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A Bonza Wright
22 / 05 / 2014
Dr Clare Wright is an award-winning historian, author and public commentator who has worked in politics, academia and the media. In October 2013, Clare released her much-anticipated second book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text Publishing), which has recently won the 2014 Stella Prize. Clare has worked as a political speechwriter, university lecturer, historical consultant and radio and television broadcaster.
Sarah Capper [SC]: You seem to have been doing a fair few number of interviews since you won the Stella award last week, that’s great!
Clare Wright [CW]: It’s so fantastic that the Stella has attracted so much attention. I’ve really been overwhelmed by the extent and breadth of interest.
SC: I’ve been looking at your biography and my golly gosh it’s impressive – PhD Australian Studies at the University of Melbourne, a Master of Arts Public History from Monash Uni, Australian Research Council Post-Doctoral Research at La Trobe Uni. I’m a bit of a history nerd myself, and I’m wondering what sparked your interest in history?
CW: I’ve just always loved it and have really been interested in it since high school. I did two history subjects in Year 12; Australian History and Revolutions, and then I did History at uni, and Law – but I dropped Law. It wasn’t for me. Intellectually it was for me, but socially it wasn’t, and I resented that it took time away from my history subjects and reading so I dropped it. In the end I just pursued and did honours in history, followed by a scholarship which led me to do a MA in history.
After that I travelled. I worked for two years with [independent federal MP] Phil Cleary in his electorate office, which was a great experience and opportunity.
SC: We [the Victorian Women’s Trust] have a great working relationship with Phil. We’ve worked with him preventing men’s violence against women.
CW: He did some great work. Then I got a PhD scholarship and went back to uni. I then had two babies while I was doing the PhD, finished my PhD and published my book ‘Beyond the Ladies Lounge’. After this, I worked for two years as the Executive Officer of the History Council Victoria followed by a post-doctoral scholarship. At the beginning of my post-doctoral scholarship I had my third child and then it’s all spiraled from there. I’ve managed to always have some form of employment in the history industry, except for those years with Phil. I consider myself lucky that I get to do what I love. Anybody should count themselves lucky if they get to do what they love.
SC: I’ve read that you’re a bit of an expert on the social history of alcohol and women’s political activism. As you’ve mentioned, your first book was ‘Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Female Publicans’ – I’m curious as to what inspired you to pick up that thread?
CW: I started going out with my husband when we were 19, first year into uni – we met in Russian Literature and Society, as you do – and he was a footy player out in Ringwood. I started hanging around footy clubs, and I’ve always been quite a keen footy supporter, but being part of the footy club culture was new to me. I went to MacRobertson Girls High School which was a bit of a shelter for nerdy girls – but a brilliant school nonetheless – and I became very interested in the gender dynamics of the pub situation. My husband Damien was already a bit of a square head – part of the culture, but always a bit removed intellectually – so we always used to sit back and logically discuss what was going on in the room and one of the things that interested me was the way that alcohol seemed to divide the room. The men would be standing around the bar drinking beer, and then the girls would be in the lounge sipping girly drinks. One of the girls would drink a bit too much and the boys would assume she was sexually available to anyone, but mostly the girls kept themselves “nice”, so they could drive home, and I just found the whole thing fascinating.
So when it came to a thesis topic to choose I decided to look at female pub culture and I looked at it from the point of view of the drinkers and barmaids, and the women who worked in hotels – the publicans. I didn’t want it to be anthropological, so I did it through the view of history. I advertised in various places for interview subjects and I had a lot of interest. I basically interviewed women who had been either drinking or working in pubs from the 1930s to the 1970s, and did long interviews with 12 women. I was expecting them to tell me a story of gender apartheid and feeling marginalised and less valued, and peripheral to the rear action and left on the sidelines, but it was not what they told me at all.
That piece ended up being called ‘Real Women Do Shout’ because what those women told me were stories of empowerment, a sense of belonging, community and place. They said things like “in the pub you get to be your own boss, you get more respect in the pub than you do on the street.” Women who have been drinking for 40 years enjoy drinking in the ladies lounge and would say “why would we want to drink with the men, we have to live with them!” They hated it when the bars became desegregated because they felt like they had nowhere to drink. The older women didn’t feel comfortable drinking in the bar anymore so they drank at home. They told me they would bring their kids into the ladies lounge, and they all bonded. My thesis was really written from that perspective. I got a lot of encouragement to go on with that – particularly from my husband. We travelled around Australia for two years, and we went to all different pubs and listened to the women in the Northern Territory, Tasmania etc. and there would be a story on the wall of the woman who ran the pub for 20 years. There seemed to be this big communal memory that women were very important in the hotel industry, but no literature reflected that – more that the pub is the epitome of the Australian man.
SC: I loved [the women’s suffrage in Australia documentary] Utopia Girls. I think it should be compulsory viewing for all high school students. It’s an amazing story, and it isn’t one that is too well known. Is that what inspired you to get it together?
CW: It took five years to write that documentary, and convince the ABC that there was a story to be told and one that people would be interested in. It was risky programming for them. And it was great that it aired and it has had a long life, far extended beyond its regional broadcast. It is going to schools, and I know women that have bought it, some women tell me they have bought six copies for each of their granddaughters when they turn 18. It was very important to me, to get the story across. My first impetus was that I was sick of seeing all these documentaries on TV that were about the great achievements of Australia – there was this one about the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Kalgoorlie Pipeline and the Overland Telegraph line.
It’s not to criticise those programs – they are terrific – they are good history and they are good television. But I thought, those are amazing feats of mechanical engineering and women’s suffrage was an amazing feat of social ingenuity against all odds. I wanted to take that logic and those feelings and say well can’t we tell this story of women’s suffrage? It’s a nation building story. Australia was the first nation to give women the vote, why isn’t that something we take pride in? We take pride in our sporting achievements, we take pride in our ANZACS, the idea that our nation was born in Gallipoli. But actually, our nation was born in 1901 and the second piece of legislation that passed was that women will have equal rights the same as men, and we were the first country to do that by decades. Why don’t people know that, and why aren’t we proud of it? That was part of it.
My second ambition was that I felt young women take for granted the rights and freedoms that we have, that so very recently we didn’t. In that sense, how quickly things have changed. How did that happen so quickly? How do women not know how it used to be, or how that changed? I wanted to tell that story for women, especially for younger women – to tell them if there’s something they don’t like, some feeling of injustice then you work to change that. The only reason we can live the lives we live today is because these women worked bloody hard for decades to achieve those changes for women. And everything is not perfect now – there is still a lot of work to do, and the only way to do it – is to do it. They were my motivating factors, and then you just work on a much more pragmatic level. It was a film that was realised by the end of it to be great. It told a really evocative story, it told a lot of information and it was very emotionally captivating. I know a lot of women who were very pleased by it as well as learning something.
SC: Your latest book – and Stella Prize winner – The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka – you don’t necessarily think of the gold rush period as being synonymous with women – I’m wondering, when you were unearthing stories, pardon the pun, when did you realize there was a book in this?
CW: Not far along in the research process. I knew there was a research project in it and I got post-doctoral funding for the research project. Very soon after getting stuck into the research, I realised that there was going to be an enormous amount of material and that it wasn’t a needle in the hay stack. There was a really big story to tell so I published a number of academic articles in scholarly journals from the research and had the conversations with historians that needed to be had as an academic. But what I realised was that I was interested in writing a book that would reach a very broad audience and really engage them in this story in a way that wasn’t like homework. There were these amazing characters, these remarkable women who were living through this incredible time – so for me the challenge became how to allow in a sense others to live in the moment that I had been living in – the archive, the richness of that experience, fortunes made and lost of this completely upside-down time of flux that women grasped at to take these opportunities. For me it wasn’t necessarily if there was a book in it, but what type of book I wanted to write and then was I up to the task of writing it in that way. I wanted to push myself beyond my comfort zone and fortunately it seemed to have worked.
SC: You sort of answered the next question, which was about the two books you’ve written – and the process of writing them – you seemed to have approached the second book in a totally different way.
CW: A totally different way. The first book was the book of a thesis – a thesis is essentially argument driven and you are always aware that the people you are engaging in the conversation and in the thesis are your examiners. They have certain criteria they’re assessing you against and they are at academic professional standards. I also had in mind when I wrote that thesis that I wanted to get a book out of it because there were so many women who contributed to the interviews – and I wanted them to be able to read what I wrote, and didn’t want it to be jargon talk and full of very abstract theoretical concepts. It already was fairly narrative focused – but it was argument driven.
With Eureka, in a sense I had done the academic work already through the journal articles and because I wasn’t writing for examiners, the conversation I wanted to have was with what I considered to be an intelligent and interested audience – so it was narrative driven from the start and the argument that was in it was implicit rather than ‘this is what I’m going to argue and this is how my evidence supports this’.
I wanted to write a book that people would get to the end of a chapter and think ‘I want to know what happens next’ and because I wasn’t looking over my shoulder for academic approval I think I was able to be much more expansive in my writing style.
SC: You’ve done a lot of work with the media – as a commentator, your involvement with writers festivals, speaking engagements and I guess that there is a sense with Utopia Girls that there is real excitement in the way you convey history. I loved it how when you won the Stella Prize, you donated part of it to Northcote High School for a women’s history prize.
CW: I should clarify this – it’s not a prize for a female student but rather it’s for any student – male or female – that highlights women’s contribution to history.
I was explaining this to my son. It is really important that my work highlights the ways in which men and women have historically shared space. It’s getting away from a much more divisive sense of gender politics that pits one against the other. I think that a more a current perception is that men and women did share space, whether that’s political space or a stage to talk about the same issues, like anti-war campaigns. I think that it’s important for men to realise that they have always had to share space with women and learn to negotiate that.
SC: Looking at your background in writing books and TV – it seems like you have found different mediums to make history accessible – is that how you have seen your role?
CW: I just really enjoy working with media and making documentary films is nothing if it’s not a collective endeavour. The frustrating part of that is not every part of your vision is respected or gone along with. The writer has the least power in the food chain. But being involved from the ground level and building up a program from the kernels of your idea, and being involved in the script writing process is absolutely more satisfying than playing other roles in the media where I’ve been brought in late in the day essentially to ‘de-blokefy’ a script – it’s happened to me a couple of times where production companies indulge me as a consultant when they have already totally conceived and written the program and then they’ve realised that they have a problem because there aren’t any women in it. Then I say “well I can slot some in, but actually it’s going to take more to shift that perspective”.
That’s why I like being there from the start, and I really enjoy the collaborative nature of the work and the genuine conversations, and sharing of ideas and skill. That doesn’t happen at an academic level. I do also think that it’s important to share the results of scholarly research with the broader public. I think that it’s important to recognise the difference between populism which tends to be blokey and a narrative that can be popular without resulting to those knee-jerk quick fixes. Certainly the response to the work I do suggests to me that there is an audience desire for rational narratives that are less populist but more evidence based.
SC: You say you’re a freelance, but professional historian, how does that work? And is it family friendly?
CW: I’m a professional historian in that I’m professionally accredited. I’m a member of something called the Professional Historians Association which you need to be professionally accredited to be a member of. I have been a freelance historian for the past four years in that I haven’t been in a salary position or had an ongoing employer. I guess if you don’t have an employer you’re a freelancer. The freelance work comes from consultancy work I’ve done for media outlets – that status will shift some time later this year because I’ve got another grant from the Australian Research Council which is for the Future Fellowship and it’s a four year full-time or eight year part-time research grant to do my next scholarly project, which is a ‘New History of Mining’ – so in that sense I will have an employer because it’s an ARC grant – it’s external funding but I will do it part-time so I can continue with my hands-on mothering as my kids are going into VCE now, and I can continue my other freelance work as well, and continue working on a few documentaries.
SC: Final question, which we enjoy the responses to – If you could name any women from history you would invite to a dinner party who would they be?
CW: I would like to have Vida Goldstein at my table. She is just completely my hero and I am constantly chipping away at little bits of research on her life and the more I find out about her the more I admire her. She is someone who is very hard to get a grip on how they were in their personal life because she never reveals it, everything that she did was political, her public persona, and possibly her private persona as well. She was such a goer over such a long period of time, and I think it just would be so fascinating to sit down and have a long conversation with her.
I’d love to meet Elizabeth Katy Stanton and ask her about how she managed to change the world and lead the American Women’s Suffrage movement with six kids – it was a very un-family friendly time. So Vida and Elizabeth are opposites in that. Vida never partnered, never had children. I would love to hang out with either of those women – maybe I was meant to be born in the 19th century.
SC: Clare Wright, thank you so much for your time and huge congrats for winning the Stella prize.
You can purchase Clare’s Stella Award Winning book ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ from Text Publishing. Her first book, ‘Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans’ is available for purchase from Random House Books. For more information, you can visit Clare Wright’s website at www.clarewright.com.au.
Dr Clare Wright holds a PhD in Australian Studies from the University of Melbourne and an MA in Public History from Monash University. From 2004-2009, she was an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellow at La Trobe University. She is an internationally recognised scholar in the fields of the social history of alcohol and women’s political activism. Her expertise in Australian History covers the gold rush period, 19th and 20th century women’s history, democracy movements, mining history, bushrangers and the liquor industry. www.clarewright.com.au