Legacies that carry us forward

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Three people died within ten days of each other in the latter part of September who have gifted great legacies that call for reflection. I find reason to bring them together here in an attempt to highlight the threads that bind them; those of women of influence. Their stories are undoubtedly varied, yet they have all contributed to the broader advancement of women and ultimately, people.

Archival photo of Helen Reddy singing (David Redfern/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or ‘The Notorious RBG’ as she is lovingly referred to after influential rapper Biggie Smalls, also from her place of birth Brooklyn, may seem oddly placed next to Susan Ryan and Helen Reddy. Yet, if we resist the tendency to compare, quantify and rank and instead focus on what each of these women stood for and the qualities that they demonstrated, we can acknowledge them for the various parts they have played in a much larger story at a critical time in global history.

Australian-born Helen Reddy wrote Grammy award-winning ‘I Am Woman’ (1971), a song that has reached the ears and ideas of people across the world. In archival footage, Helen says, ‘I was looking for songs that would reflect a change in my consciousness… and I realised that I was going to have to write the song’. The male interviewer follows up with a small slice of stereotyping: ‘When one thinks of woman one thinks of the words warm, placid, kind and that kind of thing. The words of your song “I Am Woman” seem to counteract that’.

Helen jumps in: ‘We should be talking about human qualities. Ah, would it be wrong to describe a man as being tender? I think a tender man would be wonderful. And I think that strength and tenderness are not opposites and both qualities can coexist side by side in the one human being…’. Her succinct, direct messaging resonates today; a reminder that we have come a long way, yet still have a way to go, as fundamentals such as equal pay and universal childcare remain at a dream’s length.

It was around this time, between 1971 and 1976, that RBG succeeded in arguing sex discrimination cases that would lead to the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment being extended to women and the declaration of a suite of discriminatory laws as unconstitutional. In 1972 she became the founder and general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project and within just two years, the project had participated in nearly 300 gender discrimination cases, RBG winning five before the Supreme Court.

A quirk of RBG was her unlikely friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. They were on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet able to establish a friendship based on a mutual love of opera, which also led to the creation of an opera entitled Ginsberg/Scalia. While she was a Visiting Fellow at Stanford University, she was asked what it means to lead a meaningful life, to which she responded ‘It means doing something outside yourself’. Watching footage of RBG shows a fearless iconoclast, with quick wit and enduring humility.  

 

'Knowing our herstories in the mix of all stories, the seeds that have already been planted, equips us to give life to more equal futures.'

 

In the mid-1970s, Susan Ryan made history in Australia by becoming the first female Labor Senator; quite literally, the only woman in the room. She was instrumental in the Sex Discrimination Act (1984), the first of its kind in Australia. While it contained exemptions, Ryan had gone for the ‘better something than nothing’ approach. With the framework in place, it went on to further positive reforms, and while still grossly under-resourced, it stands today.

In her last recorded speech in December last year, Susan shares an energy and confidence as she reflects on the politic of the time.

When researching this piece the discovery of the YouTube account ‘Feminism Debunked’, which refers to Susan as someone who wanted ‘special treatment’ for women, was a further reminder as to why the equality struggle continues for women as well as across race, class and gender lines more broadly. There lies the call for the continued need to build universal understanding that affirmative action for disadvantaged groups is not a form of oppression towards dominant groups, and in fact, has societal-wide benefits.

I am reminded too of the Australian-American-centrism of my own awareness of who makes a difference and the many other women across the globe who I have no knowledge of, yet who unequivocally mentor, inspire and give strength; that the importance of every contribution cannot be understated. The cycle goes on. Knowing our herstories in the mix of all stories, the seeds that have already been planted, equips us to give life to more equal futures. This is not just a woman thing and likewise, this is an invitation for all humans to both carry and be carried forward by these legacies.

 

 

Bree Alexander's words have appeared with Enchanting Verses, Westerly Magazine and Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Under pseudonym Lika Posamari, she was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize 2018 (NTEU category) and published a poetry chapbook The Eye as it Inhales Onions.

Main image: Archival photo of Helen Reddy singing (David Redfern/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Bree Alexander, RBG, Helen Reddy, Susan Ryan, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, feminism

 

 

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Existing comments

These three women found success in very different careers and their talent in each of their endeavours shone through. What they had in common: a certain fearlessness. RBG, with her tiny, bird-like persona and fierce, concentrated eye; Helen, with her smooth vocals and confronting lyrics; Susan, making her purposeful way in a male-dominated world of politics. Truly, gifted human beings.
Pam | 15 October 2020


I am Christian. Gender specification unnecessary.
AO | 15 October 2020


I think Helen Reddy hit the nail on the head when she said tenderness was not necessarily unmanly and it is incredibly stupid for anyone to think so. Helen was physically abused on a number of occasions and she had to get out of a couple of dreadful relationships quick smart. You also banged the nail squarely yourself when you said it's not just about women.
Edward Fido | 15 October 2020


...Re gender: On the other hand I don't believe women are entitled to equal pay rights. I believe, in all professions, women are entitled to always be payed MORE than their male colleagues.
AO | 16 October 2020


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