Contemporary women journalists are part of a much longer history of Australian women claiming their voice through the media to advocate for feminist issues, Dr Catherine Fisher writes.
2021 is a watershed year for Australian feminism. We have seen an upswell of protest against sexual harassment and assault across all levels of Australian society — from Parliament House to high schools. This coalesced in the March4Justice on 15 March, when more than 100,000 women protested across the country. It was a moment for our leaders, and society more broadly, to listen to women’s voices.
Women journalists have been key in shining a light on these issues and pushing for change. Samantha Maiden and Lisa Wilkinson enabled Brittany Higgins to tell her story and continued to hold the government to account, while the ABC’s Louise Milligan exposed broader issues in the ‘Canberra Bubble’ including historical rape allegations. Many others have also worked hard to expose these issues, including Katharine Murphy, Amy Remeikis, Laura Tingle and Leigh Sales. These journalists broke stories of considerable public importance and were committed to holding power to account.
Some of the other women who have recently claimed their voice using both traditional and social media include 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame, who was a key voice in the #LetHerSpeak campaign to abolish sexual assault victim gag laws. Chanel Contos, a former Kambala student, launched a petition via Instagram to improve sex and consent education and collected hundreds of stories of sexual assault and harassment from former private school students.
Sadly, as is often the case their work has been subject to backlash, including claims of female journalists straying into activism rather than reporting in the public interest. These criticisms have been roundly condemned on Twitter, including by Higgins herself, who said of Maiden: “You’ve used your platform to champion my story and in turn have helped countless others find their voice”.
These women are part of a much longer history of Australian women claiming their voice through the media to advocate for feminist issues and more. Radio, introduced to Australia in 1923, became a powerful tool in this regard, as it normalised the sound of women’s voices in the public sphere on a mass scale.
While women speakers on the air were often criticised, especially for their supposedly shrill voices, many female broadcasters were able to make use of the medium to disseminate their ideas and share their experiences.
During the 1930s, feminists such as Linda Littlejohn used broadcasting to fight against attacks on women’s rights, to argue for women’s equality, and to encourage women to actively participate in social and political life.
Littlejohn developed the Australian Women’s Weekly (AWW) radio session, a daily program that aimed to raise the feminist consciousness of women listeners by featuring discussions and debates on topics such as careers for women, women’s legal status, women and war, and whether wives should have salaries.
While the feminist content of the AWW may be surprising to us today, in the 1930s both the magazine and radio program promoted a feminist agenda by offering a platform for a re-evaluation of women’s role in Australian society.
Australia’s earliest female politicians also made use of broadcasting to legitimise their political candidacy and integrate women into formal politics. Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1943, was a particularly prolific broadcaster and one of the most recognisable and respected radio voices of her time.
In 1954 Lyons remarked in an interview that radio had “created a bigger revolution in the life of a woman than anything that has happened any time” as it enabled women to engage with world affairs while at home. According to Lyons, radio had given women the “confidence” to accept “responsibility in public affairs”, resulting in a marked improvement in women’s social and political standing.
The history of Australian women broadcasters emphasises the importance of the media as a tool for women’s advancement and empowerment, by helping them to learn from each other, form communities and advocate for change. This continues to have relevance today as women raise their voices about gender inequality, sexual harassment and assault, domestic violence and many other important issues.
Dr Catherine Fisher is an ANU graduate, historian, policy adviser and author of Sound citizens: Australian women broadcasters claim their voice, 1923–1956. Download the book for free at ANU Press.
Top image: Women’s rights activist Linda Littlejohn, circa 1939. Photo: Fairfax archives [nla.pic-vn6297290]
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