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Dymphna Clark Lecture: Clare Wright and You daughters of freedom

October 18, 2018

According to the University of Melbourne website, the Dymphna Clark Lecture “is delivered annually by a lecturer who exemplifies the deep commitment Dymphna Clark showed to Australia’s intellectual and cultural life.” Strangely, I can’t find a description of the lecture series on the Manning Clark House site which, I believe, is behind the lecture series. I can, however, find a list of the Manning Clark Lectures up to and including 2019 on their About Us page. Poor form I think, particularly given it was Dymphna, I understand, “who bequeathed the family home to the intellectual and cultural community with the wish that it be used to support artists and public intellectuals and provide a safe haven for the entire community.”

On Facebook I discovered that Drusilla Modjeska gave the 2016 lecture; on the above-linked University of Melbourne site that Anna Funder gave 2013’s; and on Virginia Haussegger’s site that David Headon was 2009. Drilling down to page 3 of my Google search, I found at honestyhistory that Bill Gammage was it for 2014 and on safecom that Eva Sallis was 2007. But, why can’t I easily find a list of all the Dymphna Clark lectures, as I can of the Manning Clark lectures? We could take exception to this, seeing it as, once again, sexism in action, but I’m inclined to think the reason is more mundane, and that it’s a sin of omission, not of commission. So, I now respectfully suggest that they create a new page for the two lecture series and maintain a list, with relevant links, of both series, because they are serious lectures. Clare Wright’s 2018 talk, for example, was being recorded for ABC RN’s Big Ideas program. But now, having made my point, I’ll move on to the lecture.

You daughters of freedom

Technological troubles

It was held in a lecture theatre at the ANU. Unfortunately, despite many people trying for over half an hour to get the technology working, the lecture went ahead without Wright’s accompanying slideshow. A real shame but, luckily, Wright is an excellent, engaging speaker, and easily kept our attention for the 50 minutes or so that she spoke. The lecture was, of course, inspired by Wright’s latest book, You daughters of freedom, the second in her Democracy Trilogy, she told us. Manning Clark House’s promotion for the lecture said the book:

brings to life a time when Australian democracy was the envy of the world—and the standard bearer for progress in a shining new century. For the ten years from 1902, when Australia’s feminist activists won the vote for white women, the world looked to this trailblazing young democracy for inspiration.

This epic new history 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 the artist Dora Meeson Coates, who painted the controversial Australian banner carried in the British feminist activist marches of 1908 and 1911.   

I’ve started reading the book, and while I’ve only read some 40 of its 500 or so pages, I’m finding it wonderfully readable.

Anyhow, now, really, the lecture! Wright was briefly introduced by Sebastian Clark, President of the Manning Clark House and son of Dymphna and Manning Clark, and then we were off. She started by describing that famous restaurant scene in When Harry met Sally – you all know the one – which concludes with the woman at the next table saying to the server, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Wright teased out some meanings and implications of that scene in terms of women’s freedom, the #metoo movement, and, of course, her lecture’s subject, the granting of the vote to women in Australia in 1902.

“In the noonday glare”

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomWhen Wright stated that this legislation made Australian women the most franchised women in the world, there were mutterings in the audience about, for example, New Zealand – and was followed up in the Q&A. But, I had already read Wright’s Author’s Note that opens her book, where she explains her claim. Australia was the first nation to give (white) adult women full suffrage – meaning not only could they vote on equal par with men (that is, without property qualifications, and with the same age and residency requirements) but they could also sit in parliament. New Zealand granted women the vote in 1893, but New Zealand was not a nation until 1947, and women could not sit in parliament until 1919. Finland was, in fact, the next nation to grant full suffrage to women – in 1906. I loved that she refers in this Note to something that we’d discovered on our US travels back in the 1990s, which was that women were granted the vote in Wyoming in 1869! But, Wyoming is a state, not a nation. Similarly the colony of South Australia enacted universal suffrage in 1895, including allowing women to stand for the colonial parliament, but again, it was not a nation. It was the fact that a nation had granted suffrage that apparently became a beacon for the world. Of course, proclaiming “firsts” is always risky, but Wright’s definition seems perfectly valid to me in terms of her book’s thesis.

Wright explained in her lecture that this same Act disenfranchised indigenous people. Some parliamentarians did apparently demur on this point, but those who demurred gave way to ensure that at least women got the rights. Consequently, race not gender became the dividing line. As Wright said, “white” Australia was very much the game from Federation, and, while later, some women started fighting for their “black sisters”, their first priority, after gaining suffrage for themselves, was to go to England to support the mother country’s sisters. Such were the times. Later in her lecture, Wright said that it may not be pleasing to know this about our “heroines” but it’s historically accurate!

I should confess at this point, that I’m not reporting on this lecture exactly in the order that Wright gave it but in an order suiting my main takings from it.

Anyhow, back to the granting of suffrage. Wright quoted American-born Australian suffragist Jessie Ackermann who said that this act of the new Australian nation put it/us “in the noonday glare.” Suffrage was, she said, the biggest news in the early years of the twentieth century and was simply known as “the Cause”. Australia’s actions made it/us a test site for universal suffrage and the other socially progressive laws Australia enacted in those days. Could it work? Everyone was watching – particularly of course men who feared loss of power. As Wright said near the end of the lecture:

Power never concedes anything without a fight.

Wright briefly introduced the five main women she features in her book, Vida Goldstein, Nellie Martel, Dora Montefiore, Muriel Matters, and Dora Meeson Coates, and characterised their approach to activism by giving them a canine archetype! Goldstein, the “born activist”, she described as a kelpie, for example, while Meeson Coates is a “reluctant activist” and a Weimaraner! (As past owners of Weimaraner, Mr Gums and I chuckled here.) Again, near the end of the lecture, Wright explained that she did this canine breakdown to show that these women were not all one type, and that difference is critical to the movement’s internal gatekeeping.

Wright also spoke about the challenge she faced in making suffrage, citizenship and federation exciting, particularly at this time when democracy is under attack. She quoted the recently reported Lowy Institute poll showing the surprising level of ambivalence in Australia about democracy. It’s hard to imagine in this environment, she said, that democracy and all that it involves was the hottest topic on the planet in the late 19th century. Why did Aussie women travel to England to fight for the rights for others?

Well, they were different times, of course, as Wright made clear. The turn of the century was a time of optimism. In Australia it was a trinity – new year, new nation, new century. People believed the past was being left behind; they had new Utopian visions. Women’s suffrage encapsulated all this – the ideas of rebellion, emancipation, restructuring society. Suffrage was seen as the key to unlocking repression. If women could vote, and if women could sit in parliament, women’s needs might be better cared for. As Jessie Ackermann said, the freest girls were in Australia.

The women’s suffrage banner

As she does in her book’s Introduction, Wright walked us through (our current) Parliament House to a narrow corridor past the Members’ Hall where, if you get there, you find a large banner. It was created by that Weimaraner Dora Meeson Coates in 1908 and was carried in the 1911 suffragette-organised Women’s Coronation Procession. Wright took us through its iconography/symbolism, through the implications of its depiction of Mother Britannia with Daughter Minerva. It shows, she said, the daughter Australia speaking to the mother England, the banner headline reading “Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done.” This was, she said, “allegorical effrontery.” Why had she not known about this banner, she wondered, given she calls herself a feminist historian?

Now, I could go on, but I’ve probably lost half of you by now and will soon lose the rest, so I’m going to try to become even briefer. Wright explained that one-third of her book is about how Australian women won the vote, and two-thirds about how Australian women inspired the world, In this context, she told a wonderful story about Bulldog Dora Montefiore, another Aussie woman who went to England, and her “Siege of Hammersmith”, a 6-weeks long passive resistance protest again paying taxes without representation. (She was, says Wright, seen by a young Indian man, Mahatma Gandhi!) A wonderful story. It was part of something called the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Wright also described the passive resistance campaigns against the 1911 Census: Women argued that if they don’t count, they shouldn’t be counted.

The irony of history

And so, Australian women were leaders in the suffrage movement and yet, today, British suffragettes are icons of rebellion and bravado but our Australian activists are relegated to the footnotes of academic history. BUT, she argued, Dora Meeson Coates’ banner challenges the view that this history of women’s activism is niche. The big picture is, she said, that Federation and Feminism went hand-in-glove: the banner is about colonialism, about old and new, the enfranchised and disenfranchised, about men in Australia who championed women’s suffrage and those in England who didn’t, and more …

Why then are women not sufficiently accounted for in Australian history? Because, she said, of the First World War. Federation’s optimism, she argues, was soon overshadowed by the War, which, as we all know now, precipitated a “new narrative.” So, whilst before the War, our role in the world was being seen in terms of our achievements in terms of democratic idealism, suddenly it was being seen in military terms. It was our bravery, our contribution to the war effort, that now defined us as a nation – and the rest, as they say, is history! (Particularly given, I’d add, that, as Jane Austen said one hundred years ago, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands.”) From Wright’s point of view, the War represented not the birth of a nation, but the death of the nation we were becoming. Something to think about, eh?

Clare WrightThere was still more, but even I’m running out of puff now. Wright concluded by talking about the importance of stories. The stories we choose to tell are the ones that define who (we think) we are. Why, for example, she asked, is there no statue in Melbourne memorialising that significant suffragist and social reformer, Vida Goldstein? Why, too, is Prime Minister Fisher remembered more for his statements about war (about our defending the mother country “to the last man, and the last shilling”) but not his argument about “true democracy” requiring the inclusion of “women as well as men in the electorate of the country”?

Wright said she’s wary of “learning lessons” from history, preferring to think about legacies. The legacy of the suffragists is that resistance, that grass-roots movements, can create real and lasting change. Her mantra, she said, is Dora Montefiore’s exhortion: #trustthewomen. And with that, her true colours, already advertised in the borrowed suffragette scarf she was wearing, were shown!

An intelligent Q&A lasting nearly half an hour followed, but eventually we had to finish. It was a wonderful lecture. I love that not only is Wright such an accessible, engaging historian, but that she linked the past to the present, because that is the main reason I like to read history. The past is interesting, but its true value lies in how it can enlighten the present.

And now, if you made it to the end – I thank and salute you!

Dymphna Clark Lecture
RN Robertson Theatre, ANU
17 October 2018

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Meg permalink
    October 19, 2018 5:53 am

    Hi Sue, sounds like it was a great and fascinating lecture. I must read the book. I might even buy it. I agree it is strange that the Manning Clark House site does not include their Dymphna Clark Lecture series, especially as she was a major contributor. Maybe after the read your blog, things will change.

    • October 19, 2018 8:02 am

      It’s a very readable book Meg. So well researched, evidenced, but her style is so involving. Worth buying because it’s well indexed so will be a great resource to go back to.

  2. October 19, 2018 10:25 am

    It took me a day, but here I am at the end and quite happy for you to go on if you wished it. I’ve bought the book but the daughter for whom it is intended hasn’t has her birthday yet and then I have to wait a decent interval before I claim it back. I’m glad you (and Wright) made the distinction that ‘universal’ suffrage only applied to white people (I don’t know that it applied to Chinese, but if that is so I don’t know when it changed). I would argue slightly with Wright about the effect of WWI, in that the Bulletin began a positive campaign to exclude women from images of Australianness in the 1890s and this was built on by Bean and Murdoch to create the legend of the brave Anzac – which politicians still use today to exclude alternative/feminine legends.

    • October 19, 2018 2:42 pm

      Thanks Bill. Perhaps Wright would say that the battle (hmmm, poor choice of words) was lost with the war? That maybe before that the other vision of Australia as progressive was in with a fighting chance? Bot I don’t know. You’ll have to attend a talk by her and ask her.

  3. October 19, 2018 11:14 am

    Well, I loved the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed Wright talking about it when I went to hear her in Melbourne just after it was launched. She is a very engaging speaker, and just what we need to give this story the prominence it deserves.
    In the book, Bill, it says that the post federation franchise bill specifically excluded Asians and Aborigines, but not Maoris. I asked Clare why this was because it seems puzzling and she said that she thought it was because they hadn’t given up hope of persuading New Zealand to join the federation and they didn’t want to do anything to make it difficult.
    (As indeed the suffrage granted to women in South Australia and Western Australia had made it difficult. It was because they had the vote and SA threatened to walk out on federation if their women were going to be disenfranchised, that the old misogynists caved in and granted suffrage to all (white) women on the same terms as the men.

    • October 19, 2018 2:44 pm

      Thanks Lisa, particularly for the clarification re Asians. I’m really enjoying the book but it will take me a while to finish as I don’t want to rush through it.

      • October 19, 2018 5:39 pm

        And it’s a big book!

        • October 19, 2018 9:31 pm

          It is, Lisa, you’re right … I think she says in her acknowledgements at the end, which I have read, that she likes big books, and thanks Text for supporting such books!

  4. Nawnim permalink
    October 19, 2018 12:57 pm

    A wonderful post. I would love to have gone to that lecture but these days I stay away from public lectures because my hearing has gone. I read her book about the female publicans and it was so enlightening. She is an amazing communicator and without simplifying her subject she still gets her message across to simpletons like me with her lucid and fresh approach. I will definitely be reading this book.

    I also love that she wore that scarf. I want one of those for Christmas. 🙂

    • October 19, 2018 4:25 pm

      That’s a shame Nawnim. Her book on hostelries was mentioned, but I’ve only read her one on Eureka which was such a great read.

  5. October 19, 2018 8:35 pm

    Fascinating post. I was previously vaguely familiar with the history of women’s suffering in Australia, but I emphasize the vaugness of my knowledge. I had basically read a few sentences in books referring to the fact Australia jumped ahead of the rest of the world with this legislation. I need to delve into Australian history on a deeper level. Women’s equality is one of the great drivers of human progress. Obviously Australia played an important part in this. Wright’s book sounds well worth the read.

    • October 19, 2018 9:48 pm

      Well, Brian, you are excused for only being vaguely familiar – like I am with the details of the American Revolution, say!

      At the talk, there was some discussion about worldwide action but the focus was Australia and then England. In the book, though, she refers to Americans like Susan B Anthony.

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