Lauren Chater is a best-selling author of historical fiction, whose novel Gulliver’s Wife explores both the wonders and terrors of life as a woman in eighteenth century England.
Is there a moment you recall that shaped your idea of feminism?
I grew up in the 90s, at the peak of the ‘girl power’ movement. Most girls I knew listened to The Spice Girls. Long hair was still the fashion and women’s magazines promoted only one kind of feminism – white-skinned, beach-blond bangs, short skirts worn with knee-high socks and a huge side-serving of ‘attitude’. Despite the obvious differences between us (I’m half-Chinese), I wasn’t immune to the lure of these glamorous depictions of femininity.
It was only after I entered my last year of high school that I realised most of my generation had been sold a lie. Slick marketing and an agenda to sell clothing and makeup was the rationale behind these hyper-sexualised, male-gaze oriented offerings of ‘female empowerment’. When Britney Spears had a breakdown, she was immediately cast by the media in the role of ‘crackpot’. Women’s magazines – which had once used her image to sell millions of copies – branded her a laughing-stock. This hypocrisy really bothered me. Was this really what feminism looked like- tearing women down, making fun of their mental health issues? And Spears, for all her faults, was a straight white woman. If the media could do this to her, imagine how they would treat a woman from a diverse background (like mine).
It was probably one of the earliest wake-up calls for me, the realisation that the ‘sisterhood’ had a long way to go in terms of equality, that behind a lot of these representations of ‘strong women’ were powerful men pulling the strings. After that incident, I vowed never to buy another gossip mag. Instead, I devoured Angela Carter’s subversive fairy tales and Clarissa Pinkola Este’s Women who Run with the Wolves.
I travelled, when I could afford it. I asked questions. My mother, who arrived in Australia aged 18 to study nursing, has always quietly gone her own way, refusing to conform to the stereotypes expected of immigrant women. I watched and listened and, eventually, started writing my own stories. I still believed in ‘girl power’, but it was imperative that I did my part to make it a reality.
How important is it to re-write women into stories and history? Do you think women’s voices and history are still being erased or co-opted today?
It’s incredibly important that women have the opportunity to tell their own stories and also to add to the existing historical narrative. Women have, after all, been around as long as men.
Women have worked, fought in wars, grown crops, hunted for food and raised children. The difference is that men’s achievements have always taken precedence. They’ve been held up as examples of accomplishments which are the result of hard work and persistence. But the thing about inequality (and this applies to all minorities) is that when you’re starting out from a place of disadvantage, you have a lot further to climb than someone who is born into privilege. By including women’s contributions to society – be they craftswomen, midwives or soldiers – I hope to illuminate the parts of history which have been shunned in favour of more exciting or adventurous tales.
And of course, women today still experience erasure. The Bechdel-Wallace test (which measures the representation of women in fiction) still offers proof of how far we have to go in giving women their own voices and agency.
In Gulliver’s Wife, midwives are portrayed as a source of knowledge and even power for women in 1700s London, at a time when those things could be dangerous for a woman to have. Where can we find those sources of collective knowledge and wisdom today, and does that still come with risks?
Contemporary midwifery is still an amazing source of women’s collective wisdom. The shared knowledge and camaraderie between midwives that I witnessed while researching Gulliver’s Wife gave me a lot of hope for future generations. The way they work alongside other practitioners – like doctors and doulas – is also really inspiring.
My mother was a midwife for 30 years. She retired last year but until then, she was constantly studying and learning. She was meticulous about keeping up to date with the latest practices and procedures. This continuous cycle of learning and striving for wisdom is a really admirable quality I see in a lot of my female friends. I have a lot of friends who are writers, both non-fiction and fiction.
Writing is a huge act of courage – it requires the tenacity to stick with a subject for years, to interrogate your own responses and critically assess your own work. Then there’s the feedback and criticism which comes with publication. Friends who are writing about climate change, gender politics, racism and women’s safety often bear the brunt of public attacks. They’re constantly threatened with violence. Their inboxes brim with hate mail. It’s exhausting and depressing. But they keep doing the work because that’s what women do. We do the work.
The risks of speaking out against the status quo is that people often interpret it as an attack on their personal freedoms when in reality, everyone suffers under a system designed to keep the rich and powerful at the top. Our job is to keep questioning and laying bare those agendas – even if it’s through the subversive medium of fiction.
Could you share some reading, listening and social recommendations?
I’m currently reading some excellent books written by women. Madeline Watts’ The Inland Sea draws connections between the boundaries of the female body and landscape. I’m also digging Emily Maguire’s non-fiction work This is What a Feminist Looks Like. I love that it delves into that strange parallel universe of 80s and 90s feminism and asks what was really going on at the time, politically and socially. Lastly, I’m listening to Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey on audiobook. Emily was the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English and her radical interpretation provides much food for thought, particularly the way she reclaims traditionally gendered language, casting off male interpretations of Helen of Troy, returning her voice to her and with it, her power.
Photo credit: Ben Williams