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Five minutes with Clare Wright

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With her Stella Prize-winning Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Clare Wright took a fresh look at one of Australia’s foundation stories.

The release of You Daughters of Freedom, the second in her ‘democracy trilogy’, she looks at a time when Australian democracy – and gains in female suffrage – was the envy of the world.

We caught up with Clare ahead of her appearance at Muse tomorrow night.

You were visiting Canberra when you came up with the idea for your new book, You Daughters of Freedom. What about the city inspired you?

Honestly, Canberra is Nerdvana. For someone as bookish and focussed on the past as I am, spending any time in Canberra is so energising. Not because it has architecturally obvious nods to history — art nouveau is nouveau after all — but because the city is rock solid with collecting institutions. Canberra puts the GLAM* in the glamour of being a historian.

I knew from heady experience that there are untold archival riches buried in Canberra’s vaults, but I didn’t expect to find a treasure like the Suffrage Banner (the centrepiece of You Daughters of Freedom) in new Parliament House. It was all the more exciting for being unexpected.

This book tells of the story of the incredible campaign by Australian feminists at the turn of the century to win political equality for women here and overseas. Why haven’t many people heard about it before?

Academic historians have known about many aspects of this part of Australia’s democratic past, but the story of how feminism and federalism intertwined to produce world-leading results hasn’t really entered mainstream conversations and representations of our national identity and national history.

I think there’s been a ghetto-ising of the first-wave feminist success story for two reasons. First, because it’s seen to pertain only to women, and is therefore somehow ‘niche’ or only of relevance and interest to women. This is a pernicious falsehood that deprives the story of cultural oxygen. I like to think that You Daughters of Freedom is not about women, but about democracy. It’s political history, with the women left in rather than written out.

Second, the achievements and ambitions (as well as liabilities) of that whole Federation-era of Australian history has been swamped by the Anzac narrative. The real birth of the nation has been colonised by the mythological birth of the nation. Thus the remarkable women (and their male champions) who lead the world in progressive democratic reform have been doubly erased from our collective memory. It’s a crying shame and something I hope my book remedies.

You Daughters of Freedom has received some great praise from some big names. Who’s support surprised you the most?

I suppose I might have guessed that Anne Summers and Clementine Ford (who both wrote cover endorsements) might have appreciated my enterprise.  I was thrilled that Senator Penny Wong not only found the time to read the manuscript, but provided outstanding praise. That meant a lot to me, as I respect and admire Penny as a politician and a human being. But I have to admit that I stopped on the street and had little cry when my editor sent me the praise from Mark McKenna, Professor of History at ANU.  He said: “A rare achievement. Grand, bold and brilliantly written, You Daughters of Freedom is a book that promises to shift our entire understanding of the nation’s founding.” That, from a peer, and a bloke, was pretty stunning.

You’ve published four books of non-fiction. Do you think you have a novel in you?

I don’t. I’ve had an x-ray and I definitely don’t.

What are you reading? What’s on your TBR pile?

I’m currently reading Gillian Triggs book, Speaking Up. It’s such an intriguing book: not really a memoir or a manifesto, but with elements of both genre. I am learning so much about Australia’s current human rights record that is extremely confronting. It’s a very depressing coda to You Daughters of Freedom which is about a time when Australia lead the world in social justice and political reform. Triggs’ book shows just how far we are now lagging behind. My TBR pile? So many books it is threatening to topple! Top of the pile are books by two of my favourite contemporary Australian authors, Jock Serong (Preservation) and Toni Jordan (The Fragments). Both have such strong, compelling voices. I can’t wait to spend some time with them, especially as both of their new books are historical fiction. Winning! I’m also looking forward to catching up on Alexis Wright’s Stella-Prize winning book, Tracker.  I was headlong into my own writing when it came out.  Reading Tracker feels like a prize for getting to the finishing line!

* GLAM = galleries, libraries, archives and museums

the essentials 

What: Clare Wright
When: Wednesday 7 November from 5.30 – 6.30 pm
Where: Muse Canberra, inside East Hotel, 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston
More information here: musecanberra.com.au/events/2018/11/7/clare-wright-you-daughters-of-freedom

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