The call to action to make our society gender inclusive is stronger than ever. While the struggle for equality belongs to no single activist but to collective power, Maria Zarro has reason to celebrate the efforts of two inspiring women – and Australia Day recipients – in their determination to make a difference. Newtown’s Sarah Midgley and Haberfield’s Jozefa Sobski represent different generations of Inner West women helping create a fairer and equal society.
Awarded Inner West Council’s 2018 Citizen of the Year
For someone only in her thirties, Sarah Midgley has achieved more in her young life than most of us can manage in two. A Sydney girl with a background in quantum physics, Sarah moved to Newtown six years ago with her partner (now wife), Shirleene, after a stint in London as a physics researcher. Sarah works in strategy and planning in the education sector and is passionate about the participation of women in STEM (the learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and working to reduce discrimination experienced by LGBTIQ people, women and Indigenous Australians.
A dedicated volunteer for a number of causes, Sarah has served on the Committee of the Flying Bats Women’s Football Club, the largest lesbian soccer club in the world, and on the Committee of Sydney’s Pride History Group, a community history group focused on Sydney’s LGBTIQ past. However, it’s her work with Australian Marriage Equality, first as NSW Co-Convenor and then as a Director on the Board, that has awarded her Inner West Citizen of the Year.
‘The marriage equality campaign was about achieving equality before the law, but the historic YES result also signalled a move towards greater social inclusion and opportunity for LGBTIQ people to live full and happy lives,’ she says. ‘It’s a cause that intersects with the aims of International Women’s Day (IWD). Until we have a society where sexuality or gender does not serve as a barrier to opportunity, we all need to work to address and remedy this.’
Sarah views IWD as an important day to celebrate what women have achieved and reflect on what remains to be done. ‘Equality is something I believe Australians feel passionate about. IWD aligns with my belief that we are stronger as a society when we recognise and support the contribution everyone makes to their communities.’
‘Indigenous women and women from multicultural backgrounds, as well as bisexual, lesbian, transgender, intersex and queer women still have specific needs that need addressing … it’s an important cause to advocate for both within Australia and globally where women are still denied basic human rights.’
Sarah is proud to have seen the campaign for marriage equality grow in the Inner West. She was involved in door knocking, phone banks and leafletting, and was met with strong community support during the postal survey. ‘I witnessed the profound difference that people can make through grassroots action. Hopefully, the momentum of the marriage equality result will encourage people to stay engaged with local advocacy and community-driven campaigns.’
Unsurprisingly, Sarah relishes living in Newtown; a slice of Sydney where she’s free to be herself. ‘Newtown is a creative and inclusive place. I love living in the Inner West as people accept you, no matter your background or who you love, whether you are an LGBTIQ person or whether you are from a variety of other backgrounds. This is an area where you can feel part of a community, find a cause to advocate for and make a contribution.’
Australian Marriage Equality
Awarded the AM in the General Division of the Order of Australia for significant service to women’s rights, migrant advocacy, and to higher education and skills based training
A child of post war Polish migrants who spent time in hostels, including Villawood Migrant Hostel, Jozefa Sobski has a rich and rewarding history in helping activate change on a political and social level and in improving the lives of individuals through education. An English and history teacher by training, Jozefa joined the Ministry of Education as an advisor on sexism and its effects on the schooling of children, particularly girls. ‘Education of girls has been my passion because I believe this is the key to opening doors for a better life,’ she states. ‘Educate to liberate!’
Jozefa has celebrated or marched on International Women’s Day (IWD) since 1972, that is, for almost her entire adult life. She says that the day is important in marking women’s achievements, and acts as a reminder of the work ahead in attaining a society free of sexual oppression.
‘Women across the world march on IWD in solidarity with all women for equal pay; for accessible, affordable child care; for access to reproductive health care; for safe contraception; for safety and security at home and at work; for a life free of violence and sexual assault; for access to education at all levels and in all fields; and for an end to sexual exploitation. I march for all these reasons.’
Jozefa has direct experience of the benefits feminism has given women over the years; gains that younger generations take for granted. ‘Feminist activists from the early days of women’s liberation have achieved better pay and conditions for women at work. Many women have gone into higher education and training since the 1970s, and as a result there is better distribution of women in many professions.’
Other gains include anti-discrimination laws like the Sex Discrimination Act, changes in sexual assault laws and laws to make domestic violence a criminal offence, and improvements in childcare provisions. Jozefa admits there is still more to achieve and to ensure the benefits of these changes are evenly distributed among women of all backgrounds.
Close to home, Jozefa is involved in the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), which is based in Newtown and which has operated to advance equality for women for 45 years. Membership extends beyond the Inner West. Women are encouraged to join and help lobby government around pivotal issues. ‘Homelessness is often an outcome of domestic violence and WEL is lobbying the government to fund strategies and programs to address this critical social issue,’ she explains. WEL is also focused on modernising the law with respect to abortion, which is now over 100 years old in New South Wales and does not reflect modern medical practice.
Jozefa has a deep connection to Haberfield, having lived there for nearly 30 years, and is concerned by the current changes affecting the area. She is an active member of the Haberfield Association, which does important work to preserve the heritage character of the suburb. The group effectively raises issues created by the Westconnex project, which has destroyed parts of what some consider ‘the jewel in the Inner West crown’.
‘I love Haberfield because of its social and cultural mix, its wonderful architecture, its little shopping village surrounded by buildings of historical significance and its top class cafes and restaurants,’ she beams. ‘The Italian pasticcerias are among the best in Sydney if you want to indulge while reading the paper!’
Preserving women’s history at Jessie Street National Women’s Library
Among Jozefa Sobski’s many causes is her involvement in managing Jessie Street National Women’s Library (JSNWL). Established in 1989, the library is named after Australian suffragette Jessie Street. Its objectives are to heighten awareness of women’s issues, preserve documents on women’s lives and activities, support the field of women’s history and highlight women’s contribution to this country’s development.
The core collection originated from the estate of the feminist and Inner West resident Eva Maria. Donations come from a range of sources such as individuals, women’s organisations, academics and publishers, and the Canberra Women’s Archive, which documented two decades of the history of the women’s movement. The collection boasts more than 10,000 books dating from the mid-19th century to the present day.
Dedicated volunteers, many of them professional librarians, operate the library. Fundraising, grants and donations are crucial to JSNWL’s survival and longevity. The collection has had homes in various places around Sydney, including the NSW Writers’ Centre in Callan Park, Rozelle. It moved to its current location at the Ultimo Community Centre in October 2005.
Inquiries regarding access to the collection, volunteering or making a donation can be made through the contact details below.
Jessie Street National Women’s Library
Address: Ultimo Community Centre, 523-525 Harris Street (cnr William Henry Street), Ultimo
Opening Hours: 10am-3pm, Monday to Friday
Phone: 02 9571 5359