Allanson, S., & O’Shea, L. (2021). Empowering Women: From murder and misogyny to High Court victory. Melbourne: Wilkinson Publishing Pty Ltd. RRP $34.99, 400 pages, ISBN: 9781925927634.
Please note: ePub version reviewed.
Dorinda ’t Hart
Empowering Women is a firsthand account of the battle to legislate and implement abortion access safe zones in Victoria. It is a tribute to the multi-talented team of women who led this campaign, an acknowledgement and documentation of herstory and an act of resistance against the silencing of history.
Empowering Women is co-written by Dr Susie Allanson, a psychologist at the Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne for almost twenty-six years, and Lizzie O’Shea, a lawyer and activist. Allanson witnessed pavement protestors outside her clinic for many years, and attests to the negative impact their presence had on both staff and clients. She was working at the clinic in 2001 when a security guard, Steve Rogers, was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist, and describes this as the moment when the team at the clinic decided that ‘the cost was too high’ (107). It was then that she began to advocate for safe access zones (109). Empowering Women describes the journey of that advocacy, with all its defeats and minor victories, and takes the reader on the accompanying emotional journey of frustration and elation too. Allanson describes her tendency for ‘dummy spits’ (see pages 179 and 201) and the reader is able to share the frustration of these moments. The book is a mix of commentary from Allanson and O’Shea, liberally sprinkled with personal accounts, letters and affidavits from other key players.
Part One, ‘Murder and Misogyny’, sets the scene at the clinic with the daily collection of protestors stationed outside. The reader is confronted with the murder of Steve Rogers and the inability or unwillingness of the authorities to protect the women who enter. In Part Two, ‘Decriminalising Abortion’, the Fertility Control Clinic is told that the Melbourne City Council is unable to act until abortion is decriminalised. Part Two describes the legislative journey towards decriminalisation, led by a ‘bold’ bill by Labor MP Candy Broad (233). This bill was passed in 2008 (288), seven years after Steve Rogers’ murder. In Part Three, ‘Supreme Court Action’, Allanson describes the Fertility Control Clinic’s failed attempt in 2015 to sue the Melbourne City Council for its inability to remove protestors and to protect staff and clients. The book includes detailed information on the collation of all communication and complaints submitted to the council. The lawsuit may have been unsuccessful, but was seen to bolster the argument for a bill regarding safe zones which was concurrently presented to the Victorian Parliament by Fiona Patten MP. Part Four, ‘Abortion Safe Access Zones’, describes the last phase of the passing of Patten’s Public Health and Wellbeing (Safe Access) Amendment Bill 2015, and the final implementation of that bill in July 2016. On 4 August 2016 the legislation was challenged by Ms Kathleen Clubb, who stepped into the safe zone to deliver a pamphlet to a couple who were about to enter the clinic. Part 5, ‘The High Court Challenge’, describes the subsequent High Court victory that ‘upheld the constitutional validity’ (810) of safe zones in Victoria.
Empowering Women is an intense read. But the reader is able to learn along with Allanson, first as she ‘muddled’ (144) her way through the process of campaigning for change, and then when she was joined by key players who were able to help her advocate more strategically. Both the legislative arm and the judicial arm within Victoria were employed to secure the safe access zones, and each required different players and different tactics to achieve success. While Allanson writes that she found the process slow and frustrating, she also acknowledges that the careful preparations at each stage of the campaign ensured its validity when challenged in the High Court in Canberra.
While Empowering Women is a spirited and lively account of Allanson’s journey, the reader is able to feel the emotional toll that years of advocacy have taken on her and other staff at the clinic. Fighting for a common cause, though, created lasting bonds and camaraderie between the advocacy team members (589). Allanson is liberal in her praise of her team, describing them as ‘hard-working and smart’ (731), ‘sensible and delightful’ (570) and ‘intelligent and kind’ (303). Conversely, the protestors are labelled as ‘extremists and fanatics’, and are dismissed as people it is impossible to engage with (325). As a result, Allanson’s colleagues become full-bodied characters, while the protestors remain flat, cardboard figures, like their placards. This is especially evident in accounts of parliamentary discussions and court proceedings, where Allanson’s team’s speeches are quoted extensively, while those on the other side are dismissed as spouting anti-women rhetoric (629, 735, 785). This ‘Othering’ effect no doubt comes from walking almost thirty years in battle shoes, but also leaves unacknowledged the power of the pen held by the writer of herstory.
Dorinda ‘t Hart is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia. Her current research project is a qualitative interview-based examination of post-abortion stories, shared by Perth women. This project examines the exercise of agency by autonomous women towards an abortion decision, examining the process of making a personal decision within a social context. Dorinda’s research interests lie in qualitative methodology, including research ethics within sensitive research. She also has research interests in those things that impact women and families more broadly, as well as rural communities and social theory.