Bethany Keats interviews Catherine Fisher, the author of Sound Citizens: Australian Women Broadcasters Claim their Voice, 1923–1956 (ANU Press)

Why has it taken so long to acknowledge the complex history of women in broadcasting in Australia?

Like much of women’s history, the contributions of women to broadcasting have been largely ignored as they were not seen as important to the dominant narrative, which centres on the experiences and contributions of male broadcasters. While ideals of authority and the norms of media employment meant that broadcasters were often male, this perspective only interprets radio’s history and impact in a very narrow way, and neglects the role that female broadcasters played in educating fellow women to be citizens. That they often did so within the confines of the daytime women’s sessions has led to their work being neglected.

Why is it important to consider how women broadcasters viewed themselves, as opposed to being viewed from the outside, and how are those two views different?

It is important to understand that women have agency, even though they face significant barriers and are restricted by gender norms. The women featured in Sound Citizens saw themselves as many different things – activists, politicians, community leaders, and of course broadcasters. They believed that broadcasting could affect a deeper cultural change that would encourage and support women’s social, economic and political advancement in Australia, and they worked to help it live up to its promise.

From the outside, however, the work of these women was often dismissed as less important, catering to women’s supposedly niche interests. Until recently, women’s radio programming has largely been presented as reinforcing domesticity, and restricting women’s roles to those of wife, mother, and homemaker. While women’s sessions certainly did devote airtime to domestic topics, the assessment of the women’s sessions as solely reinforcing domestic ideals of womanhood neglects that they provided platforms for various women to speak on a wide variety of topics.

What role can Sound Citizens, and an understanding of Australia’s radio history, play in informing media law and policy around ownership and programming?

Sound Citizens shows the importance of providing space in the media for a diversity of voices. One of the major contributions of broadcasting to women’s advancement was its ability to normalise the sound of women’s voices in the public sphere, as the advent of radio enabled women to speak publicly and speak for themselves. It also shows the importance of diversity in ownership for increasing the diversity of voices in the media. Compared with the ABC, commercial stations offered greater opportunities for women to broadcast because they had the freedom to make their own hiring and programming decisions, and understood that women were an important audience.

You discuss how radio helped to establish and support regional identities, particularly that of Western Australia. As we have seen an increase in syndication and a narrowing of media ownership, what are the implications for rural and regional identity today? How can our understanding of radio’s historical contribution to this inform identity in contemporary Australia?

In the mid-twentieth century regional radio stations played a key role in connecting their communities. Within this context women broadcasters played a very important role by providing practical support and companionship to their listeners, bridging long distances between women in their regions, fostering distinctive identities and providing intellectual stimulation. In many cases these broadcasters were not only recognisable radio voices, but were civic leaders who actively worked to improve the lives of their listeners and communities.

The reduction of truly local stations means that radio’s ability to play this civic role in regional communities is significantly reduced. While local Facebook groups and other forms of social media fill some of this role, a lack of local media makes it more difficult to foster and celebrate local identities. The response of regional communities to recent cuts to local newspapers demonstrates that they still value local media outlets.

You make many references to voice style and even elocution lessons. What implication did this urban, middle class, educated voice have on class boundaries?

The advent of radio in 1923 provided an increased focus on the voice as a signifier of identity in Australia, as the speaking voice was heard on both a larger scale and in a more intensive way than ever before. There was also significant concern that radio should be an educative medium, and this meant that the voices it featured should meet the ideal standard of cultivated Australian English. This was especially so for broadcasters on the ABC, which was more formal in tone than the more intimate and conversational style of the commercial stations, who were better able to reach working-class audiences (although speakers on all stations were required to exhibit some level of formality).

What role did Australian women play, through radio, in maintaining American public morale during the Second World War?              

During the Second World War the Department of Information, the federal department with responsibility for propaganda and censorship, produced shortwave broadcasts for American audiences. These talks aimed to emphasise the close ties between Australia and the United States, and encourage an appreciation of Australian society amongst American listeners that would lead to them supporting American involvement in the Pacific to protect Australia. They recruited women, including Western Australian broadcaster Irene Greenwood and Helen Palmer (the daughter of writers Vance and Nettie Palmer), to speak directly to American women. Their broadcasts emphasised that Australian women were just like American women, active participants in the Pacific war effort and were committed to being active and engaged citizens. Far from letting American troops do all the heavy lifting, they were actively contributing to their own defence and were therefore worthy of protection.

How intertwined are the history of women in politics and the history of women in broadcasting?

Enid Lyons (NAA: A1200, L21454)

In the mid-twentieth century radio was an important tool for politicians seeking to communicate with the broadest possible audience of voters. Women politicians claimed authority and legitimacy in the public sphere through broadcasting and this aided their acceptance as elected representatives.

The most notable example is Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1943. Lyons began broadcasting regularly in the 1920s and 1930s in support of her husband, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons (in office from 1932 until his death in 1939), and soon became a leading voice in her own right. She made extensive use of radio to contribute to policy discussions and as a campaign tool during her own political career as the Liberal member for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin (now Braddon). In one broadcast aimed at women voters, she outlined the need for boosting women’s participation in public affairs, reminding listeners: ‘Whatever you do, as women, don’t think you have no interest in politics. Your vote is your weapon to use for better living.’

You mention multiple times that the BBC was more progressive than the ABC towards women in broadcasting and women in employment. Why was the ABC consistently behind?

Yes, as Kate Murphy, Kristin Skoog and others have shown, the BBC was a particularly progressive institution in terms of supporting women’s careers and giving them airtime. By comparison, the ABC was a more conservative institution that adhered to stringent editorial and personnel policies, including a marriage bar for women, which often limited women’s opportunities to broadcast their ideas. Some exceptional women were able to circumvent these restrictions if they were considered valuable enough, as Sound Citizens shows (and see Kylie Andrews’ work for more on this). Furthermore, the ABC saw educating the nation as its primary responsibility, and placed importance on talks given by authoritative male speakers. Women’s programs were seen as lower in status and thus less important, which led to significant cuts being made to them when savings were needed during World War II.

You describe the work of these broadcasters as being within the realm of feminist activism, yet this era is not generally included in popular awareness of feminist history in Australia (it sits between the first and second waves of feminism). Why do you think it’s not included? Is it a forgotten Wave 1.5? How does it relate to the first and second waves?

Yes, this period is often seen as a dormant one for Australian feminism. Australian women won the vote much earlier than their compatriots in other countries, except New Zealand, and were also the first to be able to stand for parliamentary election. Yet despite these early successes there is a perception that Australian women had done nothing with the vote based largely on the slow progress of Australian women’s parliamentary representation, which was often blamed on other women not voting for them. Women’s activists often worked within non-party political organisations to advocate for women’s interests, which they believed could not be adequately served within a party political structure and, as Marilyn Lake has pointed out, they were successful in using their new political clout to bring about a maternalist welfare state. Because their vision of political success did not accord with normative ideals of individualistic leadership, however, their achievements have often been neglected or belittled.

Edith Cowan

The interwar years saw the dominance of maternal citizenship, which argued that motherhood was women’s key contribution to the nation, equal to men’s paid work.  By the 1950s, however, a key focus of feminist activism was formal equality in public life, through campaigns for women’s right to work and receive equal pay, women’s right to sit on juries and women’s representation in parliament, before the advent of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s. This change over time has not been adequately explained; rather, there is a sense of inevitability about the shift in focus from maternalism to equality from the 1930s onwards. Sound Citizens reveals that women’s use of radio to spread their messages and, in particular, to speak directly to a large audience of other women was key not only to the legitimisation of feminism as a political movement, but to the legitimisation of women’s voices in the public sphere more generally.

In the conclusion you discuss the role of social media and engaging in public debate. How do you see the role of podcasting, especially given its utilisation of social media? How has it, or hasn’t it, replicated radio’s role in the public debate?

The rise of podcasts has enabled even more women to claim their voices and create communities akin to the radio programs of the mid-twentieth century. Mia Freedman’s podcast No Filter and Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb’s Chat 10 Looks 3 could be seen as contemporary women’s sessions, as they centre women’s voices and experiences and have created strong communities amongst their listeners. That said, it is important to remember that radio was the dominant medium of its time, and there were only a handful of stations for listeners to choose from, compared with hundreds of thousands of podcasts on often quite niche topics. As such, radio programs had a greater impact on society in the mid-twentieth century than podcasts do today.

Bethany Keats
Bethany Keats

Bethany Keats is a former ABC Radio Australia producer and journalist, and currently works in media relations for an Australian university. She has degrees in Japanese & Spanish and marketing & PR, and may one day write a book, or a thesis, or both.

Catherine Fisher
Catherine Fisher

Dr Catherine Fisher is a historian and policy adviser who holds a PhD from the School of History at The Australian National University. She co-edited Expressions of War in Australia and the Pacific: Language, Trauma, Memory, and Official Discourse (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). Her work has been published in Women’s History Review and Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, and she has contributed to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.