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Legacies that carry us forward

  • 15 October 2020
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.

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