A letter from Dr Elisabeth Kirkby OAM

When I decided to showcase some inspiring women's stories for History Week, it was no surprise that many people suggested including Dr Elisabeth Kirkby OAM.

But I didn't anticipate hearing Dr Kirkby's story from the woman herself, or the impact this would have on me.

As a 20-year career public servant, Dr Kirkby's story was familiar to me. A passionate and articulate politician who managed to navigate the old boys club to make genuine and lasting change for NSW - one of very few female politicians to do so.


I had always dreamed of entering politics. I thought that was how I could make the world a better place. But after seeing government close up, I was jaded. I saw too few women entering politics, and those that did facing an unbearable level of misogyny and double standards.


Outside of politics, I see women who speak out and campaign to make the world equitable, face harassment and judgement that their male counterparts do not. In setting up SheSaw, a positive place to share empowering women's stories and experiences from all over the world, I've attracted trolls. In short, trying to make a difference was feeling just too hard.


Then, last week, I got an email from Dr Elisabeth Kirkby. Her words have re-energised me, genuinely inspiring me to keep going and do my bit to make the world better, not just for women but for the many others who do not see themselves reflected or represented by our current batch of politicians.


I hope when you read her words, you feel this same surge of positivity I did, and will answer Elisabeth's call to embrace the challenge and opportunities ahead, and create a fairer society.

When I was elected in 1981, I did not own a laptop, a tablet or a mobile phone. I had no knowledge of Facebook or Instagram. As an MLC representing a minor party, I had no secretarial assistance. I was entitled to the services from a pool available to all members.


She would come to my office, I would dictate replies to the correspondence I’d received, she would take them down in shorthand, return to the pool to type them up, then return them to me for signature. A situation that would be unthinkable today.


So my first challenge was to organise a support system, initially paying my assistant out of my own salary and relying on Party support for advice on policy and legislation.

I believe I am right in saying that there were more women in NSW Parliament in the 1980’s than there are today, so being a woman was not a challenge in itself, in fact I was supported by women of all political persuasions, we all faced the same problems.

Despite the efforts of women in New South Wales who started the fight for women’s suffrage in 1891, it wasn’t until 1925, that Millicent Preston Stanley was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly. I’m sure you’ve read ‘A Fit Place for Women’, so the history is easily available to you. I can vaguely remember celebrations in England in 1928 when women under 30 were allowed to vote! (Women over 30 were given the vote in 1918).

I hadn’t heard of the Girls in Politics Initiative until I received your email. Obviously it will help, sadly it is not likely to be the answer. For centuries, women have been regarded as second class citizens (with a few regal exceptions). When I was elected in 1981, I was told by a male MLC that the Legislative Council was 'the best men’s club in Sydney', meaning 'don’t you dare spoil it!’ So we all had an uphill battle.


Women will not be attracted to politics until they achieve equality in all aspects of life. In Australia, we still fight for equal pay in many professions, although not in Parliament.

I was a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in the 1980s, and we still haven’t won the battle for equal pay after forty years.

I think the reason that more women are not pre-selected for parliamentary office is the way political parties are structured. Recent events show how branch stacking, factional control and the sad fact that ethical behaviour is abandoned if that enables a party to ‘win’ a seat. A situation that does not appeal to many women who believe in social justice, and a fair and equal society.

As I write this, we have an ex-Prime Minister of Australia stating that restrictions imposed on society to control Covid-19 are creating an economic crisis, therefore they should be abandoned. In short, the value of the contribution many elderly people have made to society is assessed in purely economic terms, if it doesn’t show a profit, then it is of no value.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s , Australia could have followed the teaching of J.M Keynes, but didn’t choose to do so. Australia could have organised the unemployed as F.D Roosevelt did in the United States, paying them reasonable wages, ensuring they were adequately housed with access to education opportunities and health services.

History tells us that the bankers of the day regarded Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, with contempt; he was a ‘communist’, and therefore dangerous.

There are so many books written on this subject, it would be impossible for any budding politician to read them all. But at least we could all be aware that the Thatcher/Reagan policies that led to the recession of 1991 failed; that the pursuit of profit is not a recipe for success. A budget surplus is not the answer. In short we need to re-think our aims, consider what we are trying to achieve and learn from the mistakes that were made in the past.


This is why history is so important, and why it cannot be disregarded.

Politicians in the twenty first century don’t only have to cope with climate change. In fact, the gross distortion of the distribution of wealth created by ‘neo liberalism’, as well as the inevitable consequences of the virus pandemic, mean that history is now more important than ever.

I believe that this situation offers a challenge that all intelligent young women should welcome, and I am sure there must be thousands of young women looking forward to the opportunity to work for change.

Unfortunately, in Australia, we are allowing ourselves to become bogged down in a fruitless debate about face masks, closed borders and the restrictions that are now inevitable if Covid-19 is to be controlled. After only six months, political discussion is taking refuge in the old cross party rivalry and the opportunity for a ‘national approach’ has been lost. Our politicians are not being shown in a good light, there is little to admire in the current situation.

You ask me what I look back on with ‘pride and satisfaction’, a very difficult question to answer, because as I grow older, I remember most vividly the things I have failed to do, and from where I stand, there is little to be proud of.


Politically, I was glad I was a member of parliament when there was debate on industrial relations, when same-sex marriage was on the horizon, when abortion was no longer considered a criminal offence, and birth control techniques were openly discussed.


I also value the insight I was given into the continuing plight of Indigenous Australians, and it is good to see how many writers, musicians, doctors, lawyers and academics are now able to claim their Aboriginal heritage. When I came to Australia in 1965, I was told ‘ the Aborigines were a dying race’, many people I met dismissed them ‘of no importance’. I doubt if any one would dare to express such racist opinions today but that does not mean that the First Nations people do not need more; above all, they need to be honoured for sustaining their languages, their culture and the their knowledge of this unique continent that their forbears have guarded for over 65,000 years.


It is a matter of concern to me that some current politicians still try to avoid the decisive action First Nations people are requesting. Many are happy to ignore the challenges facing many Aboriginal communities.

When I was given my first assignment by the ABC in 1965, I was told I was lucky to be employed, as I was a married woman, previously women had to resign on marriage. I was not allowed to audition to read the news. “Who would listen to the news if it was read by a woman?’

There is one event in my life that I do feel proud of, relating to the soap opera ‘No 96’. It is remembered as the top ranking TV show of the 1970’s for its sex scenes, full frontal nudity and same sex relationships, but there were six older characters who provided less lurid story lines.


I played Lucy Sutcliffe, the long suffering wife of Alf, the whingeing pom, and in episodes devoted to Lucy and her problems, she is to be X-rayed for breast cancer. An episode that went to air on a Friday night ended as Lucy tells Alf that she is afraid. The story continued with the episode shown the following Monday, that got higher ratings than any sporting event that had been broadcast at that time; very exciting for Channel Ten and the producers, Cash Harmon.


What pleased me even more was the news that Lucy’s being found clear of cancer encouraged many other women to avail themselves of this diagnostic tool. Checks for breast cancer increased quite dramatically in the weeks that followed.


It proved, if proof was needed, that a popular TV show had influenced the attitude of the many women who previously been afraid of such tests. To that extent, it was delivering a social ‘good’ using a very human story line in a popular medium.

Another event that relates to my time at the ABC is as the producer of the ‘Learn Indonesian’. A show that was originally intended for Schools Broadcasting after Zara Holt had convinced her husband, Prime Minister Harold Holt, that Asian languages should be part of the curriculum in Australian Schools.


The scripts and teaching methods were devised by the Department of Indonesian Studies at Sydney University. I recorded 15 minute programs using two ex-colleagues from Radio Malaysia, Juanita and James Massang, because of their working knowledge of the language.

When the Schools Division of the ABC decided not to broadcast the programs, the ABC decided they would be broadcast every Friday night, after the 7pm news bulletin. Discs and booklets were available to revise what was being taught on air. Much to the surprise of ABC (and me) was the fact that the programs became very popular, in fact they ran for nearly two years! ABC management entered them for the Japan Prize, and they gained ‘runner up’ status; an honour we had never expected.

At a time when the impact of Covid-19 is increasing, and although in Australia, we have been lucky to have escaped the worst of the pandemic, we have been given the opportunity to re-assess our situation in the world, to look for policies that will create a more stable and equal society, to accept where we have gone wrong.

To look for a new approach that will allow our politicians to be held in high regard, that to be a member of parliament is to be worthy of respect and not just a way of ‘getting rich quick.' It is a matter of concern to many parliamentarians that their chosen profession is falling into disrepute, not only in Australia but around the world.


Our successors could begin by reading ‘history.’ It is only by understanding how and why things went wrong in the past, that it will be possible to do better in the future. Also, learning from history is cheap. The books are available online. It is possible to listen when taking your dog for a walk!


The young women of the 2020’s have the opportunity to turn a global crisis into a global challenge. The history of past civilisations shows what was wrong in the past, what happens to society when apathy, greed and self-interest take over; when to work for the common good is ignored. I hope many young women will rise to the challenge.

My thanks to Dr Kirkby for her sharing these insights and giving me encouragement to continue increasing the visibility of women's stories. I will do what I can to follow in your footsteps and create a more equitable world.

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