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Batterham, Genevieve Louise (Genni) (1955–1995)

by Nikki Henningham

This article was published online in 2019

Genevieve Louise Batterham (1955–1995), disability rights activist, film-maker, author, and artist, was born on 19 January 1955 at Paddington, Sydney, second child of South Australian-born Douglas Lester Whitford, textile agent, and his Sydney-born wife Judith Jean, née Williams. Genni grew up in Bellevue Hill. Educated by the nuns of the Sacred Heart at Kincoppal, Elizabeth Bay, she was a rebel with a charismatic presence. She had a ‘flamboyant … walk’ (Pins and Needles 1979) and ‘eyes and a smile that lit up the world’ (McCarthy 1995, 14). Admired for her zest for life, she nevertheless lacked focus, according to her husband, Kim Anthony Batterham. After leaving school she meandered, studying intermittently, including at art school and at Macquarie University. She married Kim, a cameraman from Perth, in a civil ceremony on 21 October 1978 at Bellevue Hill.

Not long after meeting Kim, in 1978 Genni was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and incapacitated very quickly. Angry about being disabled and ‘treated like a second-class citizen’ (Hobson 1988, 31), she drew on her emerging talent as a film-maker to express her response to her circumstances. Pins and Needles, made with Kim and released in 1979, was an affecting portrayal of her distress over her developing impairment. Directed by Barbara Chobocky and funded by the Australian Film Commission’s Women’s Film Fund, it would be translated into five languages and win several awards, among them first prize (shared) at the 1980 New York Rehabilitation Film Festival and second at the 1980 Montreal Film Festival. Batterham chronicled the phases of her life in three further collaborations with her husband: Where’s the Give and Take? (1981), Artreach (1982), and Riding the Gale (1987). Challenged by her disability, she nevertheless came to see it as ‘her greatest teacher’ (Lim 1995, 12), which spurred her to explore her many talents. She sought to understand and accept it, as her friend and mentor, the writer Alan Marshall, witnessed. In a letter written during a period when she was very depressed, Marshall told her, ‘I can see you … riding the crest of the gale like … that lovely bird to which you and I have both clung … [to] the harbour of acceptance’ (Hobson 1988, 31).

Among Batterham’s attributes was a capacity to shock and confront when the cause required it, a quality she drew upon as she fought for disability rights in New South Wales. In 1979, with Joan Hume, she helped organise a protest at the opening of a railway station at Bondi Junction that was inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. The demonstration embarrassed the premier, Neville Wran, and was an important step toward reform of the State’s 1977 Anti-Discrimination Act to make discrimination on the basis of disability illegal. In November 1980, anticipating the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, she coordinated the largest street march of people with disabilities seen to that point in Australia. Awarded a City of Sydney medal in 1981, she was appointed OAM in 1984. In 1990 she gained a certificate in extension scriptwriting from the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

Batterham’s public activism extended to private concerns. Her Attendant Care Book: Everything You Want to Know about Attendant Care but Were Afraid to Ask (1986) was helpful and timely. Her public discussions about disability and sexuality, however, raised eyebrows. She enjoyed startling people as she discussed her own sex life, and once told a journalist that ‘disability ha[d] taught her that “f…ing and loving” are of central importance to the meaning of life’ (Lim 1995, 12). In 1993 she wrote ‘Crutch Power,’ published in the journal On the Level, in order to raise awareness of the sexual needs of people with disabilities .

As Batterham’s health deteriorated, she could not continue to campaign actively. Still, she led ‘by example’ (McCarthy 1995, 14), maintaining charge of her life and choices and furthering her creative talents. She returned to art in 1994, when she had 15 percent sight and very little motor control, finding in painting a means of expressing what she could no more in talk, text, and film, and created a powerful exhibition. Even when her marriage broke up in 1995, she remained resilient, noting that ‘[s]o many people have divorces,’ and that it gave her another ‘way of helping other people’ (Lim 1995, 12).

Shortly before Batterham’s death, her friend Wendy McCarthy observed that, by ‘refus[ing] to go into a sheltered workshop [and] hide,’ to deny her sexuality, or ‘to stop developing her talents,’ she had ‘shifted the paradigms of disability’ (Lim 1995, 12). She died on 3 December 1995 at Mosman and was cremated. A portrait by Greg Warburton was a finalist in the 1997 Archibald prize, and a street in Canberra bears her name.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Henningham, Nikki. ‘Batterham, Genni.’ The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia. Australian Women’s Archives Project, 2014. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0161b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Hobson, Karen. ‘Window on an MS Patient’s Life.’ Canberra Times, 25 May 1988, 31
  • Lim, Anne. ‘Still Riding the Gale.’ Australian, 29–30 April 1995, Weekend Review 12
  • McCarthy, Wendy. ‘Disability No Handicap to Activism.’ Australian, 20 December 1995, 14
  • O’Grady, Suellen. ‘In Sickness and in Health.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 16 April 1988, Good Weekend 14–21
  • Pins and Needles. Film. Directed by Barbara Chobocky. Sydney: Documentary Films, 1979

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nikki Henningham, 'Batterham, Genevieve Louise (Genni) (1955–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batterham-genevieve-louise-genni-27120/text34665, published online 2019, accessed online 22 July 2019.

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