Monday musings on Australian literature: Reflections of a 1970s feminist

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist, but Bill suggested that, for his AWW Gen 4 week, I “could ‘review’ The female eunuch by discussing your experience of Women’s Lib at uni”.

I replied that I could probably do “Reflections of a 1970s feminist” but that it wouldn’t be exactly what he was thinking. The thing is, I chose to go to a new, progressive university (Macquarie) though many of my peers from school preferred the “name” one (Sydney). I’m sure things weren’t perfect at Macquarie, but in my experience women were treated well, there. It had no baggage of “traditions” that the older male-dominated universities had, and its academics seemed invested in creating something new. I think that made a difference.

Macquarie’s motto is Chaucer’s “and gladly teche” (from the lines “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”). I always thought it a bit strange that the motto focused on “teaching” more than “learning” but now I think it’s inspired, because it reminds the academics that “teaching” is where it all starts. All this is to say that, although I read The female eunuch during this time and was strongly affected by it personally, I wasn’t aware of an active feminist presence on my campus. However, there are things I could say about growing up from the 50s to 70s and why Greer made such an impact on me. 

A baby-boomer childhood

My father, like many men of his between-the-wars generation, wanted a son, but his first two children were daughters, me first, then my sister. A son came along, but a few years later. I never felt unloved or unwanted – indeed, I was very much loved – but we grew up, in the main, in a traditional role-oriented household. We had an intellectually frustrated but devoted stay-at-home mum and breadwinning father. Household tasks were largely gendered, with Mum looking after inside, and Dad outside – and we children followed suit. That’s how it mostly was back then, so it didn’t seem particularly strange.

Conversely, it also didn’t seem strange that my sister and I were encouraged in our education, that it was assumed that we’d go to university and on to work, and that marriage and children were sort of assumed some time down the track but were never focused on. Consequently, while my sister and I were expected to help with “women’s work” like washing and drying dishes after meals, it was only on weekends and holidays. Schoolwork came first.

They were schizophrenic times, then, and jokes were often gendered. One, I particularly remember, concerned junk car yards, which were called, by the menfolk as we drove past, “ladies’ driving school”. Yet, my Mum drove and we were encouraged to get our licences. It didn’t make sense. Was it a “little” attempt by men to retain their superiority as we encroached on their domain?

Feminism to the fore

As the 60s moved into the 70s, however, Women’s Liberation, as we called the second wave of feminism, came to popular attention. I read The female eunuch within a year or so of its publication, in my first year of university. It bowled me over, giving structure and a theoretical underpinning for how my thoughts were developing. It was both easy and not easy being a young woman then. The free-love hippy movement of the 60s gave women increasing freedom to be themselves in dress and behaviour – but old habits die hard and the pressure to conform to ideals of beauty ran alongside. Moreover, as Kate Jennings made clear in her famous Front Lawn speech in 1970, the appearance of increasing freedom for women was not matched by the reality. The recent documentary Brazen hussies documents these times very well. I was forging my own path through this, eschewing the trappings of “beauty” and dressing naturally, comfortably, sans make-up, hair colour, high heels, and so on.

Again, my family supported me. No comments were made – to my face anyhow! – but the women’s movement did not pass unnoticed. Another little anecdote, I remember, concerns my paternal grandparents, born in 1889 and 1893. They were kind, generous people, but Grandpa wasn’t averse to little digs at “women’s libbers”, including a time when Gran surprised him by suggesting she occupy the front seat of the car when my Dad was driving them home after a visit. Gran got the seat, and their marriage continued its loving way. Gran was great fun, and did her best to keep up with the times.

Moving along into the 1980s and 90s, I did marry and have children, and I chose – it was a choice – to work part-time at a time when part-time work was not well-supported in the Australian (then Commonwealth) Public Service. My good friend and work colleague had a child at the same time, so we proposed that we job-share. That was quite a saga, one too long to fully tell here. We were supported by our immediate boss, a woman a few years older than we were, and, generally, by the rest of the senior management, but we did face opposition from a few, including the female head of HR. With no regulations in place at the time for administering permanent part-time work, we needed the support of HR to make it work on paper (which included applying for leave-without-pay every week for the hours we weren’t working). We got there, eventually, but it was disappointing to find the greatest opposition coming from (some) women.

Through all of this and other feminist challenges along the way, Germanine Greer’s arguments – and those of the writers I was reading in Ms magazine, edited for a while by Australia’s Anne Summers* – underpinned my confidence that my choices and ideas were valid.

Reading women writers

It was around this time – that is, in the 1980s – that I started prioritising women writers in my reading, a priority I have maintained ever since. Virago Press was one of the inspirations for this, and I regularly scanned bookshop shelves, looking for the identifying green spine. There were other women-focused presses around, but Virago editions, in particular, inspired many of us, as we realised just how many great women writers had been forgotten. This is when I fell in love with Elizabeth von Arnim, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston and E.H. Young, to name a few.

Book cover

However, this is Monday Musings on Australian literature, so I thought I’d close on the Australian novelists who inspired me at the time. But first, back to my Mum. I grew up with reading parents, and my Mum had on her shelves – besides Jane Austen and other favourite classics – Henry Handel Richardon’s Australia Felix trilogy, Eleanor Dark’s The timeless land, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built, Eve Langley’s The pea pickers, and Thea Astley’s first novels.

So, when women’s writing started to really take off again in the 1980s I was attuned – and started reading, in that decade, novels by Thea Astley, Jessica Anderson, Elizabeth Jolley, and Olga Masters, to name a few. These writers, their contemporaries and those who followed them, including now, First Nations women writers, have added immeasurably to my understanding of myself as a woman and a person. They have helped me be comfortable in my shoes, but have also shown me where things need to change, personally and politically. I would not be who I am today without them.

A fundamental feminist principle – obvious to those who understand, but not to those who, for their own reasons, wish to remain obtuse – is that feminism is not about the sexes being the same but about all people being equal in terms of rights and respect. Germaine Greer puts it a different way in her Preface to the 21st Anniversary Paladin edition of The female eunuch. She says it’s about freedom, “the freedom to be a person, with the dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood”, freedom from fear and hunger, freedom of speech and belief. As she says in this 1991 edition – and unfortunately it’s still true – things have changed, but not enough. It’s therefore wonderful seeing a new generation of feminists picking up the baton. They don’t always get it right, anymore than previous generations did, but womanhood – and personhood – is, I believe, in good hands.

* Anne Summers, of course, wrote another now-classic Australian feminist work, Damned whores and God’s police (Lisa’s post)

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein

Garner and Krasnostein on stage

Krasnostein (L) and Garner (R), & Auslan interpreter

To say I was thrilled when Son Gums’ partner offered to buy tickets for us to see Helen Garner in conversation (last Saturday) would be an understatement. I have never seen Garner live before so that would be one bucket-list item ticked had I a bucket list! The fact that the conversation was to be conducted by Sarah Krasnostein (author of The trauma cleaner) was the icing on the proverbial cake.

This conversation was, in fact, the opening event of the Wheeler Centre’s inaugural Broadside Festival, promoted as “two days of an unapologetically feminist agenda”.

The Festival was opened by the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau, who referenced Barack Obama’s recent statement that “tweeting and hashtagging isn’t activism”. Festival Director Tam Zimet then started proceedings, explaining that the Festival’s purpose was “to bring conversations that are too hard or too much to Melbourne Town Hall”. She quoted Zadie Smith who was also in Melbourne for at the Festival, and who described writing as “taking the temperature of the moment”. This, of course, beautifully describes Helen Garner’s writing.

The Conversation

The conversation centred around the recent release of Garner’s Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987, so the conversation began by discussing both diary writing and the process of preparing them for publication. Krasnostein, who asked rather long but always thoughtful questions, talked about the role and function of diaries, suggesting they exist for their own sake but are also works in themselves. Garner’s diaries, she said, contain harvested and preserved details from the world, but also show Garner’s “fearless self-scrutiny”, plus “the things one can think but not say”. Garner said that she has always loved notebooks and pens, and how as a child she loved the peace and solitude she got from writing her diaries.

Several times through the conversation, Garner described her diary-writing as being partly about practising writing. She writes everyday, agreeing that you can’t wait “for ideal conditions”. For her, it’s all about “mother discipline”, by which she meant using the time given to you. She also commented on how much work you do when you are asleep, and referred to lessons from Marion Milner’s book, An experiment in leisure which taught her to sit quietly, with a sense of “nothingness”, to let ideas sort themselves out. This is not the same as waiting for inspiration, though. Garner, being her plainspoken self, said that “inspiration is bullshit”. Instead, “you do things little by little”. Writing, said Krasnostein a little later, is not the hard part. It’s getting to the desk.

Later in the conversation, we returned to diary-writing as stacking up the practice hours. Garner said she knows “how to put a sentence together”. (If you love Garner, like I do, you love her sentences.) But, said Garner, writers also need to know grammar. Without it, you can’t criticise your own work. The lack of grammar teaching is a “terrible loss”. Writers also need to read a lot to see how other writers do it. She bemoaned the fact that some books look like no editor has been near them. You see their “life-force leaking out of every joint”.

Krasnostein quoted Joan Didion’s statement that “style is character”, which somehow led to Virginia Woolf’s statement that you tell the truth about yourself first before you can do so about others. Krasnostein wondered whether being clear-eyed about yourself – one of Garner’s strengths, for me – was training for how to write in public. Garner took this to suggest that being honest about yourself gave you permission to write about others, but she didn’t think that would “stand up in court”! Garner suggested that memoirs can sometimes play fast and loose with other people!

Around here, Krasnostein asked whether revisiting earlier diaries – for any of us I think – shows that we are unreliable narrators of ourselves! Garner essentially agreed, saying that “memory is a creative act”. Reading one’s own diary “can be bracing” because it shows how over time you change stories, often showing yourself in a better light. There’s no way out of this, Garner believes, you just do the best you can. “Everything is fleeting, fleeting, fleeting”, she said. Writers write down stuff because they are terrified of forgetting. (I know the feeling!) “Writers are afraid of losing things”. This returned us to an idea that recurred through the conversation, that of writers preserving. Krasnostein quoted Philip Larkin’s statement that “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art”.

Of course, the process of making private diaries public was also discussed. Garner said she cut a lot. Her challenge was to decide what others might find interesting. She established certain criteria, such as she would not rewrite, and would only change (or add) something if it would otherwise be meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voice over, unlike a memoir”, meaning that you can’t say “I did that then, but no way would I do that now, because now I’m a nicer person”. Accepting herself as she was at the time of her writing brought her to understand that she wasn’t unique, which made her feel more “comradely” with others. “We all hurt and are hurt,” she said. Krasnostein offered the idea that “the more vulnerable you are, the more you connect” to which Garner replied that this is what she hopes!

Another point Garner made was that tone is important, that “tone is character”, to which she then gave a feminist twist by saying that women have felt they’ve had to tone themselves down. She writes short books, she said, because she feels she has only a limited amount of reader’s attention.

I loved Krasnostein’s summation of the diaries as offering a new expansive view of Garner, but retaining her familiar voice, her “forensic eye for detail”, and her “lean lyricism”. I can’t wait to read my copy.

Q&A

There were several questions, but I’ll just share a couple:

  • on her daily writing practice: She rents an office, which stops her getting caught up housework! (In other words, she has “a room of her own”!) I particularly liked her point that she makes her notes about the details, say, of the court cases she attends, but, separately, she also documents her engagement with what she’s seen/heard, what she thought and felt. This material is “brightly alive … a treasure trove of information”. It doesn’t fit into the other boxes but it’s the richest when she comes to write. This is what I think is often missing from my reports of literary events. I need to do more of it.
  • on whether her views on Feminism had changed since the me-too movement: Not really seemed to be the answer. Garner, like many of us I believe, simply knows that when she discovered Feminism it changed her life: “It was like I’d been underwater and I finally put my head up and took a breath.” The me-too movement, like most movements, has been mixed, but “these things keep developing”.

Kate (booksaremyfavoaiteandbest) also wrote this up – including Garner’s comment about age freeing her to talk to random people on trams.

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein
Broadside Festival 2019
Melbourne Town Hall
9 November 2019

Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 1)

Pic of farm at Williamsdale

A day in the country at Williamsdale

As in 2018, selected Sydney Writers Festival events were live-streamed this year to 35 sites, including Canberra’s National Library of Australia (#SWFLiveAndLocal). I had planned to attend most of Saturday’s events, but then our annual day-trip to our friends’ place in the country came up, and that’s unmissable, so I only attended the last event of the day.

This year’s theme is Lie to Me, which means participants “will discuss the white lies and deceptions that are necessary for survival, as well as malicious lies that are spun with darker intent. They’ll explore the ways that writing can be used to deceive others in an increasingly post-truth world, and look at the lies that we tell ourselves, each other, and those we collectively tell as a country.” A perfect theme, don’t you think?

Boys to Men: The masculinity crisis, Saturday 4 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Clementine Ford, Adam Liaw, Janice Petersen (Convenor)

Book cover of Clementine Ford's Boys will be boysClementine Ford is the feminist author of Fight like a girl, and, more recently, Boys will be boys. An obvious choice, then, for the panel.

Adam Liaw is a lawyer who came to fame as a winner of Australia’s Masterchef. The festival program describes him this way: “As the author of six cookbooks and host of the award-winning SBS television series Destination Flavour, his approachable and family-friendly recipes are influenced by his global travels, but remain focussed on the casual simplicity of contemporary Australian home cooking. In 2016 the Japanese government appointed Adam as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.” Not such an obvious choice, eh? However, he has been appearing recently on some ABC-TV current affairs programs and has impressed us with his sensible, thoughtful, comments. He didn’t disappoint in this panel.

Janice Petersen, the convenor, is an SBS journalist and news presenter.

Firstly, although the panelists didn’t say this specifically, the topic was a natural for the Lie-to-me theme, since so much of gender is constructed on lies – on assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about what makes a man or a woman. This session focused on these, and how they impact, particularly, contemporary ideas about masculinity. Convenor Petersen did an excellent job, asking such questions as:

  • Why is masculinity in crisis?
  • Why does the mentioning word “masculinity” seem “to set off a bomb”, engendering negative responses?
  • What does it mean to have a son (as both panelists do) and do the panellists fear the influence of peers?
  • Are men and women different?

Clementine Ford spoke, naturally, from a feminist perspective. She argued that masculinity is in crisis, defining toxic masculinity as men being unable to have platonic relationships with each other, being unable to express their feelings. She argued that boys bond over negative attitudes to women because they can’t relate to each over other things. Men, she said, are hostile to discussions about feminism because they don’t see that it works for all, that its aims are to free all people to be themselves. The problem is that although many men hate much about their lives, they don’t want to “see what patriarchy inflicts on them” (at work, say) because they fear losing the benefits of being “men” (such as being the boss at home!)

However, Ford also said that she doesn’t see “masculinity” as negative. She is invested in “healthy masculinity” and has faith in men, but sees the issue being masculinity and power propping each other up.

Adam Liaw spoke, he said, from a non-scholarly perspective, but I must say that I really liked the way he thought. He talked about how every society defines its own understanding of masculinity, and that in our society today, we don’t have a clear idea of what that is. He sees this lack of clarity as a structural problem, one that creates a high level of insecurity in many men. He talked about various male “role models”, like James Bond and Batman. James Bond doesn’t have close friends which is something men can relate to, while Batman is rife with problems, which men can also relate to. Modern men, on the other hand, can’t relate to Superman as they once did. In other words, men are now defined more by their insecurities than by positive ideas or values.

Liaw returned repeatedly to this insecurity issue, and it made sense. When Petersen asked whether men and women are different, Ford was initially a little flummoxed and referred to Liaw, who without hesitation said yes we are different. We are, for a start, physically different, but, he said, we should not weaponise gender. Our biological differences don’t, for example, translate into meaning that men are better CEOs than women. Liaw’s most important point was, for me, that the issue is not things like men spending more time with children – which men have always liked to do – it’s about overcoming their insecurity, meaning, for example, being comfortable with their partners earning more money than they.

I found the conversation about raising children interesting. Ford expressed a more ideological approach, one I related to because of my own child-rearing days. Indeed, it was hard not to feel a bit of “been there, done that”, since we second-wave feminists had tried exactly what she was talking about. In fact, when I look around at our sons, I think we did a pretty good job! They aren’t the men evincing the toxic masculinity that was being discussed, which begs the question in my mind about whether a few enlightened parents raising their children to be free (free to be … you and me, and all that) will effect the change we need.

Both Ford and Liaw, albeit they expressed it slightly differently, eschewed imposing gender expectations on their children – on what they wear, play with, etc. Liaw spoke of wanting his son to be a “good person”, a “good man”. He is not in favour of forcing “reverse” gender activities on children, but on encouraging all children to be able to do all things. (This was in response to a clip Petersen showed from an SBS Dateline film of an Icelandic school.)

Ford spoke of structural oppression (much as Liaw had earlier referred to structural problems). This results in such things as her being trolled if she speaks of boys doing anything “feminine”, like pushing a doll in a pram. It’s seen as her forcing a boy to be a girl, rather than as letting him explore life. We need to “dismantle gender” but Australians, she feels, can’t get their heads away from narrow definitions of what “men” and “women” are. Worse, they don’t actively condemn men for treating women badly. Much trolling comes from packs of teenage boys. (This reminded me of a recent interview I heard with a female Uber driver who said that one drunk young man was manageable, but in a pack they can become abusive to women, showing off in front of their mates.) Toxic masculinity!

If Liaw’s most important point, for me, was about overcoming male insecurity, Ford’s concerned the malleability of humans. If we have learnt, she said, not to smoke, and not to drink and drive, we can also learn not to be racist or sexist, but these latter mean giving up power – and we resist that.

The session ended with a brief Q&A, from which I’ll just share the last question. It concerned overcoming the sense of entitlement (which I understood as encompassing more than male entitlement.) Liaw said it starts with understanding our own weaknesses and biases, while Ford said it’s about listening to others, and checking our responses to what they say. Which is to say, I suppose, that we need to look past the lies we so easily tell ourselves in order to forge more truthful relationships with each other!

PostscriptJonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!) has reported on some Friday sessions, which you may like to check out.