Biography, politics and passion: women who change policy

International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on or around 8th March. In 2015 Kathy Landvogt, head ofGood Shepherd’s WRAP (Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy) Centre, attended an event reflecting on two questions: “What took you into a career in politics?” and “What do we need to do next to further women’s equality?” Organised by the Member for Bentleigh Nick Staikos, three eminent former politicians – Kay Setches, Janice Munt and the late Joan Kirner – took us back to darker days when many of the gains for women’s equality were yet to be won, and urged us to keep working for equality.

 Kay Setches grew up in Collingwood – “that wonderful place of violence and community” as she said - in the 1940’s and 50’s. She went to St Joseph’s Primary school, and later to the Collingwood School of Domestic Arts, a forerunner of present-day Collingwood College. In that institution she did four periods a week of Laundry and one period of Science. The School of Domestic Arts did not think girls required Matriculation.

“The future is always informed by the past,” Kay said. “I have seen so much change.”

Like other poor inner city areas, Collingwood experienced great upheaval in the 1960’s. Kay witnessed her neighbourhood razed to the ground, the so-called slums replaced by public housing flats. It was public policy with a reformist heart but, blinded by its own good intentions, failed to see that along with the physical infrastructure – the homes, backyards, laneways, shops, workshops and gathering places – the human infrastructure of community was also being demolished.

This sense of place, of community, was one of the threads in Kay’s narrative. Life is defined by where you live. Kay moved away like so many others, scattered to the outer suburbs, but took with her that understanding that public policy matters. Good, bad, or somewhere in between, policy impacts most on those with least power.

Life is also defined by work. Kay worked first as a shop assistant in Georges, Collins Street, serving Melbourne’s wealthy. The contrast with her lived experience must have left its mark. Two momentous and lifelong commitments began in the 1970’s: she joined the Labor Party and she started volunteering her weekends at a women’s refuge.

At Maroondah Halfway House, helping women and their children flee from violent husbands, she realised that a better response was needed than saving women one by one. “To see women with their children, with no money, with nowhere to go, that was a galvanising moment for me to get into politics,” she said. Kay saw that this problem needed a political solution; it needed economic, cultural and social solutions. And it still does. For Kay, reflecting on these decades and her political experiences since confirmed the analysis that we live in an absolute patriarchy.

“You may not think that we do. You may not see that we do. You may not care that we do. But we do.” Look at who holds the power, she urged us. In banks, in mining, in the media, in almost every large organisation, wherever you look there is a dearth of women in positions of power. “That is because no one thinks that what women have to offer is meritorious,” she said.

Yet she did not leave us in the doldrums but with a solution: structural change engineered from the bottom up. When we have women in places of power they change the rules, the decisions, the laws. It is clear that structural change relies on policy: in the previous four years Victoria had slid from 48% to 28% of women on boards of public bodies and statutory organisations, because the political will was not there.

“And that struggle to get power – the power men hold – is like a hand-to-hand struggle for any woman reformer,” she proclaimed. Kay’s hopeful, energetic, and challenging assertion that “you can change the world with four women,” reinforced the message that a small group of women, well-organised, and in absolute solidarity, can effect change.

Another of those woman reformers is Janice Munt.

Janice had a fascinating story to tell about the influences of family and friendship on her politicisation. Coming from a public housing estate the odds were heavily against her entering public life, but as a teen she made friends with a girl from a private school, drawn together by common values. That girl was Sue Hawke, and she was welcomed into the Hawke household where she was suddenly immersed in the world of trade union politics and the Labor Party.

Biography had a powerful influence in other ways too. Janice’s father worked loyally all his life for an employer who sacked him just before his retirement. This meant he left without any superannuation. Upholding the rights of employees to fair treatment became part of Janice’s DNA.

Later, as a young mother, Janice had a child who needed paediatric hospital care. Unfortunately it was the 1990’s, the era of the massive Kennett cuts to health. There were no cleaners and few nurses in the ward so Janice stayed in the hospital, cleaned the ward, and cared for the baby.

These experiences taught her, just as Kay’s did, that laws, regulations, and public policies have a profound impact on ordinary peoples’ wellbeing and opportunities.

A passion for social justice also came early to Joan Kirner.

Asked how she got into politics, Joan said firmly that “everyone is political,” whether they acknowledge it or not. Her own social justice convictions came from her tradesman father. From her mother she learned that being a girl should not stand in the way of achievement. This belief did not change the fact that, after earning a university degree and commencing her teaching career, she had to resign from teaching when she married. Those were the days when married women in the workforce were thought to be taking a job away from the male breadwinner.

As for entering ‘party’ politics, Joan credited being part of an organisation – the Federation of State Schools' Parents Clubs – with providing that opportunity. Organisations enable an individual to join with others to make a difference.

The fight for women’s equality is ongoing. Joan reminded us that the gender pay gap is still hovering around 18%. Worse, if the public service (an employer with relatively high gender equity) is removed from the data, that figure is 38%. As an educator Joan saw that one important input is in how we work with girls, and boys, to ensure that girls have a sense of self-efficacy and empowerment. If they think ‘I can do it,’ the battle is half won.

“We have an obligation to do this,” said Joan, “but never by ourselves.” The other part of the answer is in working together.

“I would not have survived politically without the support of other women,” says Joan. ”I can’t think of a thing I achieved by myself. Having like-minded feminists, building up that team… that has made the difference.” The origin of EMILY’s List, a women’s organisation Joan co-founded in 1996 that is dedicated to supporting other women into parliament, sprang from this solidarity.

There are undoubtedly tough times for women in politics. What keeps them going? As Joan summed up: “It is a sense of social justice and fairness that keeps us going. That and supporting each other in tough times.”

While biography is clearly an influence on choosing a political life, critically each of these women also dedicated their passion to something greater than themselves: to the common good and to a world where women are equal with men. As Joan urged, “If you have a passion, go for it!”

Joan Kirner was MLC for Melbourne West 1982-1988; MLA for Williamstown 1988-1994; Dep. Premier 1989-90; Premier 1990-92; Minister for Women's Affairs 1990-92; Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands 1985-88; Minister for Education 1988-90; Minister for Ethnic Affairs 1990-91. Joan was a well-known figure in Australian politics, as the first Victorian woman Premier and an active community leader. She continued to publicly advocate for social justice and to mentor and support others with as much passion as ever through her advancing years and right up until her death.

Janice Munt was MLA for Mordialloc 2002-2010. She is currently an advisor to Fiona Richardson MP (Minister for Women and Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence).

Kay Setches was MLA for Ringwood 1982-1992; Minister for Conservation, Forests and Land 1988-90; Minister for Community Services 1990-92; Minister Responsible for Child Care 1991-92.