Ever noticed that documented history is, for the most part, very much his? Historian and author Clare Wright sure did, so made it her business to uncover the stories of women gone by. Winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her resulting book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, the historian and author chats to us about uncovering long-lost treasure.
Where did your appreciation for strong women come from?
I suspect my appreciation for strong women came from the fact that although I came from a long line of them, I never felt like I was one! I have always been very compliant and anxious to please others but I’ve been fascinated by women in history who have stood against the tide of their era’s expectations and limitations; women who have been fighters, not lovers. That said, my grandmother told me to be true to myself, and I have used that as a moral yardstick to pursue the work I wanted to do and make the life I wanted to make.
Despite studying law, you chose to follow your heart into history. How did it feel to veer from your initial path onto one that didn’t have a clear-cut job at the end?
I was lucky. I had parents who encouraged me to do whatever I needed to do to be happy. They didn’t put pressure on me to be a lawyer, even though that’s where the status and the bucks were. So although I had no idea where a BA, an MA and a PhD in History might ‘get me’, I was content to enjoy the journey without heed for the destination. I still feel lucky to have had a successful career as an historian. Anyone who gets paid to do what they love is lucky.
Was there a particular project or moment that triggered your search for women in history?
When I wrote my honours thesis, I was curious to explore the situation that I found myself in at my boyfriend (now husband’s) suburban footy club every Saturday night. I was interested in the way that the consumption of alcohol divided the room along gender lines; that even though I was a modern woman, I ended up sipping girly drinks with the other WAGs on one side of the club rooms, while the blokes drank beer at the bar. But as a history major, not an anthropologist, I wanted to investigate how women had historically related to their exclusion from the classic Aussie drinking place: the pub. My ‘Eureka moment’ came while doing oral history, interviewing women who had run or worked in or grown up in pubs from the 1920s – 1970s. They didn’t tell me a story of segregation or lack or frustration but rather a story of community and empowerment and belonging. The real history turned my assumptions on their head.
Why do you think women were largely left out of historical accounts in the first place?
It’s part ideology — the notion that only men ‘make history’ i.e.: do things of public and political importance that drive change and development, especially nation-building — and part unconscious gender bias/blindness i.e.: actually just not even seeing that women are there, even if they are right under your nose. I discovered that a woman had been killed at the Eureka Stockade in a diary passage written by a witness to the woman’s funeral. Most Eureka historians had read that diary before me, and couldn’t fail to read that passage. But somehow the words telling of her death at the hands of a British government soldiers did not register. Other historians must have considered that detail as either insignificant or irrelevant to the story. Either way, that woman’s life, and death, was left out of history.
What’s next? Are you writing women into another historical period or event?
My next big research project is a new history of mining in Australia. It’s huge and scary! Yes, I’ll be writing women into what has largely been a masculine narrative of initiative, entrepreneurialism and progress, but I’m also writing in other groups that have been traditionally excluded from the national story: indigenous people, environmentalists, migrant workers, unions. In many ways, the story of mining is the story of Australia, and yet that story is so much more complex than that very jingoistic slogan would suggest. Who is ‘us’ in the story of us?
100 years from now, what do you hope is remembered from our current time?
I sincerely hope that both violence against women , racism and climate change denialism are seen as relics of an archaic age, when sexism, bigotry and greed ruled supreme at the expense of human rights and the future of our planet. We look back now on the era when women were denied the vote and think of it as almost quaint, and certainly stupid, that such mores should ever have existed. Yet that era was just over a hundred years ago. But nothing will change without a fight. Women fought for decades to get the right to vote, to have equal citizenship rights with men. If we want things to change in the future, we have to fight now.