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Is it coming up roses yet? Women in the 21st century

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

International Women’s Day Lunch

Union, University and Schools Club

Thank you to the Union, University and Schools Club for inviting me to speak and to Dr Mary Forbes for reaching out to. This is a wonderful event. Full of pride, full of celebration—and full of women and supportive men!

Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respect to Elders, past, present and emerging, and also to acknowledge any Indigenous guests attending today.

Given our proximity to Barangaroo, and our celebration of women today, perhaps we should also remember her. Barangaroo was the second wife of Woollarrawarre Bennelong, an intermediary between the Aboriginal people and the early British colonists in New South Wales. They were members of the Cammeraygal clan of the Eora Nation. Barangaroo is named in her honour, although not her traditional land. Women as intermediaries? Something clearly recognised from the outset of the colony.

My brief was to ask ‘why international women’s day’ and whether it is still relevant today?


When Mary Forbes suggested the line, ‘Is it coming up roses yet?’, my thoughts went immediately to Rose—Rose Scott, that is—a leader in the first wave of women leaders in New South Wales. I remember Rose. I encountered her when I was doing my PhD. 

It was a study on ‘testamentary freedom’, about the right to make a will. It became a legal historical study of the balancing between two great ideas: the idea of family and the idea of ‘property’. The outcome of that balance was how much, or how little, testamentary freedom one had. By the middle of the 19th century, however, testamentary freedom was essentially a tale of what men had; and what women did not—particularly the case of married women.

On marriage, a man and a woman became ‘one’ or, in Biblical terms, ‘one flesh’,[1] which meant that the woman’s legal personality disappeared into that of her husband. ‘What’s mine is thine’, only worked in one direction.

The property rights of women, or the lack thereof, became a centrepiece in the campaign for women’s suffrage. They needed the vote to change the laws. For many women it was personal. When Millicent Fawcett’s purse was stolen at Waterloo station in London, the pickpocket was charged with ‘stealing from the person of Millicent Fawcett a purse containing £1. 18s 6d, the property of Henry Fawcett’.[2] Millicent became ‘the prime mover’ in the fight for women’s suffrage in England.[3] For Dora Montefiore, in Victoria, it was when her husband died she discovered, in passing conversation with a lawyer, that it was only because her late husband had said nothing about the guardianship of their children that the children remained in her care! This was, she wrote, her ‘initiation into what the real social position of a widow meant to a nineteenth-century woman’. From that moment, she said, ‘I was a suffragist (though I did not realise it at the time) and determined to alter the law’.[4]

And it was in that context that I met Rose. She was a Sydney celebrity for her salons in her home, ‘Lynton’, in Jersey Road, Woollahra. She was a woman of independent means and remained unmarried. She had, in Virginia Woolf’s terms, ‘a room of one’s own'. In 1889 Rose helped form the Women's Literary Society in Sydney from which the Womanhood Suffrage League developed in May 1891.

The 1890s were known as the ‘Mauve Decade’, because William Henry Perkin’s aniline dye allowed the widespread use of that colour in fashion. The 1890s women liked mauve so much that violet became one of the suffrage movement’s signature colours—green, white and violet—or ‘G’, ‘W’, ‘V’, for ‘Give Women Votes’. The suffragists saw the vote as the first step in a campaign of achieving property rights for married women and tackling the laws regarding guardianship of children, and the lack of equality in divorce.

The mauve, or violet, has stuck. Women’s groups old and young have adopted purple as their theme colour. I was not surprised to see that Frensham school, at Mittagong, had the iris as its emblem. The school website says that it was chosen ‘for its beauty, strength and ability to flourish in all conditions’, but to me it was obvious that it was also chosen for the fact it is green, violet and white.

Two days ago, I was in Parliament House in Canberra—for the March round of Senate Estimates hearings. Outside the main committee room is displayed the magnificent Women’s Suffrage Banner of 1908. Painted in England by ex-pat Australian artist Dora Meeson Coates, it was so big, at 2.5 x 1.4 metres, that it required four people to ‘stagger under its weight’ to carry it. Written across the top in red lettering are the words ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ and below it, ‘in shouty caps and quotation marks’,[5] the words that Australia, portrayed as Minerva, holding the heraldry of the newly federated Australian states, speaks to England, portrayed as the white-gowned Mother Britannia holding her sceptre: ‘Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done’.

It was a time when Australia’s daughters led the world.[6] The banner was carried proudly at the head of the Australian and New Zealand contingent of women suffragists, including Mrs Margaret Fisher, the wife of the Australian Prime Minister, in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession in London on 17 June 1911 which saw 40,000 suffragists march from the Embankment to Albert Hall, to urge England, as the ‘mother country’, to accept a young country’s advice on the wisdom of adopting women’s suffrage.[7] ‘Mother’ did not trust her women until 1918.

The local suffragists (as they called themselves) worked through a policy of ‘much speaking’ and won their goals earlier than their British sisters, who proceeded down a revolutionary militant path: South Australia was first in 1895—including Indigenous women in that State, and New South Wales in 1902, the same year as for the Commonwealth. (The 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act removed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s right to vote in Federal elections. This right was only reinstated in the 1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act.)

The banner was rediscovered in the mid-1980s in a large collection of suffragette memorabilia in the Fawcett Library (named after Millicent), which at the time was in the basement of the City Polytechnic in Old Castle Street, Aldgate[8]—just in time for our bicentennial in 1988. Dale Spender, an Australian feminist living in London at that time, Senators Susan Ryan and Margaret Reynolds, then Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, each had a hand in its ‘return’. Prime Minister Bob Hawke celebrated the handover at ‘The Lodge’ on International Women’s Day, 8 March 1988. Senator Reynolds accepted the banner on behalf of the women of Australia. At that time there were10 women in the House of Representatives and 20 women in the Senate, including Senator Kay Patterson. Kay is now my colleague at the Commission as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, a role in which her predecessor was the Hon Susan Ryan. In 2002, to mark the centenary of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, the banner went on permanent display (they also now sell fridge magnets of it in the Parliament House shop).

International Women’s Day was born out of the women’s labour rights and suffrage movements of the first decades of the twentieth century. In February 1909 a ‘National Women’s Day’ was celebrated by the Socialist Party of America, on the anniversary of demonstrations by hundreds of women in New York City, demanding the right to vote, and better pay and shorter working hours for needle trade workers, which led to over a year of strikes.[9] In 1910 at an International Working Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, attended by women from over 17 countries, it was proposed that an ‘International Women’s Day’ be celebrated in all countries. Then in 1911, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.[10]

In Australia, the first IWD commemoration was held in March 1928 in the Domain in Sydney. Organised by the socialist Militant Women’s Movement, the women who attended called for equal pay for equal work, 8 hour days and welfare for the unemployed. Bigger marches took place in Sydney and Melbourne three years later.[11]

This was the period when my mother was born.

Mother’s generation

Born in 1921 she was both a woman of her generation and one ahead of it in so many respects. She was, like Rose Scott, from what may generally be called a ‘middle class’ family.

One of four sisters and three brothers, her father, Dr John Howard Lidgett Cumpston CMG, was the first Commonwealth Director General of Public Health. His mother, Elizabeth (née Newman) was a pioneer kindergarten teacher. Dr Cumpston had a profound commitment to education—and that his daughters would have the same opportunities as his sons. For women in the 1930s and early 1940s this was still pretty unusual. He said to his children that he could not leave them ‘capital’, but he would give them an education. In my mother's generation this was an exceptional standard to create as ‘the norm’ for his children. My first cousin’s daughter has just commenced at Women’s College at Sydney University and there she found a chair with the names of my mother and two of her three sisters on a brass plate. Each of those women gained PhDs (the eldest, in 1998, at the age of 82).

Like many of the women she encountered at University in the late 1930s and early 1940s mother had left leanings (but also strongly anti-communist) and became associated with the Labor party, but abandoned these associations later in life, greatly disillusioned.

All through my high school years in the 1960s two things I remember, apart from school things, were my mother’s PhD and the theatres. Mother won a scholarship to undertake the history of medical organisation in Australia. She was in her mid-40s with four children between the ages of four and 12. From this emerged a whole range of whitegoods (clothes dryer etc) and school holiday trips in our red and white Volkswagen microbus to all parts of Australia where mother did research on her monster topic of a thesis. She used a manual typewriter. The tap-tapping of the keys punctuated many evenings over many years. She graduated in 1977. (Father had to catchup on retirement as a NSW judge by doing his own PhD—it was a proud moment when mother and I were in the procession and on stage at Sydney University’s Great Hall for his graduation).

Although mother was not in the ‘paid’ workforce she was a writer—and kept writing. She was Secretary of the P & C. She ran a theatre in our backyard, and then another one when the backyard was too small for the enterprise for showcasing Australian playwrights.

Mother almost reached her 98th birthday last year, missing it by only a couple of weeks. She was a fine poet and, as my sisters and I came to appreciate, so many of her poems were a continuing love poem to our father, to whom she was married for almost 75 years. She wrote plays, novels and musicals and also wrote on politics; on food; just about anything really. She had no time for editors and published everything herself. She managed the ‘room of one’s own’ as a writer, through dogged persistence, commitment to her craft and amazing time management skills. She set the bar very high for me and my three sisters. (One of whom is here, with one of her daughters, today).

The next wave

Returning to the theme of International Women’s Day—

It was the feminist movement of the 1960s, the ‘second wave’ after Rose’s one, a wave that Susan Ryan rode, that helped the idea of an International Women’s Day to gain prominence.[12] And in 1975, the UN proclaimed it as International Women’s Year to help promote efforts to end discrimination against women. That year, the first World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City.

Elizabeth Reid, who became the first adviser on women’s affairs to a head of state when appointed by the Whitlam government in 1973, led the Australian delegation to the Conference.[13] At the conference she said, ‘we women will no longer be excluded from the spheres of influence, though we should reject the concomitant dominance and power that we have experienced the consequences of … we women will no longer be relegated either here or in our own countries to a secondary place when hard politics are being discussed as distinct from soft women’s issues. We reject this distinction.’[14]

In December 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States in accordance with their historical and national traditions.[15]

Since 1996, the UN has set an annual theme for International Women’s Day. The first was ‘Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future’.[16] This year’s theme for International Women’s Day (8 March) is, ‘I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights’.

So how far have we come? Is it ‘coming up roses’ yet? How far have we ‘realised women’s rights’?

A lot has changed since the UN International Women’s Year in 1975. In that year alone:

  • the Whitlam government made major changes to marriage law by passing the Family Law Act which allowed for ‘no-fault divorce’.[17]
  • ABC Radio 2 debuted its first show dealing with women’s affairs called the ‘Coming Out Show’ which ran for 23 years covering issues to do with women’s rights, including abortion law reform, the politics of rape and women in prison[18]
  • and South Australia became the first state to enact sex discrimination legislation.

We have made a lot of progress in our political representation. In 1975, 10% of Australian Federal Senators were women and no members of the House of representatives were women.[19]

Dame Enid Lyons, widow of the pre-war Prime Minister Joe Lyons, was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet in 1949 as part of Sir Robert Menzies’ government. However, she was not given a portfolio and, as Vice President of the Executive Council, she said her ‘major duty was to pour the tea’.[20]

Dame Margaret Guilfoyle became the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister with portfolio responsibilities in 1975, first as Minister for Social Security (1975-80) and then as Minister for Finance (1980-83). Senator Susan Ryan became the first woman to serve in a Labor Cabinet, first as Minister for Education (1983-87) and then as Special Minister of State (1987-88). In her role as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women she introduced the Commonwealth’s Sex Discrimination Act 1984, briefly earning herself the title of ‘Australia’s feminist dictator’.[21]

Now across the whole parliament, 32% are women. The Senate comprises 40% women and the House of Representatives, 28%.[22]

These were all pioneering stories. But there were ‘underbellies’. Elizabeth Reid was truly a feminist trailblazer, but even in her role as the first PM’s adviser on women’s affairs, she had to deal with the very behaviour she was fighting against. She has only just spoken publicly about the unwanted sexual advances made to her by the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.[23] The description of his drunken advances on her, when they were in a tight space, his pressing his body on her, are likely familiar ones to most women in this room. She, like many women, did not say anything about it, only telling her closest friend. She also showed great understanding for him:

Sir John's first wife, Lady Alison (Peggy) Kerr, had died earlier that year after a long illness, and it was known that he was looking for company. ‘It's human for people to be infatuated, to lust, to love — all these are human reactions. And this was a man who had lost his wife,’ she said. ‘He was clearly searching for another wife and he was clearly considering whether or not I would be an appropriate person’.

Besides, he was very inebriated and was obviously wearing a corset, so he was ‘not as successful as he would have liked to have been’. She would not label it a ‘sexual assault’.

Looking at Sir John’s conduct through contemporary eyes Elizabeth said that nowadays ‘people would be appalled’, but at the time, ‘there was little public conversation’, so she just pushed Sir John’s harassment out of her mind. She had so much work that had to be done, that she ‘didn’t have time to think about these things’.

Today’s statistics on sexual harassment are not very reassuring that much has changed. The results of the 2018 National Survey, conducted by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, are revealing. In the last five years almost two in five women (39%) and just over one in four men (26%) say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, with people aged 18 to 29 being more likely than others to have experienced it.

The most common forms of sexual harassment experienced were:

  • offensive sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • inappropriate physical contact
  • unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing—Sir John’s alleged conduct would be a good example of ‘cornering’.

In the last 12 months, 23% of women in the Australian workforce have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment compared with 16% of men in the workforce.

This afternoon Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, the report of Kate Jenkins’ landmark national inquiry, supported by the Government, is being launched in Canberra. It will have much to tell us about the problems and what we can do about them.

I want now to return to the idea of a room of one’s own. Virginia Woolf saw independence of women as essential to be a writer: ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own is she is to write fiction’. But the idea of independence more broadly, connoted in the idea of ‘a room of one’s own’ is a useful benchmark.

Economic and housing security are two key indicators to test independence. Some of the ‘gender indicators’ from the ABS for last year are quite revealing.[24]

Apart from any social security entitlements under the Age Pension, the principal source of independence today is increasingly in the form of superannuation, since compulsory superannuation was introduced in 1992. The median superannuation balance remains far lower for women than men. In 2017–18, the median superannuation balance at, or approaching, preservation age (55-64 years) was $119,000 for women and $183,000 for men. If you do not have a room of your own in the form of housing, and little superannuation and limited social security, for older women an invisible problem is the risk of homelessness. Kay Patterson’s team has undertaken research about this growing problem, revealing that the number of older homeless women in Australia increased by over 30% between 2011 and 2016 to nearly 7,000 according to the 2016 Census.[25]

If you have very young children, up to five years old, then only 64% of women participated in the labour force, compared with 95% of men. If you are doing it on your own, then you are more likely to live in low economic resource households. In 2017–18, around half of lone mothers with children (46%) and more than a quarter of lone fathers with children (27%) were living in low economic resource households.

And while women are more likely than men to have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification, for graduates of most fields of study, women are still paid less than their male counterparts.

Plus, we are likely to live longer than our male counterparts (by 4.2 years), and with lower superannuation or other assets stored away, there are big challenges. Heart attacks will take out more men, but we are more likely to die from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (as indeed was the case for my mother).

And there are some frankly horrifying statistics on family violence. Some of the key statistics compiled by Our Watch include that

  • on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner—the murder of Hannah Clark last month was an appalling example
  • Australian women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner
  • there is growing evidence that women with disabilities are more likely to experience violence.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women report experiencing violence in the previous 12 months at 3.1 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.[26]

But there are some positives. Young women were more likely to be buying their own home than young men. And in 2019, the proportion of women (51.2%) in Executive Level positions in the public service surpassed men (48.8%) for the first time.

And finally, last year, after decades of relentless campaigning by women’s rights and health advocates, NSW legislated to decriminalise abortion through the Abortion Law Reform Act 2019. Women are no longer at risk of prosecution for procuring their own abortion and doctors are able to perform an abortion after obtaining informed consent. (Many women of my age have had to navigate the perils of unwanted pregnancy).

Thinking of that suffrage banner and the mission it embodied to make the voices of women heard in the corridors of power, I am reminded of another significant and large artwork of recent times calling on political leaders to listen—the Uluru Statement from the Heart—which is also about having a voice. Painted by Anangu artists on canvas, the Uluru Statement is vast in physical size and in the power of its demands. It calls on the Australian people and our political representatives to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are heard in the making of decisions that affect them. It is a reminder that, although we have come a long way in the areas of both women’s rights and the rights of Australia’s first peoples, there is still a long way to go.

My colleague and the first female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar, is in the process of finalising a report that explores the very intersection of these two struggles—the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report which means ‘Women’s Voices’ in June’s language Bunuba. I know it will be a landmark report as we continue to take steps towards equality for all.

So do we still need the symbolism of green, violet and white of the suffragists’ rosettes to energise current campaigns to recognise continuing challenges for women in law and society?  

I will ask you—




[1] Derived from an interpretation of Biblical texts such as Genesis, ii, 24; Matthew, xix, 5-6; Mark, x, 8. A useful discussion of the doctrine is found in Engdahl, D.E., "Medieval Metaphysics and English Marriage Law" (1968) 8 Journal of Family Law 381.

[2] B Hale, ‘On Courage’, Millicent Fawcett Memorial Lecture 2018, 13 December 2018, 1–2.

[3] As Brenda Hale described her.

[4] D Montefiore, From A Victorian to a Modern (1927),

[5] Clare Wright, ‘I’ll have what she’s having: How Australia inspired the world on votes for women’ 24 October 2018,

[6] This is a book review of Clare Wright’s book, You Daughters of Freedom.

[7] M Scott, How Australia led the way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage (2003),


[9] Choi Chatterjee, Celebrating Women: Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910-1939, (University of Chicago Press, 2004) 19.

[10] Barbara LeSavoy and Jordan Garrett, ‘The Capitalist Hijacking of International Women's Day: Russian and American Considerations’ (2013) 14(3) Journal of International Women's Studies, 244-258. Available at:

[11] Kathy Fairfax, ‘The radical history of International Women’s Day’ [online]. Green Left Weekly, No. 1211, 5 Mar 2019, 11. Availability: <
documentSummary;dn=237874215898768;res=IELHSS> ISSN: 1036-126X.










. Many more highlights of the struggle for women’s rights from 1975 to now can be found in this article:






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Rosalind Croucher AM, President

Commission Commission – General