Content warning: abuse, sexual violence
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On Friday 1 May our first Feminist Fridays went live! We were lucky enough to have two Stella Prize winners, Jess Hill (author of See What You Made Me Do); and Prof. Clare Wright OAM (author of You Daughters of Freedom) as our inaugural #FeministFridays guests. Feminist Fridays are fortnightly conversations between two feminists, broadcast live on the Trust Facebook page.
Jess and Clare covered topics like the Stella Prize and its importance in the literary space; violence in Australia, both historical and contemporary; and how to deal with backlash as a feminist.
Catch up on their conversation now, and read the full transcript below:
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Clare Wright: Hi, welcome to the Victorian Women’s Trust inaugural Feminist Friday.
I’m Clare Wright and I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I am self-isolating today, the Gunaikurnai and Bunurong people, whose land was stolen and sovereignty was never ceded. I’d like to pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and I’d like to acknowledge any and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who might be joining us today. The land we are on now, the land on which we all live, work, breathe, eat and sleep, always was and always will be Aboriginal Land.
It’s great to be here today on this first Feminist Fridays for the Victorian Women’s Trust, an organisation that I just think does such tremendous work for women in Victoria and indeed for all of Australia, and is really a very important global player as well in the quest for gender equality.
This Feminist Fridays series is intended to be a series of short, sharp, enjoyable, funny, deep, complex conversations that we need to have now between feminists and those of us who we would like to see become feminists. They’re lunchtime conversations that are intended for you to watch now or you can indeed catch up on later. So make sure you don’t miss out on Feminist Fridays that are going to be coming by catching up on the Victorian Women’s Trust website or Facebook and you can follow along on Twitter at #FeministFridays and if you want to live-tweet this, go ahead!
So I’d like to introduce myself firstly, I’m Clare Wright. I’m a Professor of History at Latrobe University, the author of books including The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka and You Daughters of Freedom. I’m a feminist historian and broadcaster and podcaster. If you’re bored and want a new podcast, you can check out my current podcast, co-hosted with my Latrobe colleague Yves Rees, it’s called Archive Fever and it is absolutely peak nerd, I can guarantee you.
I’m thrilled to be joined today by Jess Hill, who you probably know as the 2020 recipient of the Stella Prize..woo, go Jess! Jess is an investigative journalist and author, and an all round incredibly awesome person.
Her book See What You Made Me Do is not only prize-winning, it is going to be game-changing for the way that we understand gender relations, sex, equality and particularly, the thing we are going to be talking about today which is sex, power and history in this country. If you haven’t read it yet, go out and buy it straight away. So Jess, um hello!
Jess Hill: Hello, hi. I’m just going to get that awesome line put in my bio from now on, that was great. And also Clare is a long ago now Stella Prize winner from 2014 — that was the second year wasn’t it? That it was on?
Clare Wright: It was yeah, the second year. The first year that a non-fiction book picked it up and the second year of the prize.
Jess Hill: Yeah great.
Clare Wright: So Jess, as a fellow Stella Prize winner, and I should first acknowledge the incredible work that the Stella Prize does.
The Stella Prize was set up 8 years ago to remedy gender bias in the literary world, and it is has done incredible work in changing the way that we understand the role of women writers in Australia today, and acknowledging the contribution of Australian women writers, but also in providing an evidence-base to the fact the gender bias is real in the literary world, with the Stella count every year and also programs that run in schools that encourage girls to find their own voice through writing and to put themselves at the centre of their own stories.
As we like to say, the Stella Prize isn’t just a prize, it’s a movement, and it’s really done incredible work in the short life that it has had.
So I suppose Jess, I would like to start there, how has it felt to win the Stella Prize? It’s about two weeks now. And what a fortnight for you, eh?
Jess Hill: Yeah it’s just so good to win the Stella. I think that everything that you just said, you know, I remember when I was 15 and I wanted to start a magazine that was like an intelligent alternative to women’s magazines, and I went like touring all these different schools, looking especially for young women writers to start writing and not just have to read all the crap that was in Dolly and Girlfriend Magazine about blow jobs and high heels.
Everything that the Stella Prize is about was absolutely part of my life mission. Obviously, the financial prize is unbelievable and totally game changing for my family. And you know, in terms of the effect it has on the book, something about the Stella Prize is it’s not just a financial prize, so it’s quite different from other literary prizes. They put so much work into promoting the longlist, and then the shortlist, and then the winner, that for me it’s been like launching the book all over again.
But to be honest, like, I didn’t get a lot of mainstream reviews when the book first got out, it was reviewed quite widely but not in the major newspapers. So this is the first time that I actually had that real coverage. And it’s been phenomenal, the book sales that have come off the back of the Stella, like it’s almost sold half of what it had sold in the last 10 months in one week.
Clare Wright: It really is an extraordinary, influential instrument, as you say, in getting attention and book sales. Do you have a sense of a different sort of readership that is going to be coming to the book now that it has won a literary prize?
Jess Hill: Yeah, like a different readership in the sense, I’ve noticed a lot of men picking it up. And there had been men picking it up before. But weirdly enough, the Stella Prize isn’t off putting to them, as some sort of like women’s only prize that doesn’t relate to them. It has actually really moved men to pick it up.
But more importantly for me, I’ve been hearing from friends, ‘Oh you know my sister, she’s a survivor of domestic abuse, she hasn’t been able to pick it up, but now the Stella Prize kind of changed that for her, she’s going to read it now” and people doing book clubs with it, so I feel like it’s just going mainstream. It’s like it was existing in this pretty big bubble and much bigger than what I thought it would, But still in a bubble that had sort of perimeters around it and I feel like the Stella is just like a horse that has knocked down the perimeters and sort of opened it up to everyone and anyone. That this is not just an “important” book or a “worthy book that you should read…blerh”, you know it’s a good book, it’s a really good book that you should read because it’s fascinating.
Clare Wright: It is a really good book, I certainly couldn’t put it down, it’s riveting and you know it comes with several trigger warnings even for people who have not themselves necessarily been the subject of domestic abuse. Although I think one of the things that you do, is that you show that domestic abuse exists on a spectrum. And so even if you haven’t been punched to the ground and kicked in the ribs and maritally raped and so many of the really extreme and graphic and difficult sections of the book to read, you can actually relate possibly to aspects to the way in which power is exerted within a gendered relationship.
And so for me one of the important things about you getting that mainstream kind of attention, and bringing a male audience to the book as well, is something that you said in your Stella acceptance speech, is that this isn’t a women’s issue, this isn’t a niche issue. And so I’m wondering if those men that you are saying are going to come to the book and read it, do you think that men will read it and possibly see themselves in the book? And come to a kind of greater awareness of their own behaviour even if they wouldn’t consider themselves to be the classic wife beaters?
Jess Hill: They are already, this is what has been astonishing. I had one man in particular, really sticks with me. He was so moved by the chapter on shame and on humiliated fury and on patriarchy and the way that patriarchy harms boys in terms of really setting up a situation where they have to shut down their emotionality and protect themselves against vulnerability and connection and dependency.
He resonated with that so strongly, that literally I met him a couple of weeks after he had read the book. When he came to me, he had just been to his therapist, who he had been reengaged with since reading the book. And he cried like just sitting with me, he sat there crying talking about all the marriages that had gone wrong because he had started off with this idealised version of the relationship and then run a million miles as soon as it became real. And his wife was there and she said he has, you know, his latest wife you know, and they said it’s a very important relationship for both of them. And they said that this has changed the way that we relate and he had bought copies for his children you know so that they could better understand him and so that they could better understand the issue and be forewarned you know about relationships they might get into.
But I have just had that response from so many men, and men who have really gone, you know even my publisher! ‘It really made me sort of think about issues around entitlement and my own senses of unacknowledged shame.’ And that’s the thing as you said Clare, the book is not just about domestic violence, domestic abuse it’s about the grey area that exists for so many of us in our relationships where power imbalances are fought and won and lost every day you know, and where entitlement is something that we wrestle over especially once we have kids and not just in heterosexual relationships, in same sex relationships.
Our society is built on this idea that we are entitled to have power over. Power over each other, power over nature and that built-in belief exerts itself within our relationships too. And learning how to be balanced in our relationships is one of the great life missions. I feel personally for me, that writing this book has really helped me learn about balance and how to achieve that in my own relationship.
Clare Wright: I think one of the things that interested me so much as a historian, in reading this book, was exactly what you’re saying there about kind of lifting the lid on a whole way in which we relate to our personal relationships but also our societal, our collective, our cultural relationships and to looking at what lies beneath. And as a historian, that’s what you do all the time as well, and particularly in the country now, post-Ularu statement, we’re really having a focus on this idea of truth telling. You know, of getting past the superficial and the mythologies and the creation of sort of nationalist narratives and looking at what underpins those and how we might be able to go through a kind of truth and reconciliation process that brings us closer to what you’re saying there, about getting to some actual heart of the matter in terms of how we relate to each other. Did you have that sense in writing the book about these many layers on which it could be read?
Jess Hill: Yeah yeah, I I also really wanted it to be, the whole point of the book was to get it to as many people as possible and to package the information, so that everyone felt compelled, whether it was them reading about their own experiences, or reading about the people they deal with everyday, or whether they were just reading about phenomenon that they had never thought they had any relationship with but suddenly felt really closely. But it had to be page-turning. It couldn’t be polemical or you know, I didn’t want it to be a book where it was like ‘Eat your vegetables’ or ‘you know you just need to know this’ and ‘too bad everyone’s suffering so you have to suffer through this book too” you know I wanted at every page, at the end of it for people to go ‘Wow that was full on, but I’ve got to to keep reading this is just blowing my mind.”
But you know what you’re saying there about this truth-telling and this strange space we’re in at the moment which is like a push and pull between the very regressive parts of Australia that want no truth to be told whatsoever and quite the opposite and who are manipulating and making chaos of truth and reason. The then the other part that is just going headlong towards truth and confrontation with child sexual abuse, Indigenous history etc.
This is this strange little limbo that we are in, which I think people forget how fast we’re moving in our confrontation of these issues, because it can sometimes feel like nothing is really changing…but it is changing. And it’s something that actually I am working on with the Victorian Women’s Trust, which is a podcast that is looking at the connective tissue, between all these various crises that we think of as isolated like domestic abuse, gender inequality, climate change, racism, but actually have at their core a lot of these common principles particularly European patriarchy being at the core of so much that’s gone wrong and moved us away from the state of balance.
But I was wondering also from your perspective you know you’ve done so much work in the late 19th century, 20th century Australia especially women’s experience. What was the phenomenon of family violence back then in terms of record keeping and how it was understood?
Clare Wright: Yeah well that’s really fascinating and it did make me think this reading your book, and being able to join the dots between some of my own research and yours. Because obviously so much of yours comes from a contemporary point of view and also talking to victims and survivors which clearly I couldn’t do, particularly for the 19th century.
But in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka which is set in the gold fields of Victoria. One of the things that was extraordinary about looking at the primary sources and being deep in the archives, was just how much domestic abuse was part of the conversation about the problems that were going on in the gold fields at the time. And I have a whole section in that book about this, in fact Victoria was known as the wife beating capital of the world at one stage.
And it’s difficult to know whether that is because there was more domestic violence going on because of the particular circumstances that people were living under. They were living in tents, you know they had come on three month journeys across the sea, they had come to find gold, they actually didn’t find gold, they were actually living in extreme poverty, this was a time of extreme social flux.
Men felt very impotent, they thought they were going to be able to be these breadwinning fathers, there are all sorts of ideologies that were being held up about the kind of role that men were going to be able to play in their families if they made this journey to Victoria as opposed to the ways in which they had been kind of infantilised and emasculated in this kind of Dickensian London in that they were going to be able to revive these roles as breadwinning men, and that didn’t happen, they felt very impotent and they felt impotent to change anything because they didn’t have the vote..and yada yada..we sort of end up getting to Eureka.
So are the circumstances so volatile that men were taking it out on their women? Or was it, and I speculate, that women actually felt empowered in this moment, particularly because they themselves were so often the breadwinner in this new situation? And women had a lot more power in this particular circumstance in the gold rush when there was a kind of social inversion of these power relationships. And so women were taking their instances of domestic abuse to court, and this is where I found it all. There are endless court records of women taking their husbands or partners to court and getting a Nineteenth century version of a restraining order out against them.
And so you can actually see it documented, and this is very often where women’s voices come out is in official records. You don’t often necessarily get diaries or letters saying that they have been abused, but in these court records they do come out. So it’s certainly extremely prevalent and there are historians who have been doing work on domestic abuse going back through the colonial period and you know that they have called domestic abuse a global pandemic.
Jess Hill: Yeah wow, well it’s interesting like when you look in the States for example, just around the Declaration of Independence, domestic violence was seen as a public order issue so it could be a disruption of the public peace if the husband was beating the wife, and they would be trialled on that basis.
But with the Declaration of Independence and the whole new way of thinking that was born with that document, privacy became so much more important to the American identity, and so that way of trying domestic violence sort of went out of vogue and it really went underground again.
It’s funny how you look back in history and you see these pockets where actually we were dealing better or more honestly with it in the late 19th century than in the 1950s. You know? History is not linear.
Clare Wright: Hey mentioning America there, I know that your book has been sold and it’s going to be coming out in the States and the UK and you might even have meant to have been there now, had there not been all these travel restrictions, you can tell us a bit about that.
But I’m really interested to know, do you have to do much work for the book to translate it to these other international audiences? Are you going to be describing the Australian experience? Are you going to be updating it with American and UK statistics? How culturally relevant is this story? Or how universal is it?
Jess Hill: So interestingly, a lot of it is universal. Or universal in the sense that there are major cultural differences in Pakistan obviously you have extended families who are involved in the coercive control process in a way that is more unusual than a Western context.
But essentially the framework of coercive control is universal, that’s the whole point of it. But so in terms of publishing to Western audiences, I found actually it to have been largely applicable, but the statistics are different. So I have for the US edition done a god lot of work revising the book, there’s almost a change to every page.
And I also because the First nations chapter for me is such a cornerstone for the book. And the American publishers were like, ‘I don’t think our audience is going to want to read about Aboriginal Australia, that’s not really important to our audience.’ And I was like well what if I do a comparison between First Nations in Australia and in North America and the whole colonisation process and Indigenous culture pre-contact? So I did that, that took months. But I really did not want to lose that chapter so it was worth doing.
So yeah there was a lot of work, I’m just updating the UK version. Again, they want all the statistics pretty much replaced. Or just non Australian, so it’s not so parochial. And there is a lot of work, and I wish I didn’t have to do it sometimes. But at the same time so eager for it to speak directly to those audiences and to not just feel like an import, that I don’t mind. You know as long as people will pick it up and they’re like ‘this relates back to my environment’, then it’s all worth it.
Clare Wright: Hey Jess, I’m aware that these are supposed to be short, sharp conversations and we could talk like this for hours but we’re going to have to start wrapping it up. But I am interested if you know something that all feminists experience is pushback or backlash or however you want to describe that phenomenon where you know it’s described as one step forward two steps back.
I’m interested to know how much you have received particularly since the book has shot to prominence? And do you feel that you are getting flack? And where might it be coming from? And how do you cope with that?
Jess Hill: So the only times that I’ve gotten flack to the point where it felt dangerous and intimidating is when I have spoken on commercial television about family court. So I appeared on the Project a couple of times, but one time in particular they posted something on their Facebook about Family Law, and the comments were so atrocious that they have to take it down. And my family were, you know, legitimately afraid for me, not just because it’s guys having a go but because the history of men’s rights activism around the family court has been violent. You know that it’s the only Court that’s been bombed. In the 80s there were assassinations of judge’s and judge’s wives. It’s the only part of the book that makes me fearful, to speak out about. But I continue to speak out about it because it must be spoken about and not enough people do, for those reasons I think.
But other than that it’s quite strange how little attention I have had at least in Australia, and we’ll see if this holds for overseas. A couple of guys have put like a 1 Star review on Goodreads or whatever. But literally I can count on one hand the amount of sort of toxic feedback.
I mean I don’t think men’s rights activists, or the anti feminist one’s read deeply. But it seems that the tenure of the conversation and the tone of the book was so keen to make sure that it spoke to men and not at them. And I don’t know if that’s been the reason why I haven’t been attacked? I don’t know. But certainly I was setting out to engage men and I was setting out to acknowledge their experience as victims, and their experience as perpetrators as being a pretty miserable state even if they’re making people more miserable than they are, it’s still a miserable state to be in. So I really wanted to do that.
So I don’t know if maybe there’s a white light, maybe there’s fairies around me? I don’t know what it is. But I haven’t copped anything like what other people who are in this field have. But interestingly, I had a conversation with Jane Gilmore who wrote Fixing It about the whole phenomenon of being trolled. And she hadn’t really been trolled much either, or at least she hadn’t been when we spoke. So it can kind of dodge people in strange ways and then really land on other people and I don’t know why.
Clare Wright: Yeah, I’ve never been trolled, I’m not inviting it but you know sometimes it makes you feel like what am I doing wrong that people, that blokes aren’t coming after me?
But also you know I congratulate you Jess, because so often with feminism it feels like we’re preaching to the converted and having conversations amongst ourselves. And how does the really hard solid work happen? Because you do have to engage and shift patriarchy and I think that your book is an incredibly important step in doing that. Because you are not speaking at men, you are speaking with them and engaging them in the conversation about how we all might do this better. And I really do congratulate and applaud you for doing that.
Jess Hill: Oh thank you, that’s great.
Clare Wright: I think we’re going to have to wrap things up. I can’t wait for your podcast and people should follow the Victorian Women’s Trust website and Facebook page to see you when that comes out.
And could you just let us know Jess, some of the places that if this conversation has raised issues for people and they want to seek further information or support about potentially their own domestic abuse situation. Where do you reckon they should go?
Jess Hill: So 1800 RESPECT is the national helpline. That can put you in touch with crisis counselors but can also put you in touch with emergency accommodation. But most importantly if you are actually worried about a friend you can also call, because often it’s hard to get people to call about their own relationships.
Lifeline is also an excellent resource, I know that a lot of people think about it as a suicide or a depression sort of resource, but actually they have great training on domestic abuse, so I highly recommend calling there as well.
The men’s referral service based out of Victoria but they talk to men all around the country. If men are either concerned about their own behaviour, or are worried about the way they’re being treated by a partner, they can call the men’s referral service.
And they’re probably the main helplines I think. Statewide there’s Safe Steps in Victoria. There are various Statewide helplines. But 1800 RESPECT will usually put you in touch with all those Statewide helplines.
Clare Wright: And my understanding is that these resources will also be up on the Victorian Women’s Trust website and Facebook site so people can copy down the numbers there if you didn’t hear them.
So Jess thanks so much for being a part of Feminist Fridays. Congratulations again on your book. I’m gonna hold it up because it’s beautiful! It is an extraordinary read, you might need tissues to get through some bits of it. I know after I finished reading it I gave it to my 20 year old son’s girlfriend and she picked it up and she started reading it and she said “Ooh I don’t know whether I’m ready for this’. And I suggested to her that ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and she’s persisted and she’s found it incredibly enlightening and important. So Jess I think you’re working across gender and through the generations as well which is another incredible accomplishment.
Jess Hill: Thanks Clare.
Clare Wright: Thanks for being here! Thanks for the Victorian Women’s Trust for organising this and make sure you tune in for the next #FeministFridays.
The next Feminist Fridays will be broadcast at 12pm AEST on Friday 15 May and Friday 29 May on the Trust Facebook page.