2021 is a watershed year for Australian feminism, with waves of protests about workplace harassment, gender inequality and sexual abuse occupying both our minds and our social media feeds, particularly as the cases of Brittany Higgins and Christine Holgate hit the press, and as Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year.
As these women have spoken out using both traditional and social media, high profile female journalists have worked hard to keep gender equality and gendered violence in the spotlight. This was especially true in the weeks following the allegations by former Ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins that she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House in 2019.
But these journalists are part of a much longer history of Australian women using the media to advocate for women’s equality. Radio, first introduced to Australia in 1923, became a powerful tool: it normalised the sound of women’s voices in the public sphere, both literally and figuratively.
Even though in the early years of radio female broadcasters were often given roles, timeslots and programs that continued to perpetuate women’s lowered status in the workplace and public life, women at the time recognised the potential of the medium. Many used it to advance women’s status by strengthening their claims to a public voice.
During the 1930s, feminists such as Linda Littlejohn used broadcasting to fight against attacks on women’s rights, to argue for women’s equality, and to encourage women to actively participate in social and political life.
Littlejohn developed the Australian Women’s Weekly radio session (sponsored by the magazine), a daily program on Sydney commercial station 2UW (now KIIS FM). It aimed to raise the feminist consciousness of women listeners by featuring discussions and debates on topics such as careers for women, women’s legal status, women and war, and whether wives should have salaries.
While the feminist content of the Australian Women’s Weekly may be surprising to us today, in the 1930s both the magazine and radio program promoted a feminist agenda by offering a platform for a re-evaluation of women’s role in Australian society.
Australia’s earliest female politicians also made use of broadcasting to legitimise their political candidacy and integrate women into formal politics. Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1943, was one of the most prolific and respected radio voices of her time.
Lyons began broadcasting regularly in the 1920s and 1930s in support of her husband, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons (in office from 1932 until his death in 1939), and soon became a leading voice in her own right. She made extensive use of radio to contribute to policy discussions and as a campaign tool during her own political career as the Liberal member for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin (now Braddon).
In one broadcast aimed at women voters, Lyons outlined the need for boosting women’s participation in public affairs, reminding listeners: ‘Whatever you do, as women, don’t think you have no interest in politics. Your vote is your weapon to use for better living.’
In 1954 Lyons remarked that radio had ‘created a bigger revolution in the life of a woman than anything that has happened any time’: it enabled women to engage with world affairs while at home. According to Lyons, radio also had given women the ‘confidence’ to accept ‘responsibility in public affairs,’ resulting in a marked improvement in women’s social and political standing.
As we’ve been reminded in 2021, women’s equality requires real cultural change. This includes the opportunity for women to be heard and have a chance to influence society.
In the mid-twentieth century radio provided a platform for Australian women to speak and be heard in public on a scale not previously experienced. As such, it laid the groundwork for women like Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and Christine Holgate to raise their voices for justice and equality today.
Read more: Sound Citizens by Dr Catherine Fisher, published by ANU Press.