VIEW: Gender empowerment needs to go beyond just the empowerment of women

The General Sir John Monash Foundation recently announced the recipients of its 2021 scholarships, Australia’s most prestigious postgraduate overseas study program. Among the recipients was emergency nurse of 15 years, Emily Ragus, who intends to complete a PhD in utilisation of gender empowerment theory within disasters promoting equality as a health diplomacy tool for Australia.

In this interview, Emily outlines why she is passionate about this field and why gender empowerment theory within disasters is an important issue for all Australians to reflect upon this year.

  • With the John Monash Scholarship, you’re planning to complete a PhD in gender empowerment theory within disasters. Why have you chosen this topic? 

Having worked in many male dominated areas of health, I have seen the subtle forms of discrimination that still occur. These subtle aspects tend to culminate to create a large societal problem that is often not recognized. I found that for myself, as a woman in leadership positions, I would still experience this, and I felt really disempowered. This disempowerment is a horrible feeling, and it is through self-reflection I decided systemic change needed to happen. This pushed me to focus my research into ways that this can be improved, particularly in relation to women in disasters.

Disaster management has progressed dramatically with gender equality, however we continue to fall short with regards to gender inclusion. What that means to both myself and the research that I am hoping to do, is to ensure that women continue to have a voice, but that voice is actively heard. As to mobilize the full breadth of the problem-solving capacity of a community, we need the whole community to be involved. By only listening to one side of a community during disasters, we are only understanding one side of the problem.

  • What have we learnt about gender empowerment or disempowerment from the coronavirus pandemic? 

What we have learnt is that gender empowerment needs to go beyond just the empowerment of women, it also needs to include how we can break down negative gender roles that put pressure on both men and women, to ensure we have healthier, happier communities.

Disasters indivertibly put emphasis on those groups within society that can experience vulnerabilities. COVID-19 as a public health disaster has done just that. It has been predicted that COVID-19 could globally reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights. Globally we need to implement programs and processes that work towards mitigating this gender equality decline. Because ultimately the equality that our Grandmothers fought for, needs to be extended to our children.

  • Why is equality a health diplomacy tool? What does this mean in tangible terms for everyday Australians? 

Australia plays a significant role within our geographical region. We are currently serving on the United Nations Human Rights Council, aiming to advance human rights internationally. However, there remains significant inequalities for women both domestically and within our region that we need to combat. A way to do that is through health education and empowerment through our humanitarian efforts in neighboring countries. This soft diplomatic maneuver can have a transformative change on people, but we need to use a framework to be as effective as possible in creating change around equality. My PhD will work towards establishing a workable and sustainable solution to a global problem.

  • What gives you hope that Australia is becoming more equitable? 

The #MeToo movement along with surging rates in domestic violence throughout this pandemic, have really highlighted the need within Australia to focus on the rights of women. I truly believe that as a country, we are pushing forward into a time of significant social change.

The next generation (both men and women) are not complacent to the inequalities that are still facing women in Australia, and they are also more educated as to what these inequalities are. I believe that collectively as a country we are passionate about changing the social landscape of Australia for a more equitable future.


About the expert

Emily Ragus is a 2021 John Monash Scholar who has dedicated her career to work towards a more equitable future. She has a Bachelor of Nursing from Queensland University of Technology, an International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance from Fordham University in New York City and is currently completing a Masters of Global Development at Griffith University in Brisbane. Her professional background includes 15 years emergency nursing, as well as previously working as a remote area nurse, a helicopter trauma retrieval nurse and the coordinator for the Queensland Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT). Currently based in South East Asia with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Emily teaches first aid and pandemic control measures to vulnerable groups as a Pre-Hospital Health Delegate. With her John Monash Scholarship, Emily intends to complete a PhD in utilisation of gender empowerment theory within disasters promoting equality as a health diplomacy tool for Australia.


Image description: Emily has long, wavy brown hair, is smilling and wearing a white blouse under a beige jacket.

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VIEW: Why we need to write women into history

A guest post from Alison Booth discussing her new novel, The Philosopher’s Daughters, and the importance of writing women into history.

To understand history, we rely upon the reports of others. And when we read those words we might ask ourselves whose stories are missing. Typically, it will be the stories of those who were losers, of those who had no power at the time: the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the defeated. This is where writers of historical fiction can present different perspectives to those that are found in standard straight historical texts, because they can tell stories that include the marginal voices that history left aside.

The beauty of historical fiction is that it doesn’t only report what happened in the past, it also makes the reader feel what happened, and in so doing it creates empathy for preceding generations. It helps readers understand what was experienced by people living through different times and in different places. It also helps readers understand who we are now, and how we got here, so we can appreciate what progress humankind has made. For example, we can see – and perhaps better comprehend – the extent to which female and racial equality have evolved, and we can see this in a much more personal and moving way than in a straight history text.

Feminism and female emancipation feature strongly in my latest novel, The Philosopher’s Daughters, and so it never occurred to me not to make the principal two characters female. When I first conceived the idea for The Philosopher’s Daughters, I kept imagining 1890s London and two strong young women, the daughters of a moral philosopher. Someone like John Stuart Mill, a great advocate for the emancipation of women. Someone who gives the girls a relatively modern upbringing. Then I thought of altering the sisters’ circumstances so that they separately choose to journey into remote and wild Australia. What might happen to them?  How might they see life at the ‘frontier’ once they are confronted with the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous population? How would their characters develop as they faced danger?

Of course, there were other reasons why I wanted the two principal characters to be female. In particular, I wanted to capture the north of Australia through fresh eyes, and the female perspective would certainly have been that up north in the 1890s. Women of those times faced prejudice at every step, and I felt that my two female protagonists would be well-equipped to empathise with a lot of the displaced Indigenous inhabitants. Because I wrote the novel from the separate viewpoints of the two sisters, I was also able to present a nuanced view of what was happening, for these young women saw the world in different ways in spite of their common upbringing.

People often ask what is the difference between fiction and historical fiction. All types of fiction are products of the imagination, but historical fiction is set in a carefully-researched context that will survive the scrutiny of historians. It’s worth pointing out here that the historian’s approach to what is history probably differs from that of the Historical Novel Society, which defines historical fiction as being written at least 50 years after the events described in it, unless written by someone not alive at the time of those events. Thus, a novel written in the last two decades of the Cold War wouldn’t, by this strict definition, be viewed as historical fiction by novelists, unless it was written by someone under the age of 30, but it would be viewed as historical by historians. And I have to say that I find this slightly odd!

What can historical fiction say about gender equality and race relations in modern times? Historical fiction brings characters to life in a way that captures not only the essence of an historical period but also the deeper truths of human existence. From this we can better understand how the past contributes to the present. And we can also better comprehend how to right the wrongs of the past. There’s a sense in which The Philosopher’s Daughters might be thought of the 1890s meeting of the #MeToo and the #BlackLivesMatter movements. These movements in their present manifestation show that we do indeed have a way to go yet in improving gender equality and race relations.


About the expert

A novelist with a keen interest in history, Alison Booth is an ANU-based Emeritus Professor of Economics. She is a regular contributor to academic journals and has previously published four novels, Stillwater Creek, The Indigo Sky, A Distant Land, and A Perfect Marriage. In 2017 she received the ESA Distinguished Fellow Award, and she is also an elected Fellow of the Econometric Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.


Image description: Alison stands in a white blouse, black blazer and black pants in front of a bright tree with yellow leaves and surrounded by greass. She is smiling with one hand in her front pocket.