‘Share your truth. It is your power’ Grace Tame, Australian of the Year 2021.
I am 84 years old. The first time, I was a young girl visiting my friend’s house to play. She lived on a ‘block’ – a vineyard in the Sunraysia district. It was the picking season and the itinerant workers had come to pick grapes. My friend and I were lying on the floor of her house playing a board game when a picker joined us, lying down beside me. He slid his hand between my legs and moved it up the inside of my thighs. I was startled, said nothing, and slid around the floor trying to disengage him. When I moved, he moved. My friend did not notice, and I said not a word. I just do not remember how I got away, and I did worry for a time that I might have a baby. When that did not happen, I tucked the memory away in my ‘life is curious’ file.
The second time was not so easy to dismiss. My grandfather was baby-sitting and as I moved past him to go to bed, wearing my thin shortie pyjamas, he grabbed my arm, in a vice like grip, and dragged me on to his lap and began to slobber all over my face while he mauled my prepubescent breasts. Then he looked at me and said, ‘Good?’, as though he considered he had initiated me into the pleasures of life. I was revolted. I said not a word. I was afraid if I told my parents I would upset my mother and that my father would kill him. I hated that man and made sure I was never alone with him again.
Recent events have triggered that memory, and I can still see that leering, slobbering, bloated cane-toad-face.
Think about Pin Ups. Betty Grable was the most famously objectified woman in the 1940’s with her million-dollar legs. Nobody saw any harm in her pert, sexy pin-ups to boost the morale of the boys overseas. But such images would morph in the future.
I lived in a Women’s College when I came to Melbourne University to study and as the College was located on a stand-alone triangle of land, we girls were an easy target for peeping-toms peering through the windows. The police would be called, and we regarded it as a bit of a joke. But we were wary. It was not unusual to be touched up on a crowded tram. One day sitting at ‘the pictures’, a man next to me grabbed my leg and started jerking off. I created such a fuss he tore out of the theatre.
It was a ten-minute walk to the university lecture theatres from College and the most convenient path went via building sites. Invariably the tradies would wolf-whistle as you made your way past. The bigger your boobs the louder the whistles. It was a humiliating, embarrassing experience to walk that gauntlet, so we chose to go the long way round. This was the way it was – a way of life.
By then the bombshells were in vogue – Marilyn Monroe, Jane Mansfield, Jane Russell, Diana Dors, Brigitte Bardot, and the famous stripper Carol Doda who edged toward porn. Pin-ups had commonly appeared in male workplaces, on the walls above desks. And the Murdoch press would make a feature of the barely clad voluptuous female on page three.
Jumping ahead, I married, had two children, then we went to America to Stanford University. I did a Masters’ Degree in film and communication studies and never experienced an incident when I felt excluded or disrespected, even though I was some years older than the graduate students. Don, my husband, and I then went to the University of Chicago where I worked alongside militant blacks and others committed to Civil Rights, as a researcher, on a project placing teams of teachers and support staff into ghetto schools. Again, I was fully accepted as a colleague and never put down.
So, I was unprepared for what I found on my return home, but those three years away from Australia had given me the strength to withstand what followed.
I happened to be the only person in the country with a higher degree in film and I wondered what I would do with myself. I saw that La Trobe University was establishing a new School of Education based on Centres of Study, one of which was educational media. I phoned the newly appointed Dean, Ronald Goldman, and to my surprise, he offered me a one-year contract to set up the Media Centre.
I began with great enthusiasm but discovered I was not allowed to teach. Film studies were not considered relevant to the course. What was a young woman doing trying to set up anything, much less a Media Centre in a University in 1970? Cinema Studies and Film Production were not ‘disciplines’ worthy of study. Where was the body of knowledge, the academic journals? Had I bought my degree in America? Why wasn’t I at home in the kitchen and looking after my children?
There was no girls’ club for me; it was five years before International Women’s Year. So, every meeting I attended to discuss policy, finances, or academic studies, I was the only woman in the room. I was sneered at and when I stood my ground, I was labelled aggressive, and all the epithets to match.
But students came to see me and asked for me to teach.
Ronald Goldman’s successor was a former Jesuit and a moral philosopher who saw me as a canker in the institution. All my initiatives, which might be commended now, were considered by the new Dean to be out of step with the purpose of an Education School in a University. He wanted all film courses out of the School.
To aggravate my position further, I published a book with Hilary McPhee, called Media She, which was an expose of the treatment of women by the media. These were the days when it was legal to specify gender and age in job advertisements. So, you got job adverts like the following.
‘Wanted, Special Girl Friday, bright young bird, aged between 20-35, who likes doing lots of interesting things. Put on a pretty face and apply as our receptionist, telephonist, and coffee girl. Charming young boss and lots of fringe benefits. You will need to be well groomed and efficient.’
I had two young male technicians working in the Media Centre who were happy to be photographed posing, like the images taken from women’s magazines, in various states of undress, to feature in Media She. I wanted to show what an absurd proposition it was when men were used as commodities in the way women were commonly used. The book got national media attention and I got a reputation as a trouble- maker.
Ronald Goldman put me up for promotion to a Chair and the selection committee split in two camps. My nemesis prevailed. The Committee considered, after ‘much careful scrutiny’, that my work was not up to academic scratch. It had been assessed by Professor Henry Mayer, the media guru of the time, but also a man I had challenged personally for representing the Nine Network as a paid consultant at the public television license renewal hearings. He was enraged by my comments, foaming and spitting at the mouth, reminiscent of my grandfather many years before.
I knew I had to leave La Trobe University. Fortunately, an opportunity struck. Another maverick, Bruce Gyngell, Chairman of the newly established Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, invited me to Chair the Committee establishing Children’s Program Standards. That appointment changed my career direction.
But a different battle began. I was the voice and champion of reform of both the Children’s Television Standards and quotas, for the production of children’s programs. But no one was going to tell Kerry Packer what he could and could not do. He had me in his sights. When I was subsequently chosen by Norman Lacy, the Minister for the Arts in Victoria, to advise him on setting up the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, and I became its Founding Director Packer dispatched a young Jennifer Byrne to do a hatchet job on my ‘conflict of interest’ for The Sunday Program. Through Nine Network Television and Packer’s Bulletin magazine the attack was merciless.
I did think, walking up my drive at night, that I might be knee-capped. But I survived in both roles and over the following twenty years kick-started an Australian international children’s television production industry with programs such as Winners, Round the Twist, and Lift Off.
Another leap forward. In 1995 I ran, in Melbourne, a successful World Summit on children and media, with delegates from 70 countries attending, to discuss the global issues facing the production of children’s programming. There was a small group of self-serving producers who decided I had become way too big for my boots. They moved on two main fronts, calling for a review of the ACTF and informing buyers at MIP TV in Cannes that the Foundation was going to be closed for misappropriation of Government funds. When the push for a Review failed, the malcontents pursued an underhanded approach.
Ross Coultard, from the Nine Network’s Sunday Program, approached the ACTF with a list of 128 questions asking about every aspect of the Foundation’s operation. The same questions did the rounds of the Press gallery, sent anonymously. The search for scandal was thorough. All questions were answered in writing. Coultard responded with a letter saying, ‘Quite frankly I don’t think that it would be fair to air grievances that are, we suspect, the product of an aggressive management style at ACTF than any impropriety’. There it was again, that word ‘aggressive’. I was seen as ‘unwomanly’.
And the ‘men of courage’ behind this assault on me, those weak, opportunistic, incompetents, continued to peddle their mediocrity. Do I know who they are? Of course, I do.
While I have been subjected to discrimination, abuse, and harassment by men throughout my career, that is not the full story. Through the decades I have been supported by many men; my husband, and countless, talented, creative, and visionary men who worked with me and stood by me.
So, what is going on in Canberra? In large part, there is a severe backlash by men against the rising tide of capable women.
George Megalogenis, (The Age, March 27), points out women first outnumbered men in the professions in May 2004; they overtook the number of tradesmen and technicians in May 2015; and now women working in community and personal services outnumber male labourers. ‘While our economy and society rely on the brainpower and care of women, 60 per cent of the managers in the country are still men’.
Women have been raped, slapped, and ignored through time. They have had enough. It is an adjustment the men in the citadel of power are struggling to grasp, and the snivelling, blathering Prime Minister is chief among them.
I say, ‘Go Grace, you have a year to make your case, and Go Brittney, the force is now with you.’ But we will get nowhere with cultural change until we understand the impact from having sexualized every part of our lives in a marketing free for all across decades. Eleven-year-olds discuss orgasms and many young people today, especially threatened ambitious males, do not know how to relate as civilised human beings.
In 1934, before I was born, Cole Porter wrote these lyrics to the musical Anything Goes.
‘In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows.
That’s what has been happening in Canberra.