‘Brazen Hussies’ celebrates the Women’s Liberation Movement

The ABC will air an Australian documentary celebrating the legacy of the bold women of the Women’s Liberation Movement who re-ignited the feminist revolution in Australia.

Brazen Hussies is a brilliant journey through the Women’s Liberation movement and a timely reminder that equality for women is still a long way off.

The film is narrated by actor Sigrid Thornton, who has a very personal connection to the movement. In 1965 her mother Merle Thornton took a stand against a law in Queensland which dictated it was illegal for women to drink in a public bar with men. Merle and her friend Rosalie Bogner highlighted the discrimination by chaining themselves to the bar of Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel.

Speaking today Merle shares how men felt threatened by the proposition that women would be allowed to drink in the same space. In archival footage Queensland’s then Minister for Justice, Peter Delamothe voices the thinking of the time.

“In my view, and the view of most thinking males, we still regard them as the gentler sex, and we should protect.” Delamothe tells an interviewer. Who in turns asks when women won’t need to be protected? The Minister laughs and says in response “I don’t think ever”.

The flashback to the mid 1960’s kicks off a fascinating documentary that cleverly juxtaposes archival footage, fresh interviews and an amazing soundtrack. The film documents how women from different background came together to fight for equality.

Hearing women who are now in their later years recall a time when they stood up and said “no more”, you’re forced to ask why sixty years later – we’re still having some of the same conversations. Certainly the statements made by some of them men in the documentary would never been heard today, but the underlying sentiments are shockingly still with us.

Among the featured interviews are Merle Thornton, Martha Ansara, Shirley Castley, Margot Nash, Lilla Watson, Gillian Leahy, Iola Mathews, Eva Cox, Alva Geikie, Jeni Thornley, Anne Summers, Pat O’Shane, Elizabeth Reid, Sue Jackson, Biff Ward, Rosemary West, Robin Laurie, Sarah Dowse, Suzanne Bellamy, Barbara Creed, Kate Jennings and Daniela Torsh.

To get the message across there are protests, theatre groups, film festivals, flyers and underground papers, provocative protests and passionate speeches. Today’s activism of online petitions and social media photo frames seems incredibly pathetic by comparison.

The journey becomes more serious though when it’s revealed the ASIO spent a great amount of time documenting, tracking and tracing the women calling for equality. In one of the films most eye-opening segments, footage – that has now been made public – shows the security agency filming activists as they protest.

One of the big challenges the Women’s Liberation Movement faced within itself was recognising lesbians. As the women fought against discrimination they had to also look at discrimination within their own ranks, against lesbians, against indigenous women, and other people of colour.

Charting health care, the sexual revolution, abortion rights, equal pay, unionism, university campuses, activism and politics – Brazen Hussies covers a lot of territory and is compulsory viewing.

Filmmakers address gender diversity and potential triggers 

The filmmakers have acknowledged that some of the language reflects the attitudes of the time and this may be difficult for transgender, gender diverse and non-binary viewers to watch.

“While we have tried to stay true to the history of the movement and the social context in which it arose, the filmmakers would like to support our gender diverse community by stating that genitals do not equal gender, and that not all women menstruate, or procreate.” the producers and director said in a statement.

“We have included archival footage that references these body parts or bodily functions, because it was a critical aspect of the Women’s Liberation Movement – during a much more gender polarised time – to confront the cultural taboo of cis women talking openly and publicly about their bodies and experiences.

“We wish to acknowledge that trans, gender diverse and non-binary people have always existed. We celebrate the activism of their community in breaking through the cultural norms that seek to erase them, and for their continuing work in normalising their lived experience of gender. We do not document these issues in the film as the visible emergence of the trans rights movement in Australia came after the time period we cover.

“Globally, trans, gender diverse and non-binary people are subject to harassment, violence and murder on a daily basis simply for being who they are. We do not endorse transphobia or vilification of any kind.” the filmmakers said.

Brazen Hussies also discusses potentially upsetting issues such as forced adoption, abortion, family violence and also rape, via first-hand accounts from interviewees as well as discussion by activists who were advocating on these issues during the Women’s Liberation era.

Tune in at 8.30pm on Monday 5th April 2021 to watch the documentary or look out for it on iView. 

Graeme Watson   

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