Women’s leadership takes a front seat at the museum
For two days in the first week of December this year, over ninety delegates listened, debated and argued as the Women, Leadership and Democracy in Australia conference unfolded at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Co-hosted by the museum and the University of Melbourne, the conference showcased the diversity of research on women’s leadership in Australian society since 1900.
In an inspiring and at times amusing opening address, Governor-General Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC spoke of the women who had inspired her throughout her life, as well as her belief in the women of today and of the importance of the museum’s work in telling the stories of women leaders from all walks of life. She was followed by Professor Amanda Sinclair, from the University of Melbourne, who advocates a completely different conceptualisation of the notion of leadership - one from a feminist perspective which doesn’t just ‘fit’ women in, but builds notions of power, sex and gender into our understandings of leadership. Professor Kim Rubenstein, from the Australian National University, then discussed the work of trailblazing women lawyers, considering how they have used their legal training to political effect and as a form of leadership.
Over forty other presentations covered a large range of subjects and presenters told many stories of unknown but inspiring women leaders. One of these is Indigenous psychologist Pat Dudgeon, from the University of Western Australia, who talked about Aboriginal women’s perspectives on leadership, and highlighted the role of three Indigenous women leaders from Western Australia. Donna Benjamin inspired everyone with the story of her desire to make the Louisa Lawson journal The Dawn more accessible to all researchers and historians. She personally initiated and ran a fund-raising scheme that has enabled the National Library of Australia to undertake the costly exercise of digitising the journal. The Dawn will be available to researchers in 2012 on the NLA website. Other speakers covered women’s roles in international advocacy, and the Australian National University’s Susan Harris Rimmer implored women leaders to claim their successes, because the lack of self-promotion by many successful women makes it difficult to track just what they have achieved.
Sessions on women leaders in journalism, politics, architecture, the environment, policing, the church, the academy, the arts and in community advocacy were as enthralling as they were informative. The museum’s historians Michael Richards, Libby Stewart and Barry York presented papers on various aspects of women leaders and their representation in museums, including a discussion of the material culture of women’s leadership. Delegates were also fortunate to witness a broadcasting first. Historian and filmmaker Clare Wright obtained permission for a pre-screening viewing of her new documentary Utopia Girls from the ABC, which has bought the rights to the film. The 55-minute film tells the story, through the eyes of five remarkable women, of how Australia became the first country in the world to give women full political equality: the right to vote and the right to stand for election to parliament. The screening received a very positive response, with Clare present to answer questions about the process of producing this complex story.
The museum has benefitted enormously from hosting this conference: in a practical sense it received a generous donation of women’s suffrage material from Dr Dale Spender, and in an intellectual sense participants came away aware of the importance of saving the relics and objects of women’s leadership, so that many more leadership stories can be told in the museum’s displays.