International Women's Day 2021

This speech was presented at the City of Vincent Library for International Women's Day 2021

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Until about a week ago, this was going to be a very different sort of talk. 

As women—and I have particularly experienced this as a young woman— we are expected to be many things. Neat, tidy, presentable. Cheerful, friendly. Inoffensive. Quiet. Humble. 

Little girls should be seen and not heard. Isn’t that the expression?

There’s another expression I’ve heard a lot lately too. Boys will be boys.

These seemingly harmless platitudes are actually doing real damage, managing our expectations of how people are supposed to behave. They are the reason that women who speak out get labelled as troublemakers, and the reason that no one says anything when someone makes a sexist joke. I’m sure every woman in this room can think of an occasion where they’ve been in a situation where someone has said something either about them, or about another woman, that they’ve found inappropriate or offensive, but they have been too uncomfortable to say anything. 

I can relate. I’m a conflict avoider in my real life. The other day, I saw a wearing a t-shirt with an image of a naked woman on it, and some horrible, sexist slogan. I didn’t feel like I could say anything about it, but I felt so sorry for the person behind the counter who had to serve him. She probably felt she couldn’t say anything either. The customer is always right, etc. Sometimes, when I almost feel brave enough to speak up about this sort of stuff, I hear a little voice in the back of my head that says ‘Why would anyone listen to you? You’re just a little girl.’

I mean. I’m 30 in a few weeks, but sometimes I’m still intimidated by large groups of teenage boys. 

Much more qualified people than me (see, here I go again) have spoken on this topic, and have written books on this topic. But I just wanted to start this talk for International Women’s Day by saying that I’m watching what’s going on and it’s making me angry. I’m angry, and I’m sad, and I’m fed up, and I am sure some of you all are too. 

On that note: what do we mean when we say, “Well-Behaved Women seldom make history”? This is a quote that often gets attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but actually comes from historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She first coined it in an article written in 1976, and it soon became one of feminism’s favourite quotes. Later, it became the title of her book. The book, which came out in 2008, looked at the way in which official history is made. As someone who mostly writes and reads historical fiction, I find this idea fascinating. I like to read books about the gaps in the history books we read at school, discover the stories about the women whose stories were omitted from the official records. I’m drawn to the stoicism of women like Katherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife who was set aside so that he could marry Anne Boleyn; who rode into battle in Scotland at the head of an army whilst pregnant to stop the Scottish invading her country while her husband was away fighting in France. Of women like Nancy Wake. Even Jane Austen. Women whose existence in the world had an impact on history, whether what you were taught in school reflects that or not. Women who did things they ‘shouldn’t’ have done because they saw what needed to be done. 

But I’m also interested in how this plays out in the every day. How this is happening, right now. Just because the stand you make might only change your own life doesn’t make it any less important. This is what I was writing about when I wrote the stories that became my debut collection. How do we view the women we interact with every day? What small acts of rebellion can have a big impact? How often do we forget that our mothers, grandmothers, neighbours, the person serving us as a shop are real people because we are so caught up in our own lives?

Well-Behaved Women was written over a period of ten years. The earliest story included (Pretending) was written while I was an undergraduate at Murdoch University, where I studied English and Creative Writing and also History. 

It was while I was doing this undergraduate degree that I became interested in women’s history. “Women’s history.” I mean, the word history is literally His Story, isn’t it? There was a module in one of the introductory units that was about witch trials. Throughout history, and in many many different countries and cultures, there have been examples of witch trials. The victims of these witch trials are usually women. Women who don’t behave the way that the power-makers – the church, the politicians, the top men of the group— want them to. You might have come across instances of this in the books you’ve read or the movies and television shows that you watched. It even happens in Outlander. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project (which you might like to look up), made it the basis of her debut novel for young adults called The Burning. Recently, I read Geraldine Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders and there’s a scene in that book in which the two women who have been using herbs to treat the sick in the village are set upon and murdered because people are so scared that they begin to think that those who behave outside what their church tells them is good and normal must be bringing the plague upon them. The term witch hunt gets bandied around a lot these days in the media, but I think it’s important to remember the real history behind it. 

I didn’t set out to write a collection of short stories about women or feminism, because I didn’t set out to write a collection of short stories. I describe this book as the book that snuck up on me. I thought that my first book was going to be a novel which I had written and rewritten, and pulled apart and revised again and abandoned and picked up again, and quit writing over and then relented and came back to the desk and so on. It was a historical novel (and I was a historical novelist) about Perth in the 1930s and 40s, specifically Fremantle, and it was a love story between a young man from a poor working class background and the spoilt daughter of a man who got rich making cigarettes. But in between drafts of this book (and so far there have been 11 or 12) I was writing short stories. Someone had told me when I first decided that I was going to be a writer with a capital W that I needed to build up my writer’s CV, and get a few publication credits to my name so that when publishers first see your work they recognise your name. 

I categorise this advice alongside the advice that says you should build your online platform to be a writer. Well, yes, you should, but you have to have a book first, and really, the writing is the most important part. I can’t tell you how much time I have spent over the last decade of my life crying over rejections from magazines or not placing in a short story competition. I’m really good at getting rejections now. Like, really good. If there was an Olympic gold medal for rejections, I think I’d be a contender. 

But that was why I originally got into short fiction. To ‘build up my CV.’ There will be some short story purists who tell you that you’re not a real short story writer if you only do short fiction as ‘practice’ for writing a novel but that’s where I started and I bet that’s where a lot of the short fiction fanatics who say things like that started too. Short fiction gets a bit of a bad rap in Australia, even though we have some of the best short story writers in the world here. Biased opinion, of course. I got into writing short stories because I thought it was ‘the way to get published’ and then I accidentally fell head over heels in love with the form. I was one of the earliest subscribers to a magazine called Kill Your Darlings (Hannah Kent actually recognised my name when I took my copy of Burial Rites to get published at Perth Festival one year); I sought out short story collections by Australian writers and read them cover to cover, I have been a subscriber to Island magazine, Westerly, Overland, something called The Canary Press which doesn’t exist anymore, I follow the results of the ABR Elizabeth Jolley prize, and I think I’ve done just about every short fiction course I could find in person or online. I just LOVE short fiction. 

In short fiction, you cannot waste a single word. You have to know your characters so well that they can walk onto the page fully formed and start telling a reader about their problems AND THE READER HAS TO CARE STRAIGHT AWAY. I like short stories that are funny, and I like the ones that make me cry in public, like Jennifer Down’s Aokigahara, and I especially like the ones that do exactly what you’re not expecting. 

And it turns out, after ten years of writing them, I like short stories about women, and about how people relate to the women in their life; how they take them for granted, the way women can be and frequently are transgressed against without anyone even realising its happening. I like to say that I write about the things that make me anxious, and that’s definitely a thread throughout the book as well, but what ties my book together is that every story is about the idea that well-behaved women seldom make history. 

There are characters in my book whom society never thinks about. There are those that are struggling with being who they are supposed to be. Characters who are remarkable because they have broken out of the mould. Women who do awful things to each other, or to men. Men who try to do the right thing but don’t know exactly what that is. I realised, when I started to pull this collection together that I wanted to think about what being a woman in Perth, in Australia, at this particular point in time and from my own very limited perspective, mind you, can actually mean. 

Originally, when the library asked me to do this talk, I had planned to start with a story about something that happened to me a few years ago, when I was writing one of these stories. I knew that there was something about it that just wasn’t working but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I asked another writer to give me his feedback. He had previously offered to give me feedback on my work and I was really grateful that someone who I perceived as being at a higher level than me professionally would take such an interest. I emailed the story, and then when I saw this person next, he asked if I wanted to hear what he thought. I said yes. This person was a very confident writer who had been published a few times. I’d never made it past being shortlisted for a young writers’ award when I was a big fish in a small pond. So, I sat down and got ready to take notes on this person’s feedback. He then proceeded to rip into every aspect of the story. I don’t think there was a thing he liked about it. He didn’t understand what the point of it was, he hated the characters… Right at the end of the tirade, he said “It doesn’t matter if you haven’t developed a voice yet. No one expects you to have much of a voice in your twenties.”

I come back to that idea sometimes when I’m feeling particularly ticked off. 

I don’t think he said that to be cruel. I don’t think they would even now think that it was a cruel thing to say. But I also don’t think that they would have lectured me like that if I was a man. And these sorts of subconscious differences in the way women get treated – these microaggressions—were the kinds of things I wanted to address when I put together my book. 

Of course, I had a voice! Having a voice is not something that comes with age. It is not something that comes with a particular gender or sexual identity. It’s not something that you have to earn. I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that what this writer was saying was that as a man, he wasn’t particularly interested in hearing what a twenty something had to say about ‘womens issues.’ 

What I should have heard him saying was “I am not your target market.”

And yes, the story at that point in time was a little bit rough, but it wasn’t irredeemable. 

Anyway, I have a book out now, and I think I’ve well and truly overtaken him if we measure success in writing by number of publications—which I don’t anymore.

I want to end this talk by telling you that you do have a voice, and your voice matters. This year’s International Women’s Day theme was Choose to Challenge. I choose to challenge the casual sexism that makes me uncomfortable. I pledge to say ‘That’s not funny’ to sexist jokes, and not to shy away when it’s within my power to let someone know that their behaviour is not okay. I pledge to lift up the women around me, and to take steps to make sure that my feminism is as intersectional as it can be. I choose to listen to the voices of others who know more—who actually know more, not just those who want me to think they do—and to have the wisdom to know the difference.