Doco of the month: Brazen Hussies
17 November 2020 at 8:43 am
First time director Catherine Dwyer talks to Wendy Williams about her new film, Brazen Hussies, which shines a light on a revolutionary chapter in Australia’s history and celebrates the women who made it possible.
In the opening minutes of Brazen Hussies we see Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor chain themselves to the public bar at the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane.
The year is 1965 and the pair are protesting over the exclusion of women from public bars in Queensland.
Wearing pastel coloured two-piece suits and low-heeled shoes, they might not look like what you think of as revolutionaries, but their action marks the beginning of a revolutionary chapter in Australian history, the Women’s Liberation Movement (1965 – 1975).
To quote Biff Ward: “It was a revolution. And people who make revolutions get burnt and hurt and distorted and go a bit crazy. All sorts of things happen. But it’s also completely exhilarating.”
This “exhilarating” chapter has now been captured in the feature documentary Brazen Hussies, which weaves together archival footage and personal accounts to reveal how a diverse group of women banded together to defy the status quo, demand equality and create profound social change.
The film traces the movement from its birth amidst the tumultuous politics of the 1960s, and shows how women began organising around issues such as equal pay, reproductive rights, affordable childcare, and the prevention of family violence and rape.
It shines a light on the key players and key events that shaped the movement, such as Kate Jennings’ incendiary speech on the front lawn of Sydney University in 1970, the introduction of the single mother’s pension in 1973, and the appointment of Elizabeth Reid as the world’s first government advisor on women’s affairs.
Watching some of the footage today, it may come as a surprise to younger generations of women, just how much has changed in a relatively short space of time, and how much we now take for granted.
“It’s taken for granted that women can go into bars,” says director Catherine Dwyer.
“Women now see themselves as being able to occupy public spaces and it just astounds me that there were these spaces called public bars that women weren’t allowed in. I mean they weren’t considered part of the general public.”
What is also astounding, given the huge ramifications of this period, is that there hasn’t been a feature film made about it before now.
Dwyer was inspired to make Brazen Hussies after working on Mary Dore’s 2014 documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, about the American women’s movement. Dwyer wanted to find out what had happened in Australia.
“I knew that there had been a women’s movement in Australia but I didn’t know anything about it or any of the people who were involved except for Germaine Greer, that was the only name I knew,” Dwyer says.
“I felt like people my own age didn’t really appreciate the second wave women’s movement, and that the term feminism was not being embraced by my peers, it was a bit of a dirty word. That kind of made me angry and determined to find out what really happened.”
One of the central tenets of Dwyer’s documentary – made by women who are daughters of this second wave – is the importance of revisiting history.
As second-wave activist Margot Nash remarks: “History has to be told over and over again.”
Without documenting a version of women’s liberation history, there’s a chance the whole story will be lost.
And Rosemary West points out that the younger generations may need to fight themselves someday.
“I think it’s important for young women today because things don’t necessarily keep on improving and they might find themselves in the exact position we were in if they don’t understand and defend the progress we’ve made,” West says.
Dwyer agrees. She says it’s important to tell this story to ensure that younger generations understand how the changes demanded by these women 50 years ago, have paved the way for where feminism finds itself today. And so that they can learn the know-how to keep fighting.
“I think women too easily get forgotten or erased from history and it is really important that we know that we actually do make history so that we can understand that we can make it again, or continue to make history,” she says.
The documentary makes it clear that change didn’t just happen, it was a fight.
A lot of the footage in the film packs a punch for the violence it depicts, such as women being thrown kicking and shouting into the back of paddy wagons, or men pushing and shoving women who tried to enter bars.
The film doesn’t shy away from portraying the factions and tensions that developed inside the movement, particularly around the role of Indigenous women and lesbian women, and those who wanted reform versus revolution.
But ultimately it’s a celebration of this time and the women who experienced an “awakening”, who banded together, who held consciousness raising circles, and demanded equality.
The team behind Brazen Hussies are hoping audiences will be inspired to learn more about feminism and that the documentary will spark important discussions that reveal gender equality gaps that remain unresolved.
To this end, during 2021 the team will engage with women’s organisations to roll out a series of community screening events with expert panel members to discuss various social issues relevant to the film’s themes.
The film will also be used as a teaching resource, ensuring students experience classroom content that portrays women as active changemakers in our history and culture.
Dwyer says she wants boys, as well as girls, to watch the film and get an understanding of the world beyond the stories that men tell.
Her hope is that if more people understand what it was like for women back then, they will appreciate what feminism is and why the women’s movement was necessary. They might also be inspired to make a change.
It’s no coincidence that in the final montage of the film we see contemporary footage of people taking to the streets today. The film may be focused on 50 years ago, but it comes with a call to action.
“I definitely hope it will inspire people to become active or to take on causes, they don’t have to be feminist causes, although I would say that feminism intersects with a lot of causes,” Dwyer says.
“It’s really about how when people get together they can make enormous change. It’s not that change just happens or governments do it, it comes from the grassroots, it comes from people.”
Brazen Hussies is in cinemas now.
Find out more information or see where you can watch at www.brazenhussies.com.au
We also have a giveaway! Enter your details for a chance to win one of six complimentary double passes to see Brazen Hussies.
This giveaway is now closed. Winners will be notified by email and the winner’s names will be published in our news edition on Tuesday 24 November and on social media.
Each month Pro Bono Australia and Documentary Australia Foundation present a Doco of the Month, profiling powerful documentaries with social impact at their heart.
Documentary Australia Foundation is Australia’s only not-for-profit organisation that fosters social change through documentary storytelling.