I’m a believer in the power of women. I believe in our rights. I believe in our equality. And I believe in the fight. Over the past few years, there have been several victories splashed across the front pages of our newspapers.
Our nation has a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General, a female Premier in Queensland, a female Governor General in NSW and Queensland, and until recently a female Premier in NSW. Add to this 68 female federal Parliamentarians and many more times that number in state and territory parliaments.
But it has been a long road.
When South Australian women were first granted the right to vote in 1894, it was a turning point. Western Australia followed soon after in 1899, NSW in 1902 and Victoria in 1908.
The Commonwealth granted the right to vote in 1901, so by the dawn of federation, white women were granted the right that their male counterparts enjoyed.
It was the outcome of relentless suffrage campaigning and was the first building block towards female political representation in Parliament. But it wasn’t until 1921 that the first woman was elected – Edith Cowan, a proud campaigner for woman’s rights, in West Australia’s lower house. It would take a further 22 years until another would be elected.
Since then, we’ve had several firsts, and women in leadership roles have spilled over, however slowly and sparingly, into the private sector. But it is important to remember that these campaigns often did not include us – the First Nations women of this land. It was six decades after the initial women’s right victory that Aboriginal women around the country received the federal vote, when the Commonwealth passed legislation in 1962.
The white feminist movements of yesteryear largely excluded Aboriginal women – it wasn’t just white men who marginalised us. We were excluded from the woman’s rights fights of the past, which suppressed our own rights fight.
Ironically, the rights that non-Indigenous women were fighting for were already rights enjoyed by Aboriginal women prior to colonialisation.
Aboriginal society treated women equally. Women were valued, and held important roles. We were involved in our own ceremonies and had our own sacred knowledge.
We were already leaders.
Today, we are still leaders in own communities, and now we’re leaders in government, and leaders in the private sector. Because, like non-Aboriginal Australia, we have had our own series of firsts, where our women have stood up and taken charge. And they’ve done it against the odds of both misogyny and racism.
Kimberley MP Carol Martin became the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to any Parliament in the country, and has retained her West Australian seat since 2001.
Aboriginal MLA Marion Scrymgour became the first Aboriginal minister in the country and in 2007 became the highest ranked Aboriginal member of Parliament in history, when she was appointed the Northern Territory’s Deputy Chief Minister.
Down in my home state, The Honourable Linda Burney, former Minister for Community Services, became the first Aboriginal member of the NSW Parliament, and the first Aboriginal minister in NSW. She also served as the ALP’s National President.
And we cannot forget the strong women in communities around the state, who show leadership on local, state, and national levels. People like our elders. People like my mum, who was a strong Worimi woman, and who, although no longer with us, has a lasting influence.
I myself hold a leadership position on a board of eight Aboriginal men. I am chair of the largest Aboriginal member-based organisation in the country, and the only democratically elected Aboriginal organisation with United Nations speaking rights. I am honoured to be elected by my community, and to hold a position that means I can advocate nationally and internationally for our rights.
Throughout the New South Wales land rights network, we are also walking the talk. Aboriginal women have been and still are the backbone of the Land Rights movement in New South Wales.
More women than men vote in NSWALC elections, yet it is predominantly men that are being voted into the highest leadership positions. Despite this, women make up approximately 65 percent of all local Aboriginal land council boards in the state. That’s a figure worth acknowledging, and worth celebrating.
The fact we overpower men in numbers says a lot about how far we have come, and it says a lot about the value of having women in leadership positions.
I would love to see this replicated in mainstream Australia. Imagine if we had 65 percent of women in Parliament? Imagine if we had 65 percent of women on the boards of major corporations? Imagine how this would change the country? I think the change would be phenomenal.
We can’t just judge our success on the basis of one female Prime Minister, who followed 26 male Prime Ministers. It is the leaders within our own communities, at the grassroots level, that is perhaps the best basis on which we judge our victories. In my time at NSWALC, I’ve spoken a lot about the struggle of Aboriginal women, but it is important to acknowledge that while we have had different struggles, Australia wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for the wider feminist movement. Although Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women are waging different wars, we still fight the same battles.
We have a long way to go to eliminate sexism, which remains today. Some men still want to oppress us. Women – black and white – in leadership roles are still subjected to criticisms that would never be directed at their male counterparts.
If you took some of the criticisms as truth, you’d think wearing an unfashionable jacket inhibits a woman’s ability to govern, or that the colour of her hair reflects her talents.
You would think that her choices in her personal life governed her professional life – that her right to not have a baby, for example, shows some sort of insight into her morals. You would think that her status as a woman stereotypes her, that her femininity becomes a liability.
We are also still yet to achieve full equality in the workforce. Despite becoming increasingly better educated than men, there remains not one career in Australia where women are higher paid. This, I imagine, can discourage women to aspire to leadership.
We must look at the barriers that inhibit these aspirations. We must consider dispelling the traditional viewpoints – that women must be mothers, and should not place their careers over motherhood.
Women can do both. The greatest job you can do is to raise kids and prepare them for the world. It’s the most important job on earth, in fact.
More broadly, we must look at the wider fight for women’s rights, because gender discrimination can severely impact on leadership aspirations. We must ensure we fight against this discrimination. Against harassment. And against violence. This is a common fight.
I believe we must stand united, and continue to fight against gender inequality. We must work towards an Australia that does not react to a female Prime Minister on the basis of her haircut. And we must work towards an Australia where the sex of our Prime Minister isn’t newsworthy. When we reach that day, maybe then we can be reassured the fight is well and truly won.
* Bev Manton is a Worimi woman, and chairwoman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council. In Session is a monthly column, and features a different NSWALC Councillor each edition.