Why You Should Know About These Women

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International Women's Day is tomorrow, and the official events are already thick on the ground. But what about the underrated women, the quiet achievers, and the historical figures whose contributions laid the foundations for others?

Who should we know more about this International Women's Day? New Matilda asked 10 women for their recommendations.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi  NSW Greens MP
Twitter — @mehreenfaruqi

Dr Ronnie Harding has inspired me for two decades – as my teacher, colleague, mentor and a dear friend.

Ronnie, in her unassuming way, led a quiet revolution which changed the face of environmental and sustainability education in universities across Australia. As a teacher and mentor she continues to be an inspiration to hundreds of people in the environmental movement across government, industry, the private sector and academia. Ronnie has taught generations of students over her 30 year academic career.

She founded the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW and was chair of the NSW Council on Environmental Education for almost a decade. Through education she has been able to transform the thinking and practice of environmental decision-making.

What I most admire about Ronnie is that she does not seek any recognition for this work. To her it was work that needed to be done. Her caring, resilience and calm have motivated me in all areas of my life and the example she sets is one I try to live up to and set for myself.

Courteney Hocking  Comedian
Twitter — @courteneyh

In a year when Tony Abbott is the self-appointed minister for women, it's more important than ever to have female voices in topical, political comedy and public affairs.

Nelly Thomas is one of the most underrated and impressive Australian comedians working today. She’s written a great book, works as a day job visiting schools to teach teenagers about sex education (seeing her use a blown up condom to show 200 rowdy schoolgirls and boys that there’s no penis in the world too big to go without protection will forever be one of the coolest, most inspiring lessons I’ve ever seen) and is appearing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival as one of the smartest, sharpest, most insightful comics I know.

The conservatism of our media and the limited opportunities for women in entertainment mean you may not know Nelly yet, but you will, and more importantly, you absolutely should.

Nareen Young  CEO, Diversity Council Of Australia
Twitter — @nareenyoung

Kelly Briggs, who blogs at thekooriwoman, tweets to a huge following at @thekooriwoman and writes for other publications such as The Guardian Australia, is my favourite Australian female voice this year.

So often I hear from non-Indigenous people, as I relate in some diversity forum or another the everyday experiences of Aboriginal people in this country, "oh my god! I can't believe that still happens! That's terrible! I don't know anyone who would do that!"

Kelly's work articulates those everyday experiences. I think her capacity for articulation in this way is helping to begin to massage, not to break, a key barrier to better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia: the burden of the imposed Indigenous silence about those everyday experiences that continue to contribute to every negative outcome for Indigenous Australians.

I know this silence. It has affected my life. It's not overtly about the spiritual that many non-Indigenous Australians like to read about. It's not about the "warm, welcoming community" that some non-Indigenous people like to romanticise. It's not about politics, that so many non-Indigenous people like to pontificate on in mainstream Australian life, but it is. It is about the "realpolitik", if you like, of Aboriginal lives.

I have never read anyone who is able to articulate beyond the silence for a broad audience like Kelly Briggs. She is a feminist (though I have observed that she is moving to "womanism" recently), an intersectionalist, a big Black Gomeroi fighter and, she is really, really funny.

You should read her. You may not agree with everything she says, but you will be provided with an opportunity to gain insight that you may not get anywhere else. Happy IWD my Tidda.

Dr Katherine Mack  Astrophysicist
Twitter — @astrokatie

Professor Rachel Webster is a major force in Australian and international astrophysics. Her research portfolio covers a range of topics in theoretical and observational astrophysics, and she has driven the development of groundbreaking new radio telescope facilities.

Her role as a mentor and role model has been invaluable to a generation of astrophysicists; she is currently the head of the astrophysics group at the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics. She also contributes to increasing access to physics careers, especially for young women. In addition to all that, she is working to develop geothermal power as a way to move Australia toward a clean energy economy.

Jess McAvoy  Singer, songwriter and creative weapon
Twitter — @jessmcavoy

For years there has been this strange anomaly on the radio in this country that is not as widely discussed as I would like it to be. So I would like to give a shout out to Chrissie Amphlett of the Divynls. The circles I travel in generally have a pretty clear memory of Chrissie Amphlett, but in some scenes I still have to explain who she is!

The 1980s were a massive decade for Australian rock music, and women had a decent look in on the rock scope. Chrissie was an unflinching ball of power on Australia’s stages and eventually the Divynls broke through in America too.

Is it a testament to her legacy that women singers — women who really sing, viscerally, from the bottom of their guts — are few and far between in Australia’s media? Inoffensive, palatable women who sing about the squishier side of human emotion get championed, but the rest haven’t got a place at the table.

Chrissie passed last year, and left a hole in the landscape that really should be filled. This country is as full of female Aussie battlers as it is by men, and it’s about time that someone got up and did something about it.

Shakira Hussein  Writer and academic
Twitter — @Shakirahussein

This International Women's Day, I find myself thinking of the contribution made by those women whose names, like that of the Unknown Soldier, are Known Unto God and perhaps to nobody else. The women whose battles pass unrecorded, whose victories are little celebrated, whose lives are regarded as unremarkable.

Women who held fast in the face of poverty and enslavement, war and displacement, trauma and grief. Women whose greatest triumph was simply to live, to wake up each day knowing of the hardship it would hold but still finding the will to stand by family, friends, neighbours and co-workers, still retaining the capacity to love and to hope and to struggle for better times if not for themselves, then for their loved ones.

The final resting place of these women is unknown as their names, but I honour them here today. And I honour those for whom this battle continues every day.

Eleanor Robertson  Contributor, Frankie Magazine
Twitter — @marrowing

Professor Annamarie Jagose, head of the School of Letters, Arts and Media at the University of Sydney, does deeply thoughtful and sometimes counterintuitive work in feminist and sexuality theory. Her most recent book, Orgasmology, traces a history of the orgasm through the 20th century.

She explores institutional approaches to the orgasm, suggesting that the different ways scientific and medical authorities conceptualise and moralise climax have a lot to say about sexuality as a tool of social regulation. Women figure heavily in Jagose's analysis, and to read Orgasmology is to come away with a much deeper understanding of how women's sexuality has been figured as novel, deviant, or in need of intervention.

Reverend Elenie Poulos  National Director, UnitingJustice
Twitter — @eleniepoulos

In 2008, the United Nations (UN) formally recognised that sexual violence is used as a weapon. Rape can now be prosecuted as a war crime. One of the women who made this happen was Dr Eileen Pittaway AM.

Eileen’s work, over decades, with refugee women in some of the most dangerous and brutal camps in the world, combined with her smart and tireless advocacy at UN forums, has made the world safer for some of those women, their daughters and, tragically, now their granddaughters. Eileen has taught many of us in Australia how to break through the vast and seemingly impenetrable mechanisms of the UN.

But the most important lesson I have learned from Eileen is that the true heart of working for justice and peace begins and ends with the stories of those who face injustice and violence.

Catriona Menzies-Pike  Marathon runner and Arts Editor, The Conversation
Twitter — @catri

In March 1896, a woman who called herself Melpomene ran from Marathon to Athens in four and a half hours. She was, so the story goes, trying to convince the organisers of the first modern Olympic Games to let her run the marathon, the event that best encapsulated the lofty vision of moral and physical accomplishment to which those organisers aspired. Melpomene is also the classical Greek muse of tragedy – and no woman ran in the event.

There’s another story that sounds a bit similar. In April 1896 a 30-year old woman named Stamata Revithi, a single mother who needed some cash, decided to try her luck in the Olympic marathon. She rallied a few international journalists to her cause but she wasn’t allowed to compete. Instead she ran the course in five and a half hours the following day.

The record is incomplete and historians continue to speculate that Melpomene and Stamata Revithi were the same woman. In both stories, pieced together from news reports and eyewitness interviews conducted decades later, the runners were not permitted to enter the stadium in Athens and ran their final lap outside it.

Patchy reporting, questionable record keeping, underrated athletes and lots of closed doors have been a feature of the women’s marathon since 1896. It took almost a century for the International Olympic Committee to open the Olympic marathon to women. They did so in Los Angeles in 1984.

Sunili Govinnage — Human Rights Lawyer
Twitter — @sunili

Su Dharmapala writes novels about Australian women whose stories aren’t usually on bestseller lists. Her first, The Wedding Season, follows four Melburnian besties who need each other to survive that “auspicious” window in the Vedic stars when Sri Lankans plan nuptial parties.

Far from the usual chick-lit fare, it delves into cross-cultural problems and painful dramas that many Australian women can relate to, whatever their background. Saree, her second, is due in May and goes from a Sri Lanka ravaged by civil war to Australia via pilgrimage in India. The fabric of Australian literature is as colourful as it is strong.

Is there a woman whose work or legacy you'd like to recommend this International Women's Day? Leave a comment below. 

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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