By Jill L Ferguson, Robyn Gulliver
This book features “nine never-before-told stories of remarkable women and their courageous pursuits of climate justice in Australia. From boardrooms to blockade camps, from the lush East Gippsland forests to the golden Ningaloo Reef, the fight against environmental destruction takes place in many spaces. The Advocates tells the inside story of nine extraordinary women within the Australian environmental movement and the behind-the-scenes efforts that have helped power advocacy across Australia.
One individual cannot possibly make a difference, alone. It is individual efforts, collectively, that makes a noticeable difference – all the difference in the world. – Robyn Gulliver
Over the past fifty years these advocates have held corporations to account, cleaned up toxic waste in their own backyards, and returned biodiversity to our forests. They are not always on the frontlines of the fight or the front pages of the news, but their relentless commitment to making change is both moving and inspiring.
In often unseen and unacknowledged ways these women have educated, agitated and pioneered new approaches to the many crises in the Australian environment. Told through richly detailed interviews, these stories get to the heart of why these women have dedicated their lives to environmental causes and the different ways they have persevered.” (Source: Melbourne University Press)
The Advocates shines a light on nine women’s tireless commitment to change, and what it means to be an Australian environmental advocate. These stories will inspire the next generation to find a place in that vital fight. – Melbourne University Press
- Chapter 1 – One climate action per day, Jan McNicol, Brisbane
- Chapter 2 – So much important work to be done, Jane Bremmer, Perth
- Chapter 3 – There’s nothing like a bit of pot stirring, June Norman, Cooran, Qld
- Chapter 4 – Embrace the granny trolley, Caro Shiels, Sydney, NSW
- Chapter 5 – It wasn’t going to shut me up, Jill Redwood, Goongerah, Vic
- Chapter 6 – This is my dreaming, Mikaela Jade, Sydney, NSW
- Chapter 7 – So far I haven’t been expelled, Robyn Murphy, Perth, WA
- Chapter 8 – I’m just really stubborn, El Gibbs, Blue Mountains, NSW
- Chapter 9 – The stars aligned, Heather Barnes, Brisbane, Qld
The following extract is taken from Chapter One of the book The Advocates: Women Within the Australian Environmental Movement.
Chapter 1, Jan McNicol, Brisbane: One climate action per day
Jan and I had been in the same 350.org Brisbane group since 2016. We’d meet every second Wednesday at the Friends of the Earth office at Justice Place near the city. ‘Office’ was a generous description. Walk through the door and a wave of unrestrained mess would appear to arise. Butcher’s paper on the floor. Cans of paint on the shelves. Books, untouched for a decade, slowly decomposing in a corner. In this one big room, volunteers would dribble in, scrape their chairs on the scratched floor and talk about how to win.
People always came and went. Enthusiastic volunteers walked up the steps nervously, wanting to do something big. But they couldn’t always find their place. Sometimes they just didn’t have the patience for the endless minutiae of administration and organising, which is 90 per cent of the reality of activism. Jan was different. Short, quiet and no-nonsense, she would turn up each Wednesday. In every meeting she’d keep to the point. No fifteen minute rambling discussion about irrelevant side-issues would ever come out of Jan’s mouth. She always supported arguments that she agreed with and stayed studiously quiet with those she didn’t. Others would defer to her. Whether because of her age or her forthrightness, I’m not sure. She didn’t mince words. With that came a slight hint of impatience with those who did.
At the time, our 350.org Brisbane group was spread thin. We were working on three issues: a renewable energy campaign, helping stop a massive proposed new coal mine and trying to get our local council to divest its fossil fuel investments. We always knew the last was a losing battle. Despite the global power and success of 350.org as an environmental campaigning group, our little team couldn’t make a dent on the monolithic pro-business philosophy of Australia’s largest local government. On the other hand, our renewable energy campaign was emerging as a clear winner.
Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine was another matter. The campaign against the biggest new thermal coal mine in the southern hemisphere had been dragging on and on for more than five years. Groups all over the country had become involved, as fresh outrages occurred—habitat destruction, stockpile spills—then faded away again as little progressed. Other environmental emergencies constantly arose, new issues popping up like weeds in an overgrown lawn. But the Carmichael mine was persistent; like plastic in the ocean, it just wouldn’t go away. As a result, over time the campaign to stop the Adani mine branched into multiple strategies, and Jan was involved in almost all of them.
I’d seen her being walked to a police car after a sit-in at a Commonwealth Bank protesting their continued support of fossil fuel projects like Adani. She’d been at the Aurizon Rail Company offices and the Australian Labor Party 2017 campaign launches, demanding to know why loaning $1 billion from the public purse to fund a railway line for a private non-Australian company was a wise financial move. She’d stood on a road in central Queensland blockading the Adani-owned Abbot Point coal port. She’d been arrested multiple times and fined hundreds of dollars. And, of course, she’d been to meetings, rallies, forums, workshops, training sessions and the countless other week-in, week-out activities that are the bread and butter of the activist’s toolkit for creating change.
So what made her stand out to me? Ask anybody not involved in activism, and they probably would not know her name. This person, the most experienced activist I’d met, never took the limelight. She hid her deep experience, masked the iron will and cloaked her steely determination under the camouflage of a retired civil servant. She also refused to mentor or facilitate or take on any leadership role in the movement. I was interested to know how and why she had stayed involved over many years of activism maintaining this low-key role, and whether the unwillingness to lead was a deliberate choice. So I met her for lunch, at a small artisan café in Brisbane’s eclectic West End village. Surrounded by raucous laughter and subdued conversations, we sat and talked about her trajectory towards climate activism.
She developed a love of the environment early on. She was brought up in Tarragindi, Brisbane, in a family of scientists. Her mother, a metallurgist, was ‘a nature-loving greenie. She used to walk up to the forests on the hill, and I’d go along with her. I was always interested in nature, always running away from the family and hiding in the forest.’ Her father was a physicist.
‘So did you feel like you had to become a scientist when you were growing up?’ I asked.
‘Sort of. Dad wanted me to become a doctor and I didn’t want to do that.’ Having seen the strength of Jan’s determination while waiting hours to be arrested, it’s easy to understand why her father didn’t get his wish.
During her early teens the battle was raging to protect the Great Barrier Reef from oil mining. This fight led to the reef’s recognition as a unique and precious asset requiring protection and helped spark awareness of other environmental issues across the country. For Jan, her first involvement in the environmental movement occurred when she became the proud owner of a Wombat Acre.
‘A what?’ I was intrigued.
She explained: ‘It was a subscription from the South Australian Natural History Society. They’d go out walking and looking at things, and they found an area of land that was grazed by sheep and was just denuded. Wombats were starving, lying on the ground in the middle of the day trying to get warm because they were so emaciated. So the society bought some land from the farmers, put a fence around it, chucked the sheep out and let the wombats have it.’
‘So how did you get the money?’
‘Oh, I guess my parents must have given it to me,’ she chuckled.
This interest and care for Australia’s fauna continued with a zoology degree. After completing her studies, she became an assistant researcher for an ornithologist at the University of Queensland. At the same time she looked for a way to put her beliefs into action. But the environmental movement in the early 1970s was very different from what it is today. Many groups that are now large and iconic, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and The Wilderness Society, had only just started. They looked to Jan like ‘gentlemen’s clubs’. ACF, she recalled, was going to be ‘men only’ until someone remembered Judith Wright; Queensland’s renowned poet and advocate for the Great Barrier Reef. These groups didn’t feel as if they had any place for a young woman like her. So she stuck to new groups in Brisbane instead, largely just floating from one organisation or project to another.
One of her first volunteer tasks was using the Roneo Machine, or manual printer, for the newly formed Queensland Conservation Council (QCC). Over time the roles piled up as she moved from QCC to bush regeneration groups. Yet no one group or issue really took her heart. No one group seemed able to identify how they could change the world and how Jan would fit in.
Partly this was simply the times. Groups were emerging and growing in cities and towns across Australia. They sprung up spontaneously, were run with little organisation and generally had informal structures. Some groups persisted and grew, and others disappeared. For Jan, it made achieving anything difficult, a continual frustration as one group folded and another began.
But that wasn’t the only reason why she floated between groups. Conflict often arose. She’d experienced it frequently in the past, and we were in the thick of it together that year ourselves.
For all the solidarity and shared values of environmental activists, our group had just gone through a purge driven by the board and CEO. Four of the five staff members had left, one forcibly, and all the volunteer teams were in disarray. With no paid staff left in Brisbane to support our volunteer team, it fell apart. For me this wasn’t the first time either: eighteen months earlier I’d been left aghast at the financial and organisational abyss I faced in trying to fix the environmental group I was supposed to lead. It felt as if the movement was adrift. For Jan and me, it had been an unexpected and unpleasant experience that left everyone weaker and wounded. Worse, it set a big slice of climate activism in Brisbane back a year.
Jan had taken it much better than I had. She had decided to keep ties with the group and see if she could help grow a new climate team to fill the gaps. She seemed unruffled about it. I had the feeling that this experience—the casting aside of volunteers as if their efforts, their time, their skills were worthless—was nothing new for Jan. Indeed after a leg stretch around the courtyard and trip for a second coffee, she told me that it’s a common enough occurrence.
‘What happens often with groups and volunteers is that there is a big fight. Somebody has a big fight with somebody, and somebody leaves, usually me. I’ve had a lot of trouble with myself after actions, and walking away from them and feeling really bad. I’m not sure why. Like, I always think, “I did that really badly”.’ I thought she was being hard on herself. Normally Jan is the calm and quiet voice in the group, not the one fighting. I looked at her carefully; she was just the same as I had always known her, open yet reserved. Maybe she didn’t realise how many others in the world doubt themselves, millions of us stumbling around in a constant cloud of uncertainty and confusion.
When I think about the Brisbane 350.org group and the Stop Adani Brisbane group, to me she was their real backbone. Maybe this inability to quit is what gives her that quiet strength. I put the idea to her, but she wasn’t impressed. ‘Me? I am an earthworm. Earthworms don’t have backbones.’
How could she see herself through such a distorted lens? She saw weakness, and I saw leadership. I saw someone experienced, dependable, honest and inclusive. She saw a pushy woman. Too bossy. Too argumentative. The classic female archetype, where loud women are just women who don’t know their place. Searching through the literature after our talk, I find that this choice some women make to stay in the background is not rare, particularly in social movements.
History has shown that activists often revert to a traditional ‘command and control’ style of leadership, placing a high value on charismatic and optimistic leaders, who are often male. Here in Australia, female environmental activists interviewed about leadership say that few willingly step forward into leadership roles: most have to be persuaded by others. But changing the gender norms of activism has been underway for decades. As time went by, women did this by exerting their leadership through subtle and often well-disguised methods. They worked behind the scenes, supporting, delegating and organising group activities, being the backbone of a group, but not its face—being earthworms.
As Jan told me, the lack of recognition for this veiled leadership style isn’t unique to the environmental movement. ‘Margaret Mead pointed out that whatever it is that men do is prestigious and important for society and valued. Whether it’s hunting crocodiles or embroidery. And in another society if women do those things it’s just menial stuff. Just background, nobody cares.’
So if she knows this, why doesn’t she lead from the front? Is she just protecting herself from the challenges of leadership? No! she claimed stridently. She argued that she’s just not leadership ‘material’. ‘I learned I should be really careful trying to lead things, because I get really angry with people when they don’t understand or agree. I find groups very difficult. I have made myself refrain from being critical and cynical and despairing. My old cynicism, my old personality tries to break out.’
This is true; I’ve seen this many times: shifting in her seat while someone dominates the floor at a meeting; a certain brusqueness in her voice as she attempts to get a word in to steer the conversation back to whatever the point was; a resigned sigh when overruled on a suggested action. But perhaps her clear sense of direction and drive would become an asset if she embraced it.
She never saw this as an option. Instead over the years she moved from group to group, searching for a role, a project to attach herself to. Like those earthworms, she worked inconspicuously beneath the surface. She read more. She waited, just wanting to do something. But she wasn’t ready, or prepared, or willing to be the one to leap on to the stage and demand that people get up and follow her. Instead, she took the other route, and went along for the ride: Literally, with her boyfriend Rod, to the Terania Creek blockade in 1978.
Watch The Advocates Panel Discussion
Dr Angela Dean chaired a panel of experts, co-author Dr Robyn Gulliver, Jan McNicol and Heather Barnes discussing The Advocates: Women within the Australian Environmental Movement at the Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, Queensland in Nov 2021.
About the Authors
Robyn Gulliver is a multi-award winning environmentalist, writer and researcher who has served as an organiser and leader of numerous local and national environmental organisations. Born in New Zealand, she has spent the last decade advocating for and writing about environmental issues for activist groups, local councils, not-for-profit organisations and academia.
Jill L Ferguson is an award-winning writer, editor, former professor and higher education administrator, consultant and coach, entrepreneur, and artist. She’s the founder of both Women’s Wellness Weekends and Creating the Freelance Career. The Advocates is her thirteenth book. Jill lives in Los Angeles with her husband and Queensland heeler.
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- Book review: The Advocates, Robyn Gulliver and Jill L. Ferguson, Melbourne University Press
- The writer sharing the untold stories of female climate activists, Narratively
- Meet The Inspiring Women Fighting For Our Future, Tonic Magazine
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