Dr. Clare Wright is an award-winning historian and author who has worked as an academic, political speechwriter, historical consultant and radio and television broadcaster. She is an integral part of the history faculty at La Trobe University, which has been a pioneering institution in the academic field of Gender Studies for decades. La Trobe University is a key partner of Breakthrough 2016.
Clare will be delivering a keynote address Making Waves, Making History on Day One of Breakthrough. We had a chat to Clare on the importance of learning about and from women’s history.
As a historian, you have focused on examining the largely untold or neglected stories of Australian women. What drew you to this area of research?
Dr. Clare Wright (CW): Well, I think that there are two levels to my attraction to women’s history. One is a personal level: what I myself am intellectually curious about. I’m eager to know how women have lived in the past, what their lives were like, what were their struggles, what were their aspirations. When I hear the stories that we’re told about Australia, about our colonial and national history, my mind naturally goes to the question: where were the women? What were they doing? How did they respond? And is the story we’re being told really the whole story? It’s instinctively where my mind focuses, kind of a default position. That’s the personal level.
The second level is a political one: I’m drawn to women’s history because equity and justice demands it. I think if we are going to live in a democratic society that purports to value inclusivity and diversity and understanding, then we have to know what 50 percent of our population has been doing with their time. Just because the history books don’t always reflect the fact that women were present or were active at a place or an event or as part of a movement, doesn’t mean that they weren’t! It’s just that’s not necessarily the way those stories have been written; those perspectives haven’t been brought to the fore.
I think that it’s desperately important that women and girls have an understanding of what women have done before them, in order to understand what they are capable of doing and achieving now … the labour, the toil, the fights, the wins and the losses, the processes that have been engaged in the past to bring us to where we are today.
I don’t mean just in terms of women’s rights per se, but in terms of society as a whole. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that women have always done great things for all people — women were colonisers, racists, enablers of oppressive structures that limited the lives of other women — but I do believe that my sense of political and social justice is satisfied when we recognise that women too have been active in the past, that they have been agents of their own and others’ destinies. In other words, that women too have made history. The only way we will understand that we can make history today, is when we understand that we have made it in the past.
Why do you think so many historians have seemingly been blind to contributions of women?
CW: Well, let’s make one thing clear: there have been plenty of historians before me, feminist historians, who have also been telling the stories of women. I’m not an island here. I’m taking up a cause that has been hard fought, to reclaim women’s history, since the 1970s. Damned Whores and God’s Police, by Anne Summers, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary in print, was a seminal work and was a huge influence on me when I studied it as an undergraduate at uni. That book really opened my eyes to the fact that there were alternative stories and there were reasons why we don’t know them. So I feel proud to be part of a tradition, a movement, to reclaim women’s history and find and tell women’s stories.
One point of difference, I suppose, is that many of the historians who have done that over the last 30 years have been academic historians and academics are not always best placed to communicate their research to a wide audience, so possibly what I have done that is distinctive is to impart that message in a more mainstream medium, through the television documentaries that I have made and the books of narrative non-fiction and Young Adult books I have written.
But as to the question of why we haven’t heard these stories more generally is that white men have by and large written the history books in Australia. There’s two reasons as to why these historians haven’t written women into history. One of them is the kinder one. Just as I said earlier, that I am inherently interested in the stories of women, men just personally haven’t been interested, so they haven’t gone looking for them. The evidence of women is there, but as scholars they just walk right past it because it’s not what they’re looking for when they go on their journeys through the archives, trawling through the documents and sifting and weighing the primary sources. They just literally walk on by.
A less charitable reading is that erasing women from history is actually an instrument of patriarchy. For the very reason, as I said earlier: how can women know what they are capable of achieving in the present and the future, if they don’t know what they have achieved in the past? If knowledge is power, it’s therefore dis-empowering for women if you can hide their stories, if you can pretend they weren’t there or that they were only on the fringes of things or that they were only involved in domestic pursuits, that they weren’t interested or skilled in the hard stuff of political activism, or militarism, or industrialism, or pastoralism or any of the achievements that are considered of primary importance to nation building. There’s a silencing and that silence perpetuates a myth of exclusive male agency and male potency and, by implication, also provides the rationale for male privilege and male entitlement.
La Trobe University will be turning 50 years old next year (a significant milestone for an Australian university). What are some of your favourite moments or women who made waves in the history of La Trobe?
CW: There are two stories I’d like to tell about La Trobe: one of them is that La Trobe was pioneering in the academic field of Women’s Studies in the 1980’s. Scholars like Marilyn Lake, Katie Holmes and Kerreen Reiger were instrumental in setting up Women’s Studies and it was a very deliberate move to redress the imbalance in the way that we were taught about our past and our culture. Not just to reinsert women into the picture, but to make gender an conceptual tool, to provide a gender analysis to the way that society operates, to the way politics, economics, literature, health and history operates. That’s what Women’s Studies did and it absolutely set the gold standard for other universities that followed. We can still see that legacy at La Trobe. Women’s Studies morphed into Gender Studies, and now Gender Studies has morphed into Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Studies. GSDS it’s now called. That’s in keeping with the times in terms of broadening the base of discourse and acknowledging intersectionality. I’m terrifically enthused and inspired by that.
I’m also really proud of La Trobe’s history in terms of the way in which it provided a place for women to go to get a tertiary education. That was a huge part of its founding social mission; that educational opportunities that had previously been denied to certain people started to become possible through La Trobe as a new and progressive institution. It’s written into the La Trobe charter to provide access to quality tertiary education to people from so-called disadvantaged backgrounds. That is, ‘first in families’, migrants, women, indigenous Australians. Women took up those opportunities in droves, seeing La Trobe as a place they could go where they would feel included and welcomed and supported, not outliers. Those women who had their first taste of tertiary education at La Trobe have gone on to occupy all sorts of positions in society. Not necessarily at the top end of town, but as women who have made solid, significant, quiet contributions to Australian life.
Where do you see feminism going next in Australia? Where do we need to take it?
CW: Oh jeepers, I just think we need to keep fighting the good fight. It’s not over. It’s so clearly not over. We are patently dealing with all sorts of foul manifestations of backlash at the moment. (Maybe it should be called ‘backwash’; no-one wants that crap in their cup of tea!) You can see the backwash in the strength and persistence of online campaigns against outspoken women. It’s a sign that feminism has well and truly bitten; not nibbled at the edges of power and privilege, but bitten hard where it hurts. The victory we’ve just seen for Trump is another indication that male privilege is under attack and it feels under attack and it’s fighting back and it’s just incredibly important not be discouraged.
I think that what feminism has to do next is to truly provide a place of intellectual and emotional safety and refuge for women, so that they can feel there is a movement that defends their interests, that champions their voices and that has their back. And we need to do this for all women. I am persuaded by that line of analysis about Hillary Clinton’s loss that says we need to focus not only on the ‘glass ceiling’, but on the ‘sticky floor’, which is where most women reside. But I am ultimately an optimist, and an historian. I chart change over time.
La Trobe is a Key Partner of Breakthrough 2016.
Dr. Clare Wright will be delivering a keynote address Making Waves, Making Historyon Day One of Breakthrough.
Happening over 25 + 26 Nov at the Melbourne Town Hall, Breakthrough features 100+ speakers and performers (such as Tara Moss, Leigh Sales, Judith Lucy and more!) and real gender equality action. Tickets on sale now.