Brazen Hussies

M, 93 minutes

5 Stars

Review by ©  Jane Freebury



Brilliantly put together, this important doco tells a story about social justice for women that’s a likely eye-opener for millenials

When a couple of women chained themselves to the footrails in a Brisbane bar in 1965, it was a sign that something new was afoot. It was at the time illegal to serve alcohol to females in a public bar.

Women could order a soft drink or sit in their husband’s car and drink a beer, but it was illegal for them to join male customers for a drink inside. Unbelievable.

The men at the bar had their say that day, and the state justice minister had his: the women would ‘get over’ it. Although the media also trivialised the serious intent behind the protest, it was an early defining moment for the women’s liberation movement in Australia.

A decade of campaigns, feminist publications and consciousness raising groups later, International Women’s Year activities were receiving generous funding from the Commonwealth. And, with the appointment of Elizabeth Reid in 1973, Australia became the first country in the world with a female advisor to the government on women’s affairs.

The decade of dramatic change, 1965 to 1975, is framed by writer-director Catherine Dwyer in this outstanding documentary, her first feature. Brazen Hussies is a great story and a terrific achievement, amusing, insightful and entertaining.

An impressive crew of creatives, including editor Rose Jones, collaborated with the filmmaker in production. Producers of note, Sue Maslin and Philippa Campey, were also on board.

After working on She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry of 2014, Mary Dore’s doco history of the women’s movement in the US, Dwyer was drawn to tell the story of second wave feminism in this country. An untold story. It would be for the record, and it would show young women of today the social change that their mothers and grandmothers witnessed during their lifetime.

their young selves, clear-eyed and articulate, fired up and driving things forward

After some scene-setting of movie clips from Hollywood movies with the familiar idealised image of the housewives in the 1950s, Brazen Hussies roars into life.

There are lively and compelling interviews with twenty five or so women, including Elizabeth Reid herself, who experienced those heady times and share unique insights. It is fascinating seeing vision of their young selves, clear-eyed and articulate, fired up and driving things forward.

Former union activist, Zelda D’Aprano, recalls how she chained herself to the doors of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in protest over the inadequacy of its equal pay ruling. In 1969 it was just the beginning.

Writer and columnist, Anne Summers, recalls how as a graduate new to the ABC, she earned less than the male trainees with high school qualifications.

Jurist Pat O’Shane, the first Indigenous graduate in Australia, discusses how Indigenous women responded to the movement. A complicated story.

Eva Cox, Martha Ansara, Jeni Thornley, Margot Nash, Gillian Leahy, Barbara Creed, Suzanne Bellamy also appear. It is no surprise that many of these activist women went on to careers in journalism, media, filmmaking, academia, law and politics.

There is also a brief archival footage of my late mother, Julia Freebury, who campaigned for abortion law reform. Abortion was illegal then, only married women could access the pill and there was no pension support for single mothers.

many young women became converts to feminism, just ‘like that’

Another chapter in the history of the women’s movement was the beginnings of developments in gay liberation. With the anti-war movement in top gear, 1965-75 was a time of such incredible foment.

In 1970 a slight young female student stepped up to speak at a moratorium demonstration on the front lawn at Sydney University. She and fellow Labor Club women were fed up with being held back, expected to do the menial tasks and never allowed a platform to speak. At the response of young men in the crowd to her inflammatory speech, many young women became converts to feminism, just ‘like that’.

The reaction of those young men to the women’s movement, especially young men of the Left, is shocking. Were they only waiting for ‘the revolution’, not interested in social justice for women?

So much has been achieved since then. Women don’t have to leave the public service when they marry, they can take out a loan on their own to buy property, and can stand at the bar and order beer instead of soft drink. And ASIO won’t open a dossier on them if they go out and burn their bra.

Cheers, and goodbye to all that!

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 November 2020

Images courtesy State Library of NSW