Women In Focus
Prof Clare Wright OAM
Professor Clare Wright is an award-winning historian, author, broadcaster and public commentator who has worked in politics, academia and the media.
Author of four history titles, including the award winning The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka and most recent, the best selling You Daughters of Freedom, as well as television history documentaries Utopia Girls and The War That Changed Us, Clare has been bringing a voice back to the other great Australian silence – the recognition and importance of the role women played in shaping our history. In most parts, all too well forgotten, and sadly, most gone unwritten.
Clare is a freedom fighter for our daughters, past, present and future. Whilst men seemed to be the accomplishers and women were only seen in the background, Clare has made it her life’s work to uncover the stories of women gone by to pave the way for the women of today and tomorrow. (Though Clare says she doesn’t write ‘women’s history’, she writes Australian political history with the women put back in.)
From her latest grassroots project to build statues of women in Australia to what truly sparks her curiosity, Clare talks about her biggest moments, her hardest days and what sustains her during these trying times.
Over to you Clare…
What has been the game changing moment in your work/life?
The game-changing moment in my life nearly didn’t happen. The game-changing moment in my work was just as fluky. Life: I was diagnosed as infertile at 26, after 18 months of trying to get pregnant, fertility treatments (for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), the works. It was a massive blow to my husband and I; we’d been together since 19 and were totally looking forward to having a family. Since I was guaranteed that I wouldn’t have children, I got a scholarship and started a PhD – a BIG project to take my mind off my grief and self-loathing. Three months into my candidature I got pregnant with the first of my three children (now 23, 21 and 15). Becoming a mother changed my life. I have no idea what my life would have looked or turned out like without those kids, but it wouldn’t be this. Work game-changer was winning the Stella Prize for my second book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. Awards are a crap shoot and somehow the dice rolled in my favour. Unlike becoming a mum, this gift was all about the external affirmation. Suddenly I had the sort of attention and authority and prestige that being an early career academic doesn’t get you. I became visible and people wanted to know what I had to say. Which is lucky, because my kids don’t. They couldn’t care less what I think; they just want to know what’s for dinner (code for give me love and security). Both work for me.
What keeps you curious? What are you curious about right now?
Curiosity is what lead Pandora into a world of trouble – or brought trouble down upon the world, according to the misogynist myth — but curiosity is my best friend. It guides pretty much everything I do, and as I’ve gotten older I have learned to trust my instincts. Curiosity is kind of like scent to dogs. I follow my nose. I tend to ask people questions that lead them to tears; I sense the desire to open up, or confess, or explain themselves. People do a lot of crying at my kitchen bench. And I’ve made a career out of being intellectually curious. Writing history is all about the questions you ask, the desire to know something that is not immediately apparent. It’s about wondering ‘what happened?’ and then making a critical enquiry from that simple point of departure. Searching for clues. Coming up against dead ends. Finding another route. Getting to something like a conclusion but realising that you now have more questions that you started with. That methodology suits my disposition: inquisitive, meandering, possibly meddlesome. Basically, I’m just a sticky beak who gets paid to poke around in dead people’s business.
We are always so keen to start new projects. Sometimes the goal isn’t to start something, but it is to end something. What have you started but most importantly, ended?
If the goal is to start something, then boy am I kicking goals! I am both an ‘ideas person’ and a yes-sayer, so I have no shortage of stimulating, challenging, time- and energy-consuming projects on the go at once. FINISHING a project is often not a matter of ‘closure’ in terms of tying everything off with a nice red ribbon because there’s nothing left to do — JOB DONE — but rather a matter of prioritising which projects are most urgent and which ones can sit on the back burner for a while. If you are ambitious and idealistic and perfectionist by nature (who me?) there’s always more that can be achieved, more boundaries to push. I find this is the case even with, say, a book I have written. Technically, once the book is published and on the shelf in bookstores, the project has come to an end. You can’t write more words. Expand an idea. Float a new theory. Add some late-to-the-table research. But you can, and I do, talk endlessly about the subjects of my books: the social history of alcohol, the gold rush, the suffrage movement, women’s activism and entrepreneurialism, democracy. I find it hard to turn down an invitation to speak, as every audience is a new set of ears coming to your story – and because my story is the history of this country, generally told from a perspective they’ve not heard before, I want people to know what really happened. I guess it’s like proselytising the past: fishing for souls. Having said that, I am a great one for writing upcoming events and deadlines on a whiteboard and CROSSING THEM OFF. I love the satisfaction of getting to the end of a board that has been wholly crossed off. Then it’s time to wipe the slate clean and start listing again!
What specifically in your work makes your heart beat a little faster?
There is a famous longitudinal study started by psychologists in the 1960s about temperament. Essentially the researchers found that some babies are hyper alert/anxious and some are super chill. Most fall somewhere in the middle. The blissed-out babies are the ones that became risk-taking adults who sought out situations of adrenalin in their work and leisure. Criminal prosecutors and sky divers. The overwrought babies chose careers and pursuits that were more in their control: academia and Scrabble. I’m one of those. I’m not shy or timid, but I don’t seek heart-racing thrills and spills. I’ve been asked whether I’d ever go into politics and my answer is a hard no. I’d love to work as a political speechwriter (especially for the next female Labor Prime Minister – I’m looking at you Penny Wong!) but I have no desire to be at the coalface. That said, I try to work at the interface between academia and activism. I want to engage broad audiences and make incursions into public policy and debate. I’m currently co-convening a grass roots campaign to build more statues of women in Australia (right now there are more statues of animals than real women!) When I see that first statue unveiled, I guarantee my heart will be bursting out of my chest.
Are women too defined by their roles, whether at home or work? Do we need to distinguish between our jobs and our body of work to redefine ourselves?
The patriarchy loves binaries: nature/culture, manual/mental, mind/body, public/private, work/home, human/animal, pure/unclean, man/woman and on and on it goes. Such dualisms are also falsely constructed as opposites – and hierarchical ones at that. To be on one side of the divide means that you can’t possible exist on the other. To cross boundaries is to transgress. And the binaries are interleaved, so that woman equals body equals animal equals unclean equals nature. All of which is to say, too often we are all defined by which side of the binary we most readily fall. What women need to do is not buy in to the enlightenment patriarchal logic. Interestingly, Covid-19 has meant that many of us have been working from our homes. All the lines of demarcations have blurred. There is no more public and private and all the concomitant value systems and self-definitions. This can be liberating if we’re prepared to embrace the radical possibilities of living a life without fixed and immutable borders, if we reject the schism that divides us from each other and from our complicated, messy, authentic selves.
Where do we go from here? What sustains you in these troubled times?
What sustains me is boundless gratitude – and walking. I have always loved walking but rarely found the time for more than a few laps of the oval with the dogs after work. Since Covid-times – and I am in Melbourne, so that means pretty much wall-to-wall lockdown for seven months now — I have walked at least 10kms a day. I walk fast and without any audio stimulus. No podcasts or music. I like to just let my thoughts roll around in my head. Sometimes they are a tangle. Sometimes the perfect start to a piece of writing comes to me, when I wasn’t even thinking about writing anything. Sometimes I just sing to myself. I love the forward momentum and they rhythm of my body as motion takes over reason. I have two cattle dogs, so I never feel vulnerable or in danger down on the Merri Creek trails. Pre-Covid, I used to swim laps twice a week. I miss turning my shoulders over, and the weightlessness of water, but I think I’ve become addicted to walking. I’ve decided that whatever the problem, walking is the answer.
Images © Susan Papazian