Why I Had my Say on International Women’s Day 2016

 

women of the world unite

What a week in the political calendar with International Women’s Day victim to mercurial Melbourne’s weather. An  El Niño escapade creating a  record breaking 41 degrees on Tuesday, March 8th.

On the day women celebrate with various events, mine culminated with a 6.00pm march through city streets after I’d been a keynote speaker in the morning and taught in the afternoon. In local vernacular, by evening I was knackered – the old grey mare ain’t what she used to be!

Although officially autumn, Melbourne sweltered.

When I joined my daughters at the march in the city it was great to be among vocal and delightful young people, but also sad that we are still fighting for many of the same issues that motivated me to action in the 70s.

On the march I had a conversation with a young police officer in his 20s.

‘You drew the short straw,’ I said by way of conversation and indicated the heat.

‘Oh, no, this is just part of general police duties when assigned to the city,’ he replied. ‘Why are you all marching?’

‘It’s International Women’s Day.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes, and all round the world. Where were you born?’

‘In Hong Kong.’

‘Don’t they march there?’

‘Oh, I don’t know…. Why and when did it start?’

I explained the brief history of the event and that marching on this day started in Melbourne in 1975.

‘But why are you marching?’

‘This year we’re seeking wage parity among other things.’

He pondered for a moment and asked, ‘When did women get the vote?’

I wasn’t sure if he was implying ‘what more do you want’ or if he thought women’s suffrage was granted evenly throughout the world, or if he actually cared because our conversation ended abruptly as he fell back to attend to a traffic snarl.

 

 

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The next day there was a protest to keep the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation, in the public eye and although not quite so hot, travelling into the city again after working,  took a toll on my weary body, especially since the unseasonal weather made sleep elusive!

However, I met some marvellous women and we swapped addresses. The female police officer in charge of city duties supportive and caring. The demonstration went off with a lot of good humour and co-operation from police and public.

On Being Asked To Speak

I was surprised when I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the City of Kingston’s annual IWD celebration held at Doyles in Mordialloc. For several years, I’ve  attended as part of the audience if not working, never imagining I’d ever be the main speaker.

However, it is one of several invitations I’ve received since being awarded Kingston Citizen of the Year 2016 and I was more than happy to speak about the Power of Story and Words and champion the value and joy of teaching creative writing in neighbourhood houses.

The topic agreed upon after a discussion with the council’s Community Engagement Team, Dominic, Kate and Gillian, aptly titled Wellbeing Officers.

Slide 1 event order

The MC for the morning, Gemma O’Shea, Kingston Young Citizen of the Year, demonstrated poise, a clear voice and skilful handling of the program with a confidence I wished I’d had at her age (and even wished I felt that morning).

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Gemma introducing the Penguin Club speakers

The Mayor, Councillor Tamsin Bearsley spoke well as usual, the audience spellbound as she shared her story and journey towards choosing to stand for public office.

Tamsin confided that she had been brought up as a Christadelphian, in a conservative Christian family where women did not have a voice in church services or the decisions of the church. Christadelphians believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and take their attitudes from their interpretation of the Scriptures.

Christadelphians also believe that the Bible teaches them to avoid all involvement in politics: no voting, no joining political parties, no demonstrations, no protest groups and no becoming elected representatives.

Tamsin went to school locally at Mentone Girls’ Secondary College and won the Premier’s Information Technology Prize when Jeff Kennett was Premier of Victoria. She found the encounter with Kennett inspiring and while studying Robotics during her teaching degree she met her future husband who is a Catholic. The desire to pursue teaching and marriage entailed a break with the Christadelphians and their strict beliefs.

A friendship with former Councillor and later MP for Carrum, Donna Bauer, who became a mentor, led to Tamsin’s involvement in local politics. She closed her speech encouraging everyone to put their hand up to take a more active role in the community and be empowered to stand for elected office. A strong message considering the obstacles Tamsin overcame to have her voice heard.

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The Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley

The next three speakers were from the Penguin Club of Australia Inc. An organisation which offers a supportive, friendly environment  emphasising participation for women to develop confidence and communication skills, especially in public speaking. The Bayside Group meets twice a month in Clarinda on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday.

I sat nervously awaiting my turn watching Claire Houston, Patricia Buchanan and Ann Keys from the Club. They presented with such confidence it made me envious. They asked two questions I could definitely answer with a ‘Yes!’

Does the thought of standing up to speak fill you with terror?

Would you like to develop the confidence that you admire in other people?

The three spoke eloquently and fluently, giving a short history of the oral tradition most cultures have, including our own, and why famous speeches resonate and how we can learn to emulate impressive speakers.

The next speaker, Mary Rimington OAM, has been a longtime activist in the conservation movement and secretary of the Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League for many years.

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Mary Rimington OAM

Mary spoke about the role of women in the MBCL participating in community consultations, preparing submissions, attending hearings, meetings and letter writing. The achievements of this hardworking lobby group are many: protecting the foreshore vegetation and cliffs from erosion, encouraging the clean up of Mordialloc Creek, retaining the Green Wedge, and campaigning for better planning decisions city-wide as well as for Port Phillip Bay.

Mary’s involvement goes back to 1969 and she has campaigned for and against many decisions by politicians of all political persuasions. The newspaper clippings she showed revealed just how feisty negotiations were many years ago and how lucky we are that local people like herself have continued to honour past state premier Rupert Hamer’s vision for retaining green wedges around Melbourne when he claimed in parliament:

that nobody could happily contemplate a future metropolis of seemingly endless suburbia spreading out to infinity.’

We can thank former councillors and some locals who were prepared to be arrested, for stopping a dangerous oil pipeline being routed through the bay. The power of words coupled with action.

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After Mary, it was my turn and I included two poems to give the audience and myself some relief.

I was grateful I had friends sitting in the audience – from Mordialloc Writers’ Group (Eve, Maureen, Kristina, Dorothy, Lisa) and from the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women (Amy, Evelyn, Barbara, Mary). Also, Lorna my ‘boss’  from Longbeach Place, Gulay the head of the committee I was on at Central Bayside Health, plus of course my lovely number two daughter, Mary Jane.

Anne couldn’t take time off work, but she listened to me rehearsing the speech the night before and gave valuable feedback. Before the program began, I  discovered two friends  from the days when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School. Catherine and Susan had come along because they heard I was  speaking.

The windows revealed Mordialloc Creek looked picture postcard magnificent. At least anyone losing interest had a wonderful view for daydreaming.

Is it better for the nerves to speak in front of friends or strangers? Not sure of the answer, except I was glad when the speech went without  mishap and I even received compliments. I work on the philosophy that people don’t have to say something nice and took all praise at face value.

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me in full flight

International Women’s Day 2016

I acknowledge that this gathering is on Aboriginal land and respectfully acknowledge the past and present traditional owners, the Boonwerung people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respects to their elders past and present. Today, I especially honour and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of Aboriginal women.

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I thank the Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley, and acknowledge other councillors and representatives from the City of Kingston who facilitated today. I’m still humbled and stunned to be regarded as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and to be speaking at this celebration.

And it is a celebration, although joy is easily tempered in a world of instant and constant communication reminding us of sorrow. I find it helps to write out my observations about this constant turmoil. Here is a recent poem.

Latte Lament
Mairi Neil

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other …

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

And devouring slices
of gluten free, fructose free, fat-free,
carrot cake and chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad: war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France,
Greece,
Indonesia,
Iraq,
Israel,
Kenya,
Lebanon,
Palestine,
Sri Lanka,
Syria,
Turkey,
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
Search mobile screen for funny meme.

 

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements in North America and Europe, at the turn of last century. Now the day has assumed extensive global dimensions.

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We can safely say, International Women’s Day is here to stay! (There’s a nice bit of rhyme for you!) Words and how we use them, important.

Writing can amuse, prick your conscience, stir memories, educate and affect change. Textbooks and media tell their versions of an event but ordinary people live through the experience. Our stories, our points of view are important to record as a legacy for future generations. The pen is mightier than the sword when the stories and poems of a generation remain. They reflect lives more truthfully than a cold observer recording, sifting through records, or perhaps writing what they’re told or paid to write.

For centuries, we had HIStory, not HERstory.

Susan Sontag described a writer as ‘sitting in a room every day, year after year, alone.

Not me! I’m a passionate writer who has become a passionate teacher of writing! Privileged to hear and encourage people to write amazing stories, real or imagined, adding insight into what it means to be human.

 

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Today, a time to reflect on achievements and thank the ordinary women and men in myriad countries and diverse communities for their courage and determination in calling for change. Women’s rights are human rights, feminists are male, female and genderqueer. Our language and attitude must change to be inclusive and recognise diversity.

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The United Nations began celebrating IWD on the 8th March during International Women’s Year in 1975. Some in this room will remember that year with mixed emotions.

In the November, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by an unelected Governor General – party politics and the Republican debate aside – many women feared the door to a future of their choosing would be slammed, or the locks changed.

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The Whitlam government’s gifts of free tertiary education, Commonwealth funds flowing to childcare places, Medicare, specialist health and welfare services for women, women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, made a huge difference to women’s lives. This could be snatched away or revert to the privileged few.

In 1971, because I won a Commonwealth scholarship, I was the first and only one of 6 siblings, in my migrant family to attend university. When Gough removed the financial barrier, thousands of women and men enrolled – many as mature age students.

In 1975, I worked as a research assistant at the Museum in Russell Street in a job funded by the Federal Government’s Regional Economic Development Program. A beneficiary of the 1972 Equal Pay Case that women undertaking work similar to that undertaken by men should be paid an equal wage I was devastated when the program and my job disappeared with Gough.

Tumultuous times for me and many young women. Not unusual, however, time and again it is women and children’s services that bear the brunt of government cost saving. Women are often left with no work, or poorly paid work. The progress made in professional fields is not translated to the majority.

However, Mordy Writers benefited from the educational revolution of the 70s. Glenice Whitting went to university and started writing. She is now Dr Glenice Whitting with a prize-winning novel and other writing achievements to her credit. Glenice is one of many who left school early, married, had a family but ached to do something different. In my classes over the years, countless women thanked Gough for making it easier to seek education. A generation of lifelong learners created.

Targeted government support makes a difference to women’s lives.

There have not been many great leaps forward. Progress a hard slog. It was 20 years before the Beijing Conference in 1995 and its twelve areas of critical concern, reviewed last year – another 20 years later.

  • The stocktake decided gender parity in primary education has been achieved, but completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries.
  • More women have been elected to public office – about 21% of the world’s parliamentarians are women, up from about 11% in 1995 – but we are still far from parity.
  • More women than ever before are participating in the workforce, but women generally earn less than men and, in rich and poor countries alike, carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work which deprives them of time for valuable pursuits like earning money, gaining new skills, and participating in public life.
  • And, while more laws exist to protect women from violence, sexual and gender-based violence continue to occur on every continent and in every country, often reaching horrific levels where there are war and conflict.

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I don’t have to tell people in this room the challenges Australia still faces: we’re not very kind to those in public office, but levels of vitriol and spite for women who achieve high office reached appalling heights against Julia Gillard. And how shameful we needed Rosie Batty and her tragic loss to galvanise governments into concerted action on family violence?

I worked at Maroondah Halfway House in the 70s, the second women’s refuge established in Melbourne. One of my first published writings was in a Croydon church magazine asking for funds for women and children affected by domestic violence. The generous response overwhelming.

There have always been people eager to rectify injustice.

Now we refer to family violence which reflects the true breadth and depth of the problem meriting the Andrews Government’s Royal Commission.

The United Nation’s Women’s Executive’s message this year is ‘Each one of us is needed—in our countries, communities, organisations, governments and in the United Nations — to ensure decisive, visible and measurable actions are taken under the banner: Planet 50-50: Step It Up for Gender Equality.’

Let’s hope that gender equality will see an end to the terrorism women and children face in the place they should be the safest – the home.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon prefaced his message for IWD2016 with a story that reminds us that in some instances there may never be a level playing field for women:

As a boy growing up in post-war Korea, I remember asking about a tradition I observed: women going into labour would leave their shoes at the threshold and then look back in fear. “ They are wondering if they will ever step into those shoes again,” my mother explained.

More than a half-century later, the memory continues to haunt me. In poor parts of the world today, women still risk death in the process of giving life. Maternal mortality is one of many preventable perils. All too often, female babies are subjected to genital mutilation. Girls are attacked on their way to school. Women’s bodies are used as battle fields in wars. Widows are shunned and impoverished.

We can only address these problems by empowering women as agents of change.

Women and girls are critical to finding sustainable solutions to the challenges of poverty, inequality and the recovery of the communities hardest hit by conflicts, disasters and displacements.

They are at the frontline of the outbreaks of threatening new epidemics, such as Zika virus disease or the impact of climate change, and at the same time are the bulwark to protect their families, work for peace, and ensure sustainable economic growth and social change.

In Ban Ki-Moon’s words, ‘We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers.’

The World Health Organisation estimates 830 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. How wonderful to read about a church hall in the Adelaide Hills where volunteers have met since 1999 to put together birthing kits, containing the bare essentials to help reduce the risk of infection for women giving birth in some of the world’s harshest environments.

The wallet-sized kits are lightweight and cheap, costing just $3 to put together and are credited with a 25% reduction in deaths. 1.4 million have been distributed across the globe including Ethiopia, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

How often do women working for change make the headlines? Grandmothers Against Children in Detention collecting toys, writing letters, organising protests, the women in Warragul making kits for breast cancer survivors to wake up to after their mastectomies. When I read their written prayer and good wishes inside my card, I wept. Strangers thinking of me – our sole connection – womanhood.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. I’m grateful my parents told me to use my voice – whether speaking or writing, to always champion social justice and equity. My mother advised, ‘use the gifts God gave you, you have a brain and a good Scots tongue in your head.’  Dad, said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a street cleaner, just be the most educated cleaner you can be.’

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Part of the answer, not part of the problem. Ideas are easy but turning words into compelling reads is hard.

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Who were or are your mentors? What have they taught you? Have you thanked them? Parents, teachers, employers, neighbours, writers, thinkers – people who’ve shown you the way at some point, revealed the beautiful mystery and challenges of life which made sense in their hands.

Inspiration and passion is contagious. It fuels and fires you up. Keep those mentors in your heart, share their wisdom and pay it forward and help someone else. Women can be really good at doing that – sisterhood is indeed powerful.

Another organisation dear to my heart is the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women which meets in Mordialloc.

We’re expert at writing letters and signing petitions. In Kingston we can thank members of the UAW for the first kindergartens, libraries, childcare centres, improved roads and parks and even bus routes.

In Kingston, we have a history of hard working females: councillors, managers of neighbourhood houses, school principals, leaders and activists in countless volunteer organisations. We heard from inspirational Mary Rimington OAM today whose pen has ensured we still have a foreshore of indigenous vegetation, a cleaner creek and many parklands including the Green Wedge. Over the years she’s written thousands of words in submissions and has had letters published in the local papers and The Age.

Those in power do listen – sometimes.

My passion is writing: everyone has a story and I believe they have a right to have their stories heard. Writing in all its forms encourages, and enables stories to be shared. And a story shared is the first step towards understanding each other, a step towards a fair and tolerant society.

In tandem with writing is reading – literacy opens doors to education, skills, better communication. Knowledge is power as is storytelling. Stories link us with the first peoples, with our ancestors, our neighbours and strangers; the legacy we leave our children.

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In Kingston, we’re lucky to have Lisa Hill,  writer of the AnzLit blog – Google Lisa and read her reviews. Choose a book from many of our Indigenous authors – move out of your comfort zone.

My motivation to establish and continue to grow classes in neighbourhood houses was to make creative writing courses available and accessible for all. We learn who we are from writing. Where we’re from and about humanity.

If there is a story attached to a painting, a building, an historical event it makes it more interesting, more realistic, more memorable. The tragedy of the Stolen Generations and the current scandals of sexual abuse within institutions like the Catholic Church all the more powerful when we read individual stories. Like Ban Ki-Moon said, the stories haunt you.

Unknown.pngQualified professionals use writing as therapy. Since the 1980s, researchers have found writing and healing go hand-in-hand, writing can help your:

  • immune system
  • memory
  • blood pressure
  • wounds heal
  • sleeping patterns improve

Emotionally expressive writing is powerful. A healing tool to use working toward better health. When people write about feelings as well as thoughts, describe troubling events, try to see from different perspectives, they may make sense or meaning of the situation.

Most of us have experiences, secrets, troubles that could do with an airing and often fictionalising these is a less traumatic way of dealing with their legacy.

Friendships grow in writing classes along with wellbeing.

In class, we begin by splurging. Students write from a prompt or class discussion. A pencil and a piece of paper all that is needed although students with disabilities may use a tape recorder, iPad or laptop.

We don’t think too deeply in the splurge. Don’t edit ourselves. We write everything that comes to mind. A stream of consciousness allowing imaginations to go wherever they want. Nobody— absolutely no author writes a perfect first draft. The goal is to get a story or poem down on the page where you can see it, share it (if you desire) and then start to shape it.

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What a privilege to have a safe space to tell your story and feel validated when people listen, support, comment, admire, encourage, and even ask to hear more. We are lucky the council and state government see the value in funding neighbourhood houses.

Early women writers submitted work under male pseudonyms, many women in the past have been told their stories and opinions don’t matter, yet the majority of my students over the years have been female and disprove societal assumptions.

The oldest student is 95 this year, Ceinwen has written her memoir about the war years and writes beautiful poetry with insightful detail. She insists, the classes and homework give her a reason to get up in the morning and stay engaged with life.

Two students with acquired brain injury write about the person they are now – both refer to their accident as a rebirth. The steep learning curve to physical, emotional and mental health ongoing. Anat wants to publish her memoir, Michael wants to publish a collection of his poems.

Every story is an endless flow of questions – meaning always in the making as we create and change. What would happen if we valued stories regardless of gender, age, colour, or disability? As a woman, a teacher, a mother and a writer I say, why not change the conversation from ‘It would be nice if…’ to ‘It is essential that…’?

To achieve the goal of gender equality the entire system needs to change. Diversity and equity begin with you. What conversations are you having? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family the same cultural background? When you go to a party, are your friends all the same? When you look at your bookshelf, are most of the books by similar authors?

If your tastes are not diverse, you may be hearing and reading the same stories over and over again.

Finally, words matter, we can make a conscious decision to change words that have demeaned women and others. Ignore the voices that sneer at political correctness – they may never have been the butt of sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism or ageism.

Words, Words, Are All I Have

Words are my business

Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule

Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…

Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary

So they can colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work

Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?

Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering

Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… Oh, decisions!

Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work

Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed

Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?

Losing it?

Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard

And shape the words and worlds to

Vindicate the term ‘writer’

End of story!

© Mairi Neil 2016

All presenters were given gorgeous flowers. We listened to the Stiletto Sisters, an energetic and joyful trio who played while we indulged in a delicious morning tea.

In what seemed a blink of the eye, it was time to venture into the horrendous heat and go our separate ways.

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A truly memorable International Women’s Day  allowing me to have my say!

10 thoughts on “Why I Had my Say on International Women’s Day 2016

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