Dr Penny Flett with Head of Kurongkurl Katitjin, Professor Colleen Hayward and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Equity and Indigenous) Professor Brenda Cherednichenko
Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture - In Honour of Courage
Dr Penny Flett
CEO - Brightwater Care Group
Monday, 9 March 2009, 12.30pm
ECU Joondalup Campus
Dr Penny Flett is the CEO of Brightwater Care Group which provides care and support to young disabled people and the elderly. Her presentation was part of the University's International Women's Day celebrations.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all with sincerity and humility, for the privilege of presenting to you the Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture. Edith Cowan might have been amazed to know that one day she would be remembered every year, with pride and honour, by a University named for her, and even more than that, at a time every year when we acknowledge the achievements, and the needs yet to be met, of women all over the world.
I speak today of leadership, - leaders we know from history and story telling through the ages, the great and neverending need for leadership, the example of extraordinary leaders like Edith Cowan, and an appeal for all of us to accept the baton passed to us - to become todays leaders in our world - a world which sorely needs our hope, and courage, and attention.
I begin by reflecting on leadership.
It is leadership that takes society forward, shapes us, inspires us to greatness, rights our wrongs, and keeps hope alive in time of adversity.
There are many sorts of leaders, in many different circumstances, but all have something in common. Something stirs them to do what they do, they have courage to start, and keep going when the going gets tough, they have tenacity to keep going when the going is long. They face challenges squarely, they make things change.
Ever since human beings came to be, there have been leaders -
There are the famous ones:- Ghengis Khan, Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill,
There are the infamous - Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin.
And there are those who are not famous at all, and those who were not famous in their time, and those who have been forgotten by history.
There are the heroic leaders, like - Mao Tze Tung (the long march and the rule of communism), and Margaret Thatcher (who took on unions head on, and then pulled off the Falklands war).
There are the dogged ones, knowing that they are doing the right thing, but their changes will bring great scorn and opposition from the powerful, and a good deal of pain to the powerless, like Mikail Gorbachev (When he addressed the UN in 1988, and talked about the profound restructure he was undertaking of the Soviet Union, encompassing politics, the economy, spiritual life and ideology, he said the reason for doing all this was Freedom of choice is a universal principle to which there should be no exceptions).
And there are the very quiet ones, who go un-noticed the Lao Tzu leaders, who do not claim their leadership. They are largely invisible, and step back in favour of those they have led, who have found their feet, and own the change.
(Lao Tzu an ancient Chinese philosopher:
A leader is best when people barely know he exists.
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him.
But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say:
we did it ourselves )
There are those who are leaders because of their birth, or position in society, like hereditary monarchs; there are leaders because of their power: like the victor in battle, or the elected head of government, or even the religious evangelist in full flight (exercising considerable emotional power).
There are inspirational leaders because of their courage, tenacity and achievement, and their humility and alignment with the people they help; leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela,- humble individuals, doing what they do for others, not themselves.
Society relies on leaders. There are always battles to be won, adversities to be overcome, wrongs to be righted. There will always, even in the best of societies, be inequities, injustices, inequalities.
Human nature does not change. Whenever there is more than one person living together, human interaction occurs, and there is potential for respect or disrespect. Human beings naturally live together, and societies, whether small or large, simple or sophisticated, develop behaviours and expectations with potential for good or bad effect on their members.
Today I want to look at that special sort of leader, whose energy is focused on the behaviour and obligations of society to its members: Individuals who work to uphold moral principles and enable a just society, and to fight on behalf of societys disadvantaged, ignored, powerless and voiceless peoples, groups and minorities. They labour to win rights for those people, to ensure those rights are respected, and ultimately, to enable a decent society.
Such a leader was Edith Cowan.
She lived from 1861 to 1932. Much of her work was done in the late 1800s and the early decades of the 1900s.
She stands in historys pages beside several amazing contemporaries of her day - Bessie Rischbieth, Dr Roberta Jull, Lady Madeleine Onslow, and other suffragists, advocates for the poor, elderly, chronically ill, children, unmarried mothers, working women.
Let me quickly sketch in the context - a few events and dates to paint the picture.
These were the days when womens rights were only just gaining recognition. Women won the right to vote in 1899. The old age pension began in 1908. The population of WA had recently quadrupled, with the gold rush. There was great poverty and hardship. There was a Poor house for women, and a Home for destitute men. The Perth Public Hospital employed its first trained nurse matron in 1891. The Home of Peace for the Dying and Incurable opened in 1903. The sicknesses and woes that accompanied the massive influx of people in the Kalgoorlie/Coolgardie gold rush were coped with by the Salvation Army, the Methodist Sisters of the People, and the Sisters of St John of God.
The University of Western Australia started in 1911.
These were really interesting times, the Boer War finished in 1902, and Queen Victoria was on the throne until that year. The Wright brothers flew their heavier than air aeroplane in 1903, (and Harley Davidsons were just starting in the US!).
Western Australia was a fledging colony, growing rapidly, and there was much to be done for the welfare and well being of many people.
Edith Cowan was an extra ordinary woman. Her childhood was marred by dreadful tragedy, and must have given her that combination of empathy, self reliance and resilience which equipped her for all the work she did in her long working life. A champion for womens rights, she did more than talk about them - she was very much part of initiating, leading and participating in many activities and formal moves for the promotion of womens rights: - the Womens Service Guild, the National Council of Women in WA, the Karrakatta Club.
She was involved in the establishment of the KEMH for Woman and served on its advisory Board.
Edith Cowan was a tireless worker for children, working with the Ministering Childrens League, helping found the Childrens Protection Society; she advocated strongly for state schooling. She rolled up her sleeves, too, - involved in the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers, and starting the first day nursery for working mothers children; she helped achieve the State Children Act in 1907, which set up the Childrens Court, and she was appointed to its bench.
In stepping forward to take up positions hitherto unavailable to women, she was a powerful role model to other women.
Eventually, as we know, Edith Cowan was elected to Parliament, in 1921 - the first ever woman to achieve this in Australia. In her single term, she was busier than ever - she used her role to promote migrant welfare, infant health centres, and womens rights; one of her most notable achievements was her private members Bill, which opened the legal profession to women - The Womens Legal Status Act 1923.
After Parliament, she spent the rest of her life as actively as ever - including helping plan the States 1929 centenary celebrations.
Thanks to Edith Cowan, and the articulate, confident and dedicated women with whom she worked, Western Australia forged ahead in its womens movement, and many womens and childrens issues were well progressed by the 1920s.
She has been called one of Australias greatest women, and her likeness appears on every $50 note.
Today we honour Edith Cowan and leaders like her, and keep their courage and achievements alive in the minds and hearts of all of us, so that we remember what they did, and know that we too, can walk in their footsteps, and do what they did.
We honour them, because in so many ways that we take for granted, our lives are that much better, and freer, and full of hope, because of them.
We must be willing to keep their spirit alive, because there are still many injustices in our society, in our world.
It was International Womens Day yesterday, so let me start with women - on a global scale. (I am a member of Zonta International, a world wide service association of women, working to lift the status of women, so I am aware of some of the problems women face, globally). Here are some bald facts:
- 70% of the 1.3 billion poor people in the world are women.
- 2/3 of illiterate adults are women.
- 2/3 of children not in school are girls.
- Every year 4 million women and girls are bought and sold worldwide.
- Every day, 7000 women and girls will contract HIV.
- If poverty, HIV/AIDs, illiteracy, violence and human trafficking had a face, it would be female.
- Millions of women in the world have no money, no possessions, no status, they do 9/10 of the work in the world.
The single most critical and impactful thing that can be done to start to change the plight of women, is to educate the girl child. Literacy give a woman access to knowledge, the ability to understand and look after their health, their childrens health, contraception, their rights, the ability to earn money, and a chance of independence.
A second immensely powerful gift for womens independence, is access to micro finance. Microfinance enables women to access small loans, buy a vital piece of equipment, like a sewing machine, sell what they have made, repay the loan, take out a bigger one, and so on. They can establish a little business, have money to buy food for their children, perhaps ensure they go to school, and in many cases, escape poverty.
Let me mention two extraordinary leaders (among many) working in these fields.
Dr Helen Gayle USA President and CEO of CARE. Previously Director of HIV, TB and Reproductive Health Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
An African American woman and doctor, she explains about the enormity of HIV/AIDS in relation to women, especially in Africa, and the tenacious links between HIV/AIDS and poverty, violence against women, lack of education, and gender inequity. Women are married very young, cannot negotiate sexual relations, and are prone to sexual violence.
Dr Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner, is the founder of the Grameen Bank in 1976. Since that time, the Bank has been providing micro credit to the poor; there have been 7 million borrowers, 97% of them women. Loans have totalled more than $6billion, with a repayment rate of 98%.The result of all this? 58% have crossed the poverty line.
Microfinance not only benefits the women, but also their families and their local economies, and has the added important benefit of enhancing community resilience in face of economic crises.
Coming down from the global scale, and closer to home, there are continued inequities, disadvantaged groups, disempowered minorities, and victims of indifference, and all sorts of circumstances where people need understanding and help.
Let me comment on two of these.
One is the needs of Indigenous peoples. This is something we all know about, and frankly struggle to know what to do. So much has patently failed in the past. We surely need leadership. Australian indigenous peoples must regain their rightful place in this land, their dignity and respect; somehow we must all learn how that is to be achieved, so that all of us can live our lives without the inequalities of education, health, life expectancy, employment, and civic and social enjoyment that separate us so drastically at present.
There are many indigenous and non indigenous leaders and activists working in this troubled space, they need all the positive support Australia can muster.
The second is the ageing of the population. A triumph of medical science for the human race, it is a modern phenomenon which will have, it its way, as big an impact on society as both of the huge matters facing us right now - the global financial crisis, and climate change - in that it will demand societal change.
Over the next 20 years, the ageing post WW2 cohort (the so-called baby boomers) will change Australian economics, business practice, and the health system. The impact on the workforce is already apparent in the increasing labour shortage. (While there is some change with the job losses at the moment, this is a mere blip, and the workforce will continue to shrink for at least the next 20 years). This is a major challenge for government, commerce, and national economics - and is a direct result of the very large cohort of baby boomers living much longer than anyone before, in a total population which has almost stopped growing.
In their aging years, this generation, by their expectations, their political power, and their longevity, will demand a shift in thinking from government policy to infrastructure priorities, from housing to care systems, from employment attitudes to technology development.
Much is made of how much they will cost the public purse, but little is understood of how much they will cause societal values to respond, and of how much they themselves will put into society. Their contribution will be immense, in volunteering, grand parenting and family caring. (In monetary equivalents, this is worth many billions of dollars). The contribution of their collective experience and wisdom is immeasurable, if only we can shape societys attitudes and desire to tap this human fortune.
But when they become very old and frail, they will deserve a much better deal than is available today. Unless we really get together and build community, shift our values to embrace, nurture and respect people of all ages, cherish the relationships between all generations, and learn from the wisdom of our elders, our society will be bereft of humanity, and will be conscience stricken for all the lonely old people eking out a miserable solitary existence before being exiled to nursing homes.
And, as it is International Womens Day, I would remind you that very old age, is womens business.
And now to all of here, today.
We have considered leadership, we have looked at some of the challenges for society, big global issues, and the things that still need attention in our own Australian society
I offer you a call to arms - to make sure that the aspirations, the hopes, courage and tenacity of leaders we admire, continue through our actions. It is for us to take the baton passed to us by leaders and pioneers before us, so that all their efforts are not lost, or just written in history books for us to admire and then move on.
We must be alert to the needs of our time, and decide to do something about them - not necessarily through heroic leadership, brandishing spears and shields like Boadicea, or the Amazons, nor perhaps standing on a soap box preaching on a street corner.
There are many ways to show leadership, for the brave and notsobrave, for the shy and the introverts among us as well as the consummate speech makers.
From leaders like Edith Cowan, we draw inspiration and confidence - we can find a voice to speak up in the face of ignorance, opposition, complacency and, worst of all, indifference. (Indifference is an insidious and terrible evil, seducing people to ignore injustices,- from the holocaust in WW2, to ordinary everyday poverty in our suburbs)
We can challenge convention and tradition when it has outlived its usefulness, and is not only irrelevant, but retarding what should change. (Sacred Cows are hard to move, but best made into hamburgers!).
We can insist on honesty and integrity, especially when no one else is brave enough to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
We can encourage debate, and canvass alternative approaches.
We can raise awareness about things that arent right.
If we arent able to speak up ourselves, we can stand right next to someone who does its lonely being brave, and greatly encouraging when someone steps up and says I agree.
There are of course many, many areas where leadership is needed in our society. Some of these were pioneered by Edith Cowan, and yet still need attention today.
Education where Edith Cowan advocated strongly for state schooling, we would do well to advocate for universal education for aboriginal children. Mick Dodson, Australian of the Year 2009, laid down the gauntlet recently - for every aboriginal child to attend school by Australia Day next year. Only with education is there hope for independence, employment and a fulfilling path in life. All aboriginal children deserve the chance to grow up healthy, strong in body and spirit, educated and full of hope.
Working women and mothers - A foundation member of the Childrens Protection Society in 1906 Edith Cowan pioneered a day nursery for children of working mothers. Well, there are still working mothers, more than ever, and the Day Nursery issue is still a hot topic; and as for childrens protection well there is a long way to go in 2009 to ensure safety, health and well being for all children. Children are still the powerless witnesses and victims of abuse.
Public Office, Senior Roles - Edith Cowan worked prodigiously on many fronts, for women - KEMH, National Council of Women, full civil rights for women. She walked the talk, and was ultimately elected to Parliament - the first woman to achieve that privilege, and she didnt waste a moment of her term of office.
Women are still in the minority in parliaments across Australia. By my count, only 5 have succeeded in achieving Premiership/Chief Ministership.
Parliament and politics is a very rough place, and even more so for women, who bear heavy scrutiny by colleagues, opposition, the press and the public.
It must have required nerves of steel and armour plating in Edith Cowans day.
In 2009, there are still many place where women need extra confidence and courage and support to step up, indeed often times are still searching for ways to achieve equality.
Politics, the Board room, executive management, and in many professions career advancement is difficult if a woman needs work flexibility for family reasons - the law, medical specialisation, engineering, IT.
Leadership striving for change for the better, advocating for what is right, championship for those who have no voice, is not only womens business.
It is for all of us, great or small, daring or shy, to speak up, to stand up, to stick up for what we know to be right.
If you ever feel scared just think of Edith Cowan.
I reflect on the courage, determination and the achievements of Edith Cowan. Her sense of justice, her sure belief in right and wrong, her understanding, clarity and focus on what needed to be done, are repeated time and again, in different ways, and at different times in history, by other extraordinary people.
People we know well -
Elizabeth Fry in the prisons, and Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War from England;
Martin Luther King and Shirley Chisholm in the USA,( Shirley Chisolm was the first black Congresswoman in the USA, in 1964. In her sentinel speech to Congress in 1969, she said .as a black person, I am no stranger to prejudice. But the truth is, I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black);
Mandela and de Klerk in South Africa, bringing an end to apartheid;
Ramos Hurta and Xanana Gusmao in East Timor,
and people in our own Western Australian memory - Edith Cowan and Lady Madeleine Onslow in Perth,
and of course people in the future, leaders yet to emerge.
You are all leaders some of you are, or will be, famous and known by all. Some of you will be famous to those around you.
Aim high - you do not know your potential till you test it, so make a brave and bold assumption and aim very high.
We can all show leadership. It is through the combined efforts of all, that we achieve progress. There is so much to be learned from history.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for the privilege of speaking today.
I salute the dedication and contribution of Edith Cowan to Western Australian society, and the example she gives us to follow.
In remembering her every year on this day, we will honour the hope for a better world, and the courage to make it happen.