“Am I really living a feminist life? I’m not in an environment where those challenges are in [my] everyday life. I guess I’m lucky because I am retired and financially independent, and not having to fight in the workplace. But my goal in this is to do right by women. To be honest about women.”
Elaine Whitworth, dubbed “Aunty Dusty” because she was born during the middle of a dust storm, is an iconic everyday feminist hero. She is my Great Aunt, and a lover of literature, cats and novelty fashion. She grew up with four siblings — all brothers — in a rural country town, before moving to Melbourne later in life.
Born in 1938, and still fighting the good fight in her everyday actions, she is an incredibly strong and assertive woman. I first became interested in Aunty Dusty’s feminist story when I discovered she wore a pantsuit to her own wedding, instead of a gown. This one action is what inspired me to conduct this interview, in an attempt to learn more about her life experiences, and the moments that shaped her into the powerful woman she is.
When Aunty Dusty was growing up, girls her age were taught they had to go to school to learn how to be a lady and get a good husband.
“Unless you wanted to be a teacher, were rich, or were brilliant, you left school in year 10, got married and had children. But I didn’t choose that. You get bored with small talk and the norms. That’s what pushed me to do night school, finish year 12, and go to university at age 30.”
And so it came to be that in the early-60s, Aunty Dusty was working as a hospital matron in the remote Northern Territory. Her experience is extremely inspiring, and her story echoes with lessons about the importance of having strong female role models, something that I had never fully valued until I spoke to Aunty Dusty.
“The women in the Northern Territory were so strong, and that changed my perception of how I could be. I think for a long time before they knew what the word feminism was, they were feminists.”
Looking back on her time as a matron, Aunty Dusty told me about the significance of having strength and confidence in your life.
“I was very young when I was a matron. I thought you had to be perfect to apply for the job, but I was pushed into it, and turned out to be extremely confident and good at it. I was the only professional woman in this gold mining town. There was a very unstable male doctor, and a huge male population. You got terrific confidence because you had to have it. You got strength, whether you knew you had it or not.”
The more I learn about Aunty Dusty and her life experience, the more I have learnt to appreciate her, and everything she has to say. There is one particular anecdote from her time in the Northern Territory that I really enjoy, and it describes an event in 1963, when a cyclone hit the hospital she was working in.
“I was the acting matron at the time, and when the cyclone hit, the hospital flooded. The one man there was so terrified that he ended up drunk. All I could think was, do I give him some more brandy and knock him out, or do I just clunk him on the head? I had to be confident — you’re there and everyone’s life depends on you. You develop a sense of resilience.”
Not only was Aunty Dusty a nurse, she also studied to become an English teacher. At one point in her life, she was teaching English to international and domestic students five days a week, nursing on the weekends, fixing up a house that was falling down around her, and raising a child, all as a single woman.
“I had the house and the mortgage. I had to pay full-time childcare fees, even though Ellie was only there part-time. The house was falling down around me, but I had invested my life’s savings into it. I had to quickly learn how to economically plan and bring up a child independently.”
Aunty Dusty shaped what I saw to be the norm for women, as well as my understanding of feminism. I remember being so intrigued when I was younger as to why this woman was single, and how she had done so well in life without a husband. It wasn’t until my introduction to feminism, and the acknowledgement that Aunty Dusty was single, independent and happy, that I realised my original assumption that happiness depended on marriage was incorrect.
I now look at Aunty Dusty and see her for what she is: sensational. She doesn’t need anyone by her side to ‘complete her’. She has herself, and that’s more than enough.
Feminism is constantly changing and developing, and it’s for this reason that I want to share Aunty Dusty’s perspective on where feminism is going, and how it has changed over her lifetime.
“In some ways, feminism hasn’t worked in the way I hoped it would. What I’ve found, especially at the CEO-board level, is that women have learnt to work as men. It’s not necessarily that women and men have become equal, it’s that women have had to work the same way as men. I think there are many more financially independent women, but we are still earning thousands of dollars less than men working the same jobs. Plus, there is still the underpayment of those working in supposed women professions, such as childcare or teaching. I predict that as soon as more men take on these roles, conditions will improve. As soon as men step into positions, they become glamorous positions. Chefs and hairdressers are just two examples. Women just aren’t inherently given the same respect as men in the workplace.”
I found these insights to be profound, in the sense that I had never thought much about the fact that women were trying to reach a male standard. It’s not that we’ve achieved equality, it’s just that we’ve had to learn to adapt and work in the same way men have. Some might argue differently, but I think it’s a very interesting point to make, and one which I’ve found to be valid in my own life. So, despite her uncertainty about whether she still engages in feminist acts, and despite her age, Aunty Dusty is still very much in touch with modern feminism and concepts. She also mentioned the impact of family life: that women are still having to make the choice between having children and a family, or having a career.
“I think the discourse around having children is important. Back in the time of the suffragettes, if you were engaging in activism, you were either single and child-less, or had maids at home that could raise your children. You had to be wealthy enough not to have domestic duties. It’s important to remember that working-class women have less money and less power, and therefore, generally less control over their lives — even if they are committed feminists. Today, it’s still terribly difficult for women: you either miss out on a chunk of your career, or you miss out on having children.”
To conclude, I asked Aunty Dusty about some important lessons she has learnt throughout her life.
“You need to have a sense of justice. In every situation you find yourself in, you must ask yourself, is this the way I would like to be treated or is this the way I would treat you? If it’s a no, then you must be assertive. Not aggressive, but assertive. Listening is important. You need to listen and decide if the fight is worth it, or if there are bigger battles to fight. Be true to yourself, and ask questions about justice and how you are treated.”