Professor Clare Wright OAM on awards, authorship and overcoming adversity

Historian, author, broadcaster and public commentator Professor Clare Wright can now add Order of Australia medal-winner to her ever-growing list of accolades.

This year’s Australia Day Honours saw Professor Wright honoured with the medal in recognition of her “service to literature, and to historical research.”

Regarding her latest achievement, Professor Wright laughs and says she’s “quite chuffed.”

“It’s certainly an honour to have your scholarship recognised at this level.”

The author of four historical works, Professor Wright’s specialisation lies in Australian political history – or, specifically, “Australian political history with the women put back in.”

“I have a proud feminist agenda, which is to redress the way that our national story has been written as if women didn’t exist or weren’t important to nation-building,” she states.

Professor Wright’s two most recent books – the award-winning The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka and You Daughters of Freedom – focus on the Eureka Stockade and Australian women’s suffrage campaigns respectively.

Professor Wright is now working on the third instalment of the Democracy Trilogy, which will centre on the Yolngu people of Yirrkala’s famed bark petitions of 1963. Each book revolves around a material symbol of democracy – the Eureka Flag, the Women’s Suffrage Banner and in the final example, the Yirrkala Bark Petition itself.

“I’d like Australians to see these objects as being our founding documents in the ways that Americans value their Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as core to how the nation understands itself,” states Professor Wright.

With Professor Wright’s knack for retelling history in her insightful and engaging prose, this may just be a possibility. According to the author and historian, one of the game-changing moments of her career was winning the Stella Prize for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka and in turn, bringing academic research on a topic often considered inaccessible and dull into the limelight.

“Being recognised through a literary award like the Stella Prize meant that Forgotten Rebels brought a lot more people to reading history, people who don’t readily pick up a history book,” she states.

“For me, that’s very satisfying – to be able to communicate history to people who usually say, ‘I hated history at high school, I couldn’t wait to drop it!’”

In addition to her work as a Principal Research Fellow and ARC Future Fellow, Professor Wright co-hosts a podcast called Archive Fever alongside fellow La Trobe historian Dr Yves Rees. She regularly delivers keynotes and presentations and appears on panels, radio shows and at writers’ festivals.

Just last year, Professor Wright appeared at sixteen writers’ festivals, including the inaugural Bangkok International Literary Festival where she was the sole Australian representative.

She’s also created two television documentaries and appeared in many other history documentaries as an expert interviewee.

Professor Wright’s highly engaged approach to academia was affirmed last year when she was promoted to professor at La Trobe.

“I know that the things I do in the public sphere make a difference to the broader national culture but they’re not traditionally the way academia has viewed career advancement. The fact that the University has made me a professor largely on the strength and breadth of that research output is something I’m really proud of,” states Professor Wright.

“I think it also provides an incentive to other academics to take their research wider, to engage in more community conversations and think about the ways their research can impact public culture.”

Another highlight of 2019 for Professor Wright was an event she participated in alongside Penny Wong and Annabel Crabb in which the trio discussed women’s economic and political empowerment, at a forum celebrating the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in South Australia.

“Sharing the platform with that calibre of public speaker and having a historian involved in the conversation is really important to me. I’m a passionate believer that history has an enormous amount to teach us and it’s so rare to get a historical perspective on current affairs,” she says.

Tory Shepherd in conversation with ABC journalist Annabel Crabb, Senator Penny Wong and Professor Clare Wright OAM

In contrast to her busy professional life, Professor Wright emphasises that learning how to step back and knowing when to seek support with personal matters has been a vital lesson.

“When my third child was about two, I was doing my post-doc and I had severe postnatal depression. I had pretty much a full breakdown. I’m quite happy to talk about that experience now because I know that women judge their insides by other women’s outsides,” shares Professor Wright.

“If they see a woman who looks successful, who’s being awarded and promoted, a lot of women will say, ‘Oh my God, I can barely get out of bed in the morning,’ and judge themselves harshly by those standards.

“I think it’s really important to blast apart the myth of the superwoman and say we all have our challenges. You need to be able to ask for help when you need it and be able to care for yourself.”

As for the advice Professor Wright would give to others aspiring to follow their passion, she offers the following:

“I turned 50 last year and I’ve been thinking a lot about my younger self. As you get older, I think it pays to remember who you were at fifteen. We’re probably more our true authentic selves then than we are at 50 – we lose the capacity to be who we are because we’ve learned to be so many things for so many other people.

“I’d like my 50-year-old self to remember that courageous, funny, serious little person that I was at fifteen and pay more heed to her.”