Behind the scenes: Emily Maguire’s This Is What A Feminist Looks Like

By Emily Maguire

When NLA Publishing approached me with the idea of a book recounting the big moments of Australian feminist history, I was excited. I knew a lot about where we’re at and what still needed to be done, but almost nothing about how we got here. 

I started with the archives of the National Library, which is an immense treasure trove of women’s history.  And since I couldn’t spend every waking hour there (though I dearly wished I could) the library’s brilliant and generous volunteer researchers kept the documents flowing to me in Sydney. Almost every letter and diary and pamphlet and transcript and newspaper article and photograph sent me searching for more detail and context, which led to more books and journal articles, which in turn directed me to yet more original sources in library collections. 

In the end I spent over two years learning everything I could about the post-colonisation history of women’s activism in Australia, which meant I ended up with approximately 27 million stories I needed to tell. The work of fighting sexism and misogyny in Australia has been done every day, by people in every strata of society, in every imaginable way over hundreds of years. There was no way one book could hope to tell all of those stories. 

In the end, I chose the moments which to me appeared pivotal and the actions which to me seemed to be most galvanising. Any other writer choosing from the same wonderful depth and breadth of material would come up with a collection of events and breakthroughs that would, I suspect, have some places of overlap with mine, and plenty of places of divergence.

On that depth and breadth of material: many of the stories I tell in this book are not widely known but none of them were undiscovered or untold. Historians, librarians and enthusiastic feminist nerds have worked long and hard uncovering their stories and keeping their memories alive while the rest of Australia ignored them in favour of a millionth recounting of Ned Kelly’s last stand or the debacle at Gallipoli. I’ve gratefully drawn on this truly vast, rich body of historical research and writing in creating this book. I list all of my sources at the end and hope that my readers will take the opportunity to seek some of them out and dig much more deeply into our fascinating feminist history. 

While this is a book filled with history, it’s also a book intended to speak to our current movement. So as I wrote stories of the past I was continually asking: what prompted these women to activism? How did they go about it? And how might we learn from their experiences to make our activism more effective? 

This approach meant that while this book is full of positive stories – the feminist movement has been gloriously successful and I am openly celebratory about those who worked so hard to give us a more just world and more liberated lives – it also looks at the ways in which certain benefits have been unevenly distributed or enjoyed by some at the expense of others.

Consider women’s suffrage, achieved at a federal level in 1902. It was an incredible achievement and truly world-changing as there was almost nowhere else on the planet where women had the right to vote. But that very same piece of legislation explicitly excluded Aboriginal people and those of Asian, African and Pacific Islander descent from voting. The fact that so many men and women were excluded from the franchise at the exact moment that white women were included is an important part of the story.

And then there’s the matter of mother’s rights. When Dora Montefiore’s husband died in 1889, she was horrified to learn that under NSW law mothers had no automatic rights to their children. She was informed that ‘In law, the child of the married woman has only one parent, and that is the father’ and that she was lucky her late husband hadn’t left her kids to someone else in his will. She became an activist on the issue, as did many others. 

The fight went on for decades and involved dozens of feminist leaders and groups lobbying parliament and creating public awareness. Finally in 1934 mothers were granted equal guardianship rights to their children. 

That same year, five Noongar women stood before a WA royal commission and testified to serious and sustained human rights abuses of Aboriginal women and girls, including the taking of babies and children from their mothers.

These five women weren’t the only ones speaking up about the government’s child-stealing practices. There were plenty protesting and railing against the raft of policies that resulted in what we now call the Stolen Generations. It must have seemed to these women a cruel joke to hear the white feminists in Sydney talking about the sacred right of mothers at the very time their own babies were being taken away with barely a peep from anyone outside of their communities.

None of this means that suffrage or mother’s rights were bad things or that feminists shouldn’t have championed them, but it’s important to know this history and to learn from it, to make sure future feminist celebrations are ones that everyone can take part in.

And there will be future celebrations because if history shows anything, it is that the world can be changed. Feminists have been mocked or derided every step of the way by those protecting their privilege. And every step of the way, feminists have won. Not always right away and not always completely, but bit by bit they have carved a better world.

They did this by sharing their stories and listening to others and then refusing to keep quiet about the conditions of women’s lives. They did it by collecting signatures and showing up at meetings and marches. By holding fundraisers and consciousness-raising sessions in their living rooms and offices. By writing letters and newspaper articles, typing and photocopying pamphlets, preparing submissions to government inquiries, calling politicians and business owners and voters, stuffing and licking envelopes. By volunteering at women’s refuges as cooks, cleaners, counsellors, translators, lawyers, drivers and security guards. By sharing resources and information and childcare and opportunities and skills.

This brings me to the title. I realised that writing about all this work between the covers of a book titled This is What A Feminist Looks Like could be a way of affirming something vital. The feminism that has changed the world is not a branding exercise or t-shirt slogan or something defined by a self-appointed figurehead. The feminism that has changed the world – is continuing to change it – is grounded in the work of correcting injustices and inequalities that stem from sexism and misogyny. 

And someone doing that work? That, right there, is what a feminist looks like.

This is What a Feminist Looks Like is out now.

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