Emily Paull is the author of Well Behaved Women
What does feminism mean to you?
Can I tell you a secret? I really worry about answering questions like this. When you write a book called Well-Behaved Women, people ask you about feminism a lot… and I’m scared that I don’t know enough about the subject to answer it well. What if I open my mouth, and say the wrong thing, and then everyone knows that I am a bad feminist?!
In her launch speech for my book, WA writer Louise Allan described me as a gentle feminist. I really liked this way of thinking about myself. Because of the actions of smarter, stronger women than myself, throughout history, I enjoy the privileges that come with being a gentle feminist. I can vote, I can own my own property, get an education.
Obviously, there is still work to be done, and I think the biggest challenge we face at the moment is this idea that we’ve achieved equality, when so many people still have this unconscious, every day sexism that has been institutionalised. The way people spend more time criticising the appearance of female politicians than analysing their politics makes me really mad, but I also love that we have so many amazing women journalists and writers who call this kind of behaviour out. That inspires me.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?
Like most things in my life, it comes back to a book. I don’t know if anyone else will remember the My Story books, I used to get them in my Scholastic Book Club orders through the primary school library. This was probably where my interest in historical fiction came from. I got one that was about the feminist marches in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, and loved it so much. My mum, who was doing her PhD at the time (and is absolutely my hero) listened to me talking about what I’d learned from the books and then told me that her PhD supervisor was a feminist and that she would probably really enjoy the book. It was the first time that I’d heard the word applied to someone I knew, and that an adult wanted to borrow one of my favourite books made me feel really important. This probably wasn’t the kind of answer that you wanted… but it’s the one that springs to mind.
From there, my perspective has been shaped by the writers I read… Margaret Atwood’s work is definitely a huge influence on me as a writer and as a person.
What do you think are the implications of women and their societal worth no longer being tethered exclusively to the domestic realm?
I think women today feel a lot of pressure to do it all. On the one hand, yes, there’s no longer a tethering to the domestic realm in the same way as there used to be, but on the other, I still know a lot of women who feel like the domestic sphere is their responsibility (whether or not that pressure is actually coming from outside is sometimes debatable), and a lot of people don’t really understand the concept of emotional labour.
If you’ve read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel Fleishman is in Trouble, this is what I think she’s getting at with that book, though she does it in a very interesting way. The wife character is very successful as a business-person but she’s seen as a bad mother and a bad wife when you look at her from a certain angle, and at one point the reader is shown exactly how tough that was on her emotionally.
If we can solve some of the issues related to this—get the emotional workload a bit more even as well as the physical load, which on the most part we’re managing in most households I’ve seen (limited, admittedly), then I think the implications of that are huge.
Why was it important to challenge the concept of ‘well-behaved women’ and how do you think feminism relates to that concept?
The title is meant to be completed in the head of the reader. ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’ is a quote attributed to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. (No, it wasn’t Eleanor Roosevelt.) I liked the idea of taking that down to an everyday level, to look at the small acts of rebellion on a micro scale, where women make changes to affect their own lives and histories, rather than acting on a world scale. I wanted readers to think about the women in their lives—mothers, sisters, friends, grandmothers—and appreciate them as people, appreciate the internal struggles that are not always obvious from the outside.
Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?
I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other very much when I read that late last year. Also it’s a huge book so if we’re still practising social distancing when this is published, it will definitely keep readers occupied for a while…
Locally, I loved Josephine Rowe’s short story collection Here Until August, and I have to give a recommendation for the work of my Margaret River Press stablemate, Bindy Pritchard, whose book Fabulous Lives is as fabulous as its name.
Headshot credit: Charlotte Guest