A Potted Herstory of Liverpool Women's Health Centre

On Monday April 21st 1975, Liverpool Women's Health Centre opened its doors to the women of Liverpool. The centre was the second of its kind in NSW and like its forerunner, Leichhardt Women's Health Centre, adopted a new approach to health care and service delivery.

Both centres were a direct outcome of the aspirations and efforts of women in the Sydney Women's Liberation Movement. The late sixties and early seventies saw a resurgence of the feminist movement in the western world. High on the agenda of women's concerns was the issue of women's right to control their bodies - in particular women's right to control their fertility.

At this time women (especially unmarried women) had difficulty accessing information and services on contraception, abortion, sexually transmitted infections (then called VD), menstrual problems, menopause and many other areas. Indeed it was illegal to advertise contraceptives. It was in this climate that women decided to take action.

In March 1973, the Women's Liberation Movement organised a Women's Commission as part of that year's activities for International Women's Day. The Commission brought together some 500 women over two days to speak about issues of concern to them.

The nature and delivery of health services available to women received much attention. Women complained of the approach and attitudes of a predominantly male medical profession, of having their health concerns often trivialised or denied, of receiving inadequate information regarding medical procedures and prescribed treatments and of a general lack of understanding and support.

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Following the Women's Commission, a group known as "CONTROL" formed to work around the establishment of an abortion referral service and a self help clinic for women. Twelve months later, due to the efforts of this group, Leichhardt Women's Health Centre opened its doors. It was the first women's health centre in Australia and it was fully funded by the Federal Government.

The response to the Leichhardt centre was overwhelming with requests coming from all over Sydney and beyond. The centre had obviously tapped a huge need amongst women everywhere.

At the end of 1974 a submission was made for funds to establish a similar health centre for women in western Sydney. Parramatta was the proposed location.

Meanwhile at the community video access centre in Green Valley one of its workers, Susan Varga, was talking with local women about women's issues. She was instrumental in bringing together a group of "Valley" women to discuss the realities of their lives, their concerns, their needs and to develop a set of plans for the following year, 1975, International Women's Year.

The group that formed was convened jointly by Joan Killorn and Kay Ferrington, both women active members of the Green Valley community. The group wanted to see a multipurpose women's health and resource centre and a women's refuge established in the area. Susan was able to link the group with the Women's Liberation group that had set up Leichhardt Women's Health Centre.

Upon learning that a submission had been made for a centre in western Sydney, the Green Valley women petitioned their inner city sisters requesting that the proposed new centre be located in Liverpool.
Joan Killorn, when interviewed recently, recalled the making of a video entitled "There's no way she's going to be sent home" that was used as a lobby tool to try to persuade the inner city feminists ... and persuaded they were. And so Liverpool Women's Health Centre was set up on the first floor of commercial premises in George Street, Liverpool, just a short walk from Liverpool station.

The centre, funded under the Federal Government's Community Health Program, opened in April 1975 with an all female staff - a mix of inner city and local women. The aim of the staff was to provide a place where women could receive skilled medical advice and treatment and speak freely about their lives and share experiences with other women in an atmosphere of warmth, acceptance and understanding.

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Kay Ferrington, co-convenor of the Green Valley group and a long term resident of the area, was one of the original staff. She worked at the centre for some 8 years and was on the centre's management committee until she died in 2000.

Over the years the centre has undergone many changes in response to the needs of local women. For example, it has incorporated a number of cultural backgrounds onto the staff so as to better respond to the needs of different ethnic groups in the community.

In 1976, Mabel Gardiol was the first Latin American woman to be employed by the centre to directly service Spanish speaking women in their own language. We believe we were the first women's service to take this step. We were also the first women's service to decide to employ Aboriginal women and to raise issues of employment of women from different cultural backgrounds throughout the women's services sector.

During its first twenty years, Liverpool Women's Health Centre has been involved in many campaigns and actions for change around issues affecting women's lives. These have included: domestic violence, sexual assault, incest, abortion rights, occupational health of women workers (R.S.I.), the health needs of women in prison, etc. In addition it has helped to establish a number of other services including Sunshine Cottage - a local child care service, Amberley Single Women's Refuge, W.I.L.M.A. (Campbelltown Women's Health Centre), Rosebank Sexual Assault Service, Jilimi Aboriginal Women's Health Centre (now Waminda) and Dympna House - an incest counselling service.

The Centre now operates from a house in Bathurst St Liverpool with the Liverpool CBD now growing to surround the Centre. The Centre has undergone one major extension in the mid 90s and is ready to grow again under the pressure of demand from women using the Centre and staff numbers.

The management structure of the Centre changed from a collective structure to a hierarchical one in the mid 1990s and the organization now has a separate management committee, centre coordinator, team leaders and general staff.

In 1999 one of the Centre’s original collective members resigned from the position of Centre coordinator after 25 years. Nola Cooper had guided the Centre through many changes over the years. When she left, the Centre had successfully undergone a quality assurance review.

As a result of the review, the Centre has further developed its planned approach to working with women and committed to build up its work with young women.

In 2005 the Centre celebrated its 30th anniversary with well over 100 women in attendance at a great event in our front yard. The event incorporated what best represents the Centre: original collective women activists, local community women from a diverse range of backgrounds, new staff and management committee members, music, food, dancing, singing, support from sister services, speeches and discussion about what is still to done … It was a remarkable day!

Liverpool Women's Health Centre has serviced and helped many thousands of local women. It has a herstory to be proud of and one certainly worth celebrating.

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