When I fell under Pamela’s spell, she was a technician in the Cambridge lab where the Double Helix earned Nobel prizes for Biochemists. (She had to abandon Geology, as it was evidently impossible to provide toilets for women.) Pamela was in flight from Toowoomba, and I from Durban, so we arrived, wide-eyed, in Uganda’s Makerere University. After six years in Uganda and Nigeria we had modest reputations, three fine children, wonderful friends, and great photographs. But along with thousands of others our lives were disrupted by General Idi Amin.
In our last weeks of severance pay, we found refuge in Papua New Guinea, more hospitable then than now. As colonial rule wound down, it was a magical country, bursting with possibilities – and ideas. New Left jostled with Old Left, Stage theories against Dependency Theory. Until then our opinions were conventional. Like our cosmopolitan colleagues, we denounced apartheid, racism, colonialism and imperialism, without doing much about them. The University offered a course in Women’s Studies, taught by a young man; and Pamela and her friends got a handbook on raising their consciousness. Feminism and feminists helped Pamela see sexism as vitally important – and something she could combat, as a social planner and as a political activist.
By the time we came to Canberra in 1981, Pamela’s egalitarian heart and her feminist head were fully aligned. Feminism and feminists gave her insight, goals, and the methods to pursue them. As well as her public service job, she threw herself into abortion counselling, then WEL. In particular WEL was involved in the Hawke-Keating economic summit (imagine that in the present day!), and lobbying for the Sex Discrimination Act.
Feminism and feminists then helped us all to deal with her diagnosis of leukaemia, and the relentless approach of her death, allowing her to celebrate many small victories on the way. Brave and clear-eyed, she repaired her relations with her family, came closer to our children, her friends and colleagues. Then she turned her attention to the Women’s Movement, and arranged to fund a National Foundation for Australian Women, entrusting Canberra feminists to discuss and decide its aims and its methods.
Pamela did not formulate the principles that guided her actions – but I can summarise two. First, tap into the experience of women, trust their collective wisdom, and rely on their collective abilities. She accepted that women make mistakes, but their mistakes would be less serious than most, and in any case participation and learning from mistakes was as important as outcomes.
Second, the emancipation of women should never be subordinate to (for example) national independence, winning a war, balancing a budget, or greening the planet. There’s always something that looks more urgent, but their achievement is hollow and ephemeral, if only half the population take part in the struggle and benefit from it.
Surprisingly, the institution that best reflect Pamela’s values is not her own creation, but the Pamela Denoon Lecture Committee – formed first by her friends, now involving other dedicated Canberra women. Each year they have to decide the most important issues for women and select the best women to tackle them. The preliminary discussions, the effective organisation, and the excellent lectures themselves, are the best possible embodiment of Pamela’s values.