This New ABC Doco Shows Just How Much We Forget About Our Local Feminist Icons

We should all know more about this great woman.

There’s a particular moment in Paper Trails, the ABC’s delicate new half-hour documentary on the life of celebrated Australian journalist Anne Deveson, that captured my heart.

While shuffling through Deveson’s archives, which she needs to catalogue for the National Library of Australia, she comes across a manila folder full of black-and-white topless photos. The face is obscured, but the photos are clearly of Anne.

Laughing, Deveson holds the photos up to camera. “Look what I discovered in the archives!” she says, “I must have been rather vain, I’ve taken about four of them.” she goes on, “Anyway, I think they’re pretty good” and jokes to documentarian Sari Braithwaite, “Would you put it in the archives?”

“Yeah,” Braithwaite replies, “because you’ve got great boobs.”

Deveson is one of the most remarkable public figures in Australian journalism. She was the first female talk-back radio host in Australia, and before working for the ABC as a journalist and radio broadcaster she worked at the BBC and The New York Times. Deveson was a fierce advocate for women’s rights and a mental health advocate; after her son died from complications related to schizophrenia, Deveson co-founded one of Australia’s national mental health services, SANE.

However, when I sat down to watch Paper Trails I was astounded that, aside from vaguely recognising the name, I hadn’t heard of her. Deveson is in the same company as monumental journalistic figures like Ray Martin, Tony Jones, Richard Morecroft and Laurie Oakes. So, why don’t I — a young female journalist in an Australia, with a passion for mental health advocacy and feminist issues (just like Anne) — know about this woman’s outstanding contribution to Australia’s journalistic history?

In fact, when it comes to deifying cultural icons in Australia, very few of the people we chose to honour are women. The Australian identity is so enshrined in male-dominated notions — mateship and baptisms of fire and battlers and other blokey things — so many of women’s contributions to Australian culture are forgotten within generations.

It’s easy to forget the smaller ways our country’s toxic male persona can harm our history.

As Roxane Gay reflected of her time in Australia, “Things are bad in the United States with regards to gender but it’s a paradise compared to what I’ve seen here.” It’s easy to forget the smaller ways our country’s toxic male persona can harm our history — and our futures. And it’s that culture is burying the achievements of bright and brilliant Australian women — people you would want to know.

I am just the sort of person who should have heard stories about Deveson’s groundbreaking work, but it’s only this small but fine documentary, which will air on Compass this Saturday night to celebrate ABC’s Mental As Week, that’s alerted me to her achievements.

I want to know more about women like Anne, who tells stories in Paper Trails about hitchhiking across Albania and her time at The New York Times, and who presented a groundbreaking documentary on lesbian women in 1966.

We spend a great deal of time at Junkee investigating the achievements of contemporary feminist icons: Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell on their podcast Pretty For An Aboriginal, Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca, and the intractably divisive Lena Dunham. And all these women are absolutely worthy of attention; however, in this country at least, we don’t take the time and care to pass on the legacy of the women who helped shape our culture today.

As I watched Paper Trails it felt especially significant that, as Deveson and Braithwaite are trawling through her private archives to send to the NLA, Deveson herself is disappearing. In the final years of her life, Deveson suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, so as she pours over 85 years of papers from her past, she’s losing her memory and sense of being. In one of many warm voicemail messages to Braithwaite, Deveson says, “I’m glad we’re going to do the film. I’m getting much worse. The Alzheimer’s is getting worse. So come quickly while I’m still here.”

The intimate film, which catalogues her efforts to archive her sprawling career, is a startling portrait of a strong, funny and principled woman. Deveson was cool; she was a cheeky tough nut.

I wish we cared more to enshrine the legacies of the women who helped to shape our lives in Australia. Meeting Deveson via Paper Trails made me realise there are so many more fabulous women I could know.

Paper Trails will air on ABC’s Compass this Saturday, October 14 as part of Mental As Week, and will stream on iView after the broadcast.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.