On this day December 9: Free Sandra Willson protest

women behind bars Free Sandra Wilson wendy bacon december 9
Image: Tribune, 15 December 1976

On December 9, 1976, Women Behind Bars demonstrated outside the NSW Royal Commission into Prisons. The Free Sandra Willson campaign sought the release of Australia’s then longest-serving female prisoner. Women Behind Bars accused the NSW government of keeping Sandra Willson locked up “because she is a lesbian and because jail has not broken her spirit.”

(The painter of the banner pictured above missed one ‘l’ in Sandra Willson’s surname. No biggie.)

As a 20-year-old in 1959, Sandra Willson shot and killed a 23-year-old taxi driver. She told police that she felt like a misfit because of her sexuality.

“I should kill someone to square things up.”

Years later, she said that from the age of 12 she “expected to spend a long time in jail, probably for a vindictive act like killing someone. I got off to a pretty bad start as a kid and things just seemed to get worse.”

After sawing down a .22 rifle, Sandra Willson packed it in a briefcase, hailed a driver, told him an address and when he stopped to check his street directory, pulled out the rifle and shot him dead.

Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Sandra Willson spent 11 years in the Parramatta Psychiatric Centre. Following a medical panel declaring her sane in 1970, the government transferred her to the Silverwater maximum-security women’s prison at the Governor’s Pleasure.

Women Behind Bars

The campaign for her release included some of Australia’s most extraordinary women.

Virginia Bell, then a law student, would go on to become Justice Virginia Bell AC, senior puisne Justice of the High Court of Australia. The first lesbian to serve on the High Court also marched in the first Sydney Mardi Gras rally in 1978.

Pat O’Shane, later Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate was before that:

  • Queensland’s first female Aboriginal teacher.
  • next, the first Aboriginal to earn a law degree.
  • then, the first Aboriginal barrister.
  • and the first female and first Aboriginal head of a government department in Australia.

Wendy Bacon is an academic/investigative journalist/activist/shit-stirrer and all-around legend. She co-founded Women Behind Bars following eight days of incarceration in Silverwater for publishing indecent material. The material in question? A poem titled C_nt is a Christian Word. [QNews edit]

Wendy Bacon probably did not impress the magistrate with her court apparel. She wrote about the experience decades later in Overland.

“We responded by spending a weekend sewing nun costumes with words from the poem concealed by a bib. The lines were dramatically revealed during a court hearing at which we also distributed copies of the offending poem. I was arrested.

“That was how, in February 1971 – forty years ago – I found myself in a paddy wagon on the way to a week’s imprisonment in Mulawa Women’s Prison, while the court prepared to sentence me for exhibiting an ‘obscene publication’ with a tendency to ‘deprave and corrupt’ – to wit, the nun’s habit with the slogan ‘I have been f_cked by God’s steel prick’.”

Author, feminist, and later political advisor Anne Summers was another member, as was future magistrate Janet Walquist and later President of the New South Wales Legislative Council, Meredith Burgmann.

Life after prison for Sandra Willson

Their campaign resulted in numerous arrests and included storming the office of the Minister for Justice. Women Behind Bars also sold Free Sandra Willson badges and demonstrated their media savvy with stunts like nailing up the banner for the December 9, 1976 protest, raising public awareness.

The campaign achieved Sandra Willson’s release in 1977. Free at last, she lobbied for funds to establish the first NSW halfway house for female parolees. Sandra worked to set up processes to help rehabilitate other women upon their release from prison. She was also an advisor on the iconic television drama Prisoner.

Sandra Willson retired in 1992 to Gympie in Queensland and died from a stroke in 1999.

Read More: December 8 <— On this day —> December 10

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