Women’s History Month from another angle

Another bit of the history of Australian Women’s History Month. This was first published by Trivium Publishing, who also took on my first novel. They were the single biggest component in persuading me that I could write and should write. I never didn’t write, to be honest, I just assumed that my writing was not terribly good and that no-one wanted to read it. I didn’t know enough about the publishing world nor about how very isolated Canberra was back then from all publishing influences. It’s still possible to talk to editors and agents in some part s of the world and be discovered as a writer. In Canberra, this is now possible, but only because a group of us worked very hard from the early 2000s to change things. I find it fascinating that new writers don’t know this history.

I also find is fascinating that, what was difficult to do as a writer (be seen, be useful, change things) was very easy for anyone in the women’s movement from the 1980s until about ten years ago. Living in Canberra and having coffee with friends was sometimes enough to meet the people with who you’d change the world. Women’s History Month was a case in point. Ten years ago, all this changed and now Women’s History Month is a faded fragment of what it was 20 years ago. Social forces change and people change and those of us involved years ago are exhausted. This is the human tendency to reinvent the wheel plays such an important part in our history, I suspect.


I have been asked to write an article about women’s history.

I don’t want to write this article. I don’t want yet another piece of writing on the web by an historian, telling non-historians how to think. I was involved in Women’s History Month from the day it started in Australia until 2004, and I am sick of basic instruction. I want to hear stories; I want to tell stories.

I don’t have a whole story to tell, though. I have been thinking about women’s history and realised that my mind has fragmented my experiences. What I have is a series of half-memories. I am an historian who feels history fading and a writer who can’t tell a tale. It is about time I recorded some of my morsels before they are forgotten and someone invents a glorious past.

The official record states that Women’s History Month was first celebrated in Australia in 2000.

Helen Leonard had planned a launch to end all launches. She had talked the Speaker of the Senate, Margaret Reid, into allowing her and her committee to launch the event in Margaret’s private garden in Parliament House. Very official. Very impressive. The list of acceptances was official and impressive too – Australia must have a real Women’s History Month if it is to be launched in the private garden of the Speaker. The dignitaries were daunting.

I didn’t know about this. All I knew was that I was planning an online educational project on women’s history. To be honest, I didn’t even know about Women’s History Month. I was having a whale of a time obsessing about online teaching techniques and I just wanted to set up a test group to teach some women’s history and some Medieval history using those techniques.

When I obsess about something, I tell everyone, so Helen suffered a dose of bubbling enthusiasm about the possibilities of online teaching Medieval Studies and women’s history for people with no history background. My logic in allowing my enthusiasm to bubble was that it made a change from CEDAW and women’s peak networks. Until then I had kept my historian self fairly clear of my committee self.

The next thing I knew, I was meeting Helen for coffee at Gus’s, a café in central Canberra.

The first Women’s History Month committee meeting in Australia was that coffee. I don’t know if the others knew before they arrived – one day I must ask them. I certainly didn’t know. There is a formal list of the initial committee on Australia’s Women’s History Month somewhere, I believe, but I really don’t know if it actually represents all the people Helen had in mind or had worked with.

The historian in me wants to present you with a clear narrative, telling you every important aspect and giving you crystal interpretations. The writer in me wants to present you with an elegantly articulated truth. And the committee person in me says, “I wish life were that simple.”

I can remember the coffee, every mouthful. We sat outside at a little table that was diminished further by Helen’s overflowing ashtray. I had a cappuccino and took so long to drink it that the last mouthfuls were icy. Lulu Respall-Turner walked out of a radio station where she was interviewing me, late last year and we looked at that table from across the road and asked each other why it was so far in our pasts. Five years is not a long time, but the underlying fabric of life changed when Helen died: that first meeting was aeons ago.

Like that coffee, my images are frozen. I remember thinking, “In the US they had an Act of Congress to create Women’s History Month; in Australia we have a declaration by Helen.”

Of course there was far more to Women’s History Month than a personal declaration and a cup of coffee.

For one thing, there was Margaret Reid and her garden. Now she bears the title Honourable and is retired: her garden has bowed out, even though she hasn’t.

I met her garden before I met her, so it has a very real personality for me. My mind flirted with the greenery as I helped setting up for the launch, and then I became acquainted with her kitchen as I washed the glasses after that launch. These tasks protected me from the dignitaries: I was too shy to tell anyone I was an historian, so I pretended to be the kitchen volunteer.

Until Women’s History Month was launched in that garden and for the full time we celebrated it, all I saw was my computer, and more of my computer. No, that is not true, one afternoon I saw Helen’s computer. It took long hours from all of us to bring that first Women’s History Month in Australia to life.

That afternoon with Helen’s computer is my next image frozen in time, in fact. It must have been a couple of weeks before the launch. I had set up online discussion boards and chat rooms and everyone agreed we would get key women in to discuss their experiences and that we would record what they said and we could archive this for researchers to use. It would be fun. We were totally determined that it would be fun.

Anne Summers and Marilyn Lake were on the committee and did their bit on the program as well, but weren’t a program in and of themselves. I was happy to train people, but we needed More Big Names to grab the general public and in general, we were lacking in people to train. I had emailed Helen and she had emailed me, and we had talked round the committee and explored some possibilities, but we had nothing like a full program.

By this stage it was becoming apparent that the launch was our flagship and that the online program would be the part of women’s history month that would meet all the rest of our goals. The launch would make people aware of women’s history; the online stuff would get women involved, remembering and owning their pasts. Without much ado, my temporary classroom became our main program focus.

That afternoon with Helen’s computer gave us the bulk of our program.

When Helen had said, “Come to my office and we will fix it today” she had been totally serious: I went to Helen’s office. Erica Lewis was there, I think, and helped until meetings overtook her. Wreathed in smoke, drowning in instant coffee, we worked our way through Helen’s black address book.

Soon we had it down to an erratic system. Helen would give me a few names and we would toss about a possible topic, then she would ring or email that short list of friends. Since they were all Great Names, this usually meant her leaving messages. Sometimes she was put straight through and I would hear half-conversations about children and mutual friends and political action before Helen introduced the reason for the call. I was in the background the whole time, which, now I think of it, sums up a lot of my experience over the last five years: Women’s History Month has involved a lot of hidden work.

Eventually Helen had rung everyone and moved onto other things and I had a draft schedule nutted out based heavily on who might ring back and what they were likely to say. Then the phones started ringing. I filed the blanks in on my program sheet: we had our Big Names.

Our first program consisted of a totally terrific array of women. They had all made a huge leap of faith: very few of them had been in a web discussion or chat before, and although we were supported by the Women’s Electoral Lobby (and then by the National Foundation of Australian Women) we were not a formally constituted body with funding and written objectives. We were a group of friends, brought together by Helen, all of whom cared passionately about women and about history.

Now Women’s History Month doesn’t meet at Gus’s. It has a permanent, purpose-designed website. It is supported by the National Library and the National Museum and a host of other institutions. It has a budget. It even has sub-committees. Other women than me do the IT training and support and hidden work. I can go back to being a Medievalist and writer. And I can reminisce pleasantly about that coffee with Helen and where it led.

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