Jill was born in Melbourne in 1954, a sibling for her brother, who was two years older. Her father was an industrial chemist and her mother was an office worker who looked after the family at home until the children were teenagers. Her family was not political and were not involved in any form of community activism – Jill describes them as “very insular” and she says that she certainly didn’t get her commitment to social activism from her family. Her parents had no religion, and did not attend church. Jill attended co-ed public schools throughout her education.
It was injustice and cruelty to animals that prompted Jill’s first interest in the environment. When she was 9 or 10 she started raising funds for the RSPCA at school and through stalls in shopping strips. In high school she became involved in wildlife groups.
In high school Jill also become an active participant in the anti-Vietnam marches in Melbourne with friends from school. After she left school she joined and was active in Friends of the Earth.
When she left school Jill first worked in laboratories, initially with the CSIRO animal health laboratories (looking after the animals), and then with ICI working on agricultural pesticides.
After these jobs, Jill wanted to travel, and she bought a van and went around Australia.
Then in her early twenties Jill says she “tried to become a hermit” – firstly in Lilydale, then for a much longer time at Coopers Creek, a ghost town east of the hills of Melbourne. Jill lived there with her dogs for three years, where she built up her skills in self-sufficiency. This self-reliant approach to life has been a feature of Jill’s life (listen to the extract below)– she has never had a life partner or children, and she clearly relishes her time by herself, even though she is actively involved in environmental activities.
Jill then moved out further from Melbourne – a year at Wombat Flat, and then to Buldah north of Cann River. There she built a shack in which she lived in for 3 years in the early 1980s, through the disastrous fires of 1983, and a visit from the then infamous prison activist/escapee Joey Hamilton and his partner folk singer Shirley Jacobs. During this three years Jill became aware of the logging activities occurring around her.
After she was burned out in the fires, Jill worked on a construction and maintenance crew(s) in the Snowy National Park (becoming leading hand despite her bosses’ opposition to her being a woman) – and she lived through winter in a tipi which she describes (with amazing restraint I thought) as “incredibly cold and icy”.
In this way she saved up money to buy her 22 acre river flat property in Goongerah in East Gippsland, where she has built her own house, and lived for the last 30 years.
In Goongerah, Jill became involved in both the local environment group, then called Concerned Residents of East Gippsland, which was organising forest camps; and in the local Owner Builder Association which was formed to support people building their own homes around East Gippsland and being, as Jill describes it, “harassed by Council” – as she herself was.
It was now that Jill became an active environmentalist. In the extract below Jill describes how she became involved with environmental activism, and then responsible for much of the forest campaigning in East Gippsland, through the renamed Environment East Gippsland.
As Jill outlines in the extract, she was able to get local media for her campaigning fairly easily. Jill says however, that local media in a conservative electorate is often pointless, nowhere near as effective as “exposing the destruction of logging and the collusion between the industry and government” and it is on this that she has focused a lot of her efforts. Most recently in 2010, in a landmark case for public interest litigation, EEG succeeded in its bid to stop the State Government owned enterprise VicForests, from logging old growth forests of Brown Mountain Creek. See EEG website for details of the Brown Mountain case.
Over the 30 years Jill’s role has remained fairly much the same, although Environment East Gippsland now has grown to 350 members and 700 supporters. I asked Jill how things had changed for her personally over the years.
I suppose I’m more battle-scarred and cynical. I was never one for the limelight – I was always a bit shy and I’ve had to take on this sort of lead role and argue the toss with the biggest logging reps in the state and country, and speak at public meetings. There is an Environment East Gippsland working group to support me, but it hasn’t always been very active. I get a lot of moral support from our members …
Jill also reports threats and actions against her – “there have been endless attempts to silence and frighten me over the years; horse shot, business sign destroyed/stolen, letter box smashed more times than I can recall, beer bottles smashed on my gate post and drive entrance to the property, profanities shouted out as they speed past, death threat, fast abusive phone calls …”
One of the greatest challenges Jill has faced has been the media attacks on her integrity and credibility. Jill says in the extract below that women are generally seen to be “fair game” to the local conservative media and easier to denigrate by both media and local politicians.
Jill relies on her like-minded friends to be her wider “family” and support base. She also says “I’ve learned to grow a skin as thick as a bulldozer blade” in order to survive.
After some full time work in the past, Jill is now mainly self employed, with freelance writing and cartooning work, and a small honorarium from EEG. She has also built a tourist eco-accommodation cottage on her property which brings in a small income.
Jill has never had any training in leadership – and these days she is more likely to provide training than receive it. I asked Jill about her views on the differences between women and men as leaders in the environment movement.
I’ve come across a lot of men with big egos, which isn’t a bad thing if they also have proportionate passion about the issue. Women in the environment movement often tend to be the driving force, even though they’re not always the up front public face. They do a lot of work behind the scenes, and they keep at it. Unfortunately women aren’t taken as seriously unless they have a persona which is very confident, authoritative, especially when speaking against such a ‘blokey’ industry. Sometimes men can spout total shit, and because they present as the absolute authority they are believed and are taken seriously.
Jill’s activism is very integrated into her personal life – she says that 60-70% of her time is spent on campaigning, and she lives right in the middle of the forested area that she is trying to protect. Jill says
Sometimes it would be really nice to put the blinkers up and do something really pleasant with life. Life is very precious and so much of mine is being wasted fighting these planet-rapers. It’s a horrible, ugly battle field, and they attack you and they don’t play fair, and you have to continually justify your own existence to the whole region … it’s lucky the world is bigger than East Gippsland.
I just love animals and gardening and being self-reliant, and I’m not able to do that because it[forest destruction] is in my face all day, every day and I can’t just let them get away with it. Seeing the trucks go up and down, and the scars they leave behind… It is my motivation – I can’t move on to something else. … I’m staying right here and as long as this barbaric industry continues, so will I.
I do look forward to the day I can retire, but I was born with a strong outrage against injustices … and there’s no shortage of them. I think I’d always be involved in something.
Jill’s fierce independence and her commitment to self-reliance and the protection of her forest environment is extraordinary. Her profile raises issues about women activists who live and work in often very conservative rural areas, and the impact their leadership can have on their roles and identities within their communities.
Comments on Jill’s profile are very welcome.