Veronica Wensing talks about the Women’s Constitutional Convention held in Canberra in 2002, the making of its banner which was later donated to Old Parliament House, and her personal background and involvement in the women’s movement.
Interview with Veronica Wensing Part 1
J Armitage: This is an interview with Veronica Wensing who made the banner for the 2002 Women’s Constitutional Convention which has been donated to the Museum of Australian Democracy’s Heritage Collection.
Veronica will be speaking with me, Joan Armitage, for the oral history program conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
Veronica, on behalf of the Director of the Museum, I’d like to thank you for agreeing to participate in this program.
V Wensing: You’re very welcome, Joan. I’m very pleased to be here and I’m very happy that this work sits in this institution.
J Armitage: Just a little bit of housekeeping. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure will be subject to any disclosure restrictions you impose in completing the rights agreement?
V Wensing: Yes.
J Armitage: Thank you. This being so, may we have your permission to make a transcript or a summary of the recording should we decided to make one?
V Wensing: Certainly, yes.
J Armitage: Thank you again. This interview is taking place on Thursday 11th April 2013 at the Museum in Canberra.
So, Veronica, before we go on to talk about the banner, can we briefly talk about you, some personal details? Where were you born?
V Wensing: I was born in Canberra, one of the few for a long period of time who was born at the old Royal Canberra Hospital on the peninsula, on the lake.
J Armitage: What date, if you don’t mind disclosing it?
V Wensing: Sure. 22nd June 1959.
J Armitage: Were your parents Canberrans?
V Wensing: No, my parents were migrants. They came out to Australia in 1953 from Holland and at that time my two older brothers were also born in Holland. My next brother, interestingly enough, was born on the very first day that my parents came to this country. Then there was me and I have a younger sister.
J Armitage: What did your parents do?
V Wensing: My father was an interior decorator. He worked for quite a long time at what was known then as the old Hotel Canberra, which is now the Hyatt Hotel, on Commonwealth Avenue. He also worked for many years prior to that in the old Civic pub. I think he was employed at that time by the Australian Hotels Association.
My mother was a textile artist, a textile teacher, a needlework teacher. She herself has become quite well known internationally, particularly for her bobbin lace making. There is a permanent collection: the Petronella Wensing Collection sits in the National Museum of Australia, and currently there is an exhibition about my mother for the Canberra Centenary, called ‘Canberra Gold’ at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, which features a bit of her story and some of her work.
J Armitage: That’s really interesting.
V Wensing: My father was also a landscape painter and one of his paintings of the old Hotel Canberra also sits in the Canberra Museum and Gallery as part of their permanent collection.
J Armitage: So you have a family tradition of creativity in all sorts of ways.
V Wensing: Yes.
J Armitage: What was your formal education?
V Wensing: I completed Year 12 in 1976 - at that time it was known as sixth form – at Our Lady of Mercy College boarding school in Goulburn. After that I have to confess I didn’t go on to further study until many years later. In fact, I was awarded a post-graduate certificate in human services leadership from the Catholic University in 2009.
J Armitage: But you did lots of other things in between, which is what I really want to come to now. What jobs did you do which involved working with and for women before you became involved in the 2002 Women’s Convention Committee?
V Wensing: Back in 1991 I had my first job in what I know as the community sector and that was in a young women’s refuge that used to be based in Tuggeranong. I worked there for about eight years. During the course of that work, I guess, I came to see the high levels of violence, domestic and family violence and sexual violence that was being perpetrated in homes in Canberra and which was resulting in young women aged between about 12 and 17 being homeless and needing some supported accommodation and guidance to deal with some of the issues they’d been facing.
After that, I worked for Wesnet, which was the national peak body. At the time it was the national peak body for women’s refuges – Wesnet standing for Women’s Services Network. It was at that time that I made the banner so I was employed at Wesnet at that time. Wesnet subsequently has become the peak body for domestic and family violence services and I still have close connections to that organisation.
J Armitage: So that strong work-life interest?
V Wensing: Yes, for me, I guess because this is an oral history program and perhaps because somebody will be listening in 100 years’ time, it’s probably quite pertinent to point out that I myself lived with domestic violence for a number of years. When I came out of that relationship, I was so grateful for the help that I had received that I wanted to give back, so that’s what prompted me to go and work in the young women’s refuge in the first instance.
Domestic and family violence and sexual violence really became an issue about which I was very passionate and very keen to see that it stops happening in our society. Certainly that hasn’t happened yet but I do have hope.
I have really found myself working in that field now for about 20 years, so even now, as manager for the ACT Office for Women, which is a Government position, I have written the ACT Prevention of Violence Against Women and Children Strategy and a lot of my work is focused on implementing that strategy.
J Armitage: That’s very special work.
V Wensing: It is.
J Armitage: It’s often hidden work.
V Wensing: Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s a hidden issue; it’s one that traditionally has happened behind closed doors but one that we’re working very hard to bring out into the public discourse.
I also spent five years managing the Rape Crisis Centre and so of course in that role became much more cognisant of all the complex issues around sexual violence as well. Sexual violence and domestic violence are different but the same. They do overlap. The same route, which is essentially that we’re living in a society that really values the role of men over the role of women.
J Armitage: And where there is sometimes an ownership?
V Wensing: Absolutely.
J Armitage: That gives people a right to perpetrate violence.
V Wensing: That’s right, because these issues are about exerting power and control.
J Armitage: I noticed that you’ve had a couple of special awards for the work that you’ve done. Before we go on and talk about the Convention and the banner, perhaps you’d like to tell us about them.
V Wensing: In 2009 I was awarded the ACT Telstra Business Woman of the Year award, which I have to say came as some surprise to me and I think it probably came as some surprise to the ACT community because at that time I was managing the Rape Crisis Centre. A Rape Crisis Centre is not traditionally seen as a business. However, I was nominated and I followed through on the nomination process, really not expecting the outcome.
I also won the ACT Community and Government Award through Telstra, and then that made me one of the three finalists for the overall ACT Business Woman of the Year award.
J Armitage: It’s great that there was that sort of openness to say, hang on a minute, it is a business as well as it being a community service and a social service and every other service the Rape Crisis Centre provides.
V Wensing: Yes. What that did really was create an opportunity to talk about these issues to a different audience. I think in the moment between when they called my name out and I went up to the stage to receive the award, what went through my mind was: Now I can actually disclose that I, too, am a survivor. It was something I kept very hidden because there’s a risk, particularly if you’re working in this industry, that if you make that disclosure people think that when you’re engaging in discourse and debate about these issues you’re coming from a very emotional space and not able to rationally process the information. So for me the legitimacy of having won a business award meant that I could take the risk to say, I’m actually a survivor as well, so I did on that day.
J Armitage: That was a very courageous thing to do.
V Wensing: I named the statistics, which at the time were that one in three Australian women will experience violence at the hands of a male at some point in their lives, and I’m one of those statistics.
It was quite empowering and it did generate a lot of interest. To some extent, it – I’m not sure what the right word is – it diverted attention to the fact that I was a survivor rather than to the issues, so I became very good, as well, about not really disclosing any of my personal details except to say this is why I do this work.
Even then, at the national awards down in Melbourne, where finalists from every state and territory came together, they showed 30 second footage of people’s speeches, and of course that’s the 30 seconds they chose to show of mine.
What happened then was interesting in itself because I then got several disclosures from other finalists from around the country who came to me and said, I’m really proud that you’re doing this, I haven’t been able to speak out about it, it happened to me, too. So that was a fairly consistent theme.
J Armitage: Yes. I guess if you’re talking about one in three …
V Wensing: That’s exactly right.
J Armitage: There’s six states and two territories, then you’re bound to get a couple more somewhere. Thank you for sharing that because it’s something that needs to be recorded and heard in generations to come. So in many ways being involved in the 2002 Women’s Constitutional Convention was part of your passion and part of your working life.
V Wensing: Definitely.
J Armitage: And you became involved because you were on the committee?
V Wensing: The organising committee approached me but I did have close relationships with a number of the women who were on the committee and it was Judy Harrison whose concept this was in the first place who came to me then and asked if I would make the banner, which I was really excited to do because my previous passion, before I got into community services, I used to sell sewing machines and I was quite passionate about textile and textile art, so for me, making the banner was an opportunity to bring my politics and my creativity together.
J Armitage: How did they know that you had these great skills, this talent for making and creating?
V Wensing: At the time I was making quite a lot of greeting cards using fabric and I suspect some of those women had probably received a card from me, but they did know that I did have an interest in textiles and textile art. We were developing fairly strong relationships, largely as a bit of a fallout from the very sudden death of Helen Leonard who at the time of her death was not only the CEO of Wesnet but was also the CEO of WEL, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and involved in a number of other projects, including early discussions about the Constitutional Convention.
One of the results of her sudden death was that a number of women who surrounded her got to know each other better, so I met a lot of these women through that process. Helen was a very dear friend of mine and I had not met some of these other women but I got to know them afterwards.
J Armitage: What were the reasons for holding a Women’s Constitutional Convention in 2002?
V Wensing: That was the hundredth year anniversary of – I’m not quite sure what, I think it might have been the hundredth anniversary of when women were actually given the right to vote and stand for public office in Australia. It was also acknowledging 40 years of indigenous suffrage, but yes, it was primarily honouring the Commonwealth’s Franchise Act that gave women the right to vote.
J Armitage: It was held in June?
V Wensing: 12th June was the anniversary but it was held from the 11th to the 13th.
J Armitage: So it was not only 100 years – it was actually on the days the legislation was going through and passed?
V Wensing: Yes.
J Armitage: How many people came to the Convention? Was it a big one?
V Wensing: Yes, it was. I’d be guessing but I think from memory about 400 or 500 women. It was big. A lot of women were really interested in it. The idea behind the Convention was to look at setting a future agenda, so not only to look at where have we come in the last 100 years but where do we need to go in the next 100 years.
J Armitage: Who were they, where did they come from?
V Wensing: They came from all walks of life. A lot of them through the national women’s NGOs that existed at that time. Back in those days there were about 60 national women’s NGOs, so the leaders of those NGOs, of course, were present at the Constitutional Convention, and also local women interested in issues around democracy.
J Armitage: What was the atmosphere like around the Convention?
V Wensing: I think it was exciting. It was a great opportunity for women to stand up, to speak out, and to keep pushing that agenda that we deserve equal recognition and that we have a right to speak our minds, and particularly to speak our minds about the future of this country. All too often women’s voices have been silenced, so it was an opportunity to consolidate that.
J Armitage: Where was it held?
V Wensing: I remember that, I think it was held at the Rydges Lakeside but the reception and the conference dinner were held at the Old Parliament House. There was a night sitting in the Members Dining Room on the Thursday night, with drinks, music and debate, and that was quite a lot of fun as well.
J Armitage: The Dining Room is a great space, isn’t it, it’s atmospheric. Did you have any other role in the Convention, other than making the banner?
V Wensing: Not really. As the Convention was happening I did quite a lot of running around, just doing background organising work, making sure the rooms were right and people had whatever they needed.
J Armitage: Making the banner was a huge role in itself. What was the reason for making a banner?
V Wensing: The organisers of the Women’s Constitutional Convention felt that it would be good to have a backdrop to the main stage where the plenary sessions were happening. Judy Horacek actually designed the women on the banner and then the whole concept was pulled together by Fiona Edge and my task was to turn that into a fabric wall hanging.
J Armitage: We’ll go on and talk about that in a minute because we’d like to know where the banner was hung in the Convention. Was it in a prominent place?
V Wensing: It was a very prominent place. It was hung behind the main stage, so it was the backdrop for all the plenary sessions and the main discussions in the Convention.
J Armitage: Were there any other things in the Convention that linked with the theme of the banner?
V Wensing: There were a number of things. There was a calico bag produced with the logo on the bag; there was a tea towel; the program itself, of course, and there were a number of bookmarks that were also produced.
J Armitage: I think we’ve probably got a tea towel in the collection but it’s good to know that there are other things that could be looked for to add to the collection. You’ve said that Judy Horacek did the design. Any photographs of it hanging in the Convention?
V Wensing: I only have one photograph that I managed to retrieve, which is actually a photo of myself and Judy sitting in front of the banner.
J Armitage: That’s fantastic. We can scan that in and make sure it stays with the banner. Thank you for that. Obviously you and Judy were quite close with her having done the design and you doing the interpretation. Do you know what her intent was in the design?
V Wensing: I have to say I can’t really speak for Judy and although it was her design and she and I certainly had come together a couple of time in the making of the banner, we weren’t particularly close; in fact, this was the first time I had also been given the opportunity to meet Judy. By the time I got to see Judy I had pretty well already made the banner. I took it to her to seek her approval and her OK with it and it was at that time that she signed the bottom right hand corner and that was before it was bound and backed.
So we only had a couple of interactions really, but Judy herself is quite a well known cartoonist and I think it would probably be good for you to talk to her as well. I imagine, as I look at her design, I see that there were women of colour, there’s definitely depiction of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman, and then perhaps it might have been an Asian woman, certainly slightly darker coloured skin, and then of course your typical Anglo woman. Each of them had the suffragette ribbon which at the time, 100 years back, was a really well known sign of the suffragette movement.
J Armitage: Can you describe what else is around these three Horacek figures, because they’re quite well known from her cartoons, and describe the banner as a whole?
V Wensing: Wrapped around the women are the words ‘Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002’ and underneath, which really is a bit of a base where the woman are all standing, are the words ‘Trust the women’. That comes from acknowledging the original banner that Australian women had given to England at the time that England was also debating whether to give Australian women the vote.
So that banner said, ‘Trust the women, mother, as we have done’ – meaning Mother England, and basically encouraging England to give women the right to vote. So ‘Trust the women’ really was the short name, I guess, for the Convention. That’s how we came to know it.
J Armitage: What steps were there from the design stage to the actual making and completion of the banner?
V Wensing: It was quite a task, as you can imagine.
J Armitage: Can we just stop a minute? Perhaps we need to say what size it was so that will help the task.
V Wensing: The banner was 3 metres by 2.5 metres and essentially I guess I began to do the work by using a graphic image and working out the proportions of that image. That really informed the size of the final product, so drawing grid lines over the image and then slowly enlarging the image to a point where I could then make pattern pieces.
J Armitage: So you were using a computer image?
V Wensing: I was using a computer-generated image that Judy had produced. Of course, I couldn’t get it that big so that’s where gridding up became really important and then drawing those figures. The words were much simpler because I could blow up individual letters to the size that I needed on the computer and then I used those as a pattern piece to be able to cut the fabric.
It was quite a task. It was not only working out the proportions and what size the banner should be; it was also working out what fabrics would be good and would reflect the intent of the design.
Most of the fabrics were specifically purchased but interestingly enough I used some fabric that I had. I was a bit of a hoarder of fabric and I had an old green velvet dress of my mother’s which was the perfect colour for the woman in the middle, so I used that for her dress.
Then back to constructing the banner, once I had all the pattern pieces, I then applied a heat sensitive adhesive to everything and the letters on the banner have only been attached by using that heat adhesive, so ironing them on in place. I stitched around the women because I wasn’t confident that the adhesive would keep them there, but I also needed to do some stitching anyway just to add some of the finer features, so once it was adhered to the backing fabric it was then important to put another backing underneath because the fabric needs to be quite rigid and sturdy when you’re doing the machine work, so even tracing paper on the back and then stitching around each piece systematically and ripping the paper off from the back. That stops the fabric from puckering as you’re stitching, and of course by using the iron-on adhesive that meant that it stayed fairly flat on the fabric as well.
It was at that stage that I then took it to Judy to see what she thought, and it was at that point she signed it, and subsequent to that I then attached the backing and the loops at the top to enable it to be hung.
J Armitage: Judy’s signed it, you’ve signed it, is there another signature on it?
V Wensing: Judy wrote that whole piece, so that’s all her handwriting. I‘m just trying to remember exactly what it says, even though I only saw it ten minutes ago. It was designed by Judy Horacek and the whole design was compiled by a woman called Fiona Edge and then it was made by me.
J Armitage: Where is that on the banner?
V Wensing: It’s down on the bottom right hand corner, in Judy’s well known handwriting.
J Armitage: How were the colours chosen? Maybe we need to talk about what the colours are and then how they were chosen.
V Wensing: They are the suffragette colours. I fear you’re going to ask me what they mean, and I can not remember. Purple, green and white have long been known as the colours for the suffragette movement, and every year on International Women’s Day I think most women who are in the know do try and wear those colours to represent that.
J Armitage: Where is the purple located on the banner?
V Wensing: There are a few different shades of purple. The piece underneath – which I suppose is a stage, perhaps – was a very shiny pale purple. The three boxes on which each of the women is standing was a darker shade of purple, and shiny in a different way. I think I actually used the backside of the fabric rather than the front side of the fabric because the two were quite different in colours. Then I used the front of that fabric for one of the dresses. The green velvet, as I mentioned before, was an old dress of my mother’s. I’m just trying to remember – I think I might have just purchased the fabric for the third one, and the green words, of course, continued to reflect that suffragette theme.
J Armitage: The fabrics are quite different - the banner itself and the ‘Trust the women’. Can you go through what type of fabrics they were?
V Wensing: Yes. One of the things about textiles is feel, touch, so I was mindful, I wanted to use fabrics that encouraged people to want to touch the banner, so I used faux fur for the hair or a suede on one of the other women, just to give it some texture and some depth. The skin colours I chose non-shiny because I didn’t really want them to stand out. I was more interested in having their dresses and their hair and the boxes stand out in that process.
Most of the fabrics were probably purchased from Spotlight and then using some that I had. The actual backing fabric I think is curtain fabric. I needed something that was fairly rigid and firm, that would sustain, that would hang well, but also be smooth enough and strong enough to stitch on to.
I did submit with the banner a large folder with little snippets of each of the pieces of fabric and quite a lot more detail about where the fabric came from and which fabric was used for which piece.
J Armitage: It’s interesting to hear your thinking, your creativity behind choosing the different fabrics, so we get that lovely texture and feel that’s so there in the banner. You look at it and you do want to touch it. You talked about the letters. You used cut-out letters and adhesive. That was just common iron-on adhesive?
V Wensing: Yes, just one that you get from any haberdashery supplier.
J Armitage: Are there any appliquéd materials in there?
V Wensing: In a way, it’s all appliquéd. Even though it was adhered using heat-sensitive paper, it was then stitched down so that stitching is then appliqué. A little bit of free machine embroidery for some of the finer feature.
J Armitage: Is it exactly like the design from Judy?
V Wensing: I have to confess it’s not. Ninety-nine percent of it is exactly her design, but I did add a couple of little things that were mine. One was a beaded anklet on the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander figure, and a little women’s sign earring on the Asian figure. I don’t know that Judy was entirely happy about that but I thought, well, I’ve made the whole banner so I wanted to inject something of me into it.
J Armitage: I think that’s really important.
V Wensing: Certainly the beaded anklet gave it a bit more of a three-dimensional effect as well, which is in the Aboriginal colours of black, red and yellow.
J Armitage: They really make a difference. The rosettes of the women’s suffrage -
V Wensing: Yes, they’re three-dimensional as well, so I did make the decision to try and make those three-dimensional again, just to give the banner a bit more depth. So they were rosettes that I made separately and then stitched on to the banner.
J Armitage: What were the reasons for donating the banner to the Museum of Australian Democracy? Why here?
V Wensing: Importantly here because the Women’s Constitutional Convention committee felt that if it sat in what was then known as the Old Parliament House collection it would remain accessible to women. Interestingly enough, it was gifted to the Australian Parliament House and it was accepted by them, which in itself is quite an honour. I understand it’s very difficult to gift artworks to the Australian Parliament House; they have very rigid benchmarks about the quality, so the fact that they actually accepted it was really an amazing thing.
However, the Women’s Constitutional Convention committee made the decision that it was better placed in the Old Parliament House collection, really because they felt that it would then be accessible. They were not confident that if it went up to the Australian Parliament House it would ever be on display or that it would even be accessible to anyone interested in looking at it, and they were reassured then by the Old Parliament House collection people that should people specifically want to see the banner it would be made available, so that was the biggest reason that it came here.
J Armitage: I understand that the collections people only need two or three days’ notice for the banner to be brought out and for people to be able to have a look at it. That’s really important, and hopefully soon it will be on the website as well.
V Wensing: That will be fantastic. I have to say I feel very proud. I felt very proud at the time because it did mark 100 years and it was so different from the original ‘Trust the women’ banner which currently hangs in the Australian Parliament House, because it was gifted back to the Australian Government in 1988. For me it was really significant that 100 years on we had produced another banner with the same message: ‘Trust the women’, but very, very different and much more modern in comparison to the older one, so I really felt like I’d contributed to Australia’s history. It was an amazing thing.
J Armitage: Yes, which is why it’s good that it’s here and that you are now talking about it as well. Before we go on a little bit, what challenges were there in making it? I’m thinking about the size of it, to start off with.
V Wensing: I had a room in my house from which I cleared everything and I worked on the floor. It was really the only place to be able to lay it out and see it in its entirety. I brought my sewing machine eventually into that room because I do have a sewing room but it’s much smaller, so I brought my sewing machine and placed it then on a large table which would then hold the weight of the banner as I worked on the pieces.
I did spend quite a lot of time on my knees on the floor measuring up, gridding the fabric, making sure that everything was proportionately in the right place before I actually started to stitch it.
J Armitage: And then sticking on the letters?
V Wensing: Yes. That was quite challenging as well, even getting them perfectly lined because they’re in a curve which in itself was different from doing a straight line. So it was challenging but that was the good thing, I guess, about having – because I actually had the letters, so after I had generated them on the computer and then cut them out, I was able to lay them out loosely and get them exactly right before I ironed each one down. That’s the beauty of that heat adhesive; it allowed me to actually work with what I wanted to attached to the backing before actually attaching it.
J Armitage: The adhesive was put on after you’d cut the letters out?
V Wensing: No, it’s put on the fabric first, that’s the best way to do it because otherwise getting the adhesive completely lined up with the fabric is quite a challenge, so ironing the adhesive on to the back of a large piece of fabric in the first instance and then cutting out each letter… [end Part 1]
Interview with Veronica Wensing Part 2
V Wensing: …so it’s paper-backed. When the letters are cut off, there’s a paper backing which then needs to come off and then the adhesive is actually on the fabric so that’s when you iron it.
With the paper on the back, it means it’s fairly robust and I was able to move it around and play with it and get it in exactly the right position before pulling the paper off and ironing it down.
J Armitage: I can imagine how long it took.
V Wensing: It took quite a long time. I don’t think I actually counted the hours. I was given some money for it but the money was really just reimbursement for the fabrics; otherwise essentially I did it for the love, because I found for me it was an amazingly exciting challenge to bring together my textile background and my politics. I was very proud to be doing it. I think it took several months.
J Armitage: If it was going to be displayed, have you any preference for how it should be displayed?
V Wensing: I think in the first instance it would be good to be displayed with the other bits and pieces that came along with the Convention, such as the bag, the tea towel, the bookmarks, the program. In terms of where, I have often in the past thought, regretted, I guess, to some extent that it didn’t actually go to Australian Parliament House because they do have the original ‘Trust the women’ banner there and back at that time the wall immediately opposite that banner was blank, and I just thought that would have been the perfect place to put it.
However, there’s a large Aboriginal painting there now, so I guess in terms of where would it be best displayed, perhaps at some point in the future some exhibition about the contributions of women to Australian democracy, I would see that it would fit into that kind of exhibition.
J Armitage: It would be nice to have all the other things around.
V Wensing: Yes, and then, of course, that would be an opportunity to recognise more than just the Convention – the work of significant women NGOs at that time, and individual women as well.
J Armitage: While we’re waiting for that time, if you ever think there is an occasion then do contact Barry. They might not be able to do it but please feel free to do that. That’s important. Given that you know intimately the fabrics and the threads being used and you’ve said they’ve been documented, have you any ideas about the care and preservation of the banner?
V Wensing: Not exposing it to a great deal of light on any long-term basis. It could certainly come out and hang for a month and I don’t think that would create any problems with it. Because the letters have only been attached using that adhesive, if they come loose you could iron them back on, using a paper in between so that you’re not actually putting the iron directly on the fabric. So those could easily be reattached if they are dislodged.
I think aside from that it’s pretty robust. I know that other machine embroidery that I’ve done has lasted many years and gone through many, many washes – not a problem. Machine stitching is pretty strong and I haven’t used cotton threads; I’ve used polyester threads which have a longer life because cotton can deteriorate over a period of time.
J Armitage: So you really feel quite confident that your threads are pretty strong but light is going to be -
V Wensing: I think light is going to be the greatest thing. There’s a danger of it fading if it was sitting in light for a long period of time.
J Armitage: Can we go back to the Convention now? Obviously it was a pretty exciting time. Looking back after nearly 11 years, what do you think the Constitution achieved?
V Wensing: That’s hard to say. At the time, it achieved – there was quite a buzz and it achieved an opportunity to review the social political concerns of contemporary women.
I don’t think much has changed; certainly not much has changed in the last 12 years, except, of course, we do now have a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General, and in the ACT a female Chief Minister, which are significant achievements.
In terms of women’s role in day-to-day democracy, I don’t think much has changed. We have a conservative Liberal Party that doesn’t think quotas is a good idea for the number of women in parliament. Fortunately we’ve got Emily’s List, which is an initiative of the Labor Party that is designed to support women to stand for public office, but they still haven’t reached their quota either.
So I think it will be some time yet before we see equal representation of women and it will certainly be even longer before we see the eradication of violence against women; but I think it’s important to keep having the dialogue and keep talking about these issues.
This year in particular I think there’s a bit of a shift in these issues, partly because of Julia Gillard’s somewhat famous ‘misogynist speech’ which for me was the first time I saw her speaking from the heart. I was so proud in that moment. I wished that she could speak that way all the time but she said what I think many women of Australia had wanted to say for a really long time.
With the advent of social media, I think there are greater opportunities presenting to women to mobilise and come together, even if we’ve never met each other. A great example of that, even just in this last week, is the Facebook group called ‘Destroy the Joint’ which is affectionately called ‘Destroy the Joint’ because Alan Jones, a well-known radio presenter, was complaining about the number of women in high office and suggesting that we were just going around destroying the joint, so we’ve taken over that title.
J Armitage: I hadn’t heard of that one.
V Wensing: Yes, so there’s a Facebook movement now which has at least 25,000 followers and last week John Laws, who was a friend of Alan Jones, they’re men of the same ilk, was interviewing a survivor of childhood sexual violence and he had asked this women had she been provocative. She was six years old when these offences occurred. So of course there’s been quite a lot of outrage, particularly through the ‘Destroy the Joint’ movement. The radio station was bombarded by emails and it was really through the social media that we in the first instance became aware of it but then we were prompted to action.
Interestingly enough, a petition was presented to the radio station this week with 38,000 signatures asking for an apology from him and asking for him to do an interview with somebody who was an expert on these issues, so of course he’s still denying that he did anything wrong, he can’t really understand why there is an outrage.
This is what we’re still dealing with in 2013. I hope we’re not dealing with it in 2083.
J Armitage: I remember speaking with the League of Women Voters when WEL was established in South Australia in the early 70s and they were venerable elder women who said, You’re going to have to keep going, just keep going, and so it’s important to keep going. Social media, as you’ve said, gives another opportunity to mobilise in a way that wasn’t possible before.
V Wensing: That’s right, and interestingly enough the ‘Destroy the Joint’ group actually won an award as the most significant agent for change in Sydney, about a month ago. I think the awards were made by the National Australia Bank. It’s the first time more than one woman has won an award, because 25,000 of us won that award. It’s fantastic.
J Armitage: I’m going to have to join up.
V Wensing: You will!
J Armitage: How important did you think the Convention was for our democracy? You’ve talked about it in some ways, that not much has changed, but do you see that it was important for our democracy?
V Wensing: Absolutely. I think so. Back in that time there was increasing awareness about the somewhat privileged position of Anglo women and a growing awareness of the needs of women from diverse cultural backgrounds and of our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are still more disadvantaged by comparison in our community and in our society.
I guess for me that goes back to the banner as well. The banner reflects diversity of women. It’s become increasingly more important to include the voices of the more marginalised women. I think historically it has been those of us who have been more privileged who have had the opportunity to speak out and I think it’s really important now for us to be encouraging those who are less privileged to also speak their minds and to feel that they have a right to speak their mind. I think that’s the greatest barrier.
J Armitage: As you said, the three women on the banner were quite significant, to say this is inclusive of all women.
V Wensing: Yes. Gender is one of the most fundamental organising factors of our society and I think all too often it’s minimised. One of my roles at the Office for Women is to encourage policymakers to use what we call a gendered lens when they’re looking at policy, to ensure that the impacts of the policy have been considered on both women and men. That becomes really relevant when you’re looking at things like housing, access to income, employment. We know on average about 80% to 85% of single-headed households are headed by women, so when we’re making policies around social welfare benefits, they more often than not will impact on women far more and differently than on men.
J Armitage: And therefore on children.
V Wensing: That’s exactly right – and therefore on children. So I think it’s still very important. I fear that there is a bit of thinking that we’ve reached equal status and I think certainly for younger women it’s not until they meet the challenges of perhaps having a family and trying to balance having a job that they begin to really understand the struggles of the sisters who’ve gone before them and become much more aware of the fact that we’re still not living in a society which really gives us full equality.
J Armitage: There’s almost a veneer, isn’t there, that tries to lead people to believing there is equality but it is a veneer.
V Wensing: That’s exactly right. I think we need to cast more of a gendered lens as well, particularly on violence. We know that the majority of perpetrators of domestic and family violence and sexual violence are men against women, but even more broadly, interestingly enough, I was listening to the radio the other day about the mass murders that have occurred in the States and of 62 mass murders that were researched for this particular piece of work 61 of them were perpetrated by men. I think as a society we’re reluctant to look at that and to look at what is it about us as a society that breeds men to be capable of such violence. I’m not saying that women aren’t capable of violence but if we look at the statistics and look at who’s perpetrating the violence in the world, it’s largely men. I think that’s something that still is a battle that lies ahead of us.
J Armitage: It’s not only about statistics; it’s about whether people want to understand the statistics and ask the reasons why.
V Wensing: Yes, and it makes sense why it doesn’t come up into public discourse – because if you look at this through a feminist lens, we’re living in a society that valorises the role of men, that privileges the role of men, so anything that challenges that privilege, of course, is going to be squashed. It’s logical, in a way.
J Armitage: Is there anything more you’d like to say about either the banner or the Convention? Take time to reflect.
V Wensing: I think the Convention did bring a focus back to issues around civics and democracy and participation of women in those processes. I think it was an important conversation to have, particularly at that 100 year milestone.
Obviously there’s still more work to be done. We’re slowly chipping away and I hope that at some time in the future women do have true equality and women have much more of a say in the way our society works, in democracy, in ruling or governing our country, but also just in civic participation.
For me, it was extremely exciting to do the banner. I was really proud to do that and I’m even more proud now that it sits in the Museum of Australian Democracy. I think that’s fantastic.
J Armitage: Thank you for sharing about the banner and about the Convention and also sharing so much of yourself as well.
V Wensing: Thank you. [end Part 2]
Interview with Veronica Wensing Part 3
J Armitage: Having reflected on the interview, we think it’s really important that the names of the women who are the committee of the 2002 Women’s Constitutional Convention should be recorded so Veronica is going to read them out now.
V Wensing: Yes, the members of the steering group were:
- Judy Harrison
- Erica Lewis
- Marian Riley
- Marian Sawyer
- Margaret Smith
- Catherine Evans
- Rosemary Evert
- Mary Andrew
- Amanda Graupner
- Judith Downey
- Chelsea Bell
- Sarah Brash
There were also three temporary staff who were employed through funds that were received from the Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women. They were:
- Meredith Hinchcliff
- Robyn Tennant Wood
- Christina Ryan
J Armitage: Thank you for that.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3
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