Hannie Rayson’s Harold White lecture

Hannie Rayson’s Harold White lecture
Our 2016 Creative Arts Fellow Micharne Cloughley shares her thoughts
15 December 2015

Hannie Rayson opened the inaugural Harold White lecture with an excerpt from her memoir that talked about ‘women’s problems’ as was the phrase used when she was growing up. She closed her lecture on another excerpt about the physical experience of losing her second baby.

In between these excerpts her lecture focused on the demands on a writer today that extend far beyond writing. She went into detail of the business potential of writers, with reference to a writing festival she co-runs. Hannie also spoke on the often dismissive attitude in Australia towards creating nationalistic theatre, or theatre that tells Australian stories, in all our diversity. This section placed her lecture in a national context, bringing in one of the issues at the forefront of the minds of, especially Australian, playwrights.

She did not mention the challenges of specifically being a woman / wife / mother in this focus of her lecture. In question time it was not asked how she ‘balanced it all’ as a woman.

The structure of Hannie’s talk and audience response is an organic testament to the feminist achievements of 2015 in Australia. Openly physically female artistic content is discussed right next to national identity and business operations. Question time was gender neutral.

Hannie introduced her final extract with the powerful thought that writing her memoir had allowed her to come into her own skin as a writer. In the extract, she is professionally visiting Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, and realises she is spotting. Using a rolled up clean T-shirt in her knickers, she addresses the bleeding. Hannie describes the kindness of the Boyd’s, asking if she has had enough to eat and encouraging her to stop for coffee to break up the drive on the way home.

She doesn’t tell them what is happening with her body. She doesn’t say she thinks something may be wrong with her pregnancy. She continues with her professional attitude. The same attitude that meant she hadn’t told anyone she was 14 weeks pregnant before the visit.

But she is now telling her readers. And is personally telling everyone in the conference room at the Library on a Sunday afternoon.

I’m currently the Creative Arts Fellow at the Library. I’m writing a play using oral histories of Australian women interviewed by Hazel de Berg, who were born in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Our female ancestors.

We have always been a tough bunch, ‘getting on with it’. For example, the collection includes an interview with Lorna Peel, who owned and operated a hotel in Berridale in country NSW. In 31 years she never called the police, but did use a carving knife and starter’s pistol to control her hotel on separate occasions.

Among the collection is also an interview with Ruth Sterling, who was the federal organiser for women’s programs at the ABC for 15 years. She bravely organised a radio program on the cycle of a woman’s life, as at the time “so many women and girls” went through life thinking that every month they had an illness, and that life ended at 45 to 50. Ruth describes the program “was thought of as rather ‘Ooh!’, you know”, and the program featured a warning that is was unsuitable for children. The ABC received thousands of letters saying how much the program had helped them.

There are so many interviews in the collection that reflect this inspiring, pragmatic strength. This strength continues on in Hannie Rayson. While the struggle for equality for women on many levels continues, the ability and encouragement to come into our own skins is an important step in moving forwards. No matter what your profession or identity, to be able to come to an understanding and acceptance of what is happening inside you, including when it is heartbreaking, is hugely empowering.

Director-General of the National Library Anne-Marie Schwirtlich AM, Harold White Fellow Hannie Rayson and Friends of the National Library Chair Robyn Oates