Dr. Clare Wright: Making Waves, Making History

Self-proclaimed ‘surfie chick’, author and award winning historian Dr. Clare Wright, wants us to reexamine the waves of history and remember the women who resisted unjust social forces. In this keynote (captured at Breakthrough 2016) Dr. Wright poses the question, ‘if women were included in our public narratives of mateship, sacrifice, solidarity and service, might not that breed respect and empathy across the gender-divide?’

Dr. Clare Wright is an Associate Professor of History at La Trobe University.


Thank you so much, Anna. What a great looking stage we’ve got here, hey? And I have to say that the view from the stage looking down is extraordinary as well. Thank you all for coming out, it’s an amazing day. In keeping with the spirit of reconciliation I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we gather today. The Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I recognise that this has always been a place of discussion and debate, and I recognise that Aboriginal sovereignty has never been ceded.

I’m going to start today with a confession….my confession is that I have no idea what’s going on on the screen right now. Aha, lets try that again. Thank you, I assume Marie Claire is one of the sponsors of Breakthrough?


Oh hello, there we go. I want to start today with another confession; I am a surfy chick. Sure I might have cheered along with the rest of my 12 year old friends when Debbie and Sue took their board out into the water at the end of the 1981 version of Puberty Blues, but my feet remained on dry land (third confession; not very good at PowerPoints). My feet stayed firmly planted there, even when I fell in love with a surfer when I was 19. From the safety of many a rocky headland, many a windswept beach, I have watched that man. Now our teenage sons ride those waves, those glorious, exhilarating waves. Our 11 year old daughter has just started to go “out the back” with her brothers. She’s much braver than me, but I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about waves. Here are some of the things that I know.

Waves are mainly a product of wind. The greater the winds force, the bigger the wave. Secondly, the friction created by wind on water forms a travelling circular mass of energy, and this is called swell. When swell reaches the coast, waves break in sets. Then the backwash from waves hitting the land returns the water and energy to the ocean. Force, friction, energy, swell, backwash. No wonder the international feminist movements peak achievements have been described through the metaphor of waves.

First wave feminism is defined by Wikipedia as “a period of feminist activity and thought that occurred within the time period of the early 20th century, throughout the world.” This is the time extending over at least six decades, and many more in some countries, where women fought for their right to be franchised. Their legal entitlement as citizens, under the democratic principal of “no taxation without representation”. This was a political revolution.

Second wave feminism, is Wiki-defined as, “a period of feminist activity and thought that first began in the early 1960’s in The United States, and eventually spread throughout the Western World and beyond. Now this is the time when women, now largely included in the civic body, protested the right to control over their corporal bodies. The personal, was now political. This is the era of women’s lib, the sexual revolution. Personally, I tend to think of these two key historical periods as the two V’s. First wave feminism was all about the vote, and second wave feminism was all about the vagina.

Now this is a crude short hand to be sure, both waves of activism campaigned for gender equality across a range of issues. But there is more to women’s history than these twin peaks of paradigm shifting success. Of course there is. To assume otherwise would be like saying that World War One and World War Two existed in isolation, with modern history devoid of any other instances of armed combat. Clearly, movements for social change, like international conflicts exist along a continuum. But can I ask you this, how much do we know about the history of women’s political activism in Australia? I’ll put this question to you in another way; did you know that there were women behind the rickety fortification of the Eureka Stockade, on that fateful morning of the 3rd of December in 1854? An event we all learned about in school?

Or that British troops opened fire that day on a white civilian population, which unmistakably included women and children. Killing at least one woman. Or that women were central to the community rebelliousness that cumulated in the event that we have come to know as the birthplace of Australian democracy? Did you know that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union actively supported the stalwart men and women who carried out the Pilbara pastor strike of 1946 to 1949? The longest running strike in Australia’s history, sometimes known as the Blackfella’s Eureka. And did you know that one of the most active participants in the Australians civil rights movements was Faith Bandler, an Indigenous woman from Murwillumbah who served in the Australian Women’s Land Army before becoming a full time activist in the 1950’s?

Bandler lead the campaign for reform that cumulated in the successful 1967 referendum to remove racially discriminative clauses from our constitution. Well, probably not, and that’s because there are more ways to silence inconvenient truths. Like the fact that women have historically protested, organised, networked, and advocated for their sex, their families, their communities, and their country. There are more ways to silence truths than by denying women access to the vote, to education, to legal autonomy, or indeed to knowledge of our own history. It is no accident that erasing women from history is one of the mechanisms used to ensure the visibility and viability of patriarchal structures of dominance and control. If knowledge is power, it’s fundamentally disempowering for women if their stories remain secreted in the archives, or confined to academic circles or local knowledge.

How can we know what we are capable of accomplishing, enduring, resisting, overcoming, if we don’t understand how women before us have negotiated their lives? This is another great Australian silence. A silence that perpetuates the myth of exclusive male agency and male potency, and by implication, presumed historical absence from the places and events of nation building, also provides the rationale for male privilege and male entitlement today.

Just because you didn’t learn about it in schools, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. I now want to give you some examples of women acting in ways that were adversarial, confrontational and risk taking. That is, acting in ways that if performed by male protagonists, would be considered to show leadership and valour.

The 19th century female factories in New South Wales and Tasmania for example, where an estimated 9,000 convict women worked for no pay, to manufacture commodities like spun wool, cotton and linen. On which the new colonies relied for both domestic use and export. In 1827, the women declared that they’d had enough. A riot at the Parramatta female factory over a cut in rations and poor conditions is considered to be the first industrial action staged by women in Australia. Fun fact: when the Parramatta female factory was closed 21 years later, the building was reassigned as a lunatic asylum.

Then, there are the women of the Cascades factory in Tasmania, who in 1838 staged their own version of the Misogyny Speech. The inmates of this forced labour camp were being lectured on morality by a visiting preacher. A witness recorded what happened next: “Growing weary of his cant, the 300 women turned right around and at one impulse pulled up their clothes, showing their naked posteriors, which they simultaneously smacked with their hands, making a loud and not very musical noise.” I reckon this may have been Australia’s first example of a flash mob, or maybe twerking.

Now another rowdy woman was Fanny Balbuk, a Noongar woman born in 1840. Fanny was prominent in her day for protesting against the occupation of her traditional lands south of Perth. Daisy Bates, who met Fanny in the 1930’s, wrote that “to the end of her life, she raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground. Through fences and over them, Balbuk took the straight track to the end. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms.”

Now, at the height of a miners strike in Plunes in 1876, an unnamed woman was also raging and storming. This time, against scab labour employed by the mine. A contemporary later wrote, “nearby was a heap of road metal, and arming herself with a few stones, a sturdy north of Ireland woman without shoes or stockings mounted the barricade as the coaches drew up. As she did, she called to the other women saying, “come on you cousin ginnies! Bring me the stones and I will fire them!” Forth confession, I can’t do an Irish accent. When a policeman raised his gun at the woman, she lifted her shirt, bared her breasts and spat, “shoot away and be damned to ya! Better be shot than starved to death.”

Let me introduce you now, to Ellen Young. An educated English woman who had a different tactic for making herself heard. Ellen was the member of a Ballarat mining community, who witnessed first hand the grievances of the diggers in 1854. She wrote directly to governor Hotham to state the diggers case, as well as penning fiery letters to the editor of the Ballarat times to mobilise grassroots support. In one letter, she provocatively declared, “we, the people, demand cheap land, just magistrates to be represented in the legislative council; in fact, treated as the free subjects of a great nation.” These were fighting words.

In 1917, anti-war campaigner Adela Pankhurst was jailed for her role in inciting riots at the height of the general strike that had crippled wartime Melbourne. Working class women had shouldered a disproportionate amount of the economic burden of war, with food rationing and other austerity measures. The riots that happened just a few blocks away from here involved ten thousand women and their male supporters, rampaging through the CBD smashing shop windows and destroying property. This was not one night of mayhem, but the sustained series of orchestrated attacks on the political and commercial elite.

Now you could write a whole history of women chaining themselves to things.  Take Zelda Fay D’Aprano, an orthodox Jewish woman who left school at 14. Zelda spent most of her life fighting against the injustice she witnessed on the factory floor. When the meat workers union lost a test case for equal pay in 1969, Zelda chained herself across the entrance to the commonwealth building in Melbourne. She was cut free by police, only to lock herself to the arbitration court gates three days later. Then there’s Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner, academics of the University of Queensland, who chained themselves to the foot rail of the “male only” public bar at The Regatta Hotel in Brisbane in 1965. Their actions sparked a wave of copycat self-incarcerations in Australian pubs.

Perhaps police could blame Muriel Matters, for the sudden demand for bolt cutters. Muriel was an Adelaide born suffrage campaigner. After South Australia became only the second jurisdiction in the world where women had won the right to vote in 1894, following New Zealand in 1893, Muriel went to England to help spread the gospel of female enfranchisement. In 1908 Muriel chained herself to the grill of the ladies gallery in the House of Commons. The grill was built to obscure the view of women of parliamentary proceedings. The whole grill had to be cut away, with Muriel still attached to it, before a blacksmith could release her. Muriel was latter sentenced to one month in Holloway prison, where British suffragettes famously staged hunger strikes and were force-fed.

Another Muriel, Muriel Henney campaigned for equal pay for Australian women for over 50 years. Muriel was a convent-educated girl from Richmond, who saw wage inequality as the major obstacle to the achievement of equal opportunity status for women. She died in poverty on the 19th of May 1974 (my fifth birthday as it happens) just one week after the wage case granted equal minimum wages to men and women.

My favourite feminist, Vida Goldstein, did not die in poverty but certainly obscurity at the age of 80 in 1949. Vida was born into protestant squattocracy, but went on to spearhead the suffrage campaign that saw Australia become the first nation in the world where white women won equal political rights with men. That is the right to vote and to stand for parliament. She travelled to America to represent Australia and New Zealand at the first international suffrage convention, and there she was greeted with a rock star reception.

Zelda D’Aprano, by the way, is still alive today, she’s 98, and I happened to see that there was a tag for her outside so I hope maybe she’s here. Let’s not forget too the hundreds of women’s organisations that have not been outwardly feminists, but have been instrumental in changing the conditions of daily life of women in this country. I’m thinking here of the Australian Women’s National League, the Country Women’s Association, and the Housewives Association just to name a few. All of these nominally conservative organisations have in one way or another advocated for improvements to the status of women and girls.

So apart from making for a nice slideshow, does knowing anything about these women and their actions make any difference to the price of fish? Well I think it does, and this is the reason why. We have a lost heritage of women’s political activism in Australia, in this country. An activism that had its roots in popular mass movements that included both men and women. Men and women have both historically stood together on common ground. What did Ellen Young say? “We the people, too, loudly profess our mutual commitment to notions of fairness, justice and autonomy.” Women have consistently and courageously defended the right to free speech, to freedom of assembly, and to freedom of the press as well as to women’s rights and human rights more generally. This collective historical memory is important for present and future democratic activism and change. Creating change, real game changing change is hard work, as we’ve certainly seen, as Ann demonstrated in the American election campaign.

If we understand that Australian women, as well as men, have been historically vigilant and hardworking, might not that inspire more of todays women to honour the legacy of those actions? But more than that, to know that women acted in ways that were anti-authoritarian, rebellious, and designed to kick up a stink makes a difference because it reminds us that, as the folk singer Glen Tomasetti sang, “it rarely pays to be too polite, girls”.

The lost heritage of female activism that had its roots in popular mass movements also matters because discord in voices, female voices, are still seen to belong to wicked witches and evil stepmothers. Whiners and wowzers, what was the latest incarnation of that? Fright bats, or nasty women. Not female diggers, mates, and outlaws, our national larrikin icons. We need to understand women’s relationship to citizenship in order to affirm their sense of entitlement to participate in public discourses and occupy key cultural spaces.

I’ll give you one example of how historical consciousness, the female strategies for social change, might work on the ground. Now I can find no evidence to suggest that the women, who marshalled the now famous Monster Petition for women’s suffrage in Victoria in 1891, drew inspiration from the memory of earlier female activism to bolster their cause. In this action, women collected 30 000 names in six weeks, responding to premier James Munro’s promise that if the women of Victoria could demonstrate that they actually wanted the vote, he would introduce a franchise bill. The Monster Petition was the largest yet put before an Australian colonial parliament, although Victorian women didn’t actually win the vote until 1908.

Now the symbolism of the Monster suffrage petition was recently invoked when a group of 12 prominent Australian women organised by Judith Pratt and Mary Crooks, and led by professor Fiona Stanley, started the Monster Climate Petition. The Monster Climate petition called on the Federal Parliament to join in bipartisan action on climate change. Following in the footsteps of the 1891 suffragettes, over 70 000 pen and ink signatures were collected, mainly by women, in just over six weeks. Making the petition the fourth largest to be introduced to the Australian House of Representatives. Now the petition, as we can see here, was presented to parliament on the 3rd of December in 2014. Coincidentally, the 160th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade.

If women were included in our public narratives of mateship, sacrifice, solidarity and service, might not that breed respect and empathy across the gender-divide? And if we wrote some new narratives of reconciliation, healing, and responsibility and care, might not that bode well for our collective spirit? Our environment, and our planet alike? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that women have always done great deeds for virtuous reasons in the past. Women have been colonisers, racists, and enablers of oppressive class structures that limit the lives of other women. But I do believe that gender equality is achieved when we recognise that women to have been agents in the past. That women to have been shapers of their own and others destinies. In other words, that women to have made history. The only way we will understand that we can make history today is when we fully appreciate just how much impact we have made in the past. And as I hope I have demonstrated, we have our own hero’s to guide our path and give strength to our arms. We have Ellen, we have Vida, we have the Muriels, we have Murel, Zelda, and Fanny. We have faith. We are all standing on the sturdy shoulders of those who have come before us. Some giants, some totems. And some of those shoulders don’t just happen to belong to women, there is nothing incidental or accidental about the platforms they’ve provided. Women deliberately, carefully and creatively built the edifice of their political and civic contributions of who we are today.

In 1869, when Vida Goldstein was born, it would seem absurd that any woman would ever be able to vote. By her death in 1949, women in almost 100 countries had been franchised, and Vida herself stood for parliament five times. I was born in 1969, and even a century after Vida, I can hardly dare to imagine what women will achieve for gender equality in my lifetime. I honestly quiver in excitement at the prospect.

The limitation for the wave metaphor, in framing women’s historical impact, is the implication that those two momentous movements, first and second wave feminism, surged, peaked, then pleated out and disappeared. This process would describe tsunami’s, not waves. Waves keep on coming, the inevitable, relentless result of friction and energy. Waves never stop rolling in, because there will never not be force and friction, energy, swell, and backwash that will pull us back into the deep. Waves build, they crest, and they subside. And then they build again. What’s more, you need the wind, the oppositional force to create a wave. As any surfer, or surfy chick knows, if the wind is going with the wave, the energy is dissipated and all you get is slob. In the face of opposition, women like waves will continue to rise, break, and rise again. The cause of gender equality, like the ocean, is bigger than me, or you, or all of use in this room today. It is certainly bigger and more potent than the break walls and sandbags of male privilege. No wonder the institutions, instruments and practitioners of gender discrimination, have been and still are afraid. They should be afraid. There is a wall of living energy hurdling towards them.

It seems to me that we, the people, have three options in the face of such a threat to our sense of mastery and control. We can duck under, hoping that we can dive deep enough to avoid the turbulence before the next wave breaks. We can misjudge the take off, squib at the last minute, and get wiped out by our ignorance and cowardice. Or we can get up, stand up, and enjoy this most wild ride called freedom. Thank you.

Dr. Clare Wright

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. Clare’s most recent book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (TFROE) (Text Publishing), won the 2014 Stella Prize and the 2014 NIB Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s, WA Premier’s and Queensland Literary Awards, the NSW Premier’s History Awards and the Victorian Community History Awards.