I first came across the story of Bessie Guthrie and her campaigns for child welfare reforms in an essay by Suzanne Bellamy about MeJane, a Sydney Women’s Liberation Newspaper that ran from 1971-1974. I found it in a book called Things that Liberate An Australian Feminist Wunderkammer (2013) edited by Alison Bartlett and Margaret Henderson. The book is a collection of essays by various women centered around objects from the Women’s Liberation Movement. It became an object in my own ‘Wunderkammer’, acquired during the five years I spent researching and making the documentary film, Brazen Hussies.
In Suzanne’s essay I discovered the hilarious story of Vera Figner, a 19th century Russian revolutionary, whose name was used as MeJane’s ‘Publisher’. As a result, Vera Figner was later found to be a “New South Wales Person of Interest” in ASIO’s surveillance on the Women’s Liberation Movement. This story made it into the film where we also combined ASIO surveillance footage with the pop song ‘Girl Watcher’ by the O’Kaysions – putting an ironic twist on the sexist pastime of ogling women.
But it was difficult to capture all of the facets of the women’s movement in one 90 minute film, and one of my favourite stories ended up on the cutting room floor. It was the story of Bessie Guthrie’s arrival one day at the MeJane Headquarters. She was armed with folders of documents from her one-woman crusade for child welfare reform that she had amassed over 20 years. She announced to the MeJane collective of radical feminists “I’ve been waiting for you girls all my life.”
One of the most significant campaigns [from MeJane] in terms of its success and coverage came in the wake of the arrival of the grand dame Bessie Guthrie … She was in her 60s when she arrived, a tall, elegant woman who came with piles of folders about her campaigns for child welfare reform. It was an astonishing amount of work and took us time to really process.Suzanne Bellamy, during her interview for Brazen Hussies
Bessie was a local Glebe woman, concerned about the plight of runaway teenage girls and their horrific treatment in state institutions. She would often take them in, her home becoming a makeshift halfway house for runaways.
She fashioned this campaign through MeJane and she gradually allowed us to explore her material and shape it, and then to access what we had, which was the power of numbers. And so we had really important demonstrations outside the Bidura children’s prison in Glebe in which women climbed up on the roof.Suzanne Bellamy
With the power of numbers, they were also able to attract the attention of ABC journalist Peter Manning, who reported an exposé on the abuse of girls in state care and the barbaric act of forced virginity testing. It was in watching this report that I was struck by how absolutely horrific the treatment of these girls was.
In a report for the ABC on the Paramatta Girls Home in 1973, Peter Manning discussed the ‘exposure to moral danger’ laws which could be used against girls up until the age of 18:
Annual reports of the child welfare department state that no young men or boys are ever picked up on the charge of exposure to moral danger. It is the section of the Child Welfare Act used exclusively on girls … They are made to scrub the floors of the shelter on their knees every day, ordered to wear a uniform, and they are given a medical examination.
The medical exam included a pelvic examination to determine whether or not they were ‘virginal’. For this white, middleclass, Australian millennial -at least-the idea that the state could compel teenage girls to be physically violated to assess whether they were virgins or not, sounds like something from medieval times, rather than a common occurrence in 1970s Australia. A pelvic examination is not at all a scientifically sound means of testing ‘virginity’.
Image details: Protest at the Parramatta Girls Home, December 9th, 1974. Photo by Anne Roberts courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Tribune / SEARCH Foundation
The exposure to moral danger law was designed to ‘protect’ teenage girls from having sex out of wedlock, but the punishment was far worse than the crime. Only recently the 2014 The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in institutions revealed horrific stories of physical, sexual and mental abuse of the girls who were taken into state care and put into homes such as Parramatta Girls Home.
Just like the criminalization of abortion, the lack of financial support for single mothers and the pressure on them to give their babies up for adoption, the ‘exposure to moral danger’ law was all part of the gendered violence that controlled women’s bodies, and subjugated them under a patriarchal society. Exposure to moral danger was a crime only committed by poor, often Aboriginal, young women, for no other reason than being born female.
Because of Bessie Guthrie’s collaboration with the Women’s Liberation movement, a group of women also made a short film exposing the plight of girls charged with exposure to moral danger. Home, made by Leonie Crennan, Margot Knox, Barbara Levy, Robynne Murphy and Susan Varga features testimony by Toni Wilson, a young woman who spent much of her adolescence in girls homes. The film shows a reenactment of legs going into stirrups from the patient’s point of view. She recounted the following:
The doctor sticks his finger up you. So you can imagine the effect that would have on a thirteen year old child. And a virgin at that. And the doctor saying you know when I resisted purely out of embarrassment, ‘Oh if you don’t lie still we’ll take you to Parramatta and tie you down.’ Completely misinterpreting my attitude, that’s what shits me. An air of defence is just born of fear and bewilderment and you’re penalised for it.
After the episode of This Day Tonight aired compulsory virginity testing was stopped virtually overnight. Eventually the charge of ‘Exposure to moral danger’ was also dropped.
For more information about the “Exposure to Moral Danger” laws and the girls institutions listen to Ann Arnold’s award winning ABC radio documentary from 2009, Exposed to Moral Danger.
For more info on Brazen Hussies:
Catherine Dwyer is the Writer and Director of Brazen Hussies– an historical dive into the Australian Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975. She was inspired to make the film during her time as an Associate Producer on Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) – about the Women’s Movement in the United States. During this experience she realized how little she knew of her own country’s feminist history and how easily it was being forgotten. Catherine was nominated for an Australian Director’s Guild Award for Brazen Hussies as well as an AACTA award for Best Direction. Brazen Hussies was nominated for the 2020 AIDC and AACTA Awards for “Best Feature Documentary” and is listed as one of The Guardian’s top 10 Australian films of 2020.