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Clare Wright is a Rebel
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Clare Wright is a Rebel
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Clare Wright is a Rebel
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Conversations
27 May 2014

Clare Wright is a Rebel

Interview by Rebecca Albeck
Photography by Virginia Cummins

I was working on the ABC documentary Utopia Girls, when I first met Dr Clare Wright. She wrote and presented the program, which tells the story of how Australian women were amongst the first in the world to attain political rights.  Always upbeat, full of enthusiasm and respect for any contributions and opinions, Clare’s arrival brought a shimmer into the production office where I was based doing archive research.

She seemed to have boundless energy and was refreshingly open in a world that encourages the playing of one’s cards close to the chest.

 

Now her book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, has won the 2014 Stella Prize. True to form, Clare has written a rip-roaring story, based on impeccable research, about a bunch of neglected women. The rebellion on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854, which culminated in a bloody battle at the Eureka Stockade, is traditionally described as a men-only event. This book sets the record straight.

Meeting Clare in her rambling home in Melbourne’s northern suburbs confirmed the authenticity of her presence as a public intellectual, feminist, creative, mother and all-round warm and very real human being.

It’s grey and wet and there doesn’t seem to be anyone at home. Then a friend of Clare’s shows up with toddler in tow and Clare pokes her head round from the backyard, and calls out to come through. I’m accompanied to the backdoor by a lanky black and white dog. There is an equally lanky barefoot young man in the kitchen. Noah, Clare’s son, is home from school with tonsillitis.

When Clare reappears, she puts on the kettle, explaining that Lennie is now her mum’s dog, having been deemed “a bit too OCD” to cope with her chaotic household. He’s just visiting for the day.

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Discussed in this Story

REBECCA ALBECK: You’ve said life in your home is “chaos”. With the volume of work that you manage: how do you organise a busy family and social life?

CLARE WRIGHT: I’m very focused on whatever I’m doing at the point when I’m doing it. I’m organised and methodical…when I’m working I’m really just working. I can’t write at home. I do other things around the edges of work: the things that a PA would do—the detritus of living a public life… email and all that. But if I have to research, write, read, I can’t do that from home. Fortunately I have an office at La Trobe uni. That’s my zone: once I go into it I can stay there for very long stretches of time.

I have a lot of support. It’s very difficult for women to have their own careers when their husband has the ‘big-ticket’ career in terms of being salaried and the major breadwinner, or works in a situation with inflexible work practices. That makes it hard for women to ever have their own professional identity. My husband Damien’s work is not like that, so it’s a shared load. I’ve just never known any other way: I had two babies while I did my PhD.  My whole work life has been a juggle.

How did you make that decision?

[Laughs] I didn’t! I was diagnosed as infertile after trying to get pregnant for three years. The gynaecologist told me to think about what else I might want to do with my life if I wasn’t going to have a family. So I got a PhD scholarship. Three months later I was pregnant. I took a year off after the birth, went back to work and was four months pregnant again before I even knew it.

So there I was doing a PhD with two babies.

But you didn’t abandon the PhD, as many people might have.

It was bloody hard work. My husband was just establishing his business as a furniture maker. We didn’t have two sticks to rub together. My scholarship was integral to our family economy.

Noah is my second son, he’s 15. Bernie my eldest is 17 and my daughter Esther is nine.  She came along at the start of my post-doc, which became Eureka, after another three years of trying. There was no planning. It’s not like I said, ‘Hey! I think having babies and doing a PhD at the same time would be a great idea!’. It’s just always been that way.  I think working makes me saner and happier, which makes me a better mother. I think most mothers who work feel that.

In the introduction to The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka you ask why no one before considered the role of women in the Eureka rebellion. As you put it, ‘Where are we in this story?’ Was that the question you asked in writing the book?

There’s a way in which women internalise their silence, that idea that they are not the primary actors in any given situation and therefore they don’t have a certain kind of agency.  It might be political agency, historical agency. If you raise your voice, you’re shrill, you’re complaining, aggressive, you’re everything that women aren’t supposed to be. In the 19th century Australian suffragists were referred to as the “screaming sisterhood” and there are still elements of that: women being criticised for whingeing. You can be accused of being “feminist,” having an underlying political agenda that is “feminism”… it’s still “not nice” for women and girls to be questioning, brash, loud, or demanding in any way.

I think that’s why questions like “where are we in this story?” don’t get asked.

One of the things that I wanted to do, once I knew it was historically authentic, was to provide role models for girls, about how women in the past behaved that made a difference. Not by the way they looked, not by sexual power and not by any backroom or manipulative means but by sticking their necks out, raising their voices and proclaiming the rights of their community, not just women’s rights…

I make the caveat about it being authentic: I wasn’t pushing a barrow from the beginning. There were clues from the secondary literature that there were women in this story.  I wanted to find out—if there are women sewing the Eureka flag, and Mrs Bentley’s there at the bar of the Eureka Hotel, then how many more were there? Why did they come to Ballarat?

Did they come for the same reasons as men, craving independence and freedom? And if so was it the same form of liberty, or did it have special resonance for women?

Once I knew they were there, I needed to sweep away the mythology and not let it get in the way of hearing the voices in the archives. Opening the Pandora’s Box of women’s presence, listening to what those voices had to say, and what men at the time had to say about them, I could start building up this intricate story that has political consequences and allows me to say,  “There are role models here for girls.” Then you can tell the story authentically…without leaving all those participants out.

In Eureka you write: “high teas and calling cards were a subtle form of foot-binding ….” Do you think there are still subtle forms of “foot-binding”?

I think there are things that constrain women all the time. It’s different from that 19th Century idea that there were not only strict roles for women, but also ways that women had to behave in order to be considered appropriately feminine. Women on the goldfields found it liberating because they were able to step out of those roles.  There was a social context for it and they didn’t have the village, in the rural sense, or high society, in an urban sense, keeping tabs on them: policing their femininity.  Women generally are the ones doing the policing but it’s part of a wider social structure that ultimately serves the interests of patriarchy—there’s an old-fashioned word.

You think it’s women who did, and still do, the policing of other women?

Yes. But forms of restricting women’s mobility, access, participation, if we use that as the idea of “foot-binding”: it’s a lot subtler now. What strikes me is just how much women are still constrained by their looks. They spend a huge amount of time, energy, and financial resources on appearance. I find it enormously frustrating to see, now that I have a nine-year-old daughter… She is such a free spirit; a little girl who has never wanted to comb her hair or wear shoes. She is still in that moment, but I see what may happen soon… how much little girls become looks-focused and their self-esteem takes an enormous battering. All the statistics show that, with regard to women and body image. You would have hoped that had dissipated by now, with women playing significant roles and having access to political structures. But, alas!

I heard a talk about women in senior positions being coached to speak. If a man raises or deepens his voice, it’s authoritative : if women raise their voices it’s considered strident and hysterical. Women feel pressured to be quiet in boardroom meetings…

And that’s aside from the fact that the number of women in those positions is still only a tiny percentage. The thing is that, particularly for women, external structures in the workplace remain rigid. Of course they have the right to access but they need the support structures in their life that mean they are able to participate. Until men’s lives become more flexible it is still largely women who become primary carers for their families, the ones who keep a hold of everything in their head, know where everybody’s got to be and which forms have to be signed, and how much food’s left in the fridge.

I’m loathe to say that the female brain works differently—I don’t know… but I think it’s training.

Sarah Hanmer

Anastasia Hayes

Women who went to the goldfields saw it as an opportunity to step outside the restricted path, at least for a short period of time. And then the more rigid rules of society closed back up around them.

That’s interesting. I think in the 1960s and early ’70s something really happened: for a moment in time the rules loosened up a bit. But then there’s almost a backlash…

Yeah.

Would you call yourself a feminist?

Absolutely!

There are feminists who defend “raunch culture.” Your thoughts?

I think it’s very distressing. It’s confusing to young women and young men. Women’s bodies and sexuality have been taken over by capitalism and commercialism. That’s really what it is: complete commodification.

I’ve talked to teenage girls who’ve watched porn and they’re afraid of what boys want to do to them. And boys are confused too, about knowing what girls want. For teenage boys notions of female availability and desire—all those messages—are extremely confused. Now with online pornography, those confusions are in their face in the most extreme form all the time.

Ideas of intimacy, romance, where normal teenage sexual curiosity gets you, quickly moves into a really dark place.  It’s confronting and entirely anathema to what was happening in the 19th century.  There was a lot of sex going on in Ballarat in 1854…but in some senses women’s availability has been commodified in a completely different way now. I don’t know when women can get hold properly of that power again—that ‘70s idea that you have control over your fertility and over who has access to your body. The issues are enormously complicated by raunch culture.

Do you have a favourite Eureka character?

I became obsessed with Catherine Bentley, stalking her through the archives for months, if not years, until I was able to put flesh on her bones. Catherine symbolises the underbelly of the gold rush dream. She had the social mobility and independence that was drawn from that dream. She was ambitious and educated and she was in the right place at the right time: Ballarat when the first hotel licence was available. She and James Bentley built this incredible pub together, but she actually owned the pre-emptive right to the land. They rose to the highest point you could: they were friends with established merchants, magistrates and others in power, they were making a fortune; essentially the hotel licence was a licence to print money.

Catherine had a toddler and was pregnant when the whole thing crashed down around her overnight. Literally. The pub was burnt down. It was a riches to rags story. As I’ve been able to piece her life together after that, it was just tragedy upon tragedy. Losing babies in violent circumstances, her husband killing himself, and further generational tragedy, with one of her daughters ending her life in a mental asylum. Yet Catherine continued to petition the government for restitution and compensation, unsuccessfully. Until the end of her life she was still trying to clear her family’s name.

She’s the one I feel most emotionally attached to.  I wouldn’t necessarily claim her as a role model, except for her never-say-die fighting spirit

I wonder… A friend told this story recently: she was travelling with her husband. A female flight attendant approached him saying, “Excuse me Dr X, someone is unwell and we need help.” He answered, “it’s my wife you want” and she replied, “No, no, we want Dr X”. He repeated—“that would be my wife!”. So those assumptions are still alive. Perhaps deep in all of us.

How do you work on multiple projects?

I’ve no idea I leap all over. Do you want to see my desktop? [Throwing her hands up Clare makes a funny babbling sound denoting mayhem.]  I am organised to a certain extent and yet I have so many different folders for  different projects.

Do you wake up in the middle of night with ideas…

Always. I’m always generating new ideas and I can’t keep up with the level of output of my ideas.

How do you sift; decide which to follow?

I’m not sure. Some seem to gather momentum. I’m very open, so I get a lot of feedback. I get a sense of what might be zeitgeisty or have traction. I’ll open my big mouth , ‘I’ve been thinking about blah blah…’ and end up chatting to a film producer who says, ‘You know what, that’s great.’

As an academic you work pretty much in isolation. Working in television really showed me how to work collaboratively, which I love; it doesn’t mean foisting your ideas on someone but your ideas intersecting with other people’s. People have projects, ideas or needs, and being quite open about them, and being predisposed to over-sharing, might actually stand you in good stead —things just fall in to place.

Your by-line says Historian, Author, Broadcaster, in that order. Is there any significance in that?

First and foremost I’ve always been an historian, secondly I like communicating. Broadcasting came late. I did an MA in Public History. That’s about how you use history outside the academy…possibly working in the field of heritage or journalism. It’s essentially about communication.

Did the desire to write follow your passion for the historical material?

Academics inherently think they’re going to write books. Academia is a publishing driven industry. But there is a difference between publishing and reaching an audience. I’m interested in reaching a wide audience and popularising history, which is different from writing popular history.

Why is history important?

This is a tricky one. I just love it. I know the correct answer is, “Because if you understand the past you won’t make the same mistakes in the future.” But that’s not actually how I feel about it.  It’s a form of storytelling. We all love stories. Maybe I’m a frustrated novelist who hasn’t got her own ideas.

The stories that I’m interested in telling are ones that have already happened. They’re far more interesting to me than the ones I could make up.

Do you read fiction?

I love reading fiction.  I loved Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. I love Geraldine Brooks’ writing, which is also historical. I do like reading historical fiction, but it can’t be about Australia. I’ve tried and I get to bits and go, Oooh I wonder if that really happened. Did Robert O’Hara Burke really meet that person, and then I’ll want a footnote so I can chase that up.  If I’m reading historical fiction that’s international, I don’t need to do that. I like contemporary fiction too—I loved Krissy Kneen’s book set in Brisbane. Lionel Shriver.

All women writers…

You’re right! What was the last book I read by a bloke? I loved The Rosie Project. That’s super fun. The last Christos Tsiolkas book and the last Tim Winton. Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones. I read every night and at the moment I’m reading Goat Mountain by American novelist David Vann.

Generally I have a couple of books going. Something I’m reading for work, something I’m reading for pleasure, a literary magazine or journal, a chapter book I’m reading to Esther and weekend newspaper glossy mags for when I’m feeling particularly brain dead. I never read short stories or poetry, for no good reason (unless written by a friend). Reading fiction puts me in a different headspace and takes me outside of my own world and ideas.

I find that if I read the newspaper or The Monthly I’ll feel that I should write an opinion piece and my head will spin all night, whereas if I read about hunting on a mountain in Vancouver I don’t think “I should go shoot something, on a mountain…”.

At a more personal level, beyond your writing, as a mother, what can we do to change things?

I’ve tried to raise the sort of boys that I would want any daughter of mine to partner with, and I’ve tried to raise a girl who doesn’t internalise the sense that she is lesser than her brothers. That’s the bottom line.

Read an extract from The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka here

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