Film

The documentary Brazen Hussies vividly excavates the crucial, complex history of the Australian women’s liberation movement. By Lisa Radford.

Brazen Hussies

Archival still from Brazen Hussies.
Credit: Supplied

In 2017, a three-minute teaser for Brazen Hussies was released to raise funds for the production. With a bassy surf rock beat over sassy edits of historical documents, the video showed archival footage of a woman smiling proudly: “What you’re seeing is a revolution in the making.”

I am a product of the ’70s. A working-class woman, and the first in my family to go to university, I am one of many who benefited from the pioneering work documented in Brazen Hussies. These predecessors paved the path for me to play soccer, finish high school, and access reproductive rights and equal pay. It’s a history hidden in archives and oral narratives, personal photo collections and lesser-known books, journal articles and underfunded local history museums. It is also a disputed history, dominated by power imbalances underpinned by colonisation and racism.

Directed by Catherine Dwyer, Brazen Hussies was begun in 2015 and completed in the rolling lockdowns of the pandemic. Dwyer recently returned to Melbourne from New York, where she worked on activist and filmmaker Mary Dore’s 2014 documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which looks at the birth of the women’s liberation movement in the United States during the 1960s.

Unless these stories are retold, they are at risk of being lost. Brazen Hussies documents the emergence of the Australian women’s liberation movement in 1965-1975, an era that overlaps with Gough Whitlam’s progressive federal government.

It’s a confronting, dumbfounding, maddening and moving story. There’s a sense that we are only skimming the surface of sexual politics, gender identity, the links between class, race and colonialism – what we might now refer to as intersectionality – and their impact on, or omissions from, the movement.

The film follows the establishment of consciousness-raising groups in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, tracing how they led to fertile collaborations. Margot Nash and Robin Laurie’s meeting at La Mama, for example, led to the creation of Anarcho Surrealist Insurrectionary Feminists, and other activist organisations such as the Women’s Liberation Army and the Women’s Electoral Lobby, which enabled functional public institutions and governance for single mothers and others in crisis.

It opens with a montage of how women were represented by television and film in the 1950s, and quickly shifts to news footage from 1965 Queensland, where Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to a bar-rail to protest against their exclusion from public bars. The carefully selected soundtrack carries us along with rock, pop, punk, folk, blues — music as diverse as the women represented and the conflicts that emerged. This was a movement that re-formatted the political fact of the time, summed up by Thornton: “Women weren’t allowed in public life.”

The film briefly touches on the interplay between patriarchy and capitalism, and the phenomenon of “white feminism”. Aboriginal women such as Pat O’Shane called out the deeply embedded racism of a movement that failed to see the huge gulf between the experiences of white and Indigenous women. We hear a young Aboriginal woman note: “We can’t afford to educate white people at the moment, we are too busy trying to educate our own.”

Anne Summers comments that this era was a roller-coaster of learning. This idea unfolds in the materiality of quick edits and montages that create image-based relationships between then and now. One fascinating aspect is ASIO’s archived footage. As Alva Geike observes, the intelligence was more than likely gathered by men in “dusty pink suits”. While The O’Kaysions’ “I’m a Girl Watcher” subversively plays over the footage, ASIO’s mandate is typed on screen: “The Women’s Liberation (Army) is a subversive movement. It is not concerned with political subversion, but with subversion on a higher level, the destruction of the nuclear family.”

This isn’t simply a historical account of liberation. Ahistorical narratives run the risk of reinforcing and replicating power structures, undermining the social contract. In an attempt to circumvent this, Brazen Hussies acknowledges that transgender and intersex people were not even discussed back then. It’s a history that reminds us that there are many more yet to be excavated. Archives are riddled with conflict and contradictions, and need to be re-examined, rearranged and rethought in order to question lazy binary representations, so they are very suited to filmic narratives – such as Brazen Hussies – that can rearrange time.

In Australia, retelling history can be a revolutionary project, and this award-winning documentary crucially re-presents a revolutionary time. This act of collectivity – fraught and fragile as it is – embodies both the production of the film and the movement it depicts. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2020 as "Women of the revolution".

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Lisa Radford is an artist who writes and teaches. She currently lectures in painting at the VCA, University of Melbourne.