As an historian of the Australian women’s movement, the past two years have been extraordinary to witness.
Not only are we living through a once-in-a-century pandemic, which has had profoundly gendered effects, we have also experienced a feminist insurgency that has placed the issue of women’s safety, and men’s abuses of power, at the centre of our national conversation.
While many activists, journalists and advocates contributed to this insurgency, it exploded largely thanks to two young women: 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame and former parliamentary staffer Brittany Higgins.
Watch: Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame address the National Press Club in powerful speeches. Post continues below.
Both just 26, both survivors of sexual assault, both abused by men – and institutions – they ought to have been able to trust. Both rejected the expectation they should be shamed into silence about their experiences. In doing so, they have helped to rewrite enduring cultural scripts about sexual abuse and sexual assault.
Their joint address at the National Press Club today was a valedictory speech, a way to mark their extraordinary year in the public eye. But it was also a call to action, a warning against complacency in an election year.
Both made it very clear that, while hearing the voices of survivors of abuse and assault is important, it is not enough. As Higgins noted, the ways we discuss abuse are far too passive,
as if sexual violence falls out of the sky. As if it is perpetrated by no-one.
Of yesterday’s formal parliamentary apology to victims of alleged sexual harassment, assault and bullying, Higgins was grateful, but sceptical:
They are still only words. Actions are what matter.
Tame and Higgins both made passionate pleas for structural change, for measurable action to prevent sexual abuse and assault.
Tame called for government to take abuse seriously: to advance consistent national legislative change on sexual offences, and to spend more on preventive education to curb Australia’s alarmingly high rates of abuse and assault. She calculated the government spends 11 cents per student per year on prevention education, because
we currently have a government that is primarily concerned with short-sighted, votes-based funding, not with long-term, needs-based funding.
To those of us used to government by spin, obfuscation and photo ops in high-vis vests, Tame and Higgins’ moral clarity and bluntness are exhilarating.