From the National Party, Flo Bjelke-Petersen and Yvonne ‘Call me Mum!' Chapman were careful to maintain a super-housewife/mum image, banging on about making pumpkin scones or carefully constructing a hapless (helpless) female message, such as that presented by Leisha Harvey who employed her hairdresser as her policy adviser when she became a minister in the Bjelke-Petersen government.

 

BUT LOOK AT us now. In 2008, Queensland is the only state with a woman Premier. Anna Bligh, who is yet to lead the Labor Party to an election, is at centre stage. She was assiduously groomed by her predecessor, Peter Beattie, who ensured she had opportunities to ‘act' as Premier in his absence, and made many statements about her abilities to ensure the amazingly smooth transition to the top role. We hardly noticed the change, and the state's Labor Party – the party of Jack Egerton and his mates – hardly raised a murmur. This was in stark contrast to Victoria and Western Australia, where fifteen years earlier women had been handed the leadership of tired and chaotic governments destined to lose office. Public opinion recognised that they didn't stand a chance, and both Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence paid a high personal price for taking on the top job at a difficult time.

Now a third of the Members of the Queensland Parliament are women, there are six women ministers and six government departments are headed by women. Women are no longer confined to token ‘female' portfolios, but are in charge of some of the most substantial – Treasury, Health, Tourism, State Development, Aboriginal Affairs, Education, Environment. Queensland Justice Susan Kiefel was appointed to the High Court, only the third woman on that Bench. Queensland has had a woman Chief Magistrate, Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions and currently both the Chief Judge of the District Court and the President of the Court of Appeal are female. There are eight women on the Supreme Court – a third of all judges – and eight female judges on the District Court. The CEO and the Chair of the Board of Legal Aid Queensland are women. Women are present in public life in other arenas as well: Water Commissioner Liz Nosworthy, State Librarian Leah Giles-Peters, Brisbane City Council CEO Jude Munro. Dr Jackie Huggins and Dr Evelyn Scott are both recent chairs of the National Reconciliation Council; Kerri Tim, former head of the Department of Aboriginal Policy and Development and a Kalkadoon woman from Mt Isa, is now the most senior Aboriginal public servant in Canberra; Marcia Langton is the Foundation Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne – all are notable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women from Queensland.

The change is dramatic and has been caused by the happy coincidence of circumstances. People living outside the state during the Bjelke-Petersen days found it hard to imagine life in Queensland for those with ambition and verve, but not of the National caste. Many left, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier Anna Bligh. There was a view, expressed by Rudd on a number of occasions, that the best and brightest departed. This did not make it any easier for those ‘left behind'. There was an implication that those who ‘chose' to stay were dullards who could be subdivided into three groups: the radical and somewhat looney left; those who kept their heads down, and in the process lost any initiative and creativity they might otherwise have displayed; and the rest (God help them) – cow cockies, white shoe brigadiers, housewives, farmers and other red-necked citizens who laughed at Joh's conservatism but flourished under his regime.

So the story went ... The evidence is now on display that the Bjelke-Petersen era sharpened the minds and honed the skills of many people who wanted a different society. People like Anne Warner, Wayne Goss and Jim Soorley assumed powerful positions despite time opposing Joh and his government's particular view of equity and social justice. A recent exhibition called Radical Brisbane at the Museum of Brisbane was filled with stories and memorabilia of that time and attracted thousands to its launch. Among them were a number of former Cabinet ministers, clergy, media and members of the legal profession, all proudly sharing war stories. It was like having a convict ancestor or a relative who fought in the Easter Uprising in Ireland: everyone wanted cred.

Anne Warner credits the ban on street marches with the formation of the Socialist Left faction of the Labor Party. ‘I was a woman, from the left and black – the triple whammy,' said Warner, an Anglo-Indian, of her experience in Parliament during the 1980s. For her, the bad times did not end with the election of the Goss government. She was the first Minister for Women. Despite some changes, like the anti-discrimination legislation and the establishment of the Office for Women's Policy, there was little support for serious policy changes for women. Few women made it to top positions on boards or in the public service.

During these times, and well into this current century, Queenslanders travelling south for ministerial meetings and conferences experienced the cool breeze of condescension. ‘You knew as soon as you said you were the Queensland delegate that a small smile would play on their lips, a crack would be made about Joh, and later Pauline Hanson, and they would settle into not regarding your contribution,' said a senior bureaucrat. It didn't help being a woman. When I took up a senior position in Victoria I was warned by a friend not to wear colourful clothes. ‘They'll pick you in an instant,' she explained. ‘You can tell when those yellow and pink jackets come into the room where those women have come from ... Queensland!' Therese Rein, a Queenslander and wife of the Prime Minister, has felt the southern opprobrium of the style police.

Janine Walker says Queensland is the Texas of Australia: ‘Let's face it – we produce "characters" who look and sound different. It is impossible to imagine any Queensland premier since the fifties, except perhaps Goss, being the leader of any other state. They are each unique, eccentric and/or utterly reflective of the Sunshine State.'

The key is to understand that Queensland was, and is, a frontier. It is still emerging, experiencing late maturity – anything still seems possible. ‘The Establishment hasn't got such a strong grip on what's going on,' says Warner. ‘The frontier provides a sense of being able to breathe. There is ample opportunity here because the old establishment is not strong enough to block the corridors of power.' It has allowed women to emerge in numbers and in ways that are not found elsewhere in the country. As influential men left the state for jobs elsewhere, they freed up positions of power for those in the ‘out' group, allowing the conniving, the cheesy, the off-centre and the truly talented to take their places. Some ‘big men' groomed and mentored women. Whether this came from a desire to enhance their own fortunes or in response to increasingly public willingness to tolerate women in top jobs is unclear. What is clear is that there was a need for a significant correction. As more women have moved on to the public stage, the way has become easier for the next wave. In the first years of the Beattie government, three women headed government departments. Since 2000, at least twelve women have held these posts. While not all are sympathetic to their sisters, at least they don't see other women as another species, as men often do. They may compete with other women for power or position, or raise the drawbridge after them, but they know they are the same tribe.

THE PLACE OF women in the law in Queensland is instructive. The Courier-Mail, announcing news of Quentin Bryce's admission in 1963, reported: ‘Two judges' associates, a magistrate, a Deputy Registrar in Bankruptcy ... and a woman, were admitted as barristers by the Full Court.' By 1969, thirty women had been admitted as solicitors. By 1980, 119 women solicitors and forty-six barristers had been appointed. The Queensland public service employed the first women lawyers in the mid-1970s. In 1976, two women were the first appointed to the Solicitor General's Office as legal officers, and in the same year the first two women lawyers were appointed to the Public Defender's Office. A current Supreme Court Justice, Kate Holmes, ‘recalls being told when she applied to join the Queensland public service in 1977 that, as a married woman, she could not expect employment which might be at the expense of a male applicant with a family to support.' Until 1990, no women had been appointed to the Bench. The first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Margaret White, became a judge in 1992. In the mid-1990s, then Attorney-General Matt Foley single-handedly attempted a correction to the pale, male cast of the judiciary. He appointed an unprecedented number of women, including two Indigenous women, to the Bench in all three jurisdictions. He also appointed the state's first woman Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare. Women were also appointed to the Magistrates Court and there are now a total of twenty-six female magistrates in Queensland.

Almost every appointment was received poorly. The shifting gender balance provoked mild apoplexy from the Bench, the Bar Association and the media. The overwhelmingly male legal fraternity fretted about a loss of merit as a precondition for judicial appointment. Retiring judges fulminated and urged the government to adopt a different selection process – one that gave greater control to the Bench and the profession. The practice of appointing women continued after Foley left the job. The most recent fracas occurred in 2006 when the then Attorney-General, Linda Lavarch, was publicly chided by the then Vice-President of the Bar Association (now a Supreme Court judge) for appointing Justice Anne Lyons, the wife of the President of the Queensland Bar, to the Supreme Court. Merit argument was raised again and again, cloaked in speciosity and pomposity. It was suggested that her gender was not the problem; it was that she had been a solicitor and President of the State's Guardianship and Administration Tribunal for many years. The Courier-Mail was not fooled. It reported on July 14, 2006: ‘There is uproar in legal circles ... Justice Lyons' qualifications are perceived as unsatisfactory and her appointment is seen as gender-based discrimination.'

As Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare made what some considered questionable, even outrageous, decisions about who warranted prosecution. Whatever the arguments, she enjoyed the title held by two colourful and controversial predecessors. Yet the attention she attracted was disproportionate. Calls for her resignation were constant. The former Chief Magistrate (another first), Di Fingleton, was jailed for six months for what some have described as ‘cyber squabbling'. Fingleton, another Foley appointment, followed a long-serving chief magistrate who had been the subject of much criticism inside the profession and government but who held the post for more than a decade.

The rise of women in public life in Queensland, whilst notably illustrative of issues of gender, is also a story about class credentials. It helps – indeed, may even be essential – to have come from a ‘good family', to be Anglo-Saxon, middle class and the graduate of a private school. Those who failed to hold on to power – and there are a number of stunning examples – literally lacked class. Networks from school or university connections have played a big part, crossing gender lines as well. The state is small enough for women in public affairs to know, or know of, each other. Janine Walker says she is often rung to be asked her opinion of a potential woman candidate for a board or a senior position, and she usually knows them.

A critical factor in the rise of women in public life has been the importance of patronage. Bligh was mentored by Beattie; Leneen Forde, who was the state's governor from 1992-97, says she was prepared for the position by Goss and Jim Soorley. The former lord mayor of Brisbane appointed Forde to some strategic positions to ensure a smooth transition. Warner says she was prepared by the left for a parliamentary seat. It would be hard to find a senior woman who cannot point to a male colleague whose help was essential to her rise. Married women are particular beneficiaries. In a gossipy culture, mentoring coffee meetings are less subject to conjecture if the participants are known to be married.

I FIRST MET Leenen Forde in 1976. She is the no-nonsense daughter-in-law of Frank Forde, who was prime minister for eight days in 1945. Canadian by birth, she is friendly and clever. In that year I was working at the first women's shelter, established with funds from the Whitlam government and then defunded by Fraser. We gave mainstream women's organisations very short shrift. I was nominated by more militant sisters to approach the Brisbane Zonta Club, of which Forde was president, to ask for money to keep the shelter open. The state government was not considered an option.

The Zonta meeting was vibrant and strident. Though I took my own roll-your-own Drum tobacco, I had bought a new dress and sported a new Afro hairstyle for the occasion. Many of the businesswomen attending had not heard of domestic violence, and were deeply offended when asked to support a service they believed either contributed to family breakdown or did not insist that women never return to the contemptible cowards who battered them. Arguments flowed. As I was leaving, discussion continued. Leneen Forde leaned over to me and said: ‘Don't worry, honey. You'll get your money.' We did.

In 1983, Quentin Bryce arrived in Nambour as chair of the Prime Minister's Women's Advisory Council to sell the Sex Discrimination Bill. I was working there and involved with a local women's information and support group. We had invited her to speak at a public meeting at the Nambour Civic Centre.

Letters to the Editor of the Sunshine Coast Daily captured some of the local anxiety about the possible effects of the proposed legislation. They were colourful and fantastic. Unisex toilets would become the norm; the United Nations, described by one correspondent as ‘Satanic', would control workplaces and families. Lyrics of songs (Stand by Your Man) would be censored to remove offending ‘sexist' intentions. In the August 24, 1983 edition of the Daily, the President of the Caloundra Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Graeme Haycroft, remarked hotly: ‘The general thrust of the legislation could ... have the effect of undermining the traditional nuclear family values ... and would ignore the reality of free-enterprise commerce ... I will always prefer to have a female secretary, if for no other reason than I find women prettier than men.'

Bryce had a tough time in regional Queensland. Her public meetings attracted a mixed crowd of supporters, feminists, the religious right and the slightly crazy. She handled the hugely rowdy meeting in Nambour with charm, insouciance and wit. Typically, she appointed herself my mentor for a while and encouraged me to ‘push' myself forward. ‘Let's just puff up that CV,' she said once, and promptly sat down with me in a coffee shop to put her red pen through my hopeful and somewhat modest-sounding career narrative.

Bryce and Forde are superb illustrations of a particular genre of successful Queensland woman in public life over the past two decades. It is no coincidence that they were both governors of Queensland, though five years apart. They are both lawyers, married with five children each. They lived near each other for many years in the same leafy Brisbane suburb, and both come from relatively privileged backgrounds. They are feminists, risk-takers, unique and unforgettable women who cultivate and participate in numerous networks of women friends, with a strong focus on legal circles. Each succeeded in opening Government House to the public, and particularly to women, in ways never experienced before. Bryce has invited many people to stay there – including, on a number of occasions, Aboriginal women from Cape York. Most importantly, both women have a touch of the different. They are characters.

Both have attracted attention for not being ‘serious enough'. Bryce's impeccable dress sense has been dissected and criticised. Forde's down-home plainness, her disinterest in fashionableness, drew its own regular comment. Bryce, in particular, has been the subject of a continuous stream of lightweight criticism from The Courier-Mail on matters relating to her use of the Government House facilities by her children and for the planting of certain-coloured flowers in the garden. Even her flights to remote parts of the state on vice-regal business have been scrutinised and questioned.

IF THE BODY politic in Queensland is a white male, then the entry of women into its being is best compared to an invasion by a foreign body, like an infection – even causing the production of a mutant being. As with biological processes, some ‘foreigners' are absorbed and integrated, as long as they are not too numerous, and especially if they remain benign in nature. An increasing number of women fit this category. They look and sound like appropriate and well-behaved women. They are married; they have children. They are facilitators rather than negotiators. They follow the paths assigned and they have learned well from other women in public life in Queensland. Spectacular ‘Fallers from Grace' are often not well behaved, well dressed or well rehearsed. These women who have violated the script have sometimes been expunged like a foreign body – banished, excised or surgically removed.

At least three female politicians from Queensland have been jailed in the past fifteen years: Pauline Hanson, and two former ministers – Labor's Merri Rose and the Nationals' Leisha Harvey. The former chief magistrate, Di Fingleton, went to prison for ostensibly but not actually over-stepping her role boundaries and possibly because she flagrantly emphasised her working-class origins. Cheryl Kernot went down in a blaze of ignomy. A number of lesser known lights, many of them talented, simply left exhausted, alienated and frustrated. The unifying factor was some inability to fit in to an assigned position description. 'A good, quiet, girl,' a bitter friend remarked. ‘That's what they wanted.'

The third group comprises Julia Baird's ‘steel sheilas': tough girls with balls, trying to be seen as men. There are a growing number of them, anxious not to go the way of their apparently more vulnerable predecessors.

Having women on the public stage in Queensland is now much more common, and infinitely more acceptable. It is undoubtedly popular for political parties to run female candidates, whether in the city or in the bush. Peter Beattie understood this very well and capitalised on these populist sentiments. Women pull votes here, so let's put 'em up! High-minded sentiments and concerns about family friendly policy vacuums or the possible and historically disgraceful squandering of talent may just be concepts left at the party room door. The public view is that women can be effective in public life because we have seen them there, and they work. Queenslanders are voting for woman candidates in increasing numbers.

In all areas of experience particular to women, such as equal pay, childcare decisions and services, opportunities for betterment in the workforce, rates of teenage pregnancy and domestic violence, as well as structural areas such as appointment to boards and positions of power, Queensland women are not doing any better than women from other Australian states. In many cases, we are still worse off, but we are no longer invisible or excluded.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review