Q&A with award-winning historian Clare Wright

Q&A with award-winning historian Clare Wright

La Trobe historian Clare Wright recently received the Alice Literary Award for ‘distinguished and long-term contribution to literature by an Australian woman’.

Author of the acclaimed The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka and Beyond the Ladies Lounge, Wright spoke with us about her illustrious career, tips for succeeding in postgrad and the importance of acknowledging women’s role in Australian history.

Beyond the Ladies Lounge challenges the myth that the Australian pub is and has always been a male domain. The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka re-writes women back into that pivotal event in Australia history. What motivates you to explore and reveal the role of women in Australian history?

I began looking at the role of women in Australian history during my Honours year, back in 1991, when I was looking at female pub culture.

At the time, I was really interested in the way alcohol tended to divide the room along gender lines. Women would drink in one section and men would drink somewhere else, until the end of the evening when they would come together and generally women had drunk less so would drive the men home.

When I was travelling around Australia interviewing women who’d been running pubs, drinking in pubs and working in pubs as part of my Honours thesis, I felt that there was something more in this, something bigger than an Honours thesis. So, when I did my PhD, I decided to go back and pursue that area but this time look at women as publicans. That became my first book: Beyond the Ladies Lounge.

To answer your question, I never specifically set out to write women’s history. I never sort of said: I’m going to be a feminist scholar. I’ve always just written about what interests me most.

What interests me is women’s experiences, women’s perspectives and increasingly how these perspectives and experiences have been written out of history, and that led to my second book: The Women of Eureka.

It’s interesting to hear you say you were following your personal interests rather than, say, deliberately setting out to do this quite feminist act.

Well, it is a feminist act to ask those questions. I am a feminist therefore I commit feminist acts. I’m not going to undermine the political importance of what I do. The Forgotten Rebels was a deliberate act of investigating the place of women in Australian history.

The question I asked in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was: what was the role women played in the Eureka Stockade? So: were women at the Eureka Stockade? If so, how many and what were those women doing? If not, why not? How did they experience this frontier? Did they play a role in these greater political actions and movements that ended up becoming very important to Australian history?

So, that one question snowballed to a bunch of other questions but I didn’t know the answer to those when I started out. So you go into the archives, you work out where you might find the answers to your questions and you listen very closely to what the archives – from the newspapers to letters and diaries – tell you. In this instance it told me that my hunch had been right.

Like the pub example, I found women had been written out of history through the mythology of what Eureka meant and through the historiography of how other historians for the past hundred and fifty years had portrayed Eureka.

That then gives you an opportunity to re-write the narrative, which is very important to the way we understand ourselves as Australians. It’s important to the way women understand themselves as agents of their own destiny and how women can affect the course of history.

If we don’t see that people have done that in the past, how do we know that we can do it now? I see all those things as important, but they can only come after you’ve done the hard yards of the scholar.

Hearing you talk about travelling around Australia interviewing women in pub culture and trawling through old diaries and letters form the Eureka Stockade, it sounds like fabulous work. Did you always want to be a historian, is it something you felt you were just born to do?

I wouldn’t say I was born wanting to do it, although I would say I was a born question-asker. I was always curious. I wasn’t curious about the way things work mechanically – I couldn’t give a rats-arse about how the toast cooks in the toaster or what to do about it when it breaks. I didn’t want to know how the stars were formed or what makes a rainbow, but I was always interested in why people did the things they did and I was always fascinated by the past.

I studied history all the way through high school, I studied two history subjects in Year 12. I started an Arts/Law degree and became resentful of the time that my legal studies took away from my historical studies. So, I dropped law, did Honours in History, Masters in Public History and then my PhD.

I always expected the moment when someone would tap me on the shoulder and say: ‘Hey, you know this great gig that you’ve got getting paid for doing what you love? It’s over!’ But so far, that’s not been the case. You’re a very lucky person if you get paid for doing what you love.

You’ve had an extremely successful academic career already. You’ve also talked about having a really busy family life – you even had two babies during your PhD, which sounds pretty intense! I’m wondering if you can share some tips on how to succeed in postgrad?

Well, I didn’t exactly plan on having two babies during my PhD, but life very often doesn’t go to plan. I actually started a PhD because I’d been diagnosed as infertile after three years of trying to get pregnant. The gynocologist told my husband and I that we wouldn’t have a family so  I should think about what else I wanted to do with my life.

For me, that was a pretty rock bottom kind of moment. That was the point that I decided to go back and do a PhD, if I could get a scholarship, and that could be a really big project to sink my teeth into.

I started my PhD and then three months in I got pregnant. A year later, I got pregnant again. Both times were completely out of the blue. Obviously we were thrilled, but now I was in the situation of doing a PhD and raising two babies.

How do you do that? Well, you do that like most people do life: you just put one foot in front of the other. The alternative is to fall over. Sometimes you do fall over, but then you get back up again and keep going.

You learn to be quite organised and to compartmentalise. I’d drop the kids at crèche, have a block from 10am till 1pm, have lunch, another block from 2pm to 5pm, then go pick the kids up. I worked three days a week. I didn’t work nights or weekends until the last six months where I had to really put my foot to the floor and get the job done.

I had to view the PhD as a job where you clock on, clock off. In terms of helpful advice, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend having two babies, but postgrads could use a model like that: seeing their candidature as a job.

Lastly, can you tell us what you’re working on now?

I’m currently working on the development and treatment of a dramatic television series of Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. The screen rights to my book have been bought by a production company and I’m working with them to turn a non-fiction historical book into a fictional drama series, which has all sorts of challenges and excitements.

I’m also working on a new book, as part of my ARC Future Fellowship, on a new history of mining in Australia. It’s about the way in which Australia as a nation has been formed around sites of mining as case studies for conflict that will show us various ways in which people have interacted with each other and the land.

It’s a way of drawing not just women into, again, another story that is generally told as being a masculinist one, but also indigenous people and ethnic groups.

I’m also working on a radio program for Radio National, co-curating an art exhibition for the Castlemaine Festival and recently chaired sessions at the Feminist Writers Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival. So, I have a lot of fingers in various pies.

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