About a week ago, the ABC aired Utopia Girls: How Women Won the Vote, a documentary about women’s suffrage in Australia. I’d seen a few positive mentions on Twitter and Facebook, so this afternoon I went and hunted it down on iView and watched it.
The documentary opens with the narrator, Dr. Clare Wright, stating that:
These days, we all enjoy equal rights and seemingly endless choices. But just one hundred and fifty years ago, women were far from equal.
It’s nice that she thinks inequality is in the past, but she’s deluding herself. It would be facile to list all the groups who don’t enjoy equal rights in Australia (same-sex couples who want to marry being just one current and obvious example) but even if we limit ourselves to women’s rights and choices, it’s far from true. Women still earn about 15% less than men for the same work; abortion is still illegal or effectively so in Queensland; and take a look at the sort of misogynist crap that’s flung at Julia Gillard, Gina Rinehart, or the latest victim of a popular footballer’s rape if you want to see what attitudes to women in our country are really like.
So, no, Utopia Girls, the smug “we all live in a 21st century feminist wonderland” attitude doesn’t exactly fly with me. It’s not just inaccurate, it’s dangerous. Should we really be telling women there’s nothing left to work or fight for, or giving anti-feminists reassurance that women’s current concerns are unnecessary?
If that was all that Utopia Girls had wrong with it I’d be annoyed enough, but it just gets worse. The main focus of the documentary are the stories of a handful of middle class, white Anglo- and Irish-Australian women and their work for women’s suffrage in Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia. I can’t claim an exhaustive knowledge of the subject matter or the period, but it’s obvious even to me that there are voices missing here.
It might have been nice if Utopia Girls, rather than just telling us about Vida Goldstein — who had “charm and intelligence” and was a “dignified, private-school educated young beauty”, as the documentary points out — going doorknocking in the slums of Fitzroy and Collingwood, getting poor and working class women to sign a petition for suffrage, could have let us hear from those women themselves. As well as telling us about Caroline Dexter — “Paris-educated” and a bloomer-wearing promoter of dress reform — coming out to the goldfields just days after the Eureka Stockade and connecting her radical politics with what she found, it might have been nice to know more about women who were already there. Instead we just see silent pictures, with the sole exception of “May Howell, gentlewoman, 1855” who talks about how independent she was in Australia:
“No-one to control or dictate to you, going where you like, doing what you like, no relation laying down the law or chalking out your path for you.”
Well, that’s nice for you, May Howell, but firstly you are wrong (since, for starters, you can’t vote, can’t own property, and can’t divorce your husband even if he deserts or beats you) and secondly, even if you do feel quite independent, your experience is hardly representative of Chinese women who came here as economic refugees, sex workers in Sydney and other cities, Aboriginal women on cattle stations, the convict women who were still being transported until 1868, or (presumably) the vast majority of Australian women at the time.
Over the rest of an hour, Utopia Girls works through a handful more middle-class white women, their activism, and the various legal wranglings that brought about women’s suffrage first in South Australia and then in other states. At last we come to the turning point, when in 1894 South Australia passed an act to give all women — including Aboriginal women — the right to vote and to hold seats in Parliament. Then, in the leadup to Federation, South Australia demanded that no person who already had franchise should lose it, which in effect meant that they demanded women’s suffrage at the national level as a condition of joining the Commonwealth.
Sadly, this was done at the cost of Aboriginal voting rights; they were thrown under the bus to maintain and extend white women’s suffrage. Aboriginal Australians didn’t regain the right to vote until the 1960s. How does Utopia Girls present this issue? The camera pans slowly over the 1902 “Act to Provide for a Universal Federal Franchise” while Dr. Wright tells us that Australia was “the international benchmark for democracy”. Then, almost as an aside, she mentions the retraction of Aboriginal suffrage — it gets two whole sentences, or a little less than 30 seconds — before going on to talk about Vida Goldstein’s world tour as a suffrage superstar, visiting Emmeline Pankhurst in the UK and Teddy Roosevelt in America. We end on a high note, patting ourselves on the back for how forward-thinking and progressive we are.
A lot of people have mentioned that they found Utopia Girls inspiring and have been encouraging others to catch it on iView while they can. The fight for women’s suffrage is certainly an inspiring and important story, but it’s stupid to act as if the fight is all in the past, and it’s downright offensive to ignore the state of all women’s rights in this country — including Aboriginal women, non-white immigrant and refugee women, working class women and women living in poverty — at the expense of middle-class white women’s triumphs.