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7 Australian Stars Salute The Women Who Paved The Way For Them

All hail Jane Fonda, Jacinda Ardern and the Spice Girls
Sabah Koj
Naomi Campbell paved the way for Sudanese- Australian model Sabah Koj.

Women are smashing ceilings and shattering stereotypes like never before, thanks to some truly revolutionary pioneers. Here, seven Australian rising stars pay tribute to the incredible women who cleared the path and paved the way for them.

The Silence Breaker: Yael Stone, Actress and Activist

Yael Stone
Orange Is the New Black star Yael Stone salutes #MeToo founder Tarana Burke

“I became aware of #MeToo founder Tarana Burke at the same time as the rest of the world – when actress Alyssa Milano used that simple phrase and it exploded on social media in October 2017. What those two words did was remove shame around sexual violence, assault and harassment.

Suddenly those words meant, ‘It’s not your fault, you’re not alone, you shouldn’t feel ashamed.’ Those two words opened the curtains and shed light on one of society’s best-kept secrets: that the majority of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, assault, abuse or violence.

“Very quickly, there was an acknowledgement of Tarana’s activism going back to 2006 [when she first coined the phrase]. Whether Alyssa had tweeted #MeToo or not, Tarana would still be doing the same work; she would still be in a rape crisis centre in The Bronx giving her workshops, regardless of the hashtag.

“Tarana has talked about what it means for her to suddenly have privilege, to suddenly have all these eyes looking at her, all these people quoting her work. She says, ‘Inherently, having privilege isn’t bad,’ but it’s how we use it that counts. She believes we must use our privilege to serve other people.

“I find this idea liberating. It might mean using your privilege to stand alongside another woman who is standing alone. [In 2018, Yael spoke out against actor Geoffrey Rush’s inappropriate behaviour when they worked together in 2010 and 2011. This came after actress Eryn Jean Norvill made a private complaint about Rush’s sexual misconduct on set, and found herself at the centre of a defamation case.]

“I think there are people who speak early and first, and that can be very damaging [for them]. But those people shift the needle, they make a pathway, they have the courage of that moment. Often, they suffer for it. I don’t see myself as one of those people, but I really appreciate the sacrifice.”

The Leader: Jess Scully, Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney

Jess Scully
Sydney’s Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully is inspired by fellow mum and Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern

“New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had her daughter Neve while holding elected once [in June 2018]. When I found out she was pregnant, I thought, ‘Oh my God, yes! She’s breaking ground.’ Seeing her being a world leader and a parent opened a door for me. I gave birth to my daughter Elinor last September, a couple of weeks after being elected Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney. I didn’t get any maternity leave – I think they only expected old white men to do this job – but I had a month where people mostly left me alone. Motherhood is incredible and exciting. I love watching Eli learn new things every day, but it’s tiring. I’m worried about the juggle… I constantly feel torn.

“I take Eli to meetings, events and photo shoots, and I have a supportive partner who has taken a year of paternity leave. Seeing Jacinda take her baby to the UN General Assembly in New York [in September 2018] was really inspiring.

“If people ever question what I’m doing, I point to Jacinda; if the prime minister of New Zealand can do it, I can too. 

“I think the biggest problem we have in the world is that our politicians don’t look like the people they represent; our politics exists in a bubble so far removed from the messy reality everyone else lives.The average Australian is a 38-year- old mother of two – that’s not what our male-dominated parliament looks like. I think we would all benefit if our representatives were more representative of us.

“My hope for Eli is that gender inequality is something they teach in history because we fixed it – at the same time we fixed the climate crisis and got rid of racism, sexism and ageism. And then we lived happily ever after.”

The Supermodel: Sabah Koj

Sabah Koj
Naomi Campbell paved the way for Sudanese- Australian model Sabah Koj.

“Naomi Campbell opened doors for every model of colour. When I was starting out in the industry, she gave me faith. I thought, ‘If she can make it, I can make it.’ I’ve gone to a lot of shoots and been told ‘Oh, you walk like Naomi’ or called ‘Naomi Jr’. It’s cool to get those compliments because she’s such an iconic model.

“I love seeing her walk. We have the same attitude – I’ve always loved the hips and being sexy and putting on a facade on the runway. When I got to walk the Victoria’s Secret runway [in 2018] I thought to myself, ‘Walk like Naomi!’

“I met her when I was at the Valentino show last year. It was the best moment of my life. I was crying on FaceTime to my mum, saying, ‘Oh my God, I walked with Naomi today!’

[After the show] she gave me a hug and said, ‘You guys were beautiful.’ She was in tears. If you’re nervous or feel uncomfortable at a huge show, it’s so nice when the experienced models come and say a few words to you. It makes a big difference.

That’s Naomi’s legacy. She’s a trailblazer, but she’s also showed all of us how to mentor the less- experienced girls and support each other because it’s a tough industry, especially when you’re starting out.”

The Performer: Thandi Phoenix, Singer

Thandi Phoenix
The Spice Girls changed the game for female artists like Thandi Phoenix

“As a female musician, you get used to walking into a room and being the only woman. Maybe I can handle it because of the Spice Girls.

“I have such vivid childhood memories of jumping up on the coffee table with my best friend, watching [the film] Spice World and pretending to sing into the remote control. They were five normal girls who had become the biggest pop sensations in the world. They’d completely taken over from boy bands and told girls that they could be whoever and whatever they wanted to be.

“My favourite was Scary Spice. She was mixed race, I was mixed race – my dad’s South African and my mum’s Australian. As a brown girl growing up in Australia, it was quite rare to see someone who looked like me in the spotlight. It was validating and encouraging.

“The Spice Girls’ message of ‘girl power’ was so strong. It was about supporting and lifting each other up. They were always yelling ‘Equalisation between the sexes!’, which was my first taste of feminism. Sure it was commercialised and digestible, but they brought it into the mainstream.

“I’ve been quite lucky throughout my career so far – I have a lot of men in my team and I’ve only had positive experiences. But we need more diversity and equality in the industry, and we need more women at the front. Change has to come from every facet – from the labels to the radio stations to the streaming services.

“It’s so important to have strong female role models in music. If you can see it, you can dream it, believe it and achieve it, so I owe a lot to artists like the Spice Girls.”

The Innovator: Macinley Butson, Engineering Student and Inventor 

Macinley Buston
Macinley Butson looks up to Elizabeth Blackburn

“I first learnt about Australian scientist Elizabeth Blackburn at the National Youth Science Forum when I was in Year 11. She’s the only Australian woman to have won a Nobel Prize [for her work in physiology or medicine] and I remember thinking how ridiculously outstanding she was. She’s a phenomenal role model, not just because she’s a woman in a male-dominated industry, but because she has a pioneering spirit.

“I have the same curious mind. I created my first invention – a pair of sunglasses – at age seven. When I was 15, I invented SMART Armour, a shield to protect cancer patients from excess radiation, which has finally been approved for a pilot trial in a hospital this year.

At 18, I won the Stockholm Junior Water Prize for inventing an ultraviolet radiation sticker that accurately measures the solar UV exposure required to sanitise drinking water. Now [at 19], I’m studying a Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Wollongong.

There is one other girl in my engineering class of 30. Even when I’m the only girl in the room, I’m not going to let my gender stop me – just like Elizabeth.

“Elizabeth won her Nobel Prize 11 years ago and she is still the only Australian woman to [have] received the honour. I’m hoping to change that. If I could say one thing to Elizabeth, it would be ‘thank you’. Female role models in science are few and far between and it’s been comforting for me to know that someone has walked the path before me. I would be totally speechless if I ever met Elizabeth in person, but I would like to tell her how grateful I am [to her] for paving the way for my generation. There’s not enough gratitude in the world.”

The Activists: Leaders of School Strike 4 Climate Australia

climate strike
Luca (seated) and Shiann take cues from proud protester Jane Fonda (back, in a 1970s mugshot).

Shiann Broderick, 18

“I became aware of Jane Fonda when I started out in climate activism. I admire her enduring strength and persistence, from when she protested the Vietnam War in the 1970s to more recently calling out Donald Trump. By putting herself out there and using her platform, she’s been a role model for young activists.

“My house was burnt down in November last year. Over 85 houses in Nymboida [northern NSW] were destroyed. And that’s only houses. I’m one of the leaders for School Strikes 4 Climate Australia in the Clarence Valley area, but since being personally affected I now want to fight [harder] and be a lot more involved.

“It’s heartening to see that people of Jane’s generation care about our future. Back home we have the Knitting Nannas group who come to our school strikes; they sit and knit to show their solidarity. I think some of them even got arrested. It’s like a whole group of Janes!”

Luca Saunders, 14

“My generation of activists can learn a lot from Jane Fonda – especially how not to worry what other people think. That’s something I aspire to, because I know I’m not at that stage yet. I think every climate activist has received hate online, and

it gets under your skin. I received a lot of negative feedback from people after my interview on the Today show. You try to laugh it off, and you say, ‘That’s hilarious, they’re calling us sheep,’ but it still hurts.

“I admire the fact that Jane’s willing to risk her reputation, especially with her Fire Drill Fridays protests at the US Capitol, where she’s been repeatedly arrested. She doesn’t seem to care what people think of her. In those moments [when I’m criticised for my activism], I try to channel my inner Jane.”

This article originally appeared in the maire claire April 2020 issue

Photography by Liz Ham

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