When Joan Kirner was Premier, I was in year 12 and more focused on passing my exams than what was going on in Victorian state politics. If anything, I was more compelled by the leadership battle between Hawke and Keating than the plight of Victoria's first female premier, handed a state in acute financial crisis and expected to steer the sinking ship.
I can only look back now and imagine what it must have been like for Kirner to be forced into making the toughest kind of decisions – including the sell-off of the state bank: in her own words "an icon of Victoria" – all the while dealing with a media and Opposition determined to paint her as nothing more than an incompetent housewife.
Until this week, when I thought of Kirner, I mostly thought of sexism and spotted frocks. The legacy of Victoria's first – and still only – female premier for many women who came of age after her parliamentary career was over has always seemed more symbolic than transformative.
When it came to my feminist heroes, they tended to be a lot louder and more bohemian than Kirner – even if she did love rock'n'roll ( who could forget her good-natured turn as Joan Jett on ABC TV's The Late Show?). Young activists determined to smash the system don't always appreciate the kind of painstaking reforms enacted by those working to create change from within.
I grew up virtually on a picket line. My mother was the secretary of the nurses' union in Canberra and so I was familiar with the issues for those working in female-dominated industries and with the ongoing battle for equal pay. I don't remember a time when I didn't consider myself a feminist.
My father, a Canberra public servant, was present at a committee meeting chaired by Paul Keating in the late 1980s that was considering the seed funding for the Affirmative Action Agency. Before the key women entered the room, the finance minister's opening words were: "What do the boilers want now?" This, my father recalls, is the attitude women still had to overcome.
Kirner had worked at changing such attitudes since childhood. As a 10-year-old, young Joan got a thumping from her teacher for taking her bike through the "boys' gate" at school, because it was closer and the rule was "stupid" – and from there she was set on a path fuelled not by rabid rebellion but by pragmatic commonsense. Recalling this anecdote to the ABC's Peter Thompson in 2002, she said she'd been going through the boys' gates ever since. "And what's more, holding them open for other people."
Although the media was merciless in its portrayal of Kirner as a housewife in a polka-dot dress, she herself understood the genuinely galvanising force that motherhood can present, giving women a passionate stake in the future. As writer Anna Maria Dell'Oso once said to me: "There's no greater power than a bunch of pissed-off parents confronting a community."
It is now well known that when Kirner took her first child to the local kindergarten in the Melbourne suburb of Croydon, she was shocked to find a classroom of 54 pupils with one teacher. "Not my child," she famously told the principal – but rather than take her own child elsewhere, Kirner had a mind to change the system.
This week, ACTU president Ged Kearney recalled Joan Kirner declaring, with such intensity that her fists were clenched: "Why do anything if not for your children? Don't give up. We do it for them."
For Kirner, the personal was political – and it set her agenda: women, the environment and education. She understood that what people care about is what connects them, and she dedicated herself to giving other women the confidence to recognise that they had what it takes to be leaders.
She was never going to be satisfied merely to influence; she wanted to be at the centre of power – but more than that, she wanted to make sure other women joined her there. She had a profound belief that people who are affected by decisions should be part of making them. At a strategic level, that meant affirmative action and Emily's List, which by supporting female political candidates has assisted more than 200 women to enter Australian parliaments.
But in her tireless mentoring, she was performing a far more subtle and yet profound role in enabling women to take on a political career. She knew full well what they faced in a climate where women in power were still, in her words, "objects of interest" and she believed in the fundamental importance of "women supporting women".
Ged Kearney recalls a time she felt "beaten down" by a colleague over the question of merit versus affirmative action, so she rang Joan Kirner for guidance. "I have never forgotten Joan's response, which put the issue into perspective at once. She said, 'Oh, for goodness sake, Ged! Do you think that every man in every senior position or on every board got there on merit?'"
In 2000, when former ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher was being encouraged to run for Assembly, she was filled with self-doubt and worry about the impact on her family. "I agonised over these things," Gallagher recalled this week. . "I went to an Emily's List training session. To my horror I found myself in a room alone with Joan Kirner, like an interview! I explained my situation: at the time I was a single mother, my daughter, Abby, was only three years old and I was finding life a struggle.
"Joan said: 'That, my dear, is why you will be a brilliant politician'. This was my defining moment. I knew then that Joan Kirner believed in me."
Kirner never put herself forward as a feminist leader, and so perhaps it is not surprising that I was not more aware of her legacy until recently, when her illness and passing has exposed the astonishing scope, not only of her reforms — from the establishment of Landcare to the implementation of the VCE — but also of her immeasurable impact on the political careers of women on the Left.