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Asher Keddie, Elyse Knowles talk leadership

An eclectic group of women, including a model, an academic and a retired army major, gathered in Melbourne last Friday to discuss their views on equality as part of an International Women’s Day Breakfast at this year’s Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF).

Hosted by marie claire magazine and Myer, the speakers touched on issues including the Me Too movement, recent bushfires, global climate crisis and constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A common thread throughout each of the talks was the power of the individual to make a difference, and the need to act now.

“We’re right smack bang in the middle of the time to act,” said Yael Stone, an Australian actor who starred in the television series Orange Is the New Black.

Stone recently gave up her US green card to reduce her carbon footprint from living in two countries, and pledged to donate half the earnings from jobs that require her to fly to environmental charities. She also spoke to The New York Times in 2018 about having been sexually harassed by a co-star.

“Do I want to do all these things? No! I want to shut up – I’m sick of myself,” she said. “But this is what we have. This is the life that we’re allotted.”

Stone spoke powerfully about the privilege she has to speak out against injustice as a white woman, and the responsibility she feels to do so when others cannot.

“For so many people, the choice to talk publicly about things that have happened in the workplace isn’t even on the table, because you can’t afford it if you get fired, and no one’s going to listen anyway,” she said.

“I’m lucky I was in a position where someone cared at all.”

Sexual harassment and assault have been in the spotlight recently, after years of allegations of abuse by Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men finally broke through and sparked the Me Too movement.

That women’s magazines like marie claire have been at the forefront of this reporting is testament to our more nuanced understanding of women’s interests today.

“There has been a shift, where the places that were once the escape places or fun places are becoming the rare places where we can actually get some truth-telling at the moment,” said Amy Thunig, a PhD candidate and host of the Blacademia podcast, who discussed the movement to recognise indigenous Australians in the constitution.  

It used to be deemed unfeminist to be interested in fashion and makeup as well as politics, but now retailers like Myer are launching campaigns based on the very notion that women are multi-faceted and can’t be defined in any one way.

Launched in February, Myer’s Layers of Me campaign features brand ambassadors Offspring actress Asher Keddie and model and activist Elyse Knowles talking about their careers, personal interests, dedication to family and sense of style.

It may seem superficial compared with the Me Too movement, reconciliation and climate strikes, but as Keddie and Knowles explained on Friday, combating stereotypes and casual sexism on an individual level is a powerful step towards progress.

“I spent so many years apologising for [being emotional] and being told I was hysterical. I’m not hysterical, I just care,” Keddie said.

Retired Army Major Matina Jewell, a decorated war hero, offered a final piece of advice to all the women in the room: “Never underestimate the power of your own voice. You could be a ripple that goes on to be a tidal wave.”

Heather McIlvaine is attending VAMFF as a guest of Visa ANZ.

Photography by Lucas Dawson

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