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A Totally Bonza Susan Brennan
18 / 10 / 2012
A ‘Bonza Sheila’ is a regular Sheilas section paying tribute to a damn good woman, in which Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper asks a range of questions.
This October’s Bonza Sheila is Melbourne barrister Susan Brennan, who has a long (and impressive) association with a range of women’s and community organisations. Thank you Susie for being ridiculously bonza!
1. You studied law in the early 1990s and then in 1997, at 27 years of age, became the youngest Australian president of the YWCA. When did you become aware of being a feminist?
My best friend in 6th grade at Blacksburg Middle School was Maggie Harrison; she was smart, beautiful, popular and always stood up for herself and for all girls against the bullying boys. I wanted to be just like her. Back in Australia, I critiqued sexism during the evening meal; in my teens, I denounced marriage as a patriarchal institution; at uni, I hosted a feminist table at my conservative residential college. There was no lightning bolt moment – I suppose I’ve always believed that women’s potential is just as great as men’s and the world needs to be reorganized to enable women to realize that potential.
2. What drew you into getting involved with the YWCA, a
women’s community organisation, while at the same time embarking on a legal career?
In Feminist Legal Theory, we explored whether feminists would effect greater change through the law or through journalism; I’m pretty sure the answer was journalism, but somehow I chose the law (and ended up with a journo).
In my early 20s, I was miserable doing articles in a big corporate law firm and found an outlet in the YWCA for the international human rights lawyer trapped inside – it was global and local, it was focused on social change, it was serious about young women’s participation.
3. What was your biggest achievement or highlight at the YWCA as Australian president?
The YWCA contributed a feminist perspective to some great national debates of the day, including the republic and tax reform, both by magnifying the voice, experience and participation of women and by advancing a gendered analysis of constitutional and economic reform.
I became involved in the Y when an intergenerational debate about feminism raged and some ’70s feminists accused younger women of indifference or capitulation. In the mid 1990s, I was part of an explosion of young women’s leadership in the YWCA – I was one of two young women sharing the role of President, we had a young woman as our Executive Director and more than half the board members were under 30. It was inspiring to be part of a group of young women leaders supported by an organisation with the history, clout and resources of the Y.
4. While your career as a Barrister took off (specializing in town planning, local government and environmental law), you became more involved in volunteering as a board director with a number of organisations and agencies (Heritage Council, Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, International Women’s Development Agency, Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service Victoria, Women’s Rights Action Network of Australia, goodcompany, Reprieve Australia, and of course the YWCA). What inspired you to balance your career with volunteering?
Some people I know and admire are very single-minded and dedicate their lives to a single pursuit; maybe I’m easily distracted, but I don’t have a one-track mind and I’ve always preferred to get involved in lots of different initiatives.
Volunteering is just about being part of your community; it’s inherently rewarding to connect with other people who are working towards a shared goal.
5. In 2007, aged 37, you were elected the World President of the YWCA, an organisation with a presence in 125 countries, offering services to an estimated 25 million women. Enormous! What major issues did you prioritize in this capacity and why?
From 2007, the World YWCA has focused its advocacy, program delivery, funding and training on three significant strategic priorities which reflect the programs of YWCAs around the world: sexual and reproductive health and rights; violence against women; and young women’s leadership.
Those priorities reflect an understanding that women’s lack of control over our bodies remains one of the greatest obstacles to equality; that violence against women is the most pervasive human rights abuse globally; and that young women are often the most marginalised group, but also the greatest untapped resource within communities.
6. What was one of the highlights of being in this international position?
Seeing the world though other eyes: the eyes of a Palestinian refugee, an HIV positive woman from Peru, a survivor of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a microcredit scheme participant in Bangladesh, a survivor of violence in Trinidad, a sex worker in Mexico, an environmental activist in Fiji, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone, a peace maker in Zimbabwe – all women with powerful stories of hope, courage and determination.
7. I imagine as World YWCA President you would have met some amazing women with incredible stories. Can you tell us about one and the impact she had on you / your work.
Goretti, a young woman from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, came to Australia for a World YWCA Council meeting to give testimony at a human rights tribunal about her kidnapping and enslavement by rebel soldiers when she was 16. Speaking in her local dialect, translated into French and then into English, she recounted her survival of months of terrifying sexual abuse, her rescue, her gratitude that she was not pregnant or HIV positive and her fear of returning to her family due to the terrible stigma facing sex slaves. She told us that instead of rejecting her, her father slaughtered the family’s only goat to celebrate her return. Through the support of a local crisis service, Goretti was learning to read. One of her supporters challenged the shocked listeners: which is the greater abuse – that she was raped or that she was illiterate?
On her return trip to DRC, Goretti (who spoke no English) and her supporter (who spoke only French) were stranded in Sydney airport overnight, prevented from boarding their plane because of Australian visa discrimination against unemployed young African women. Communicating via gestures and my partner’s school-girl French we managed a day-trip on the Manly ferry to buy “une glace”. It was such a memorable afternoon; across enormous cultural and language barriers and in the aftermath of the discomfort and distress of spending a night on the plastic seats of the international terminal, we enjoyed an icecream together at the beach.
Whenever I read about the Congo’s “war that ends in women’s bellies”, I think of Goretti and her bravery in speaking to a room full of strangers about her ordeal and her survival; I think of Australia’s inhospitable treatment of outsiders; and I think of how the minerals used to make our mobile phones are extracted from her resource-rich, conflict-ridden country.
8. In an interview with the Age newspaper entitled ‘Meet the President’, you describe the YWCA (an organisation with a 130 year history in Victoria) as having an enduring reputation as a “nice ladies club”, and how this has its advantages, that “you can get a whole lot done that you wouldn’t get done if people thought you were revolutionary ratbags”. Is this a bit of a ‘blueprint’ for you on how best to agitate for change? How has it worked for you?
I think I’m most effective working for change within the system. But my favourite conversations are with people thinking and working outside the system. Most lasting social change happens when the efforts of those pushing from outside converge with the campaigns of those working from the inside.
9. The ‘C’ in YWCA of course stands for ‘Christian’, and you are a member of the Anglican Church in North Melbourne. You’re also in a same sex relationship. How does your sexuality fit within the context of your Christianity.
I don’t believe gay Christians should abandon their faith because some members of the church want to exclude them.
The fundamental messages of Christianity – love, hospitality to the outsider, justice, the possibility of healing and transformation – speak very powerfully to me. Human sexuality is part of the wonder and diversity of creation; respect, intimacy, connection and faithfulness in relationships should matter more to the church than sexual orientation. All religions need to get over their preoccupation with controlling sexuality and women’s bodies.
10. As well as being a barrister, being highly involved on both the world stage with the Y and in boardrooms with community organisations, you are raising two young children with your partner. That’s a lot of juggling. What’s your secret in keeping the balls in the air for the most part?
I scribble this answer on the back of an envelope while my daughter is learning to swim and making sure the witness statement for next week’s case has been finalised.
I can’t take much credit for the juggle, because my partner is full-time carer and chief executive officer of the household.
But I would say: value your partner, take good holidays, forgive yourself, appreciate the people who enable you to work flexibly.
11. What advice would you give to your 20 year-old-self?
Not everyone will like you. Have a bit more self-confidence. Be curious. Fitting into new environments doesn’t require conformity. Don’t define your value by your boyfriend. (My list of tips could get quite long.)
12. Nominate four people from history, past or current, that you would invite to a ‘dream’ dinner party and (briefly) why.
I’d choose to dine with an activist, an actor, an author, a politician, all committed to women’s rights.
Arundhati Roy – outspoken and sometimes outrageous, always eloquent
Aung Sang Sui Kyi – full of patience, grace and forbearance in the face of oppression
Emma Thompson – funny, clever and totally gorgeous
Joyce Banda (President of Malawi and second woman African head of state) – a champion of anti-violence legislation and proponent of decriminalizing homosexuality
I’d like to invite Emily Dickinson for afternoon tea for a quiet conversation – she has such worldly insight and exquisite expression from a sequestered life.
13. What do you see as the three biggest issues in Australia for advancing the status of women and girls.
The creation of respectful relationships between women and men, which requires concerted effort to build the self-esteem of young women and to end all forms of violence against women.
A revolution in the organization of work and family, which makes it possible for parents to contribute meaningfully and benefit from the care of children and from paid work outside the home.
A constant building of diversity, including gender diversity, in all decision making spaces.
14. Nominate a woman who inspires you and why.
Musimbi Kanyoro was the first General Secretary of the World YWCA from the developing world. She is a feminist theologian by training. After the YWCA role, she headed up the Population and Reproductive Health Programme of The Packard Foundation and is now the CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women, connecting resources with groundbreaking initiatives for women. Musimbi is equally at ease with CEOs at the World Economic Forum and with local women learning to read in an African village. She has an extraordinary capacity to reframe a conversation, injecting new ideas and perspectives to old problems. From her, I’ve learned that there is always a different way of thinking about things, a new way which offers more inclusive, more respectful and more productive possibilities.
15. What’s next for Susan Brennan?
I would just like to squeeze a few extra hours from each day to return to singing, sport, reading and relaxing.
Susan Brennan is a Barrister (since 1998), specializing in town planning, local government and environmental law.
She was President of the World YWCA, 2007-2011; and is Vice President of the World YWCA, 2011-2015.
She has been an active Board member for a range of women’s and community organisations, and is currently a Director of Action Aid Australia.