Change is coming for women in Australia. Will it include all of us?

First Nations women on how we can make the revolution inclusive and the power of listening.

By Madison Howarth


First Nations women on how we can make the revolution inclusive and the power of listening.

By Madison Howarth

Last month, I found myself applauding the television. I was at home. I was by myself. It’s a bit weird, but I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame were taking the federal Government to task with their unflinching joint address at the National Press Club in Canberra. Their anger and frustration was palpable. 

The tide is shifting for women in Australia. We have marched in our thousands to defend one another’s right to be safe at work, to be fairly paid, to be valued. Media headlines have shouted that Change is coming. A reckoning, it has been called.

But what about Blak women? 

What about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

I wonder if we will be included in the revolution or left out in the cold once more. 

This week I spoke with some inspiring and determined Indigenous women for Future Women’s annual International Women’s Day Breakfast panel. It’s a mouthful to say and to type but it is an incredible event that provides a platform for Blak women to tell their stories and share their ideas. This is the third event of its kind that we’ve hosted, thanks to the generous support of Witchery.

Together we discussed how to break down biases and make the world more equitable for First Nations women. And ‘listening’ was the word we kept coming back to. The importance of listening to Blak women and hearing what they have to say. And with the panel’s expertise spanning across academia, journalism, music, storytelling, policy and health, there was a wealth of knowledge to be heard. 

Nardi Simpson, Yuwaalaraay writer, musician, composer and educator was joined by journalist, producer, presenter, Karla Grant, a proud Western Arrernte woman, and Dr Summer Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman with extensive experience in health research and policy.

“As we are talking, who is listening?” Nardi asked.

Nardi said that the women in her family are always talking but that being heard depends on the space and the listener.  “What is the space for those yarns and are the people who are moving into those spaces, able to listen in different ways? Because not all of it is strong and fierce. Some of it is whispered,” she said. 

“When I was growing up I didn’t see Aboriginal women on television,” said Dr Summer May Finlay. She reminded us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were excluded well before the events of the last few years; before the MeToo Movement and before the pandemic hit. 

“I didn’t see Aboriginal people on television. We didn’t hear our stories told in a way that was genuine and true, because they were coming from a non-Aboriginal perspective. We really see that coming to the fore now,” she explained. 

With 30 years experience in journalism and media, Walkley Award winner and Indigenous affairs pioneer, Karla Grant, agreed that it was important Indigenous people tell our own stories. She shared her insight from her first-hand experience of working in the media industry. 

“I’m a storyteller,” Karla said. “As Indigenous people, we are storytellers. That skill has been handed down to us for generations and generations. So for me, getting our stories out there, about Indigenous women and the issues that we face – that’s what I do. We’ve got to get our stories out there and not just be speaking to ourselves. We’ve got to get them out to a wider audience so that these stories are acknowledged. Through that, we can create more change and make an impact and a difference to the lives of Indigenous women.” 

As we move into the next phase of this pandemic, we are all more conscious of the importance of our health. For Indigenous people, some of the outcomes articulated in the Close the Gap strategy have actually worsened in recent years. To change this, Summer pointed out that the power has to be given back to Indigenous people. 

“We need to be able to be given the opportunity to speak at those policy levels to be able to make the impact and the difference that we need. And it’s not just given the space, it’s actually given the money, the power, the control, not just consulted,” she said. 

Summer added that consulting has led to minimal impact at community and individual levels. She called for Indigenous people and grassroots organisations to be given the room to make mistakes so that solutions can be created that will address individual communities and their unique needs.

“You’ve had two hundred and twenty plus years of consulting and look where we are,” said Summer. “We’ve also got to be given room to make mistakes because we’ve got to undo a lot of damage, which has caused intergenerational trauma and colonisation is ongoing. So we need to be given the space to come up with solutions that are going to suit our community.” 

Karla agreed and said that our perspective needs to be at the centre of decision making and our voices at the centre when speaking on a variety of issues. “We’ve got so many Indigenous experts,” said Karla. “Make sure you go to those people first, rather than going to a non-Indigenous expert because we know what’s happening in our communities. We know about the issues that we face, we have lived-experience, so speak to us.” 

And who better to talk to in our communities than our women?

Than the Blak matriarchs. 

I asked Nardi about the Blak matriarchy and how important they are. She said, to an eruption of laughter, “You don’t mess with them… You listen and learn. We all have women, who are close to us, who haven’t had a chance to stand up and roar. You are obliged to listen to those fullas everytime they talk because they haven’t been allowed to speak. And then you start to have this beautiful looking life of standing in the shadow of fierce women and sidling up to the quiet ones and all the beauty in between.  That’s a way to live – by listening to Blak women and allowing them to rub off on you.”  

Even though I applauded Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame with everything I’ve got, my heart was torn.  My heart sank for the Indigenous women who go missing and are never found. The women who are hurt and go unheard. Who are assaulted and don’t make front page news. Who are murdered and don’t make headlines. The women who speak but who we consistently fail to listen to. 

“I have learned so much from young Blak women, as I do, from the old girls… but these young ones, stand back and let them go – because they’ll take us all with them. Whether you’re First Nations or not, watch the future they make for all of us,” said Nardi Simpson.

We have been talking for hundreds of years. We have been making noise and saying it in whispers when our shouts are ignored. We have tried everything and yet still we are missing from spaces where decisions are made and culture is shaped.

Are you ready to listen? I hope so.