FWF Quarantine Q&A: Tanya Bretherton

Tanya Bretherton is the author of The Killing Streets

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is at the heart of all my writing. I write true crime but I also write about women who have been forgotten or overlooked by history. The women in my books were not considered important in the era in which they lived. They weren’t celebrated, and they certainly weren’t memorialised. They weren’t wealthy, nor powerful, nor famous. We don’t have access to heirloom history. These women didn’t keep memoirs or diaries because these women didn’t have the luxury of time to write them. And even if they had, their words wouldn’t have been considered important enough to be stored in an archive somewhere for future generations to explore. Writing historical true crime is an act of feminism for me because it shares the stories of women who have been silenced. 

Women at speaking events sometimes approach me and say  “I love your work because I never realised that what happened in our family, was happening in other families too. My grandmother never knew where she came from.  She was relinquished for adoption as a child, because her own mother had fallen pregnant as a single woman.  It was a huge family secret”. Or “my great grandmother ran an abortion clinic in the eastern suburbs in Sydney before the war. It isn’t talked about beyond the family”. Or “my great aunt was sent to Callan Park mental asylum as a mad woman in the early half of the twentieth century and we never saw her again”. Families too have hidden female histories, and I think this is why my books appeal to people.  Writing historical true crime has allowed me to explore feminist landscapes in a very detailed way. Historical perspectives also allow us to understand the stigmas that were pervasive and pernicious for a very long time in Australia and see with greater clarity how they damaged the lives of so many women. Single mothers, women without children, divorced women, poor women, mentally ill women – all carried shame. For me, feminism is about seeing the unseen, and telling the untold. 

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?

My perspective on feminism continues to evolve, every day. It isn’t like I have come to a settled idea about what feminism is, or should be. Feminism is a construct, and we need to be able to adapt that construct as we meet new people, and explore and understand their struggles and what form the pursuit for fairness and equity has taken in their lives, their communities and places of work. 

I know that many people do not see university as a place of enlightenment, because they see it as part of the very natural and expected trajectory of their life. For me, being able to attend university was a big deal. I was the first person in my family to do so. It was at university that I began to see that there are theoretical understandings that can be used to explain what I felt and knew to be real about disadvantage in a very personal way. University was the first place I got to explore big picture perspectives on power and privilege and how they work to re-create themselves over the long arc of history. 

In light of the economic vulnerability that we are facing on a global scale, what lessons do you think this case presents for vulnerable groups and feminism moving forward?

It is heartening to see so many people working together, albeit in strange isolation, for the common good. Still, so many economically vulnerable women are overlooked. The complexity of their experiences continues to confound policy, and especially so in this covid-climate in which we now live.  Just one example of this is found in the recent rescue package for the early childhood sector. I have heard people celebrating the ‘free child care’ they now have access to, and thousands of parents who were working from home have now re-enrolled their children so they can ‘finally get some work done at home’. Speak to anyone in the sector and this is not a rescue package, it’s a mess. Centres are closing. The early childhood sector was already struggling with some very conflicted choices – social distancing is impossible, human contact is unavoidable with small children, and the lean cost structures mean no additional monies for additional safety or cleaning equipment. We need to start speaking to people on the frontline when we design policies, not just CEOs nor business owners. We need to stop defining success in terms of ‘what is good for me’, or ‘what is good for the economy’ and to broaden policy conversations in ways which systematically take account of fairness and equity and diversity.    

How do you think feminism has had an effect on the way victims are considered in criminal investigations?  What do you think still needs to change, if anything?

I write about true crime events from a long time ago. There is no doubt there have been some remarkable improvements, and once entirely male-dominated environments have become a little less so. We now have women police officers, lawyers and investigators who are working hard to make the system better. We have women on juries. We also have a growing awareness that police officers need better training, so they are equipped to deal with matters of domestic violence. We now have women judges. Despite all this, we still have a long way to go. There are still gross inequities in the legal system, particularly for Aboriginal women. 

If I had to nominate one thing that needs to change it would be victim blaming. It was a factor in undermining justice for women in the cases I write about from a hundred years ago. It remains an immense problem today because it reinforces horribly destructive narratives about relationships and responsibility. We saw a very public example of victim blaming with the very recent investigation into the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children.  Men aren’t driven to abuse, or murder – they drive themselves. 

Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?

I love writers who challenge us to rethink what we thought we knew about society. There are wonderful novelists who do this of course, but I thought I might take an opportunity to share a non-fiction writer. My background is sociology, and I have been hugely influenced by the work of Raewyn Connell. A lot of academics are very focused on writing in an ‘academic way’ – and some academics pride themselves on not being very accessible. Raewyn Connell writes to educate, to reach people, and to change thinking and has been doing so for more than forty years. If you are interested in understanding how power works in Australian society, how the education system really works, and how we define masculinity – Connell’s work is a great place to start.   

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