Women at the Edge: History and Beyond

A transcript of a talk I gave at this event in Beechworth on the 12th March. The event was a partnership between Women’s Health Goulburn North East and The Wheeler Centre.

They asked me to speak to the question “What would the historical timeline look like if women were included?”

 

In 1956, Kylie Tennant published a novel called The Honey Flow. She travelled with migratory beekeepers to collect the material for the story. Our protagonist inherits some bees and sets out to learn to make a living from them. She is aware that the beekeepers lie to her, so presumably the author was too. However, my father, who knew the beekeepers in question, being one himself, was disgusted, but also strangely satisfied when he read the book and discovered the number of deliberate falsehoods that had been accepted as truth.

I am interested in the portrayal of the women in the beekeepers camps. There is an attractive young widow, who attaches herself to the camp to keep domestic affairs in order for our protagonist. This young woman is quiet, amenable and capable, and it takes our protagonist a little while to realise that she is also running the camp, using her attractiveness to the men. The other female is a large bossy wife who is constantly cleaning up with great gusto – both physically and morally. The men fear her as much as they adore the young widow. But they accept the authority of both.

These are familiar characters. In describing the class and culture of my childhood, that group of seasonal, land-based but not-landowning, peripatetic rural poor, my father always used a quote: “Beekeepers, rabbit-trappers, roo-shooters and other lower forms of life”. Women and children are valued assets in this lifestyle, extra workers. My grandmother once said to my grandfather, “You can be boss outside the garden gate,” but even then she voted against him at a church board meeting, earning him a lecture afterwards from the annointed ones. I would say I was raised in a matriarchy – except my mother will not allow me to use that word.

I live on the lands of the Wiradjuri nation, which is a matriarchy. The Wiradjuri have many ancient stories that celebrate and honour women. But the documentation of the stories was done by European men. Also, there are wider histories of oral stories and secret/sacred stories. How do these things affect the history of women’s stories?

In the more recent European past of this country I can speculate. I am writing a book at the moment about the lives of three sisters who were involved with the Lachlan bushrangers of the 1860s – Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner and their associates. The sisters’ stories have only been partly told by men who are interested in bushrangers. Apparently they were wild, flighty, worse than Messalina, but also good-looking, pert and lively. The whole story is a ripper. At one point, when asked why she had burned down her dwelling place – a tent – one of the sisters replied, “I have a perfect right to do what I like with my own.”

These are also familiar characters. They made their own decisions, they gave no explanations. It is my lived experience that rural women at the margins have, within their sphere, great autonomy. And men have accepted and worked with that. However, when I went to the records to confirm this, I found very little, for none of them wrote anything down.

This makes sense. Rural women have always been working women, with little free time. They are also less educated, and so less likely to even think about keeping a diary. Most I’ve known would be surprised at the suggestion that anyone could possibly be interested in their lives. And, in the settler culture of rural Australia, reading a book was actively discouraged in favour of doing practical things. A girl actually writing was regarded as a freak of nature – as Miles Franklin so famously discovered.

“I have a perfect right to do what I like with my own” translates as “None of your business”. And so we return to our lying beekeepers. Their lies also translate as “None of your business”. They are a tool used by the least powerful to keep out nosy outsiders who, through long experience, they know only take an interest when they want something. Is Kylie Tennant’s novel a piece of cultural appropriation? Perhaps in the current climate, I could make that argument. Stories are powerful, and can change power dynamics.

Which leads us again to the reticence of poorer rural women to record their lives. I know my grandmother’s grandmother only through the stories told about her by my grandmother. But, perhaps I know something of her foremothers also in this way, for each in some way formed the next generation. The way poor, rural women record the past, is they cycle it through their bodies with the stories they pass down to their children. Nameless, faceless, the stories become communal, not concerned with individuals, dates and deeds but with growth, community and connection. So much more human, they keep their stories, which will never appear on a timeline.

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