In her new book, You Daughters of Freedom, historian Associate Professor Clare Wright brings to life a time when Australian democracy was the standard bearer for progress and the envy of the world.
In conversation with Genevieve Jacobs, Wright tells the story of that victory—and of Australia’s role in the subsequent international struggle—through the eyes of five remarkable players: the redoubtable Vida Goldstein, the flamboyant Nellie Martel, indomitable Dora Montefiore, daring Muriel Matters, and artist Dora Meeson Coates, who painted the controversial Australian banner carried in the British suffragettes’ marches of 1908 and 1911.
La Trobe University historian Associate Professor Clare Wright has worked as an author, academic, political speechwriter, historical consultant, and radio and TV broadcaster.
In association with Text Publishing.
Image: Clare Wright courtesy Text Publishing
Clare Wright 21-03-2019
*Speakers: Maureen Dupree (M), Genevieve Jacobs (G), Clare Wright (C)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Good evening and welcome to the National Library, everybody. I’m Maureen Dupree, one of the executive team here at the Library and we’re delighted to welcome you this evening to what we hope will be a wonderful event.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and this beautiful building is located and we’re so proud to call our home. I’d also – I’d like to acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that may be with us today and to pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
So this evening, once upon a time not so long ago March was recognised, as many of you would know, as the Women’s History Month. In recent years International Women’s Day has established itself as a real presence in our life on the 1st of March and here at the National Library we are committed and delighted to be collecting, preserving and sharing the histories and creativity and achievements of Australian women.
So this evening we’re actually delighted to welcome – and I think it might be welcome back, I think, yes, Clare Wright to the Library, Associate Professor in History at Latrobe University. Clare, as many of you would know, is an award-winning historian and author who has worked as an academic, a political speechwriter, historical – I nearly said hysterical and that would not be good, would it? So I’ll correct that with a historical consultant and a radio and television broadcaster.
Her book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, won the 2014 Stella Prize and the 2014 NIB Award for Literature and was shortlisted for many other awards. In her most recent book, Your Daughters of Freedom, Clare brings a lifetime – brings to life a time when Australian democracy was the envy of the world and the standard-bearer of progress in a bright new century. Mm, be interesting to get some commentary on things now but I’ll probably leave that to Genevieve to do.
So joining Clare this evening many of you will know, and I think many of us quite love and I feel like I’ve – my children have grown up with you a little bit, I think, on the radio over the years – it’s Genevieve Jacobs, always a delight to have here at the Library and will be leading us through what I hope is a wonderfully entertaining conversation with Clare this evening so please join me in welcoming both Genevieve and Clare.
G: Well ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for the warm welcome, it is always a wonderful pleasure to be here at the National Library and especially to speak again with historian, Dr Clare Wright. I think we were here actually last about 12 months ago when the Bessie Rischbieth exhibition was on upstairs of her papers.
C: Upstairs for the dinner.
G: Yeah, which was wonderful, we had a lovely chat then and here we are again with the finished product, this marvellous book, You Daughters of Freedom. What a stirring, stirring title, it’s from a letter to Vida Goldstein and we’ll come to that a little later on. But at the centre of this book a decade of absolutely tumultuous change in the battle for women’s rights as full and equal voting citizens, a battle in which Australia was at the forefront and whose leaders inspired and showed the way for those elsewhere.
Now we will have about 10, 15 minutes for questions at the end and I feel absolutely sure that you’ll have some crackers given the subject matter of this arguably slightly forgotten but absolutely glorious part of our history. When I do call for questions if you would just wait until the microphone gets to you so that we can make sure everyone hears and particularly with regard to those who may have hearing devices. But Clare, good evening.
C: Hi, how are you?
G: I'm well. We have just been having a very good natter outside –
C: Yes, we have.
G: - in the green room so – a starting point for this book is actually just up the hill at Parliament House. I just wanted you to begin with the role that a very slightly tipsy wander through the halls of Parly played into what’s turned into a very significant tome. Tell me what you were doing up there and what you found.
C: I’ve actually just come from up there at Parliament House this afternoon, I’ve spent another afternoon up there in front of this same object that I did find on that slightly tipsy day, I’m not tipsy today, I’ll just have you know. So I was at Parliament House – this is a few years back now because I had written a documentary for the ABC called the war that changed us and it was about Australia’s role in world war 1. There was a screening of it in a theatre much like this that’s in Parliament House. Hence the champagne because it was the launch and I was a little bit drunk not just on champagne but kind of the applause and [accolations] of the evening. I just sort of walked away to centre myself a little bit and I wandered off and found myself in the Prime Ministers Gallery.
If you know the layout of Parliament House well you’ll know that that is just in the sort of central area between the reps and the Senate. I was wandering along looking at our various Prime Ministers and there was a little corridor and I turned off the little corridor being the curious type that always likes to go down rabbit holes, went off down the corridor and there was – I was struck by this most extraordinary artwork that I had never seen before, didn’t know existed – if I did know existed I’d certainly forgot about it and I was really just bowled over by it.
There were two things that really struck me, firstly, just how beautiful it was. Secondly that as a feminist historian, firstly, as an Australian, even, that I didn’t know about it and that I didn’t recognise it and the thing – the item that I’m talking about is the women’s suffrage banner that was painted by Dora Meeson Coates and there’s a little information panel on the side of it. The information that was given was not enough for me, I was hungry to know more about it. I was hungry to dissect not only how this extraordinary material item had come into being, what its story was, the story of the banner itself but also to try to understand why I didn’t know about it, that you just said arguably forgotten area of history. I don’t think there's anything arguable about it, I think that it’s a laydown misere, that this era – we’re talking about the federation era, that decade-and-a-half before world war 1, that that era is a forgotten era in our national historical consciousness.
So I wanted to find out more about the banner itself, about the woman who painted this extraordinary thing and to understand my own ignorance as a way in a sense of making up for it.
G: So let’s set the scene here. Australia has begun to find its feet as a nascent nation. We’re prosperous enough for there to be room for some good solid arguments about what kind of country we want to be but you describe really sharply at the very beginning of the book what the consequences are of women not having the vote, what it means for ordinary women in their everyday lives that they are not allowed to vote.
C: So let me explain what the banner is otherwise none of this is really going to make sense how we get to that if I don’t tell you about the banner. So the banner for those of you who don’t know it – can I have a – just a slight show of hands of people who know the banner that I’m talking about? Great.
G: What good Canberrans you are.
C: I know, good Canberrans. Probably not quite a representative sample of Australians but – so the banner, the women’s suffrage banner shows mother, Britannia, and daughter, Minerva, representing Britain and Australia. Daughter Minerva reaching up to mother Britannia who’s looking off into the distance, haughty, detached and daughter, Minerva, almost pleading with her. Across the top of the banner it says Commonwealth of Australia, trust the women, Mother, as I have done.
So the reference there is that Australia had given women the vote or that’s actually not the phrase I liked to use, Australian women had won the vote, a much more active way to describe that decades and decades of struggle for the enfranchisement, and they had done so well in advance of the rest of the world including Britain, the neighbour who they were most concerned to influence their political development. Because they felt they were part of the imperial family as the allegorical nature of the mother and daughter in the painting shows and that Australian women felt that they had a duty and an obligation to help their – what they called less fortunate British sisters.
So in order to tell that story, the story that I discovered the banner was about, I realised that what I needed to do was to go back and tell the story of how Australian women had actually won the vote in the first place because it’s not a familiar enough part of our own history for me to take – to assume that people understand what that fight was about.
So that takes us to your question in a roundabout way. So women didn’t just want the vote because it was a matter of political equality and justice. That was one reason, that kind of what you might call that more – an aspect of political philosophy that John Stuart Mill had written on on liberty, on the subjugation of women. So it was a tenet of liberal philosophy in the 19th century that women should be enfranchised as a matter of equality.
But for most women, and certainly for the women who were the campaigners for the vote, it went beyond it being symbolic or philosophical. The reason women wanted the vote was because the condition under which most women lived, in fact all women lived, to one extreme or another – we’re fond of talking about spectrums these days and you could put womanhood on a spectrum between privileged and just downright oppressed and degraded but women were – lived along that spectrum. But for all of them they were subject to legal and political and economic and social and cultural levels of discrimination.
So for example women didn’t have custody over their own children. They couldn’t get a bank loan. They – only a very few of them could get any form of education and I'm talking now about the women who were on the more privileged end of the spectrum. Now if we got to the condition of working class women and women who lived under extreme levels of poverty and then just circumstances like a circumstance that I talk about in the book, a woman who gets pregnant, an unmarried women who gets pregnant to a fella. Now a woman in the 19th century for whom that happened to was a fallen woman, essentially her life was over. She didn’t have access to any way of getting rid of the baby or aborting that pregnancy, that wasn’t safe. Her reputation was gone, she wouldn’t be employed anymore and this was the situation for so many women.
So this pyramid of circumstances of women’s degradation led women who were in a more privileged position to want to change that situation and they couldn’t change the conditions of their daily lives because they had no power to do so because they didn’t have the vote. So the vote was as Vida Goldstein, the leader of the Australian suffrage movement said, the right that covered all other rights, that until you had that stability to influence the political process there was nothing that – women were always going to be in chains, that they were always going to live under one level of slavery or bondage or another. So that is why the vote was such a precious commodity and why women laid down their lives for it.
G: So we’ve got in this book both the Australian struggle, that victory and then what happens internationally. Five outstanding women, Vida Goldstein, Nellie Martel, Dora Montefiore, Muriel Matters and Dora Meeson Coates. Very different in their characters, Vida Goldstein’s portrayed as having this sort of rather magnificently womanliness about her and Nellie Martel, who’s also a huge campaigner, annoys the living daylights out of almost everyone she comes across. There’s a headline in The Truth bellowing, who is this Martel woman? Which is one of the great headlines of all time probably if you were that Martel woman. But were they radicals? How transgressive was the battle they fought here in this burgeoning country?
C: Well it’s a really interesting question and I think the fact that they were rebels, that they were transgressive can be evidenced by the fact that there was so much hostility and opposition to them. These women if they were living today would be trolled, they would be called the fright bats, they would be the ones that people would – like the women who are destroying the joint, who are pushing up against the – still the boundaries that women live under today. Women who do that are viciously attacked and their voices are attempted to be shut down and that’s exactly what happened to these women.
So they were – one of the reasons that I wanted to follow the lives of five separate characters and not say do a biography of Vida Goldstein or just follow one other single character through was to show the breadth of the movement, that they – that women who fought for suffrage – firstly it’s very important to realise that it was a collective movement, the struggle was one of collectively of women. As the British suffragettes, the phrase they liked to use, fighting shoulder to shoulder. In Britain in particular that meant across class, that women from the factories and from the mills were there on the streets with women who had never been out of their parlours before, that they were taking to the streets together in mass demonstration.
So it was really important to show that these victories were not achieved by individuals and that’s often the problem with writing history, is that the focus on one single person in biography makes it seem like changes happen because you have an individual single catalyst. Whereas I am a great believer, and I think history does bear this out, that real change, real progress is made through collective struggle and I think – I couldn’t follow every single woman obviously who was part of this movement but it was important to showcase a number of them. And also to show that they were very different, that there was no type in a sense.
I think that by following these characters through, and as you’ll know it’s a work of narrative nonfiction, we follow their stories and we follow it in their footsteps because I write – the way that I write is to write from the primary sources up. And very much believing that if a character themselves doesn’t know what’s going to happen next then the audience shouldn’t know either so I’m not writing with the benefit of hindsight, we’re seeing it thorough those characters’ eyes. I think that brings you much closer to that person and you feel a sense of solidarity and empathy with them even if Nellie Martel drives you completely bonkers which at times she does.
But that was part of her method, that was part of her transgression and part of all of these women’s transgression in a way was that they weren’t doing what was expected of women to do, they weren’t behaving nicely, they weren’t keeping to themselves, they weren’t bridling their tongues. They were speaking out, they were acting out spectacularly as we see in some of the later episodes. They were making spectacles of themselves literally and this went against all of the mores of 19th century and Victorian femininity and it is really part and parcel of the burgeoning of the modern woman, the 20th century woman.
G: Although there are some – reading this there are some notes which are quite odd for us understanding 21st century feminism, it’s quite striking to read how gendered the activists’ arguments could be. For example you get a lot of stuff about women needing to clean up the mess of women, that women in Parliament would campaign for purity. We hear later for example in the English fight about the point of the struggle being to incorporate the glorious responsibilities and the deep suffering of motherhood into the idea of citizenship. Then there’s sort of the cult of the mother that runs quite deeply through the arguments. I mean interesting, when Vida Goldstein for example, and Muriel Matters, unmarried at that time, childless and very much counter the culture but just unpack for us some of the ideas that were running through this struggle that are a little unexpected for women today.
C: I'm so glad that you raised that because it is one of I think the really important things about writing history, is that you can’t see people of the past as us with funny clothes on. You really have to get into their minds and understand the context for their actions. As you say the one thing that is probably run – rubs you up the most – the modern woman most up the wrong way is this idea of the essence and the essential nature of womanhood. It’s very much part of the argument for why women should get the vote in the first place. It’s interesting to reflect on – I’m going back to my women’s studies courses of university now, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when they call it difference feminism and equality feminism.
So these women, this first wave of feminism, they’re the difference feminists. They believed that women were essentially different from men and it was the qualities that were inherent in women, and particularly in their roles as mothers, that qualified them in certain ways for the vote. The reason that it was important to politically empower women was not only so that they could change the conditions of their own daily lives but so that they could change the world. They believed that the world was in a mess and that war and greed and poverty and social ills like prostitution and drunkenness and gambling and other forms of vice, that all of these ills of the world could be sheeted home to the feet of men because men controlled things and look what a mess they’d made of it.
Just as women cleaned up their homes and tidied up after men in the home so they would tidy up the world and they literally considered themselves to be the mothers of the world or the homemakers of the world. They also saw that quite literally in a place like Australia where Australia was the first country in the world, and this is the basis for its pre-eminence and why it wanted to take its message forward. The first country in the world to not only give women the right to vote but also the right to stand for Parliament and white women, and maybe we’ll talk about that later. New Zealand gave women the right to vote in 1893, but not the right to stand for Parliament until 1919 and Australian women got those twin rights making them the political equals of white men.
Why that was important in the Australian context was because women also believed that it was their right but most importantly their responsibility to go into Parliament and clean up the mess of the Parliamentarians as well. Yeah, that worked, didn’t it?
So this notion of purity, that women embody purity and that they were going to purify the world and indeed purify politics is incredibly important to the mindset of the suffragists and it’s integral – if you show the front of the book so this mimics the idea of the banner and women wearing these in demonstrations. These are the colours that we most readily associate now with the suffrage movement, they actually were the colours of Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragette organisation in Britain, the WSPU, the Women’s Social and Political Union which various of the Australian women went over and joined and worked for. The colours represent – white, purple and green represent – white purity, green is hope and purple is courage and the book is structured into those three sections under those titles.
So the white is purity and that stands for the purifying nature of women’s work and particularly another thing that we are kind of uncomfortable with today as well is the idea of spirituality and that women considered themselves to be on a spiritually higher plane than men. That in order to have a real – the part of the mission of the 20th century was going to have a more enlightened future, that that lightening process, quite literally whitening the world, was going to happen through women’s spiritual advancement. Then don’t get me started on the way in which whiteness is very literally about racial purity as well.
G: Well let’s just mention that briefly –
C: Alright, get me started on that.
G: Yeah, let me get you started on it because there are plenty of questions about which women, about race and class, that does come into this debate and I do want to give us plenty of time to talk about what happened in England which is very dramatic and very exciting. But just briefly, this idea about which women could vote.
C: Yeah. Okay so it’s one of the difficulties of writing about – and wanting to raise the profile of these women and in a sense claim them as heroes for our times. Certainly to claim them as heroes of our nation, women who did so much for nation-building as I really document in the book, that these women have been left out of the story of nation-building in Australia. The way that that story of federation, of our founding fathers has been written and if you go to Parliament House and you look at the gallery that has Tom Roberts’ big picture and all of the people who – the portraits of the people who are associated with that nation-building era of federation, all the fellas.
Whereas women were actually crucial in their campaigning, in their legwork, in their petitioning to the nation becoming into existence in the first place. Also writing women’s suffrage into the constitution, essentially, it’s not in those words but let me tell the story of how that happened.
Now I want to bring that to prominence and – because I think that it is really important to tell that story of the way that feminism and federalism were intertwined. This isn’t women’s history, I’m not writing women’s history, I’m writing national history, I’m writing political history. Until we see those things as one women’s history is – or the story of what women have done in their achievements is always going to be seen as being a footnote, something kind of picturesque and niche but not actually central to who we are. So that’s part of the story that I tell.
At the same time it has to be qualified by the fact that the Franchise Act that gave Australian women this world leading edge, that gave them rights that no other women in the world had. That same piece of legislation disenfranchised all indigenous people. That some indigenous people had had the vote prior to that but the way the Franchise Act was very deliberately written, and it makes very difficult reading to go through those passages of Hansard where the Parliamentarians were debating essentially who was going to be in and who was going to be out of this nation, who was going to belong and - who was going to be insiders and who were going to be outsiders. The language that they used to justify why indigenous people didn’t deserve to be included as citizens in this nation is very difficult to hear to modern ears and I’m not going to repeat it tonight but you can read it in the book.
Warning to our politicians, Hansard is there, historians in 100 years’ time will mark you responsible for the things that you say because we’re nerds and we read this stuff. These people, I give them enough rope.
So the very same legislation that took gender out of the equation in terms of national belonging inserted race as a qualification and as we know in hindsight – the people at the time didn’t – it would take until the 1960s before indigenous people got their voting rights back and were indeed counted. It has to be said that the women who were fighting for their own rights, the white women who were fighting for their own rights, at this particular time were not fighting for their indigenous sisters’ rights. They were far more interested in helping their white British counterparts than they were in any way with their indigenous sisters.
G: But this does take us nicely to the international scenario because the entire battle that had gone on here in Australia was viewed as the kind of most extraordinary social experiment. There was great astonishment that the progress was made not in the US, not in Europe but here in Australia and consequently women in other places looked to us for leadership which is a fascinating thing to conjure with because most of us will have grown up knowing the name of the Pankhursts, for example, knowing the story of the suffragettes throwing themselves beneath the King’s horse and so on and so forth. But in fact it was women like Vida and her cohort who had blazed the trail and they were seen as the experienced leaders, the ones who had inspiration to give.
C: Genevieve, this was the most fascinating discovery I think for me in the archives, that this journey that – wanting to understand more about Dora Meeson Coates’ beautiful banner ended up taking me on. The realisation that Australia was so much in the spotlight, that it was so much admired by the rest of the world, that Americans reported in their daily newspapers what was going on down here, that when the Franchise Act was passed there were headlines emblazoned across The New York Times and The Boston Globe, 800,000 Australian women enfranchised. This was news and this was news that every country around the world wanted to hear about because they all worked, certainly in western nations – this was a European situation and an American situation and in some Asian countries as well at this point in time – they were all dealing with what they called the woman question. It’s a bit like the Liberal Party and their woman problem although most of us actually do think they’ve got a man problem. But it was called the woman question.
Just as the 19th century had been – that the political movements of the 19th century had been about dealing with the problem of labour and extending the franchise for unpropertied men, this period at the turn of the 20th century was all about the issue of how to deal with this clarion call coming from women all over that it was their time. Their time was now and they were making these demands upon the system that they lived under and the governments that ruled them.
So the fact that Australia had come up with this solution which all of the anti-suffrage - all of the anti-suffrage arguments up to this time and for decades already up until the turn of the 20th century had been about – they were the kind of the sky’s going to fall arguments. Women will stop wanting to have babies, they’ll stop getting married, they will become unsexed – this was the term that were used by which they meant they will become manly women. They will stop having their lovely feminine attributes. There will be trouble and discord within households. These were really the kind of – it was going to be a social catastrophe if women voted.
Australia was there to prove that one, all of the prophecies of doom had not happened and two, they were – Australia was very proud of all the achievements that had been made, the progress that had been made as a result of women getting the vote. They were able to point to those things, to the introduction of a maternity allowance, to pure food laws, to the raising of the age of consent, things that women had been advocating and trying to push through parliaments around the world for decades suddenly in Australia had come to fruition because women were now voters, they now had power.
So the rest of the world had their eyes trained on Australia and they were watching and this was the thing that I absolutely found so flabbergasting. Australia knew it and they were proud of it. We were proud as a nation before world war 1, before anything happened on any beach in Gallipoli where we supposedly – we proved ourselves on the international stage, that’s what we’re always told and why we’re told that Gallipoli is the birth of the nation, we were already well proud of ourselves and felt that we had proved ourselves on the stage. That we were - as people called us at the time the pacemakers of the world. That’s an extraordinary thing to reflect on given that we have lost all sense of ourselves as leaders in an international sense and that we also have become so accustomed to the well laydown misere historical lie that Gallipoli was the birth of the nation.
G: In fact if you want a summer of revolution, 1908 in London with Australian women at the absolute forefront of this tumultuous, enormous movement for women’s suffrage, not only Dora Meeson Coates’ beautiful banner but Nellie Martel who stands on her feet in front of half a million people –
C: Half a million people in Hyde Park.
G: Half a million people for the women’s vote. That is the most extraordinary thing to conjure with. Muriel Matters who wasn’t at Hyde Park but created a huge global story of her own by chaining herself to the iron grills in the Houses of Parliament, secreting an enormous chain under her dress. They’re spectacular stories because they’re filled with courage and ingenuity but as you say also spectacular leadership and there was no doubt that the Australian women would be at the absolute forefront.
But also at home you’ve got Vida Goldstein who’s seriously steadily continuing the battle for women by showing on a very pragmatic level that women’s votes actually matter and that really as much as anything both here in Australia had made politicians stand up and take notice, the likes of Sir John Forrest, but also in the UK this idea, hang on, there are votes to be had here and that’s why we’ve really got to sit up well beyond any sort of great value-driven crusade. There are pragmatic realities about making this happen.
C: The suffragettes liked to have a little bit of a smirk and a laugh at how quickly the politicians who had been anti-suffrage soon did a complete 360 and became the greatest advocates for suffrage once they were reliant on women’s votes to be voted back into their seats. So yeah and the action in the book, in that second two-thirds of the book, goes back and forwards between England and Australia so the story’s written on these two sides of the world because we do have this movement where there are these Australian women who are going over and who are participating as you say as leaders in this incredible fight. They’re not just like rabblerousing political campaigners but I really think of them as statesmen because they’re ambassadors, they’re de facto ambassadors for Australia because they are also taking Australia’s international reputation forward and they are showing how things are done.
Particularly they’re showing forms of Australian ingenuity that they’re very proud of as well like Muriel Matters with her chaining herself to the grill of Parliament and having to have the whole grill – so the women’s gallery in the House of Lords which was way up in the heavens where women had to sit if they were going to watch what was going on in their – effectively in their name, in their country, and there was a metal grill that separated them from the Parliamentarians below ostensibly so that the politicians wouldn’t be distracted by the ladies while they got along with the important business of doing politics. But all women who sat behind it felt humiliated, particularly the Australian women who sat behind it, felt humiliated at having to be separated in this way.
So Muriel stages this extraordinary act and then a few months later she hires an air ship, a balloon and goes up in the air and starts shouting out voting for women through a megaphone and drops 50 pounds of votes for women paraphernalia and leaflets, showers them down on London below her, harnessing this new technology of flight to this –
G: Before being forced down by poor weather.
C: That’s right, she did end up in a hedge but that’s another story. Not quite as – went to plan. So Australian women were doing these things that were seen as being daring and risk-taking. Muriel Matters was a household name in Australia at the time and she was known as that daring Australian girl internationally. I’m flabbergasted that there hasn’t been a biopic, a film made about Muriel, she’s just like such a candidate for a feature film.
G: She is, she’s quite extraordinary but I’ll throw this one out for those of you who are looking for an effective means of political campaigning. Dora Montefiore comes up with the idea of boycotting the census.
C: Yes. So I’ve got to say Dora Montefiore is actually the woman I knew nothing about when I started this and she probably ended up becoming my favourite. I mean Vida’s always my favourite ‘cause I’ve sort of been writing about her for 20 years now and she’s kind of like a member of the family but Dora Montefiore I became totally and utterly smitten with and fascinated by. She in fact started the first Woman’s Suffrage Society in Sydney when her husband died and she realised she didn’t have custody of her own children. It wasn’t an issue because nobody was trying to take them away from her but she realised that if they did she would have nothing and it politicised her and she started the first Women’s Suffrage Society.
She then went back to England where she had been born and she’s a rabid socialist, she later becomes – represents Australia as a Communist, she’s multilingual, she writes and speaks fluently in French and Russian and she’s a translator and an extraordinary renaissance woman. One of the things that she says, she takes the democratic motto – mantra of no taxation without representation completely at its word and says right well in Australia where I own property and pay tax I can vote so that’s fine. But here in Britain I pay tax and I get nothing for it, I don’t get my vote so you know what? You’re not getting my tax and so she stages a tax resistance and she walls herself up in her house, it’s called the Siege of Hammersmith. It lasts for six weeks with the bailiffs trying to get in because by law if you didn’t pay your tax the bailiffs could come in and take the glassware and the silverware and whatever furniture in order to auction it off to raise however much you wanted in tax. So she didn’t let them in. These women were incredible heatseeking publicity models.
Then – that was so successful in raising attention and publicity that she in 1911, when Britain is taking the census, she decides to use the strategy again but on a much broader scale, it gets taken up on a much broader scale. There’s a national boycott of the census where women are encouraged to just not be at home that night on census night. So you had this situation in England and Wales and Scotland and Ireland of women – and men who were supporting them and there’s a whole story we haven’t talked about about male suffragists but of them just wandering all over the streets all night having parties, having skating parties, having picnics, rich women lending out their mansions and having 250 suffragists there having these mass sleepovers. Women who couldn’t leave the house because they might have had children to look after or whatever writing sort of essentially donkey censusing and writing on their census forms, no people here, only women.
G: Leaving the authorities to sort of scatter around and try and guess where everyone might have been.
C: Sort of trying to count people who were moving targets.
G: It is fantastic but Clare, just before we throw to the audience for questions because of course there’s all this wonderful, wonderful tumult, this brilliant fight for freedom and then war and as you say at the end of the book those legacies, the ANZAC myth-making that even now, a century later, more than ever threatens to subsume these parts of our history and to blot out Muriel and Vida and all the others. My old friend, David Headen, and I have often had this conversation that as you say far from Australia being born at Gallipoli, perhaps a whole other kind of Australia was actually lost, the pre-war Australia of these vigorous, often radical political debates and that ferment of ideas. So perhaps that was lost on the fields of Gallipoli rather than the nation being born.
C: It was and I understand the sentimental and the affective – not effective, affective reasons why Australians are attached to the Gallipoli story and 60,000 people being killed, young men being killed out of a small nation at the time, it’s a huge wound, it’s a huge grief and it’s a huge sacrifice. But the myth-making, the anti-historical creation of national narratives that has come from that and been very heavily subsidised – I mean this is the contemporary political aspects of it, that that mythology has been very heavily subsidised by federal governments and that the militarisation of Australian history means that these other stories as you say, they just get blotted out. It’s like the great wall of ANZAC, you can’t sit over it or under it, around it. So the other stories that are there to be told, and particularly this one that is so positive and so optimistic in so many ways, a time when Australia was proud of itself for being a progressive nation, that it felt that it held the solutions to the world’s problems.
That this idea of ourselves as a nation that could embolden us now, that could make us more international risk-takers on the world stage, that could lead us to find more innovative solutions to modern ills like things that we might now consider to be what troubles the world the most in the way that the woman question did at this time. Things like the refugee crisis and climate change, the great moral questions of our age as women’s enfranchisement was the great moral question of the turn of the century. That maybe we could find solutions and feel more emboldened and more confident of ourselves to do that if we had a sense of this heritage, of this democratic legacy of the people who fought so very hard for it at the time, men and women both.
G: As you say very beautifully at the end, before the sons of empire died on a beach at Gallipoli and rebirthed a nation we were the daughters of freedom and this was the story of us. Which made me a bit weepy when I read it, actually, it’s so beautifully expressed. Let’s turn over to you for some questions. I hear lots of murmuring of agreement so I’m confident we’ve got some questions in the room and we’ll go to you first and then further up. Yeah so – yes, you’re on.
A: Thank you very much, Clare. I’s so impressive what you’ve written. I’ve read one of your other books. I’ve only just bought your new book now so I haven’t read it but I do thank you very much for what you’ve just said because I think it’s tremendously important that you’re actually writing in this case about very vital thinking that women put forward and it’s being suppressed, it’s – we’re just finding out about it now through your book. No wonder we still haven’t got gender equality in our Parliament. We might have the right to vote and the right to stand but gee, there’s not many who get up there to represent us. So would you like to expand on what you see happening now in our Parliaments in the light of these wonderful things you said, the progressive thoughts and the position of equality for women?
C: In 25 words or less. Look, it’s been a very funny thing. You don’t write history because you think that it is going to have a contemporary resonance, that – you don’t go looking to the archive to find answers to questions and problems of today that you want to find solutions to because if you did that you’re not really writing history, you're really writing a manifesto or a polemic and you’re trying to find quotes from the past to buoy an argument.
But it has been astonishing for me how relevant this book has become in light of the debates that we’re having about female representation in Parliament or more particularly the lack of it, about lack of respect for the female politicians that we do have, about bullying and harassment of women in the workplace, about domestic violence, about equal work for equal pay, the me-too movement, all of these things that do seem to be really at fever pitch at the moment are spoken to in one way or another by the book. Partly because so many of those things were issues that women at the time were fighting for. Equal pay for equal work was something that these first wave feminists were fighting for and they used that expression, we didn’t just like invent that recently. As we know we’re still not there yet with that.
Domestic violence was something that women at the time were hoping that if they had more of a grip on the political situation they would be able to also have more control in their own homes. They wanted more control over their own bodies. At that point in time it actually meant the ability to not have to produce so many babies, to have more control over their reproductive lives. But – and to not have conjugal rights and a whole lot of other things that were about the politics of the bedroom essentially. These women were speaking to those issues at the time and that their political empowerment was supposed to get for them.
So – and then there is the issue of women in Parliament themselves. I mean Vida Goldstein – we didn’t talk about this in the questioning but Vida Goldstein ran for Parliament five times, unsuccessfully at each occasion because she ran as an independent every time. She refused to join the Labor Party and she would have gotten up easily if she’d joined the Labor Party but she refused because she believed that if she did join the party system then her main objective which was to get the needs and perspectives of women and children considered in all national legislation would just be subsumed by the business of party machine politics and she was probably right. But it did also mean that she didn’t get a seat.
Now it’s so interesting that we have women running as independents now, that Kerryn Phelps has just run as an independent, that we have Zali Steggall who is about to run against Tony Abbott and seeing some of these same arguments about the fact that the work that women feel that they need to get done through our Parliamentary system, they don’t feel they can get done in parties. So the parallels are quite extraordinary. I hope that at the end of the day that having more knowledge of and hopefully therefore respect for the women of the past who have achieved extraordinary things does helps to give more of a base for respecting women of today and the things that they are doing. If we are understand that women have always achieved a great deal against the struggle hopefully it keeps women still struggling and that it might seem a long bow but that women will garner more respect in general in our political and our civic life than they currently do.
G: Next question.
A: Yeah, hi. Look, that’s fascinating and I feel I could talk all night about this. I’ll just ask a really simple question in a way – you may not have sort of done the analysis to work this out but I find it incredibly fascinating that it was Australia who took the lead so do you have a sort of sense of why?
C: Yeah, I have a strong feeling about that that comes out of the archive, the archive gave me the answers on this one and it’s really – this particular historical coincidence of this international movement for woman suffrage that was being fought from Budapest to Barcelona to the Australian bush, and federation and what was going on domestically in Australia which was that the colonies were working out how they were going to federate and become a nation and in that process everything was kind of up for grabs because they were – because having to write a constitution means that you have to work out whose got what’s power. That’s really what it’s all about.
Women at the time who had already been fighting for these rights locally – I mean women starting putting up women’s suffrage bills in Victoria in the early 1880s. Then women start to become involved in the federation movement as I was suggesting before. One woman, Catherine Helen Spence in South Australia, actually runs for the Constitutional Convention because by this stage South Australia has given women the right to vote and the right to stand for Parliament in 1894. That’s a very important pin in the – if you – sort of looking at it as a game of bowls, the fact that was like the kingpin – is that the kingpin at the front? I don’t know bowling very well. Once that one fell that was the kind of trigger for these other – the other colonies and also for this wider process of women then working for federation. So it was this convergence of international and domestic situations that made for a kind of perfect storm of feminism and federalism.
G: Yeah, pragmatic politics had a reasonable amount to do with this. Perhaps one more quick question if we’ve got another one? Yeah, we’ll just go down to you in the middle.
A: Hi. So I’m studying history and studying to be a history teacher. What – so I’m very aware of the wall of ANZAC that is our curriculum. What do you think are some other forgotten moments of Australian history and what do you think are some that are overemphasised?
A: Aboriginal history.
C: Yeah, I think we could all sort of put our hats in the ring on that one. There’s something that people who – a common feedback that I get from the book prior to this, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, after people have read that they very often said to me look, it’s so disturbing reading this book because I thought this was a story that we all knew and that we were taught in schools and ad nauseum about Eureka and yet here you’ve written like almost a complete alternative narrative to it which is about what women were doing. Which makes me wonder how many other stories we’ve been taught that we don’t really know the full extent of? So that’s by way of saying two things, one, there’s a whole bunch of stories that aren’t being taught at all and like our frontier history, our colonial massacre history. I mean that has to be the basis for any ongoing discussion about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Certainly if we’re going to have what I hope is going to be within my lifetime, and I’m absolutely confident that it will be within my lifetime, that we are going to become a republic, we have to be a just republic and that is going to involve a truth and reconciliation process. Teaching indigenous history and particularly frontier history to our kids is going to have to be part of that.
C: So on the one hand there is going to be telling the stories we haven’t heard before. On the other hand there’s going to be telling the stories we have heard before over and over again from different angles and different perspectives, talking about all the characters who were there and the – basically just more inclusive history in general. So we have had a particular range of voices that we have heard from and I think that that has to change and expand and enlarge and I think it will. This is one of the things that I love about being an historian and doing history as I say when I talk to school groups and just imagine all of you were under the age of 18, I say I don’t know what history’s going to be written in the future because I don’t know what questions you kids are going to ask. That is how history’s written, my question is going back to the same archives that had been used for 150 years to write the history of Eureka. I went to the same archives but I asked a different question which is were there women there and if so what were they doing? Therefore, got a whole lot of different answers.
So that question was relevant to me in a way that it hadn’t been relevant to Geoffrey Searle or Geoffrey Blainey or John Maloney or wonderful historians that had never thought to ask that question. So I don’t know what questions are going to be asked of the future, what’s going to be relevant and that’s what makes it exciting, because the archive holds the answers.
G: It will be up to you among others to ask those questions. Clare, what an absolute pleasure, thank you very much indeed.
M: It’s interesting, here at the Library we talk about collecting today what’s going to be important into the future and I think that was just such a beautiful demonstration and I love coming along to these sessions, there’s always something new to learn. So if you’re interested in learning more and exploring more we are the place to do it, we have a wonderful collection of papers and ephemera about the suffragettes and I'm going to need Clare’s help to make sure I pronounce Bessie’s surname correctly.
M: I’m going to let the experts do that. We’ve got the collection which has papers from Vida Goldstein, Dame Enid Lyons, Sylvia Pankhurst, collection of photos, letters, medals, embroidered banners and cloths and papers relating to the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance and the UN so that would be a really fantastic thing to sort of dive into. Of special interest is the collection on the suffragette movement in England which we’ve heard about this evening from 1906 to 1928 including Letticia Withal’s? Yeah, Withal’s hunger strike medal and Louise Cullen’s Holloway Prison brooch which sounds very fascinating. We are fortunate they’re part of the National Library’s collection here and a great deal of it is actually available online thanks to our sponsors, you can dive into that and also look online so we would encourage you to do that.
We would also encourage you at this point to join us for refreshments upstairs. The bookshop has its usual 10% discount on goodies. Particularly Clare is available too, I think, to sign books etc and perhaps to ask some additional questions. So I’ve really enjoyed this evening and I very much hope you have and thank you for coming to join us once again and we look forward to seeing you at another event here at the Library. Just finally, one last vote of thanks for a terrific session for Genevieve and Clare.
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