| Issue 51 Contents |
Stefania Siedlecky was born in 1921 in Blackheath, a small town 100km west of Sydney, Australia. The daughter of a Polish immigrant, Stefania endured taunts of being a "foreigner" in the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Australia of the time. As with so many migrant children, this imbued in her the desire to succeed. She won scholarships to Sydney University and graduated with honours in Medicine in 1943.
Stefania experienced first hand discrimination against women in employment, even at a professional level. She was one of the first two women ever appointed to St Vincent's Hospital. The second woman was replaced because she had married after her final exams. Later while working in Darwin Stefania was paid 85% of the male rate.
Her interest in women's health began during the Second World War, at the beginning of the era of antibiotics and blood transfusions.
"Working in a women's hospital during the war years I saw women die from infection and haemorrhage following illegal abortion, and the hypocrisy of doctors who would do a discreet safe abortion for their private patients. Several of our teachers actively opposed contraception including one who when asked for further information replied, 'I am here to teach you how to deliver babies, not how to prevent them.' Such experiences shaped my future career and attitudes."
Stefania spent over thirty years in general and gynaecological medical practice in Blackheath and Sydney, during which time she also raised four children. She was also a gynaecologist at the Rachel Forster Hospital from 1960 - 1974. Throughout her medical career Stefania actively promoted contraceptive use when it was not fashionable to do so, recognising an urgent need for women to have information and access to contraception.
In 1971 when her husband decided to train in psychiatry Stefania took a break from general practice and used the opportunity to work with Family Planning New South Wales on a casual basis. Stefania became a clinic and training doctor at Family Planning New South Wales in Sydney and conducted school and community education programs as an "enthusiastic volunteer", having already given unpaid talks to women's groups for many years on sex, contraception, pain relief in childbirth and menopause.
During her time with Family Planning New South Wales Stefania helped to establish the Leichhardt Women's Health Centre, the first government-funded women's health centre in Australia, and in 1974 the Preterm Foundation, two initiatives which brought safe legal abortion into the open in New South Wales. In addition, she was responsible for the establishment of the Action Centre for adolescents in Melbourne, now run by Family Planning Victoria, and the Warehouse youth centre and the Fairfield Multicultural Centre in NSW.
Stefania remembers that "the most vocal opposition to the Leichhardt Women's Health Centre came from conservative women doctors. Church ministers denounce the centre from the pulpit and inadvertently acted as advance agents for us!"
Recognition of her involvement in these projects led to her appointment by the new Whitlam Government as the Australian Department of Health's first Adviser in Family Planning and Women's Health. For the first time Australia had adopted a policy on family planning as a right. Appointed initially for six months, Stefania continued in this position for 12 years, "maintaining the rage" through the succeeding Fraser and Hawke governments in the late 1970's and early 1980's and felt she "had been able to maintain the interest in women’s health." Achievements during this time included the establishment of special education units in each Australian State and the allocation of funding for doctors' education in family planning.
In 1978 Stefania took a Masters of Science Degree in medical demography at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
On her retirement in 1986 she returned to Family Planning as a volunteer Board Member, first in Canberra and later in Sydney, where she set up and still chairs the Ethics Committee which oversees all research work in the area of sexual and reproductive health in accordance with Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines.
In 1989 Stefania joined the Macquarie University Demography Research Group as an Honorary Associate in Demography where she continues to pursue her interest in epidemiological research.
Stefania represented Australia on the IPPF-ESEAOR Council from 1989 to 1995, and was one of those who initiated the establishment of its Women's Sub-committee and wrote its original terms of reference. She was also a member of Australian Government delegations to the Mid-Decade Conference for Women (Copenhagen 1980), the International Conference on Population (Mexico City 1984) and the End of Decade for Women Conference (Nairobi 1985). With other delegation members Stefania prepared Australian position papers on women's health and family planning issues. She considers highlights of this period to be working with other women, and having the "Role and Status of Women" given separate consideration instead of being included under the title, "Reproduction and the Family".
In recognition of her services to women's health in Australia Stefania Siedlecky was awarded AM, Member of the Order of Australia, in 1987. The Order of Australia awards were instituted by Australian Government during the 1980's to replace the Imperial honours awarded by the Queen. Other notable female recipients include the former Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Lois O'Donoghue and prominent feminist academic, Dale Spender.
In 1990 Stefania and co-author Diana Wyndham published Populate and Perish: Australian Women’s Fight for Birth Control which was subsidised by the Australian Bicentennial Authority. The book's emphasis is on women's rights and it is regarded as an authoritative analysis of the family planning movement in Australia.
While she recognises that Australia is in a very good position compared to many other countries of the world with respect to sexual and reproductive health, Stefania sees a number of challenges still facing policy makers and those working in the field of sexual and reproductive health. Australian women still face the risk of reproductive cancers and sexually transmissible diseases. They are also disadvantaged by having less access to new contraceptives than women from other OECD countries, in part because of restrictive Australian drug regulations, but also because the large drug companies see Australia as too small a market.
Looking to the future, Stefania is concerned at the current Australian Government's reductions in funding to family planning, and at attempts by some to reduce women’s access to abortion and contraception. "In spite of our successes," she stresses, "we need to remain vigilant to make sure we don't lose what it took us so long to gain."
Noelene Nagy is the Administrative Assistant - International Program at Family Planning Australia
This article first appeared in People and Development Challenges Vol 5, May 1998.