There are a lot of ordinary people in the world who do extraordinary things. Most of them pass through life unnoticed by all except those whose lives they touch. A small number become immortalised when their contribution is recognised by the media, awards, or writers who become fascinated enough in their stories to commit them to paper, but most often the extent of a person’s contribution to society, only becomes apparent when we hear others tell stories about them.
Last week I went to a living wake for a woman called Katrina Leason, a long-term friend of my partner, and someone I have come to love and admire through that association.
In the mid-eighties when feminist activists began to challenge dominant discourses about violence against women, a group of young women in Melbourne got together and formed a collective to set up Zelda’s Place which provided support and accommodation to young women who were victims of incest. Katrina was one of the founding collective members.
The collective named Zelda’s Place after Zelda D’Aprano, a staunch feminist, labour unionist and pay justice advocate. Zelda was an unstoppable force in the women’s movement and the labour movement. She got sacked from factory jobs for speaking out about unfair condition for women, organised pub crawls with groups of women to drink in bars that banned women from entering, and chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth bank in 1969 to protest the dismissal of an arbitration of an equal pay case with the meat industry union. On another occasion she chained herself to the doors of parliament house, only to have her chains cut and removed by a police officer. When the officer suggested she should be embarrassed by her behaviour, Zelda responded she was not because soon there would be more women joining her. Sure enough they did, and Zelda formed the Women’s Action Committee and the Women’s Liberation Centre with them, and the women’s liberation movement was born.
Zelda’s spirit inspired the young women’s collective who formed Zelda’s Place, five of whom were at Katrina’s living wake. The five have taken varies trajectories in their careers, but Katrina, like Zelda, and the in the spirit of that first collective, dedicated her professional life to ending violence against women.
On sighting Katrina from a distance you would not immediately pick her as a staunch feminist, she doesn’t fit the stereotype. She is glamorous. Tall, blonde, immaculately dressed and always made up. It is not until you speak to her that you realise she is a woman not to be taken lightly.
I had known for some time that Katrina had done quite a lot of work with the Australian Football League (AFL) around reducing violence against women. What had not dawned on me was that she was one of the drivers behind the professionalisation of women’s football, which emerged as a national competition backed by the AFL in 2017.
Katrina had realised some time ago that Australian’s love of sport could be a vehicle for change and bought her more than twenty-five years of working to create more inclusive environments to the male dominated world of football. She believed that increasing the participation of women in football was key to the cultural change needed in community football clubs to prevent violence against women and girls, and pursued that belief with the same strength and determination that she pursued all her years of working to eliminate violence against women. I imagine that many of the blokes in the football world would have been surprised by Katrina. As my partner pointed out; Katrina Leason never shies from a fight, but always turns up dressed for a ball.
Katrina has approached her illness with the same pragmatism she has applied to her life. Meditation has given her inner strength to withstand many challenges and to stand tall with dignity and pride in the face of opposition and adversity, along with her connection with family and close friends.
We live in a society that is largely afraid of death, and where talking about it is often taboo. Katrina chose to take a different path and engaged a Buddhist death doula to provide non-medical support to her and her family through her end of life journey. Doula’s can help us to lean into death, to steer away from the socialised silence that most commonly surrounds dying and that brings disconnection rather than that which we most crave – connection.
The theme for Katrina’s living wake was semi-formal with a splash of gold and she looked ever glamorous in a long dress with gold braid. The gathering took place over a sit-down dinner at the same place Katrina and her husband, Peter, had married, but the main event was the family and friends who spoke.
Katrina gave those who knew her the opportunity to tell her, and for her to hear their words that she would not have experienced had they been spoken at her funeral. It was a beautiful evening to be part of.
I sprayed my hair gold and shed quite a few tears at the beautiful speeches. The final speaker presented Katrina with a well-deserved Zelda D’Aprano Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of her tireless work to contribute to the elimination of violence against women. Afterwards I felt I knew Katrina a little better and had a deep sense of gratitude for the woman in who’s honour I was there, for showing us what it means to strive not only for a good life, but for a good death as well.