That's because there are more ways to silence inconvenient truths – like, for instance, that women want access to power and are not afraid to play up to get it – than by the overt slamming of doors to the inner sanctum of social and political privilege.
One of the most potent means of denying women's ability to test the boundaries of what of they are entitled to do and say is to pretend they are not even in the contest. Never have been. By implication, never will be.
In the past month, the age-old issue of women's access to power has been reignited. The most pre-eminent national workplace – our federal parliament – has been convulsed by the prime minister's extraordinary decision to appoint only one woman to cabinet and the opposition leader's factional deal-breaking that has left many talented and deserving women out in the cold, prompting renewed calls for quotas and discussion of the concept of a meritocracy.
It should go without saying that we have been here before. There are any number of examples of uppity women in Australia's colonial past – not to mention strong Indigenous women – who have presumed to question the deals struck on their behalf. But we need to say it again and again, because the tendency to ‘forget’ that which is challenging or confronting is as common a mechanism of the collective conscious as the Marge Simpson urge to push all the badness down to our toes.
So let's begin by remembering the 19th century female factories in New South Wales and Tasmania, where an estimated 9000 convict women worked for no pay, manufacturing commodities such as spun wool, cotton and linen on which the new colonies relied for both domestic use and export.
In 1827, the women declared they'd had enough. A riot at the Parramatta female factory, over a cut in rations and poor conditions, is considered to be the first industrial action staged by women in Australia. When the factory was closed 21 years later, the building was reassigned as an asylum.
Then there were the women at the Cascades female factory, who in 1838 were being lectured on morality by a visiting preacher. A witness recorded what happened next: ‘The three hundred women turned right around and at one impulse pulled up their clothes showing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise.’ This may have been Australia's first example of a flash mob. Or twerking.
Louisa Dunkley chose a different way to cock a snook at the status quo. The daughter of a respectable Catholic bootmaker from Richmond, Louisa entered the post master general's department in 1882 as a junior assistant and was soon working as a fully qualified telegraphist. Concerned by the injustice in women's pay rates in the Victorian public service, Dunkley organised and presented a successful case for equal pay to the post and telegraphic department in 1895. In 1902 she won majority support in the commonwealth parliament for a federal equal pay provision that has applied to female telegraphists and postmistresses ever since.
How many know that the marginal Liberal seat of Dunkley in Melbourne's outer south-east was named after Louisa in recognition of her work as one of Australia's pioneering reformers?
This is not the start of a homework checklist of ‘firsts’ and remarkable achievements against the odds. You will not be tested because it is likely you would fail. It's not your fault. Our national bedtime story – the popular imagining of our past – remains a stubbornly closed book, refusing to fracture the male, militaristic fairytale of virile adventure and blood sacrifice. Discordant female voices still belong to wicked witches and evil stepmothers not unassailable and frankly pissed-off women grabbing the reins of nation-building.
One of our most familiar stories of us is the Eureka stockade: the event we most readily associate with the flowering of democratic sentiment that is at the heart of Australia's political and industrial heritage. The time when men fought to defend their rights and liberties; when they achieved that which no other country yet had – the vote for working men without property. When, if you're on the left, Australia's tradition of collectivism and unity in the struggle against oppression and injustice began. Or for those on the right, small businessmen stood up against an unfair tax and levelled the playing field for speculation and competition. There's something in it for all of us. Except the half of us that are women.
So I have spent the past decade writing the thousands of women who were in Ballarat in 1854 back into that foundation story. Imagining the goldmining community as young couples and working families, not individual men on the make. Identifying and documenting the remarkable women who were leaders in the people's movement against government corruption and taxation without representation. Reconstructing the early goldrush as a time and a place that was not some sort of lawless Deadwood – with only a few prostitutes and a laudanum-soaked genteel woman out of her depth to add spice – but rather a golden moment of economic and social opportunity where women were temporarily unfettered by the chains of industrial control and its patriarchal methods of gatekeeping.
For a brief time, women wore the pants: literally, financially and creatively. They remade the world anew. They bankrolled the diggers' cause. They saved many a family of European boat people from starvation. They stood in the middle of the stockade and took the bullets. Eureka's women were editors of newspapers, poets, businesswomen. They made their strident voices heard.
When my publishers and I were casting about for the right title to my new book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, it was suggested we use the word ‘lost’ in place of forgotten. I didn't like it. ‘Lost’ suggests the silly sheilas wandered off into the bush and got themselves in a pickle. They didn't get lost. We forgot them. The moral compass of that word points in a very different direction.
In his swearing-in ceremony, Abbott almost seemed to recalibrate the bearings. ‘We won't forget those who are often marginalised’, he said, ‘people with disabilities, Indigenous people and women struggling to combine career and family.’
But he got one thing tellingly wrong. Women are not marginal. Women are not a minority. And the narrative of struggle – with its implied denouement of failure – perpetuates the myth that women have only ever been knocking at the door of Australia's story. Struggling, not angry. Passively waiting to be remembered, not banging loudly to be heard.
By forgetting that Australia's women have always been workers, have always been leaders, have always balanced work and family, we deny future generations of women – and the men with whom we share half this world – the opportunity to look to their own history for giddy inspiration and with great expectation.
First published on The Guardian on 30 October 2013.
Image: Eureka stockade battle by J.B. Henderson, from the State Library of NSW