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Monday’s March 4 Justice against the sexual abuse and harassment of women sent a powerful message. But for many long-term activists there is also a feeling of disbelief and despair that the same battles are still being fought. By Jane Caro.

Women’s March 4 Justice

A protester at the Sydney Women’s March 4 Justice rally on Monday.
Credit: Steven Saphore / AFP

There’s a protest sign I identify with whenever, at the ripe old age of 63, I find myself marching in the streets. It reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit!” or some variation thereof. On Monday, March 15, at the Women’s March 4 Justice outside Parliament House in Canberra, I saw many such signs and sighed in solidarity with the women of my vintage waving them. There were many signs that were much wittier. Like the naked Medusa holding a man’s decapitated head alongside the words: “Be grateful we only want justice not revenge.” But it’s always the weariness of the long-term protester that resonates with me.

I went to my first protest march in 1972. It was a school students’ strike and I was 15. A few of us skived off from Forest High and caught a bus and a train to the steps of Town Hall in Sydney’s centre. We’d been sternly warned at school assembly that dire consequences awaited any student who attended. Nothing could have been more of an incentive. My friends and I took off the minute the assembly ended. We reassured one another: How would anyone find out?

We would probably have got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for my life-long propensity for showing off. After an hour or so chanting: “What do we want? School students’ rights. When do we want them? Now!” we milled around the Town Hall not really listening to the speakers. I am ashamed to confess I had no idea exactly what students’ rights we were demanding, I just wanted to be part of the ’70s zeitgeist of the moratorium marches, women’s lib protests and university sit-ins that filled our nightly news. I got my wish and then some.

Around the family dinner table that night, trying not to look too interested when ABC News began reporting on the school students’ strike, the TV screen suddenly filled with smoke. As it cleared, my face appeared, insolently blowing cigarette smoke directly into the camera. I have never been so comprehensively and publicly sprung – before or since. Not only for demonstrating and wagging school, but also for smoking. I have since given up the latter but not the former.

For much of the ’70s and into the early ’80s, I attended many demonstrations, including the yearly Reclaim the Night marches while at university. My last hurrah, or so I thought, was protesting against Jerry Falwell Sr, televangelist and leader of the conservative American political organisation Moral Majority, when he visited Australia. I had matured since the school students’ strike, and knew what I was protesting about by then – the right of women to be free, equal and safe.

By the mid-’80s, I hung up my marching boots, I imagined forever. It wasn’t that I thought all our problems had been solved, but I was convinced that progress – especially for women’s rights – was inevitable. And as such I no longer needed to push so hard or so publicly.

Given the signs at the Women’s March 4 Justice this week, I was not alone in this misguided belief. And I am also not alone in my shock that we seem to have gone so far backwards so quickly.

I was struck by the crowd at the Canberra protest – not just its size but its diversity too. When I was young, most of my fellow marchers were also young. Most of us were white, female and university students. Ten per cent of Australians went to university in the ’70s – it’s now 30 per cent – and it’s safe to say we were very middle class, despite our politics being so “right on”.

On Monday, though, the diversity of age – from children to old stagers such as me – gender, ethnic background and class was noticeable; there were people with disabilities, and marchers from a wide range of political perspectives. The attendees were far more representative of Australia than my fellow marchers back in the day. A stream of people dressed in black made their way towards Parliament House from all corners of our national capital and country. Many, including me, had come from interstate. It was exciting and energising. Due to security, we were limited to standing on the lawn in front of what speaker Virginia Haussegger called “our house”. There were 12 speakers in all, as varied as the crowd. Each one articulated our rage, our solidarity and our demands in her own way.

“This event happened because, while there are many asks, the main one is simply for the government to do better,” fellow protester Sarah Moran told me. Rape survivor Saxon Mullins echoed this as she addressed the crowd gathered on the Parliament House lawn, telling Australia’s political leaders, “Your avoidance isn’t good enough anymore.”

It is estimated that some 100,000 people around the country marched on Monday. We were united in our fury about the specific allegations about sexual harassment, abuse and assault focused on our national parliament, but our anger was broader than that.

We were driven to protest because this government, in particular, simply refuses to see women. Our safety is ignored. Our rights are ignored. Our greater vulnerability to poverty is ignored. And the hit women have disproportionately taken during this pandemic has been comprehensively ignored. Whatever our age, we have learnt from those peace-marchers and women’s libbers back in the day: We will not go quietly. We will force you to see us, even as you turn away.

“I spent a long time staring at the grass thinking about how many times I have stood here demanding change,” protester Amy Haddad said on Monday. “But this felt different. The diversity in the crowd, the call for intersectional responses, the voices across generations. I don’t think it was said as plainly but it was clear – they would be foolish to ignore us.”

It was the surprise appearance of Brittany Higgins, the courageous young woman whose allegation of being raped by a colleague in then Defence Industry minister’s office lit the fuse of female rage, that was the highlight of the day. She was introduced by journalist and broadcaster Lisa Wilkinson. Higgins spoke with great force and dignity about her experience in this place, her place of work. It was particularly moving when she told us how betrayed she had felt by the people she worked for – people she had idolised – when they reacted to her traumatic experience as a political problem to be managed and minimised.

“As an older woman I was shocked at how young Brittany was,” said Lisa Bryant, a long-time advocate for early childhood education and care. “Surely as a country we can agree to protect our young?”

I think this sense that our daughters are as vulnerable as we once were – and, if the statistics on rates of sexual abuse in aged care are accurate, may yet be again – is another reason so many of us are back waving our placards.

However, there is something else motivating us all that many men, particularly those in power, miss. When Australian of the Year and #LetHerSpeak founder Grace Tame tells her story, when Brittany Higgins and Saxon Mullins tell theirs, when all the multitudes of women who have come forward since Me Too to share their suffering at the hands of men speak, they tell our story. And every time they do, they pass on some of their courage. “Being able to feel the anger of so many other women in the crowd helped me to lose some of the shame I carry about my own sexual assaults,” Lisa Bryant said. “Maybe, just maybe, I could become angry too.”

Our prime minister’s response to the outpouring of anger, solidarity, grief and hope expressed with such passion and conviction on his doorstep was to remind the marchers to feel grateful that we could protest safely in this country, without fear of being shot. “Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country,” he told parliament on Monday. The response to his words has been universally negative. Women feel, yet again, unheard. We do not feel grateful for the right to protest, or for the fact that we can do so without fearing for our lives. That was not the point. The point is that women should feel safe everywhere, and not just safe from bullets but from sexual humiliation, harassment, assault, domestic violence, coercive control, gaslighting, systemic discrimination, greater vulnerability to poverty, getting paid less for the same work and being belittled, dismissed, trivialised and ignored.

On Monday, on the Parliament House lawn, the strains of “I Am Woman” rang out. Yes, we are angry; yes, we are deeply offended and upset by the lack of attention paid by those in power to the suffering of so many women and girls. But we are also strong. We are invincible. And it was good to remember that is as much a constant as the misogyny and sexism we face.

Wendy McCarthy AO, who has been “fighting this shit” even longer than I have, described the protest as “a perfect day to inspire us and to follow the late, great Susan Ryan’s advice to just keep going…

“Women must still march, always march. Everything and nothing changes.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Time marches on".

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Jane Caro is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and documentary maker.