I clearly remember the first time I spoke up about gender.
I was seven and on an excursion with my school to Old Sydney Town. It’s not open anymore, and when I think about what it was (a ‘living tribute’ to early colonial settlement era Sydney), it’s probably for the best.
My classmates, teachers and several parents were gathered around the town’s water well (water cooler chats v1.0?), and the olde town crier or whoever he was, was explaining life before electricity to us. Everything was done with manpower.
A polite and softly spoken seven-year-old me genuinely enquired, ‘what about womanpower?’.
The adults looked at me and laughed.
I get how it would have been a bit cute in that moment, but the feelings of embarrassment and shame as everyone turned and laughed at me seemed to get trapped in my cells. I can remember the burning in my cheeks and the sting in my eyes like it was yesterday.
More than 25 years later, I am sitting and writing this a few hours after the release of the name of another young woman brutally murdered in Melbourne. Her name is Courtney Herron, and she is the fourth young woman to be murdered in public in Melbourne in less than a year. Eurydice Dixon in June 2018. Aiia Maasarwe in January 2019. Natalina Angok in April 2019.
Eurydice and Aiia were killed by strangers. Natalina was killed by her boyfriend, and at the time of writing, we don’t yet know the name of Courtney’s killer, or his relationship to her. Courtney is at least the twentieth woman to be murdered by a man in Australia this year.
My cheeks are burning and my eyes stinging again — but this time it’s with rage.
Striking the right tone when talking about violence against women is hard.
Too angry, and people stop listening. Too casual or mild, and the wrenching devastation of lives taken and futures destroyed are not given the gravity and urgency they deserve.
Preparing for the MAP launch evening, I was incredibly nervous. It was, without a doubt, the largest audience I have stood before, on any occasion. And whilst I knew it was a fantastic opportunity to engage and challenge and encourage a room full of strangers to become my supporters, I was worried, as ever, about striking that balance.
I was also worried about the inevitable.
I was worried because there would be survivors in the audience, and I wanted to do the best I could for them.
I was worried that everyone would think it was a good idea and a worthy cause — but ultimately remain strangers, moving on, not getting involved.
And I was worried for myself. Hello Cass requires making myself vulnerable, personally and professionally, and no matter how much work I do to prepare, the way it pops up is always a bit of a surprise.
The event had started, and the nervy chatter amongst us MAP participants getting to know each other hushed to barely audible and mostly gestured whispers of support.
Stephen from Brunswick Aces broke a glass at maybe the worst point to break a glass, and the look on Events Manager Tim’s face was one of the funnier things I’ve seen, providing some much-needed (yet heavily stifled) snorts of laughter and reprieve for us all.
I walked to the stage door and readied myself for the tension in the room. I know talking about violence against women can make some people uncomfortable, and it can make some people feel desperately sad. But I also know that striking the right tone and talking about solutions can make people feel emboldened, energised and brave.
Violence against women is a national emergency and it’s an emergency that becomes more urgent the more vulnerable you are. One in four Australian women from age 15 will experience family violence and one in five will experience sexual violence. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to domestic violence. Nine in 10 women living with an intellectual disability will be sexually abused. And this trend of over-representation extends to young women, women with physical disabilities and women from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Working on hard, gendered issues is difficult, isolating and, on the worst days, can frankly feel a little hopeless. Standing in the wings, I could taste the adrenaline in my mouth. My mic was fitted and I wiped my sweating palms down my jeans. But when I stole a look at the audience, the incredible opportunity I had been presented with sunk in and I — emboldened, energised and brave — walked up onto the stage with an additional sense of gratitude.
I had a platform. And so many women do not.