Celebrating the women that make change
There are battles for women that are still worth fighting... community workers rally for equal pay in Civic last year. Photo: Graham Tidy
I was a young middle-class mum reporting for a daily broadsheet when I first heard of Teresa Savage.
She and her partner Louise Marsden had three small children and were doing battle with a private health insurer, which had refused to insure that family just as they would insure mine.
The crime against private health insurance rules and regulations leading to the refusal to insure? The two parents were lesbians.
The late Edna Ryan. Photo: Fairfax Photo Library
To be honest, at the time, I didn’t know too many gay families. The ones I did know shared with me what seemed like fascinating tales of conception. It all seemed a lot more complicated than what I’d needed to do to get knocked up. A passionate shag with an eye on the calendar and my vaginal mucus compared to semen syringes and turkey basters. That experience also seemed like a lot less fun, although I am now enjoying the freedom from calendars.
Nevertheless, Teresa and Louise soldiered on. I ended up writing a story about what seemed like completely outrageous discrimination which was published on page one of the Sydney Morning Herald. The private health insurer backed right off and today families of all kinds are able to get that kind of health insurance. Even my adult kids can still be insured provided they are still studying.
Over the years, I became quite friendly with Teresa and Louise. They had three kids. So did we. The kids became friendly. Their eldest started teaching where I teach. He is a clever and lovely young man and students adore him.
I’m writing about Teresa because we’ve bobbed up in each other’s lives for 30 years and did it again last Friday night. She was awarded the top honour in the Edna Ryan awards.
Edna Ryan, a life long campaigner for equal pay and equal rights, died 15 years ago and to commemorate her actions, each year women whose activities have advanced the cause of women are recognised in a ceremony ending with the award to the Grand Stirrer, for “inciting others to challenge the status quo”. This year, that award went to Teresa Savage.
I discovered things about her I’d never known. She started a lesbian mothers’ group when her kids were tiny. She’s an ambassador for ACON’s anti-violence project. I knew she was a senior NSW public servant but I didn’t know she spent some of her time agitating for more women at senior levels (we all need to do this, people). Now she has started an excellent web-based activist group of which I am a little bit jealous. It is called 55Uppitty, to record the history of women involved in lesbian feminist culture. I want one of those to record the history of straight feminists too. As Teresa says: “Age doesn’t make us irrelevant, asexual, harmless, styleless, conservative, invisible or insignificant.”
As I was reading through the history of the Ednas, I came across an article written by former Canberra Times journalist Danielle Cronin, who reported that in 2006, Nationals senator Fiona Nash declined her award for her role in the push to end the then Federal Health Minister's veto over access to RU-486. I guess it would have drawn even more attention to the fact that the push was cross-party. It truly was a work of feminist collaboration.
This year, the winners were not political in what you would describe as capital P politics. It was more along the lines of the kinds of politics which drives our lives every day: Leah Weber, part of Women Say Something, who won her award for community activism and who danced in a politician’s office to make her warm but serious point about equal pay; Sylvia Kinder, who won her award for mentoring other women; and who was one of the first Australians to try to teach an analysis of sexism in the media; Jan McDonald, active in campaigning against domestic violence in the NSW Hunter Valley and, of course, more broadly.
I won an Edna last Friday for consistent promotion of women’s interests in the media. I’m pretty sure it’s the only award I’ve ever won for journalism in my life (although I did make a state shortlist for the Walkleys 16 years ago when I found that Helen Garner had invented some aspects of her book The First Stone).
I’m not a big awards person because I think accepting them makes you a little beholden to whomsoever is handing out those awards. My mum and dad were big on the whole Queen’s Honours thing (I’m sure this was a function of what I now describe as ‘migrant madness’, a syndrome whereby recent citizens try to over-identify with their new home) and when I was a girl, it was certainly my aim to get one of those. Since my parents died before that was possible, I’ve never given it a second thought.
Somehow I don’t think they would have quite got the import of an Edna. Or even have been comfortable with the idea that their daughter uses the word vagina in public every second week. And may have even felt anxious about me writing endlessly about abortion and childcare and reproductive rights.
But they would have been grateful that someone honoured their offspring. And so am I.