Bowen Zonta’s International Women’s Day lunch

Choose to Challenge

It is a privilege and a pleasure to be the guest speaker at Bowen Zonta’s International Women’s Day lunch.

I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Land on which we are meeting, the Juru Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I also acknowledge the members of Zonta in the audience. In particular I mention the President of Zonta, Mrs Lynette Klukas.

I would also like to acknowledge some other women in the audience. These women have been instrumental in making my settling into Bowen so much easier. These women symbolise women supporting women. To Christine Coventry (who was awarded Bowen Senior Citizen of the Year at the Australia Day Awards) and Justine McAllister – thank you for your hospitality, lending a listening ear and giving me a Bowen welcome. To Wendy Wellington, who has helped me to keep going when my body was not cooperating.

I also acknowledge three strong women who have had a significant influence on my life – my mother, Pam; my grandmother, Irene; and my mother-in-law, Kitty.

I’d also like to acknowledge some one who is not a woman, my life partner Bruce Button. I have been very fortunate to have a support life partner for over 40 years, who has supported me to achieve my goals.

It is fantastic to see over 100 women from a small community coming together to celebrate International Women’s Day. In the six months I have been in Bowen, I have learnt a lot about the marvelous work Zonta does in our community. Bowen is certainly enriched by the women of Zonta, and their passion. I encourage any young woman who wishes to experience community-led leadership to join Zonta.

The theme for today is Choose to Challenge. (Faileen then asked all participants to share with a person at their table, what they think that phrase means).

International Women’s Day celebrates, or asks us to think about many things:
1. Empowering women,
2. Gender equity,
3. How women’s’ leadership can help ensure a safer, fairer and more sustainable world, and
4. To recognise the central place women hold in keeping families and communities together and functional.

For centuries women have been fighting for social justice and fairness in their communities. Many times they are the driving force behind a man who gets the accolades and honours. Women who choose to challenge can lead global change. We can be very thankful for women such as:

Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to stand you and give her seat on a bus to a white man. Challenging the bus driver’s instruction landed Rosa Parks in prison, but was the catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement.

For Malala Yousafzai, a 12 year old Pakistani student, who through her BCC blog, challenged the Taliban’s ban on girls going to school. She was then gunned down by a man who boarded her school bus. Thankfully she survived and is now studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University.

For Edith Cowan, the face on our $50 bills, who was the first female elected to an Australian Parliament. Cowen had a traumatic family background – her mother died while giving birth to her, and her father was executed when Cowan was 15, for murdering his second wife. However, at the age of 59, Cowan was unexpectedly elected to the Western Australian Parliament. Once there she pushed through legislation to allow woman to work in the legal profession, promoted migrant welfare, and advocated for sex education in schools and equal parenting rights for women.

On day’s like this we also remember Dr Marie Curie, a Polish-born scientist who discovered radium and developed a portable X-ray machine, and so made a huge contribution to the treatment of cancer. Curie was the first person to win two Noble Prizes for her work in science.

For Soujourner Truth, who was born an African-American slave, and fought for gender and racial equality. Freed from slavery in 1827, Truth was the first African-American woman to win a law suite in the United States – she fought to have her son legally returned to her from his life of slavery.

In Australia, we have Dr Evelyn Scott who over 50 years ago challenged our society for Indigenous right. Scott played a crucial role in campaigning for the successful 1967 Constitutional Reform Referendum, which has had lasting impacts on Indigenous politics.

Australia’s most recently recognised national female leader is Grace Tame. The 2021 Australian of the Year, and sexual abuse survivor recently challenged the Prime Minister and other political, civil and business leaders to be ever vigilant and call out those that hide their true self. When Tame was 16 years old, after months of sexual abuse, she found the courage to report her school teacher abuser to the police. On investigation, the police found numerous paedophile material at the teacher’s house. Still thinking the abuse was her fault, and unspeakable, she apologized to police for her behaviour with her abuser. After counselling and connecting with other survivors, Tame is now proud and LOUD. Tame advocates that as a wealthy, advantaged nation we have a responsibility to protect our society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged. If you did not hear Tame’s speech to the National Press Club, it is worth downloading.

For myself, I have made some choices to challenge over my life. Why? Because my parents raised my brother and I with a strong sense of fairness and belief in equality for all. I believe that if a person has the privilege of a supportive family who shows you that our society can be better, we have an obligation to respond.

I have led many organisations in my professional life, and often had to make difficult choices. From when I was a nurse challenging doctors, on behalf of a patient (and those of us who have worked in the health sector, will know what I mean), to representing individuals with no income in court cases against large corporations, to calling out disrespectful behaviour in workplaces – I have had my fair share of challenging. Two of my most memorable choices involve calling out misconduct and waste in a major government department. As a member of the Executive Team that reported to the Minister, I went against the direction of my Director General and advised of information my boss felt should not be said. I had by then tendered by resignation – needless to say I was quickly put on “gardening leave” until my contract expired, but not before getting a mention in the Courier-Mail.

The other choice I made was reporting certain councilors of a Regional City Council to the Crime and Corruption Commission. This didn’t endear my to the Council and I was sacked from my job as Council CEO. As a lawyer, I knew the termination was wrong, so I took them on legally. For two years that caused Bruce and I considerable pain and stress but eventually the court case was quietly settled by Council.

Since coming to Bowen, I look around everyday and see other women leaders doing amazing things. For example, over the past three weeks Steph Cora, who leads the Bowen Neighbourhood Centre, has worked with Julie Minogue and other staff from the Bowen Hospital, and me to challenge Queensland’s Public Guardian and Public Trustee. Why? Because a young woman with an intellectual disability was about to be homeless in Bowen. Steph was adamant that would not happen on her watch. On Wednesday between the three Bowen organisations (Bowen Neighbourhood Centre, Bowen Hospital and Bowen Flexi Care, which I lead) we got the Public Guardian to approve emergency housing, daily support services and an application to NDIS to support this woman.

I am sure there are many stories like this happening every day in this community which we will never hear about – women who choose to challenge, not to benefit themselves, but for others. For that I say “thank you” to those unsung heroes. I commend the change you make and urge you to keep challenging.

Before I conclude I would like to ask something of each of you – think about something in your life or your community that you think should be challenged. Next year, on International Women’s Day, let us all be in a position to say “I have chosen to challenge that which I think needs changing”. Let’s see how we can all make our community a fairer place to live.

In closing, if anything I have said today raises concerns or worries for you, please speak about it because, as Grace Tame says, change starts with a conversation. Thank you and Happy International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021.