Women's History Month

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In just one week, International Women’s History Month will be over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stop what you’re doing this very minute and take a moment to appreciate the impact of great women on your life. …Okay, don’t stop reading. But whether you’re a first year student or an old-timer, it’s never too late to learn something new and inspiring about the people who made daring breakthroughs to forge the society we’re a part of today, or to expand your vision of what we can dream of achieving in our lives.

Thirty-five years ago a group of historians and activists started a project – the National Women’s History Project – aimed at recognising and commemorating the often overlooked or even blatantly sidelined achievements of women in human history. This year’s theme, “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives” pays tribute to this goal of weaving and embedding women’s often undervalued or unseen achievements into the fabric of our history. I hear you ask, ‘Why is this even a thing?’

Well, it’s because you and I live in a world where simply being born female can still mean you’re considered a second-class citizen, someone’s property, or inherently flawed.  Where those women who are actually permitted to work still face a pay gap that even in Australia currently sits at 18.8%. Where little girls face slavery, rape, and death because of beliefs and laws that position females as dangerous or inferior. A world in which it’s still somehow seen as unproblematic that a global, anonymous mob can form an online witch-hunt to terrorise and threaten to kill any woman who simply wants education, or a discussion about our cultural values, or who disagrees in some measure, or who simply, well, uses her voice. By giving visibility to women’s stories, we challenge limiting stereotypes about women, and give boys and men a fuller understanding of females’ experiences and capability. Having visible role models not only encourages women and girls to broaden the scope of their dreams but also expands social perceptions of what women can do and accomplish in their lives. Yay!

So wherever you are right this moment – whether you’re lazing about on the UTS lawn, slumped in front of a computer trying not to fall asleep on your mountain of essay notes, boredly scrolling your phone on the commute home, procrastinating to avoid that assignment, or just curiously browsing this blog to see if you’d like to get involved (which you totally should, by the way), take a brief moment now to take in the impact that ordinary people, just like you, can have.

HEALTH & PUBLIC SERVICE

If it weren’t for powerhouses like Lowitja O’Donohue, we couldn’t even imagine UTS as it is today. The diverse range of cultures and perspectives we celebrate on Harmony Day and the vital hub of cultural interaction and collaboration that is the UTS Jumbanna Indigenous House of Learning just wouldn’t exist if we still did not recognise Aboriginal Australians as the nation’s first citizens. O’ Donohue was removed from her mother as a child during the 1930s and sent to live on a mission home as part of what is now known as the Stolen Generations. This injustice and the racism she encountered in her efforts to pursue a nursing profession led to her joining the Aborigines’ Advancement League, a movement that spearheaded the gradual and indeed, continuing recognition of Aboriginal Australian peoples’ rights to land, citizenship and self-determination . O’Donohue was eventually promoted to charge nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and, after travelling to work in northern India, became a hard-working welfare officer in the newly-formed SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs. She soon became Director of the Department, responsible for implementing national Aboriginal welfare policies at a state level. As Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission after 1990, O’Donohue addressed the government on the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody and was one of the first Aboriginal people to attend a Cabinet meeting.

BUSINESS

Now think about the last time you caught a taxi (okay try to pretend it wasn’t some traumatising emergency you’ve erased from your memory). Was the taxi driver female? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t. Someone clever once said that every social problem is a business opportunity. But in the case of Sara Bahai, Afghanistan’s first female taxi driver, it’s been a case of using business to fix a social problem. Bahai’s story – of how she defied critical social attitudes, opposition and death threats to obtain her taxi licence and financial independence, and begin a quiet revolution from her scruffy Toyota Corolla - went viral in the months leading up to International Women’s Day on March 8th. It’s not hard to see why. Her actions of resistance two years ago have inspired at least seven other women in her community to learn to drive. Responding defiantly to online harassment and a break-in at her house, Bahai now sleeps with a gun and her brothers guard her roof at night, but she’s now even more determined to expand the possibilities of what women can achieve in her country, with plans to create Afghanistan’s first female-owned car dealership. If you only remember one female taxi driver, make sure you remember Sara Bahai.

EDUCATION

Okay, so you’ve decided to take a break from reading and go get some food… you look away from the screen, take out your wallet and reach for a fifty dollar note…Wait! We’re students, let’s be realistic here! But seriously, the next time you’re fortunate enough to see a fifty dollar note take a good look at the women on one side. Fighting a battle still being fought by the likes of Malala Yousafzai today, Edith Cowan knew the value of women’s education in improving the lives of everyone in the community and believed they could and should educate themselves for the kind of life they thought they should have, with equal access to public office and financial independence. Cowan was the first woman in Australia to enter parliament, one of the first female justices of the Peace, headed countless welfare committees aimed at protecting the disadvantaged and was responsible for granting women financial independence after a divorce. Cowan not only created new possibilities for women in Australia but was ahead of the times in addressing social inequalities in health, welfare, law and education, imagining at the start of the 20th century concepts we now take for granted like the children’s court and sex education. Without her efforts perhaps half the UTS population would not have an education today.

TECHNOLOGY

You probably wouldn’t be at university if it weren’t for wireless technology. And many of these couldn’t exist without technologies developed by an enterprising Austrian-American, Hedy Lamarr. Despite already being a glamorous 1940s Hollywood star, Lamarr began collaborating with her neighbour, composer George Antheil, experimenting with ‘frequency hopping’ in an effort to prevent remote controlled torpedoes from being hijacked during the war. Lamarr had gained some knowledge and an interest in applied science from her sadly abusive former husband, an armaments manufacturer, and through these experiments Lamarr and her neighbour co-invented an early version of spread spectrum communication, part of the basis for wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Lamarr and Antheillwere inducted into the Inventor’s Wall of Fame in 2014. So maybe success simply involves being secretly passionate about something else on the side. Whatever hobby you’re secretly chipping away at, keep it up. You never know, one day it might be the achievement you’re remembered for.

COMMUNICATIONS
There just isn’t enough space here to recognise the value of women in communications; those who have spoken just to give other women a voice,  those who tell hard truths and persist even when their efforts are met with opposition, censorship and violence. The Australian poet, Henry Lawson’s mother, Louisa Lawson faced fierce opposition while working with an all-women team to edit and publish The Dawn, a feminist publication that addressed not only women’s rights to vote and hold public office, the importance of women’s education, legal rights, economic and social independence but also enduring social issues such as alcohol abuse and domestic violence. In Mexico in the 1990s, a feisty young journalist named Lydia Cacho began investigating the sex trafficking of women and girls and discussing the epidemic of violence against women. For this she was beaten and raped at a bus stop, but this only made her more determined to address the issue of violence and, aware that at any moment she may be tortured or assassinated, she eventually exposed prominent public officials involved in the global sex trade and abuse of young girls.

THE POWER OF ONE VOICE

These quiet and subtle revolutions started by even the most shy and unobtrusive people like Rosa Parks show that you have the power to change society without saying a word. Acts of non-violent resistance to unjust policies can frequently make a louder statement than your voice ever could. One of the most underestimated but powerful ways in which you can change the world is by simply refusing to participate or accept what you see as an injustice. Your mind and your voice are more powerful than you know.

 

 By Rosanna Kellet