Brazen Hussies

This important, impassioned and engaging documentary steps through Australia’s women’s liberation movement during the 60s and 70s.
Sarah Ward
Published on November 05, 2020


UPDATE, March 8, 2021: Brazen Hussies is available to stream via ABC iView.


Chatting to activists involved in Australia's women's liberation movement during the 60s and 70s, Brazen Hussies doesn't lack in witty and wise ladies making pivotal points. But it's filmmaker Margot Nash (The Silences) who offers one of this documentary's most telling observations, and the one that crystallises exactly why this movie had to be made. "History has to be told over and over again," she advises. She's a talking head in the film, rather than the writer or director behind it — those roles fall to first-timer Catherine Dwyer — but she couldn't encapsulate Brazen Hussies' purpose any better if she was the doco's driving force. As the feature explains, it's easy for people to overlook this chapter of history, and the fact that it all happened so recently. It's easy to forget that women's lives were drastically different, as was the way they were regarded by the world around them.

It'd also be easy to keep using Nash's words, and those of her fellow activists, to demonstrate why Brazen Hussies is vital, too — as a record and a reminder, and as viewing in general. Dwyer has amassed a formidable array of ladies, all of which could fuel their own documentaries. In fact, many of her subjects could make them. Cinematographer and filmmaker Martha Ansara (Changing the Needle) explains how she realised as a teen that her future was supposed to involve finding the right man. Author and journalist Anne Summers recalls how, when she became the first woman in her family to go to university, it dawned on her that she'd still be paid less than her male counterparts when she graduated. And filmmaker and writer Jeni Thornley (For Love or Money) describes her experiences as a pregnant woman after the death of the man she would've likely married, and how she was treated as if the situation was her fault.

The list goes on. Academic and critic Barbara Creed notes that the word 'lesbian' just wasn't something that was uttered in Australia at the time, for instance. The first Aboriginal Australian to earn a law degree, Pat O'Shane talks about the impact of race, and the gulf between the white women's movement and the plight of Indigenous women. Elizabeth Reid shares memories from her stint as the first Advisor on Women's Affairs to a head of government anywhere in the world — to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 70s — and steps through the way that the media responded to her position. Dwyer counts more than 25 women among her eponymous group, and their tales cover everything from tackling domestic violence and the victim-blaming that can go along with it, to the simple struggle to survive that single mothers faced. Indeed, Brazen Hussies packs not only a wealth of women into its frames, but a plethora of topics. There's a noticeable focus on Sydney and Melbourne over the rest of the country, and not every interviewee or issue is covered in-depth, but the film isn't short on breadth.

Brazen Hussies' survey of all of the aforementioned matters — plus legal abortion, funding for childcare and society's abhorrence of female sexuality as well — happens in tandem with a historical recounting of Australia's actual fight for women's liberation. Inspired after working on 2014 documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry, which did the same from a US perspective, Dwyer examines what drove these women to act and what they achieved, of course. At every moment, however, she's just as interested in how they battled for that change. Having access to a treasure trove of materials helps considerably. If the doco's talking-head lineup is impressive, it's bested only by the immense range of archival images and footage that Dwyer and editor Rosie Jones (director of The Family) splice together. With the rest of the filmmaking team, the pair sifted through more than 4000 photographs, journals, artworks and posters, and 800-plus news clips, documentaries and dramatic movies — and, unsurprisingly, Brazen Hussies is all the more detailed for it.

All those pictures and and all that footage allows the film to show, not just tell. It also lets audiences witness key moments as they happened. Brisbanites should already know that the Regatta Hotel was once the site of an infamous 1965 protest by Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner, who chained themselves to the public bar to draw attention to the fact that women weren't legally allowed in. Still, seeing it occur is something else entirely. That also applies in Melbourne, with Zelda D'Aprano chaining herself to the city's Commonwealth building in 1971 to rally for equal pay. And the same feeling emanates from clips of author Kate Jennings addressing the crowd on the front lawn of Sydney University in 1970, too, which marked the first time that the male left had allowed a woman to speak at a public event.

The impact of these specific actions, and of efforts big, small, headline-grabbing and routine by all the ladies seen in Brazen Hussies, is still being felt today. Paying tribute to these pioneering women is clearly another of the film's aims but, again, recognising and remembering what they did and how it echoes now couldn't be more crucial. Dwyer also serves up clips that contrast the present situation with the scenario a half-century ago, to put the bulk of the film in context for viewers. As everyone watching should already be well aware, much has changed for women since the documentary's subjects first started marching, protesting and pinching men's bums in the streets to show them how it feels; however, striving for progress remains an ongoing job. Not that any further motivation is needed, but Brazen Hussies is it: an engaging, informative and impassioned snapshot of a reality that's still so recent, and of the hard work that was required to even reach the current imperfect status quo.


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