Speaking as the keynote at the 2017 Veuve Clicquot New Generation Awards yesterday (whereby Jess Hatzis and Bree Johnson of beauty brand Frank Body and content design agency Willow & Blake took the prize), Rachel Griffiths talked of the female trailblazers that inspired her to live loudly, to challenge and achieve, to become the storyteller she is today.
The Australian actress with the colourful CV, featuring Muriel’s Wedding, Six Feet Under, and Brothers and Sisters, was aglow with praise for the audacity and fearlessness of women in business, particularly those nominated for the occasion’s award. “I think there’s a certain tipping point as one approaches middle age where, although your heroes are still ahead of you, we take inspiration and energy from the new generation,” she said.
I tell [my girls] with confidence that there’s never been a greater moment, certainly in Western history, to be born a girl. You have more access to power, more opportunities to self-actualise, and more mentors who want to see you arrive.
Growing up, Rachel’s greatest dream was not to become an actor, but “to not be a tennis mum,” she jokes. “I wanted to become a person of substance, to be independent and to make a difference.” Today’s political climate has had her low in spirits recently, but she’s adamant this is an important time for women in Western history.
“I have to confess I have been quite depressed since Clinton lost the election to a misogynist and a xenophobe,” she says. “I’m trying to positively frame this moment for my girls who are American citizens. And I tell them with confidence that there’s never been a greater moment, certainly in Western history, to be born a girl. You have more access to power, more opportunities to self-actualise, and more mentors who want to see you arrive.”
“Perhaps the most critical for our economic power and visibility, is the number of women starting businesses.”
In her research of Madame Clicquot, Rachel happened on a letter dated 1814, written to her trusty second-in-charge, just as the Napoleonic wars were coming to an end. It read, “Do you remember last year how distressed I felt? Business was dull and I was hopeless. When the Russians crossed the Rhine, my grief couldn’t have been deeper. But, still, after all these mishaps, I’m doing fair business and hopefully we will keep doing well.” If Madame Clicquot could keep her chin up while the Russians ran amok, Rachel conceded she was certainly going to try.
She also pointed to female entrepreneurs as forging a vital path for womankind. “Perhaps the most critical for our economic power and visibility, is the number of women starting businesses, and the number of women growing their businesses into substantial enterprises, innovating products, disrupting and creating markets and building communities within those markets that advance our collective power.”
A flurry of heroes
For Rachel growing up, stories of inspiring women were sparse. “For my grade 5 confirmation project, I chose the life of Mary Magdalene as my inspiring woman. A choice between the stay-at-home virgin mother – who I knew was not feasible for me – or the working woman, perhaps the first female entrepreneur,” she said to an audience of roaring laughter.
“So I pored over the school library little Ladybird collection of great lives and found Madame Curie, Helen Keller and Florence Nightingale; I read them over and over again. I couldn’t see many truly inspiring women in my role models. Not women whose lives said, ‘yes, you can.’
“I discovered, at 13, Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel. Vivian Bullwinkel was my first Australian super girl; she was the sole survivor of the  Banka Island massacre, she survived three years in captivity under the Japanese, and gave evidence at the war crimes trials in Tokyo – Viv was a bad arse,” she mused. “In politics, I discovered Vida Goldstein and the early suffragettes. Finding these women, it was like a treasure hunt and I took each one, and I made her a torch,” she said.