The Women’s Movement in the 70s paved a future for a fairer society. Jack Draper reflects on her contribution to feminism from activism to art. She spoke with UOW journalism student Stephanie Hazelton.
A wooden telegraph pole stands tall and strong metres from the house. It’s wrapped in a fuzzy, pink, knitted blanket. How appropriate in this 10-degree Autumn weather. A protective layer; perhaps armour, a symbol of creative territory and the first clue to counterculture.
At the front door the face of Jack Draper takes on the strength of the pole, braving the tough conditions. Her thick black jumper screams “WOMAN FEMINIST” in a bold white typeface sprawled across her chest. The jumper provokes more than it conceals. A statement. A protest. A movement.
Equality! Reproductive rights! Maternity leave! Domestic violence! Women’s suffrage! Sexual harassment and assault! Patriarchy. Dominance. Power. These were issues that screamed through Jack’s head from a young age. The political protests of the 70s Women’s Movement.
At 64 Jack (Jacqueline) describes herself as an atheist, artist, and ‘radical lesbian feminist’. She is sitting in what was previously a garage, now a studio filled with art supplies. A half-finished painting, stacked sketchbooks, jars hugging an array of brushes and an old radio and cassette cover the top of a wooden desk. There is order in the chaos.
Jack talks of her upbringing as being influenced by a loving family of strong women, with working class roots and ties to the Communist Party. “It wasn’t hard for me to incorporate radical women’s activism in my life,” she says. “In fact, it drew me in and fed me, helping me gain control of my life.”
There’s a certain level of control when you are a ten-year-old. Life seems to be in order, it’s easy and streamlined. For Jack though it was a time when her life began to unravel and her future was scarred by an emotional wound. “Mum nearly died in car accident,” she says, clenching a floral cup of lukewarm milky tea. “My vibrant creative mother, a beautiful artist, lost the use of one arm and ended up in hospital for nine months in another city, because where we lived didn’t have a hospital.”
Jack reflects on the trauma and identifies the roots to her depression. It grew from the seed of disillusionment and injustice planted in her mind as she witnessed the court proceedings that followed the accident.
“At age 12, I saw mum trying to get compensation for what was two men having a race, one on the wrong side of the road. A sense of male entitlement,” she says. “I got those lessons early as I watched how the court valued my mum. A non-working person. Not much value.”
From this point, Jack began to frame her feminist views. She took on the responsibility of adulthood, giving birth to a daughter, Kirsten, at the age of 17. Through personal experiences of discrimination, being pregnant with few options and being a young mum, a passion developed to work at the Bessie Smyth Feminist Abortion Clinic. “It felt like a badge of honour to work there,” she says. “I felt responsibility for the women’s experiences.”
Trust was essential. In 1977 abortion was illegal and the doctors involved were breaking the law. The initial skittish chatter over the coloured coffee cups in staff meetings smoothed the transition. Trust progressed, like the way a teabag seeps into a mug of hot water.
At the clinic two to three patients were cared for in a day. Doctor’s were paid an hourly rate, for other support staff there was no training. “We had a moral responsibility as feminists to provide the best service we could,” says Jack. “We kept each other informed and educated. It was revolutionary at the time. We couldn’t even get our name in the phonebook under ‘Abortion Clinic’ because it was illegal.”
Everything had to be hushed. The front doors to the clinic were locked due to “Right to Life” protestors, who sang hymns and held placards with “MURDERERS” splashed across. Patients were required to knock. One day the knocking turned into a loud thunderous bang that escaped the fists of four male police. Jack was on reception and opened the door. “We are here to investigate the murder of unborn babies,” one of the officer’s had said. No one was allowed to leave the building and every entrance was blocked by police.
As legal advice stalled the police, the women in the waiting room were ushered downstairs. Medical records were also passed over a side fence to the mechanic next door, as a way of preventing past clients from also being arrested.
The clinic continued to run under scrutiny.
“For years after working at Bessie I had a recurring nightmare where I am escaping with a bunch of my feminist sisters in the bush and I have given birth with nothing. No nappies, no blankets or clothes,” she says. “I never knew if this was related to Bessie or becoming a mother at such a young age.”
Feminist activism created a sisterhood of women in Australia and across the world who were trying to stop men’s violence and provide services for women. For protests, everyone pitched in to do paste ups, screen prints and make handmade banners. This was where Jack used her creative energy and artistic gene derived from her mother, Edith.
At the age 40, Jack found sanctuary in art. It was a way to connect her experiences with the public and to free the emotional turmoil of having worked in various roles within women’s refuges.
“I remember feeling zonked out when I’d arrive to evening art classes but after about 20 minutes I’d let go of the day,” she says. “It was hard knowing what to do with images after hearing about children being raped and women being abused.”
Jack found using the female form in landscape to be a comforting and positive reflection. Womanly figures became a motif, finding their way indirectly in the form of rocks or vulvas on bark in the close-up of trees. “It took about 10 years to feel like I’d got it right,” she says. Her patience and progression led to several exhibits of her work in galleries across Australia.
Jack’s mother Edith is sitting on a leather couch soaking in the garden through a window. She’s managed to crochet little chickens on the edge of a tea-towel, not letting the inability to move her left arm interfere with her work. “Jack’s always been a fierce person when it comes to domestic violence and women’s equality,” Edith says. “She’s definite in her approach to the world and her regard for humanity is very strong.”
Edith reminisces on a trip they took to Alice Springs where they spent weeks painting together and inspiring one another. “It was absolutely wonderful! A time of discovery. We just drew our hearts out with one another. We’ve always had art as a connecting point,” she says. “There’s a time in life when the daughter becomes the mother. It’s a strange slant on life but I’m very lucky I have Jack and that I’m allowed to be… just me.” Edith exhales a peaceful sigh as she looks across the coffee table coated in black and white and sepia toned photographs. They spill into a bin beside the table; a montage of excess memories. “It goes on forever, you collect a lot in 94 years!” she says laughing.
Colour paints the front yard in the form of nature and the adornment on manmade objects. “I’m just an old hippy,” says Jack with a chuckle. “How brave we were in taking on the patriarchy and being out and proud lesbians. We faced such hostility. I hear how some young people find it hard to come out now…now post 2000!”
The aftermath of each fight, each protest, and each woman’s story is imprinted in every line on her worn face. The way the tumultuous conditions scar that one wooden telegraph pole positioned outside her front gate. Similarly, Jack stands for purpose. Tall and strong. Sturdy. Grounded. Independent. Yet still part of a revolutionary collective.