Jacqueline Kent is an award winning journalist, biographer and non-fiction writer. Her latest biography Vida: The Radical Life of Vida Goldstein tells the story of one of Australia’s first campaigners for the rights of women.
Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?
When I was about twenty, I came into my parents’ bedroom to find Mum reading a Penguin copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the ground-breaking polemic widely credited with starting off the 1970s feminist movement. Friedan describes ‘the problem that has no name’, the nebulous but real unhappiness of comfortably-off married women with homes and children who yearn for something more in their lives.
‘Read it,’ said Mum, with tears in her eyes. ‘This is about me. Don’t let it be you.’
And, well, I didn’t.
I must also remember the brilliant women I have met in the ABC and elsewhere, whose strength and assurance I aspired to. And I’ve been trying to channel them ever since!
As well as your biography of Vida Goldstein — the first woman to stand for a national Parliament — you’ve written a biography of Julia Gillard, our first female prime minister. Did you find similarities between the two women and the challenges they faced? What can/should women in politics or activism today learn from our history?
There are strong similarities between Gillard and Vida Goldstein — many more than I thought when I began writing about Vida. They mostly concern two things: the misogyny of many men in power, and the reluctance of some women to support one of themselves. Both have proved to be enduring problems for ambitious women. In her recent observations about women and leadership, Gillard has warned young women who aspire to enter politics that they will encounter sexism and misogyny, and they had better be ready for it. She did not necessarily single out men either.
I think what can be learned is that women should not take the support of other women for granted. They need to make as many alliances with as many other people and groups as possible, and to have a secure base of their own. (Without the latter — as Vida found — achieving political work is almost impossible.)
As we have seen time and time again, the political system has been set up, and run, for the advantage of men — assisted by the media. There have been times when women have refused to continue: it’s all too hard. And not getting any easier. I think it’s terrific that women are adopting the motto: Nevertheless, she persisted. So should we all.
How do you balance writing compelling, relatable history for a modern audience, while placing the subject and events in their time?
What is necessary is to show a modern reading audience how very different things were in the period being written about — even especially small things. And to keep in view, always, that in describing somebody’s life it is vital to bear in mind some of those differences in assumptions, and to refrain from judging people according to today’s beliefs.
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors, books, podcasts, social media, are you reading, listening to, following right now?
Authors: So many, ranging from Alice Munro to Kate Grenville, Andrea Goldsmith, Tessa Hadley, Rebecca Solnit, Judith Brett, Chloe Hooper, Hilary Mantel, Jenny Uglow, Brenda Niall, Sue Miller, Alison Lurie.
Journalists whose work I always read are Van Badham, Lenore Taylor, Katharine Murphy, Elizabeth Farrelly, Amelia Lester, Elizabeth Kolbert, Laura Tingle. I also like the work of Geoff Dyer and John Lanchester, mainly because of their unexpected take on things generally.