By Nicole Maree
(As featured in the upcoming issue of wom*news!)
Growing up in Brisbane I had always known about the Regatta Hotel’s place in the history of the women’s movement. My mother had begun her nights out as a young woman in the late 1970s with her girlfriends by having a drink at the Regatta in honour of Brisbane feminist activists Merle Thornton and Ro Bognor, who had chained themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel on the 31st of March 1965 in order to protest the exclusion of women in public spaces, so that aspect of Brisbane history feels like a little part of my own feminist family history. But what I didn’t know was the story of how this demonstration was the first feminist direct action protest of the second wave in the world, and would come to characterise and inspire the activism of second wave feminism – at that time called the Women’s Liberation Movement.
The story began with a discussion among some feminist women at the University of Queensland. At the time it was not just against social custom for women to drink in Queensland bars, it was actually illegal, and publicans could be fined for serving women alcohol. When the Queensland Government was proposing amendments to the Liquor Act, a small group of feminist women, including Merle Thornton, decided that there was an opportunity to petition the government. They met with the Queensland Minister for Justice to request he remove legislation preventing women from drinking in public bars. By Thornton’s account the Minister had been polite though patronising, even offering the women a beer in jest, but their proposal was decisively declined. Having attempted the persuasive approach, the next step was radical action. For Thornton, direct action “articulated a loss of patience with intolerable restrictions”.
The following day Merle and Ro entered the Regatta Hotel, strode casually to the bar and ordered a lemonade. Of course, they were refused service, but Merle and Ro were prepared for such an eventuality and proceeded to chain themselves to the bar-rail at the Regatta Hotel; they weren’t leaving any time soon. While the women were ordering their drinks, the ‘male auxiliary’ (mainly consisting of the women’s husbands) were handing out pamphlets outlining their arguments for why women should be able to drink in bars. Meanwhile, the bar staff had alerted the police. The police attended, first uniformed then plain clothes, but Merle and Ro refused, politely I imagine, to leave. Their action was immediately divisive – some of the men in the bar offered to buy them drinks, while others heckled them.
The media response was overwhelming, and their actions are reported not just in Australia, but all over the world. They were dubbed the “bar room suffragettes”. After the protest they received a groundswell of public support with press coverage largely in favour of their actions, they also received angry and negative phone calls and messages, including death threats. Negative attention extended to parliament house, with Queensland parliamentarians saying that their “husbands needed psychiatric help” and that their children should be taken into care – so egregious and unnatural was the proposition that women might want to enjoy a pint at the pub. While some people have the perception that the Regatta protest was simply about the right to drink, and have criticized it for not being about the ‘real’ or ‘more important’ issues for women. For Merle the bar room protest was not about beer (she had ordered a lemonade) so much as it was about the acceptance of women in public life and the end of the “confinement of women to the private domestic world”. These were and are very important issue for women and for feminism. After the Regatta protest, women all around Australia began demonstrations, entering public bars and insisting on staying, and all around the world women were entering public life and insisting on their right to do so.
Thornton’s activism led to not only the bar protest, but to the formation of the Brisbane activist group Equal Opportunities for Women (EOW), which went on to successfully campaign for the elimination of the marriage bar within the Commonwealth Public Service. At that time any women employed in the public service were “deemed to have resigned” upon their marriage and were compensated with a week’s pay for every year of service to “compensate for the loss of her career”. The EOW concentrated on formal aspects of discrimination, including equal pay, jury duty, and public childcare services. Bill Hayden, the federal ALP member for Oxley and future Governor-General, was a member of EOW, and as an opposition backbencher brought forward a private members motion using the research undertaken by EOW that urged for both the elimination the marriage bar, as well as the institution of maternity leave. This action pushed the Government to make the necessary changes to the Public Service Act, in 1966, to end the marriage bar and introduce the first maternity leave legislation in Australia. The EOW had won.
But it was not enough for Thornton – her indomitable passion for social change led her to focus on changing not just laws, but social understanding. Thornton began teaching the first ever Women’s Studies course in Australia at the University of Queensland, with fellow academic and head of Sociology Paul Wilson in 1962. When Merle started working as an academic, the male and female staff had segregated common rooms, but Merle changed all that by simply sitting in the male staffroom. Apparently the male staff were too frightened of her to say anything, so the university quietly and without a fuss refurbished the women’s staff room, which became used for another purpose, and the male staff room simply became ‘the staff room’. Thornton also gave public lectures at UQ on sex education and the contraceptive pill, which had only recently become available for women in Australia, titled Contraception and the Humanising of Women.
Merle Thornton’s activism has had a profound and personal effect on my own life. Not only do I take the freedom to drink in a public bar as a given, or that I will retain employment upon marriage; I am also studying the university course that she founded.
Just this year I had the great privilege of meeting Merle and sharing a drink with her and a crowd of fellow feminists in the ‘Thornton Room’ at the Regatta Hotel. We had successfully invaded the public ‘men’s space’ at the bar and were even using foul language – everything those opposed to women drinking in public bars had feared would happen.
Next time you’re having a drink in a public bar in Queensland, whether it’s the Regatta or not, raise your glass in honour of Merle and Ro – two truly great women who started the second wave.
~ Nicole Maree
Ferrier, Carole. 2004. ‘Women’s Liberation, 1965’. In Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History, eds. R. Evans and C. Ferrier. Victoria: The Vulgar Press.
Thornton, Merle. 2007. ‘Our Chains: Rear View Reflections’ Queensland Review. 14(1): 51-60.
Thornton, Merle. 2009. ‘Scenes from a Life in Feminism’. In Hibiscus and Ti-Tree: Women in Queensland, eds. C. Ferrier and D. Jordan. St Lucia: Hecate Press.