The Peace march in Sydney Road Brunswick on Sunday in response to the violent murder of Jill Meagher reminded me vividly of another march against the rape and murder of women in Melbourne more than 35 years ago. The similarities are striking - ordinary people marching in the streets, driven to do something collectively to counter their grief, anger and fear at the senseless violence of young women raped and murdered while going about normal lives in the inner city. But the differences are also striking and perhaps are cause for comfort that some things have changed for the better since the heyday of the Women's Movement.
In February 1977 a march was held in Collingwood (only a few kilometers from Sunday's march) in response to the rape and murders a few weeks earlier of Suzanne Armstrong and Susan Bartlett, savagely stabbed to death in their shared home in Easey Street Collingwood while Suzanne's toddler son Greg slept nearby. Salacious newspaper accounts of these rape murders sparked angry reactions from women culminating in the march in Smith Street.
The 1977 march was overtly a protest against rape - angry, highly political and deeply conflictual. It was small, a few hundred people mainly women chanting slogans and singing feminist songs. In contrast Sunday's march was primarily an expression of grief and solidarity by many thousands of both women and men - peaceful, quiet, sober and respectful. The authorities were not supportive of the 1977 march, the streets were not closed to traffic and police roughed up marchers and urged a tram to threaten them. Unlike Sunday where men marched in solidarity with women, in 1977 male onlookers jeered and called out violent threats to the marchers, confident they would be supported by others.
I was part of a voluntary group making a program for community radio which captured many of these disturbing events - the screams of women sitting in the street to listen to speakers while a tram nudges into them with its bell ringing repeatedly, a man screaming to 'Get that tram off them' (21 minutes 54 seconds into the radio program linked above), men calling out 'I'll rape you' and 'I wish I was [a rapist] - I've been missing out' (20 minutes 5 seconds into the program linked above).
The tenor of the 1977 march against rape was a response to the sociopolitical context of the times. Rape was still legal in marriage in all bar one state and was not criminalized across Australia for another 15 years. Few allegations of rape resulted in charges being laid and those that went to court put the women on trial - the victim's past sexual history was admissible evidence even when the perpetrator pleaded guilty. Media reportage of rape was sensational and gratuitous, suggesting that victims were 'loose women'. And this was part of a broader denigration of women - in 1977 women were still seen as unsuited to hold public office, were unable to borrow money without a male guarantor and married women had only recently won the right to stay in the Victorian permanent teaching service.
The 1977 march against rape contributed to building momentum for change. The annual Reclaim the Night marches began in Melbourne a few years later; this and other strategies of the campaign against rape have been successful in changing public attitudes to women's right to move about freely in public after dark. But Jill Meagher's alleged rape and murder is a shocking reminder that we are not always safe.
Publicly reported incidents of violence against women affect the lives of all women. After the Easey Street murders I and other women living in all women households increased our security arrangements. This week we heard from young women who are rethinking how they keep themselves safe in the streets at night.
I lived near Easey Street in 1977 but kept well away from it after the murders. Many years later I visited to look at the place where this terrible thing had happened which so affected me; despite the passing of time it was still deeply disturbing. I now live near Brunswick and regularly buy meals in Sydney Road near Hope Street. I visited Sydney Road on the weekend to pay my respects to Jill Meagher but had no desire to go anywhere near the lane where her bag was found and where it is likely she suffered and died. Both of these murders caused women to be fearful, to review how we live our lives and how we protect ourselves. And all Melbournians, doubtless all Australians are asking ourselves - how can this happen in peaceful Melbourne?
Civilians living in a war zone have the right to walk in the fields without fear of stepping on a land mine - but they must step cautiously until they know that the landmines have been cleared. So women have the right to walk the streets without fear of attack but the women of Melbourne will continue to assess the risks of male violence as we go about our lives.
Among the many condolences chalked on the footpath in Sydney Road I was touched to see a message to the people of Ireland, a gentle apology to Jill's homeland - 'Love Brunswick to Ireland XXX.'
Barbara Romeril is Executive Director of Community Child Care Association of Victoria and was a member of the Women's Liberation Radio Group in 1977
Gerry Carman, Sex Killer Bathed in House, Age, 17 January 1977
Michael Gordon, Three sought in sex killings, Age, 17 January, 1977
Surrender Plea to sex killer, Age, 19 January 1977
Michael Gordon, Knife Murder Clue, Age, 21 January 1977
Michael Gordon, Demonstrators plan to march against rape, Age, 11 February 1977
Women stabbed 84 times, inquest told, Age, 13 July 1977
Marg Hutton, Easey Street Remembered, 12 February 2002