A Public Confession

By Morgana Lizzio-Wilson

TW: Some crude language, sexual references

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed something interesting about myself. Something that has long evaded my attention, but I am now painfully aware of. I must confess this ‘quirk’ of mine – it cannot remain unscrutinised. When I am home, I exude an aura of self-confidence and sass. I am shrewd and bold in my critiques of current events, popular culture, and mass media. I proudly proclaim that I haven’t shaved my legs and underarms in over a month. I show my partner each night, and cheekily say, ‘Like what you see, baby? I’m a-a-a-all natural.’ I don’t care that my hair is greasy, or that a constellation of pimples is forming on my chin. I straddle my partner in bed, and brazenly declare how much I love and want him. I celebrate my vagina. I look at it, inquisitively touch it, sensually stroke it. In fact, I celebrate my whole body. I caress my curves and proudly wiggle my ass in the mirror. Powerful and intelligent women, like Julia Gillard and Franchesca Ramsey, command my respect and admiration.

Then I get dressed, grab my keys, walk outside… and everything changes. Continue reading

Themes and Characters in Charlotte Brontë’s Novels

By Kita Marie Williams

Spoilers for Brontë’s The Professor, Jane Eyre, Vilette and Shirley.

“The vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway, and asserting a right to predominate: to overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last; yes,—and to speak. (Jane Eyre: 331).”

The above quote comes from Jane Eyre, a book I’ve loved ever since I first read it in my late teens and felt stirred by its zealous and daring heroine. From then on I was fascinated by the Brontë sisters and their incredible literary work, and with the social conditions of the Victorian era. So here is a brief discussion of the themes and characters in Charlotte Brontë’s novels – and a salute to her as a brilliant woman and an outstanding author. 

The four novels of Charlotte Brontë are regarded as masterpieces of English literature. The characters she created are powerful, heartfelt, fiery and clever – and their stories are compelling, exciting and profoundly original. Brontë also wrote beautiful and poetic descriptions of nature, deeply explored human experiences, and developed her own strong ideas on religion. Through her novels Charlotte Brontë firmly challenged and criticised the conditions surrounding women, marriage, social class and employment in the 1800s. Writing under the masculine-sounding pseudonym Currer Bell, she received acclaim for her work in spite of criticism for characters and language that were thought to be violent, passionate, coarse, immoral, and depraved.

Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816 in Yorkshire, and lived until 1855. Alongside her surviving brother and sisters – Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë – she wrote poems and short stories for much of her life, and became a successful author after Jane Eyre was published in 1847.

Charlotte’s heroines each search for their own place in society, struggle to gain control over their own lives, and grapple with reason and passion, religion, moral dilemmas and the power to have both meaningful relationships and professional autonomy.

Her first novel The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) related the story of William Crimsworth, a working man who becomes a teacher in Brussels, where he meets and eventually marries Frances Henri, an Anglo-Swiss student and (later) teacher. Their marriage is highly unusual, as Frances accepts on the condition that she can continue to work as a teacher; allowing her to have professional independence and a satisfying life:

“Well monsieur, I wished merely to say that I should like, of course, to retain my employment of teaching [….] Think of my marrying you to be kept by you, monsieur! I could not do it; how dull my days would be!  [….] I like a contemplative life, but I like an active life better. I must act in some way, and act with you.” (The Professor: 167-168.)

Crimsworth’s thoughts on her request are almost revolutionary for the time, as Davis notes in her 2008 work on autonomy in Brontë’s novels; despite some initial misgivings about her role as a wife, he decides to support and assist her plans.

“I knew she was not one who could live quiescent and inactive, or even comparatively inactive. Duties she must have to fulfil, and important duties; work to do, and exciting, absorbing, profitable work. Strong faculties stirred in her frame, and they demanded full nourishment, free exercise. Mine was not the hand to starve or cramp them; no. I delighted in offering them sustenance, and in clearing them wider space for action. ‘You have conceived a plan, Frances,’ said I, ‘and a good plan; execute it. You have my free consent, and wherever and whenever my assistance is wanted, ask and you shall have.’” (The Professor: 185)

This theme was one Brontë returned to again and again in her novels; the struggle for women to lead active, purposeful lives while exploring love, relationships and their own natures. Her second novel Jane Eyre (1847) is a powerful, moving novel detailing the life and development of the protagonist as she fights to find her voice and freely express herself. Jane’s empowerment through achieving an authoritative voice of her own and breaking from various oppressors forms the heart of the novel; though she painfully tries to subdue herself and forcibly keep her low place in society. After confronting her cruel aunt as a child, she feels guilty and remorseful, and tries to silence herself:

“Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned […] I would fain exercise some better faculty than that of fierce speaking.” (Jane Eyre: 52)

However, she overcomes her own dependent place and submission continuously later in her life, as shown through her daring and passionate address to Rochester:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; – it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are!” (Jane Eyre: 332)

The novel Shirley (1849) concerns a number of prominent characters, including Shirley Keeldar – an independent woman who has inherited an estate and a business, and Caroline Helstone – a relatively poor young woman who is raised by her uncle. Together these women discuss many topics from business, religion, to gender inequality and misperceptions of women:

“Caroline,” demanded Miss Keeldar abruptly, “don’t you wish you had a profession – a trade?”

    “I wish it fifty times a day. As it is, I often wonder what I came into the world for. I long to have something absorbing and compulsory to fill my head and hands and occupy my thoughts.”

    [….] “But hard labour and learned professions, they say, make women masculine, coarse, unwomanly.” (Shirley: 171)

Shirley later discusses the nature of women and how they are perceived:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend […] If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.” (Shirley: 264)

One of the principal themes of Shirley is the limited opportunities available to genteel women – which primarily amounted to marriage, becoming ‘old maids’; who were despised and ridiculed in society, or to be governesses; a position of tiresome work where they were likely to be treated poorly by their employers and live isolated, joyless lives.

Caroline Helstone thinks deeply on the subject of her own prospects:

“I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe single women should have more to do – better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now [….] Look at the numerous families of the girls in this neighbourhood […] the brothers of these girls are every one in business or in professions; they have something to do. Their sisters have no earthly employment but household work and sewing, no earthly pleasure but an unprofitable visiting, and no hope, in all their life to come, of anything better. This stagnant state of things makes them decline in health. They are never well, and their minds and view shrink to wondrous narrowness.” (Shirley: 293)

She thinks further about marriage, which is the only means to gain a respectable position for women – they are left to use methods such as “coquetry and debasing artifice” to ‘catch a husband’, which Caroline believes to be degrading to them, and for which they will also be ridiculed by men and other women:

 “The great wish, the sole aim of every one of them is to be married, but the majority will never marry; they will die as they now live. They scheme, they plot, they dress to ensnare husbands. The gentlemen turn them into ridicule; they don’t want them; they hold them very cheap. They say – I have heard them say it with sneering laughs many a time – the matrimonial market is overstocked. Fathers say so likewise, and they are angry with their daughters when they observe their manoeuvres – they order them to stay at home. What do they expect them to do at home? If you ask, they would answer, sew and cook. They expect them to do this, and this only, contentedly, regularly, uncomplainingly, all their lives long, as if they had no germs of faculties for anything else – a doctrine as reasonable to hold as it would be that the fathers have no faculties but for eating what their daughters cook and for wearing what they sew.” (Shirley: 293-294)

Through this and similar speeches made throughout her novel, Charlotte Brontë encouraged female professionalization and independence, and criticised social norms, attitudes, opinions and restrictions of women during the 1800s. Davis explains the views of women working of the time – “while most women of the classes below the aristocracy worked hard within the home, managing the household and raising children, work for pay was generally condemned as making a woman less feminine, distracting her from her more important domestic duties, and demonstrating the failure of her father or husband as a provider.” Many of Brontë’s heroines challenge these ideas by successfully holding professional positions while also marrying and raising children.

Charlotte Brontë’s final completed novel Villette (1853) details the life of Lucy Snowe, a young woman without living family who takes a teaching position in a foreign school and suffers through solitude and anguish in her isolation, before gradually falling in love with Paul Emanuel, a professor of literature. Lucy is a secretive, enigmatic but ambitious character, who actively seeks her own position, furthers her own education, and with the help of others finally achieves and expands her own independence as the director of a pensionnat school. Lucy’s narrative is of an unusual and difficult life as she seeks fulfilling relationships and religious understanding. Villette is considered Charlotte Brontë’s most poignant novel, as it draws deeply from the author’s own experiences in Brussels (experiences which are also explored in The Professor), and contains achingly powerful descriptions of human loneliness. The story ends with ambiguous events as Lucy anticipates Paul Emanuel’s return after three years in the West Indies. Here Brontë describes a storm and Lucy’s fears for his voyage:

“That storm roared frenzied for seven days. It did not cease till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks: it did not lull till the deeps had gorged their full sustenance. Not till the destroying angel of tempest had achieved his perfect work, would he fold the wings whose waft was thunder – the tremor of whose plumes was storm.

   Peace, be still! Oh, a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice, but it was not uttered – not uttered till, when the hush came, some could not feel it: till, when the sun returned, his light was night to some!

   Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.” (Villette: 657) 

This segment of the novel depicts Lucy’s sorrow and love, and allows us as readers to see her final position as an independent woman who has experienced many hardships but endured, and lived a long full life in spite of pain and misery. Lucy Snowe’s endurance in the face of tragedy is particularly moving as it echoes Charlotte Brontë’s own life following the deaths of her brother and sisters, and her struggle for the strength to overcome her grief.

Charlotte Brontë’s work continues to be celebrated for its originality, beautiful language, complex and compelling protagonists, and its exploration of love, religion, nature and society. In a paper on Charlotte Brontë’s female characters, Abboud explains that Brontë’s heroines disrupted the social norm and were an examination of the author’s own experiences and psyche, as she sought to prove that (in regards to women) “society’s expectations had to be rethought and reworked”.

A painting of the three Brontë sisters by Branwell Brontë; from left to right,  Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. In the centre of portrait is the shadowy image of  Branwell Brontë, who painted himself out of the picture.

A painting of the three Brontë sisters by Branwell Brontë; from left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. In the centre of portrait is the shadowy image of Branwell Brontë, who painted himself out of the picture.

References

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Classy And Fabulous

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous” – Coco

Thanks, Coco, for that inspiring bit of wisdom. I want to have a chat about femininity and its place in my life and the struggles it has invited and the joys it has delivered.

The thought about femininity struck me as I was painting my nails a beautiful shade of turquoise and mulling over the concept of myths in relation to feminism. No doubt, these ideologies have stumped many a woman the world over, but indulge me for just a bit while I have a rant about how “femininity” (because scare quotes are actually really needed here, and I’ll explain why in just a sec) has impacted my life (how very out-of-the-ordinary of me, I know!).

So basically, “femininity” is a social construct, put in place yonks ago by someone random (I’m sure I could research this and find plenty of fun facts that probably relate back to religion, but whatever) and since then, it has bewildered, frustrated, and delighted the masses. The ideology goes something like this:

Girls/femininity = PINK!!!, sugar, dresses, make-up, softness, silence, grace, beauty, infantilisation, shallowness et cetera

Boys/masculinity = BLUE!!!, getting dirty, trucks and soldiers, boldness, loudness, action, effortlessness et cetera

Obviously these ideologies are way more complex, but I’ve just simplified that because it’s almost 11 PM on a Monday night and I couldn’t be arsed to write anything eloquently. Heaps more have just popped into my mind, but I’m sure you get the drift. The whole thing is bullshit. Now, let me get reflective here. I am the first-born girl in my family; I have two younger sisters. Being the typical “first girl”, I got dressed entirely in pink and ribbons and adornments, essentially rendering me a glorified marshmallow for the first five years of my life. This isn’t really anyone’s fault in particular. This is just how ideologies work in our society (see: Girls/femininity = PINK!!!). I’m sure I wore shorts from time to time, and obviously must have worn different colours, but the majority of photos show me dressed in something classy and fabulous and behaving very well indeed. A lot of that has to do with my mother raising me with civility and manners (something that every child should be raised with, just FYI), but I wonder if I would have been allowed to go outside and get dirty more often had I been born a male? If screaming fits and temper tantrums would have been received with obvious frustration, but also an underlying sense of pride at baby boy’s strong voice and rambunctiousness, instead of the scorn at wee little girl’s spoilt brat antics?

My sisters did not receive such stark femininity thrust upon them. My middle sister was paraded in purple, always mischievous and up to no good, which was a delight to many (and still is). The boxes were slowly being ticked off: my parents had the proper, bookworm, princess, as well as the witty, adorable, mischief-maker. And then along comes my youngest sister. Who was, for some unknown reason, dressed in blue and given relatively gender-neutral toys to play with. Was this because my parents understood that Girls/femininity = PINK!!! was utter bullshit? Or was it just because they had exhausted all of their preconceived notions of what being a girl was all about on the first two? Regardless, my youngest sister was always more action-packed, dirty, unruly, and just plain boy-ish as a child — the complete opposite of what I was like.

Some may argue that that is just our personalities. That’s just who we are. And I guess to some extent that is true, because we still are different to this day, and that’s beautiful because we’re unique, adult women who have forged our own identities separate from what was dumped on us as infants. But what if the way we were dressed and presented to the world as children deeply impacted our personalities and how we see ourselves? Maybe I am more insecure and shy than my youngest sister because I was brought up to be more quiet, more sensible, more bookish, more ‘feminine’, as opposed to loud, and dirty, and active, and confident.

I went through a huge identity crisis around the age of 12. For a few years, I refused to wear skirts or dresses. I refused to wear pink, and totally abhorred any colour close to it in the spectrum as well. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to defy my boundaries. I wanted to change.

In actual fact, I love pink. I love dresses. I love make-up. I love accessorising. I love making myself feel good with external additions and adornments. This is not vapid. Or shallow. Or vain. People (women) have been led to think this about “girly-girls” in order to discredit what it means to be “feminine” in today’s society. Ariel Levy says it best in her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

“Attacking femaleness, deriding ‘girly stuff’ and rolling your eyes at ‘women’s issues’, declaring yourself a ‘tomboy’ who gets along better with men because women are silly or pretty or whatever — these are expressions of internalized sexism. If that’s the way you feel about your own sex you’ll be doomed to feel inferior no matter what you achieve in life.” 

Basically, for years I rejected what I genuinely liked in order to break free from an image that I was forced to grow up with. Somewhere along the line, I learnt that femininity = bad and I wanted out. It took me a long time to accept that being “feminine” and being not-so-“feminine” is okay. We are all just people (oooh profound!). If I want to wear something ridiculously frilly and curl my hair and wear tonnes of make-up because it makes me feel good, that is fucking spectacular. If I want to not wash my hair for a week, rock a pair of track pants and a clean (but slightly blemished) face because it makes me feel good, that is also fucking spectacular. And it isn’t my place to judge anyone on the way they look, or how they dress. Jafeel?

So, in summary, Coco, girls should be whatever the fuck they want to be because they are all beautiful, fantastic creatures who deserve love and the freedom to discover their own unique femininity or femaleness or masculinity or maleness or whatever. And for the record, I am classy and fabulous, just the way I am.

~ Sarah Groundwater

News Roundup – April 2013

Spiffing Sports

Over 100 of Australia’s best and brightest sportswomen have converged on the nation’s capital for a one day conference, to celebrate Canberra’s centenary and recognise The Canberra Times’s award for ”Best Coverage of Women in Sport in 2012” by the Australian Sporting Commission. The conference will wrap up with a list of Australia’s top 100 female athletes: among those to be honoured, star swimmer Dawn Fraser and sprinter, Cathy Freeman.

A five-stage Tour of Britain for female cyclists is in the final stages of planning, to take place in the spring of 2014. Race director, Mick Bennett, confirmed the decision to European media and outlined the need for an increase in publicity within the arena of women’s competitive cycling. “It seems an obvious and logical step forward given the strength of women’s cycling in this country and the enthusiasm for the sport generally… It’s a great sport and all that is needed is more opportunity for the women to race.”

The first ever round of the Tasmanian Women’s Motocross Championship was held on March 23rd, and saw 14 women compete in this typically male-dominated sport for the first place title. Sarah Knee, a local racer from Launceston, currently competes in both co-ed and women’s only races and was delighted with the opening of the women’s championship to support the increase in female participants. …

They Said What?!

Alex Bilmes, editor of British Esquire magazine, has defended his publication’s “honest” portrayal of women with a few particularly unenlightened statements at a 2013 London panel discussion on ‘Feminism in the Media.’ Sifting through his quotes was an ordeal unto itself; the following comments are perhaps the most cringe worthy offerings. “I could lie to you and say we’re interested in their brains as well, but on the whole, we’re not. They’re there to be beautiful objects. They’re objectified.”

We’re at least, or possibly more, ethnically diverse [than other magazines]. More shape-diverse. We also have older women. Not really old, but in their 40s… Cameron Diaz was on the cover three issues ago. She’s in her 40s.

Brazil’s human rights boss has warned that gender equality could undermine the classic maternal roles of women and turn society, quote unquote, ‘gay’. The following comments are excerpts from Marco Feliciano’s recently published book. ‘When you stimulate a woman to have the same rights as men…. her part of being mother starts getting diminished… I see a subtle way how this affects the family, when you stimulate people to release and liberate their instincts.’ Feliciano has been slammed by Brazilian Feminists for his views. Economics professor Hildete Pereira de Melo, from the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, has labeled the statements as ‘delusional, misogynistic and homophobic.’ Which just about sums it up, really!

Women of Words

(Trigger Warning: this news segment contains a brief mention of sexual assault and rape.)

Melbourne writer and Herald Sun contributor, Alice Clarke, has responded to the recent trend of celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry rejecting Feminist labels. “It’s OK, I guess, not to be a feminist,” she writes in a recent column. “We all get to have our own opinions and that’s great (though if you don’t believe in equality, you have some issues to work out).” Her article tackles the current problems of gender stereotypes and victim blaming in cases of sexual assault – the message to women being, don’t invite rape, instead of a much needed educational standard that teaches people not to commit rape. She ends by imploring men and women to embrace Feminism, to understand that the fight for gender equality in Western society is not null and void but an absolute necessity.

Jackie C. Horne, a writer, independent scholar and author of the site Romance Novels for Feminists, has come out in celebration of a modern wave of romantic literature that moves beyond the “bodice ripper” genre popular during the 1970s. She recognizes these authors as taking ideas that were once novel or provocative – the idea of powerful, self possessed heroines – to be givens. Houston author Delphine Dryden is very much aligned with Horne’s views but still sees problems for women in the world of erotic literature, noting that some writers are too quick to fall back on tropes of slut-shaming and female helplessness. She posits the presence of heroines who can make choices as a critical starting point for Feminist authors – a woman who acts, rather than being “acted upon.”

SAVE Gender Studies at UQ!

The proposed eradication of the Gender Studies major at UQ – part of a wider scaling back of humanities subjects across the country – has sparked fierce opposition from UQ students and members of the UQ Women’s Collective. The first meeting of the counter campaign, ‘Save Gender Studies at UQ,’ attracted over 30 students and staff on the Great Court at St Lucia. An educational forum is planned for Thursday, April 11th, to precede a larger rally in opposition of the university’s cutback. Members of the Women’s Collective will be handling a social media campaign through the creation of a video, informing viewers on the importance of gender studies at a tertiary level.

If you consider yourself a bit of a tech head/actor extraordinaire/directorial genius and like to get involved in the video (or in any other aspect of the campaign) check out the Facebook page online or express your interest within the UQWC Facebook group!

http://www.facebook.com/pages/SAVE-Gender-Studies-at-UQ/498494313540373?fref=t

~ Laura Howden

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Flashback to 1981: UQU Bans Sale of Magazines Exploiting Women

This fabulous piece of herstory will be featured in the upcoming issue of Wom*news: #8 Flashback!

Anna Bligh and Kerry Boman explain why magazines which exploit women's bodies were banned from sale by the UQU.

Anna Bligh and Kerry Boman explain in Semper why magazines which exploit women’s bodies were banned from sale by the UQU.

This article from a 1981 edition of the UQ Union students’ magazine, Semper, showcases ex-Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and fellow UQ Women’s Collective member Kerry Boman explaining why magazines that exploited women were removed from sale on campus. Anna Bligh went on to become the students’ women’s officer during her time at UQ. There are also some interesting related women’s and queer issues raised in the other replies on this page.

~ Emma Di Bernardo

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Wom*news #8: Call for Submissions! (Updated, Subs Close Jan 10!)

“Flashback! …And Back Again!”

Theme:  Herstory of the UQ Women’s Collective and Current Thoughts on Feminism
Closing date: 5pm, January 10!

We welcome: essays, opinion pieces, short fiction stories, poetry, photography, traditional art and interviews (transcripts)
– on the subject of past and current incarnations and the herstory of the UQ Women’s Collective, and also on your thoughts on feminism right now.
– from UQWC members and our frandz

We would love it if we could have submissions from past collective members, or interviews with them. Please make sure you have permission to use photographs found. We would love any information such as contacts or documents from past Collectives to be directed to us via email (listed below) if known. If interviews do go ahead, but they might take a while, we can extend the closing date to late December. Please let us know if that’s the case.

Word limit: 1,200
Referencing: APA reference list (no in-text citations required)
Please read our content guidelines before submitting.

You can email submissions or questions to Emma, uqwnews@gmail.com. If you are a past collective member, we would love to hear from you!
Send submissions for the zine’s cover art to Lorelei, uqwnews@gmail.com

On the fb topic list you can find ideas to take up to write a submission on. Please add your submission topic to the topic list on facebook so we don’t have pieces doubling up.
You can also contribute to this issue’s news round up here!

~ Emma

She Was Born

by Sarah Davis
You can find this poem in the current herstory issue of wom*news!

She was born from earth,
amongst the reeds and rushes.
The stifled cries of her beginning
and the perplexity of her worth.
She is made from mud and sticks,
and leaves, and the wind that pushes
its way around the being’s new birth
and sighs and speaks of what is to come.

She was born from fire,
the deep essence of her soul.
The painfulness of her identity burns
in the discovery of an unknown desire.
Yet the wind stirs up the flames,
and throws embers into the night,
and reignites all that will transpire,
for the tears she sheds are her undoing.

She was born from stone,
as the same wind that carries on,
and shares tales of what she is
and isn’t, and how little she has grown
in the eyes of the mighty,
in the eyes of the weak,
and in the eyes of her own,
as even stone can break to the ground.

She was born from air,
for a moment she is one with the wind,
flying blindly amongst sky,
a stormy cloud, a sheet of rain, swept elsewhere.
For a time she exists, anywhere.
For a time there is silence,
in that moment she is bare,
and there is completeness after all.

She returns to earth, she is dust,
all that she is, all that she was, she is no longer.
But she is more than mud and sticks and leaves,
She is less than wind, her being is the purest
She grows into the ground as resonant as stone,
Burning as hot as fire, as light as the air
She is the mother, her daughter, your child who is solaced
She is the creator, a creation, a flower – a woman.

~ Sarah Davis

Words of Wisdom from some Badass Women Artists and Writers

by Rosie Cuppaige
You can find this piece in the current herstory issue of wom*news!

TONI MORRISON
Nobel and Pulizter Prize winner (for novel Beloved).

Did you know?

Morrison started writing fiction as part of an informal meetup at her university. She completed her first novel while teaching full time and raising her two children as a single mother.

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

~

FRIDA KAHLO
Activist, painter, all-round brazen woman based in Coyoacán, Mexico.

Did you know?

Kahlo spent her last years bedridden due to various injuries throughout her life. This didn’t stop her from persuading her doctors to allow her to attend a rally in the streets of Mexico City in her hospital bed, in her last public appearance the year before her death.

“I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.”

~

ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA
Russian journalist and author famous for her unflinching reports on the war in Chechnya.

Did you know?

Politkovskaya was one of the few people allowed in the Moscow Theatre in October 2002 to negotiate with Chechen militants who had seized hundreds of hostages.

“Living streets full of dead eyes. Mad and half-mad people. Streets teeming with weapons. Mines everywhere. Permanent explosions. Despair.”
– Politkovskaya’s evocative description of life in the Chechen capital, Groznyy

~

ANAÏS NIN
Writer and Activist from NYC via Havana via Paris.

Did you know?

Although she started writing erotic fiction as something of a joke and as a means to get make easy cash, Nin became a prolific female erotic fiction writer, and is still studied in gender studies courses to this day.

“This image of herself as a not ordinary women, an image which was trembling now in his eyes, might suddenly disappear. Nothing more difficult to live up to than men’s dreams.”

 ~

MARINA ABRAMOVIC
The self-proclaimed “Grandmother of Performance Art”

Did you know?

Abramovic’s performances frequently pushed the boundaries of performance art by incorporating grave bodily pain. In one performance, to contrast control over mind and body, she ingested medication prescribed for catatonia, inducing convulsions and a loss of control over her body. After the effects of this had worn off, she ingested a drug resulting in mobility but a complete loss of control of her mind.

“The audience is like a dog. They can feel immediately that you are afraid, that you are insecure, that you’re not in the right state of mind – and they just leave…”

~ Rosie Cuppaige

Mothers and Whores: Women in Ancient Rome

by Johanna Qualmann

Women in the Roman Republic and Empire are one of the most elusive parts of history. They are spoken for, but never speak; represented, but rarely for themselves. Where women feature in historical literature, the patriarchal tradition of moral history casts them into established literary archetypes: the virtuous maiden, the regal mother, the evil stepmother, the avaricious whore. And often, mentions of women in ancient Roman literary sources can be seen as reflecting opinions of the men they were associated with more than their own personalities.

At the intersection of archaeological and literary evidence, women’s historiography becomes especially interesting. Accusations of debauchery, greed, promiscuity and even treason abound – and yet, coinage, portraiture and honorific titles tell a different story. Such is the case for the four women in this piece: Fulvia, the woman who rallied armies; Livia, the virtuous matron turned evil stepmother;  Agrippina, ambitious mother and poisoning mistress; and Faustina, the depraved adulteress accused of treason.

Fulvia – the antithesis of respectability

Coins of Fulvia in 41 BC, depicted as the Goddess Nike.

Fulvia Flacca Bambula (80 – 40 BC) lived during the late Republic in a time of civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus). She was the first Roman woman to be honoured with her image on a coin; but her association with Athena (the goddess of war) on one side shows that she was not the virtuous matron she should have been. Literary sources represent her as the antithesis of respectability: wealthy and high born, but cruel and vicious, always lusting to possess more wealth and power. She incited riots on her first husband’s death, and apparently took great joy in mutilating Cicero’s severed head with her golden hair pins.

Her third marriage to Mark Antony brought her the most notoriety, and while he was away on campaign she managed his supporters in Rome. Some sources even claim that she took up a sword herself, and together with magistrate Lucius Antonius mobilised eight legions for Mark Antony’s side in the war. In 41 BC she is said to be the most powerful figure in Rome. But her power was short-lived: Antonius lost a major siege to Octavian and Fulvia was forced to flee and died from illness soon after, allowing Antony to denounce her and reconcile with Octavian. Both men then used her as a scapegoat for the entire civil war, though how much of her portrayal is propaganda is unclear.

 

Livia – the evil stepmother

Livia Drusilla (58 BC – AD 29) was the second wife of the emperor Augustus and the first Roman empress. Throughout her life she was portrayed as the quintessential Roman matron: virtuous, pious, respectable, an empress devoted to her family and her husband.

Coins of Livia, minted by the senate, depicted as Piety.

She was given the honorific title augusta by Tiberius in AD 14, which meant that she could mint her own coins, hold her own courts and wear the imperial regalia reserved for the emperor, and later also given the title mater patriae (mother of the fatherland). After her death in AD 29 she was deified by the emperor Claudius.

Despite her titles and honours, Livia’s portrayal in history is predominantly negative. Sources writing about the Augustan period are uniquely critical of the whole imperial family, so it is unclear how exaggerated her character was. Livia was painted as a woman driven by ambition and desire to control the men in her life – the only way for her to have a political influence. She constantly interferes with Tiberius’ politics, bullying and scheming behind the scenes, and embodies the archetype of the evil stepmother, by ruining her stepdaughter’s whole family. Tacitus continuously describes her as novercalis– characterised by unmotivated animosity. The image of Livia as a cold, Machiavellian,

Livia from ‘I, Claudius’.

political mastermind has even continued in modern media, in the book and BBC television series I, Claudius and HBO series Rome. She remains the “conniving bitch” of the Augustan period – whether justified or not.

 

Agrippina – poisoner and seductress

Agrippina the Younger (AD 15 – 59) was the seductress and poisoner of the Julio-Claudian period. Known primarily as the fourth wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero, her portrayal is one of the most negative in Roman history. Like Livia, Agrippina also accumulates titles and honours,

Portrait of Agrippina the Younger.

but in writers such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio, she epitomises the archetype of the prostitute. She is described as motivated by extreme jealously, using seduction and fear to gain power over men. In one scene of his history, Dio condemns her as a tyrant, usurping masculinity by wearing a gold chlamysor military cloak. She is also sexually deviant, marrying her uncle and making advances on countless men, as well as drinking too much wine. Her misdeeds culminate in her rumoured poisoning of Claudius and manipulation of her son Nero into the role of emperor.

Interestingly, her portrayal changes in reference to the emperor Nero, and she is reduced to a secondary character in the story. She simultaneously becomes the bad influence explaining Nero’s despotism, and the “wise mother,” the only one who can keep him in check. It seems Nero soon grew tired of her involvement, and had her murdered in AD 59. Once again, it is unclear whether her overall literary portrait tells us anything about her actual character: because the period in which she lived was held as contemptuous and immoral, she might have simply been reduced to an archetype or a cautionary tale.

 

Faustina the Younger – mother and whore

Faustina the Younger (AD 125? – 175) was the wife of emperor Marcus Aurelius. She was celebrated for her fertility, bearing fourteen children after a long chain of empresses who had no children of their own. Her husband describes her as a devoted and loyal wife, the epitome of Roman womanhood, and granted her the honorific titles augusta and mater castrorum (mother of the camp) in reference to her popularity among the army. Her coinage celebrates her fidelity, modesty and fertility.

However, a different picture – of sexual depravity, shameful lust and immorality – is painted by literature and history. The anonymous author of the Historia Augustaerecords her having affairs with her son-in-law (whom she subsequently poisoned), soldiers and gladiators, and it is even rumoured that Commodus, the emperor succeeding Marcus Aurelius, was the product of one such affair. Other writers describe her “cruising for sexual

Faustina the Younger, pictured with her children and praised for her fertility.

partners” among naked men at the beach. She was even accused of treason when associated with a governor in Syria who proclaimed himself emperor when Marcus Aurelius once fell ill; when in all likelihood she was simply seeking protection in the case of her husband’s death.

Whatever the true case may be for all these women, there is certainly a disjunct between the different ways their characters were portrayed – where they are portrayed at all. How unfortunate that these strong, independent female figures will never be able to speak for themselves out of the depths of history.

~ Johanna Qualmann
This article is featured in the current herstory issue of wom*news!
You can find more of Jo’s writing at her blog A Life Unexamined.

References
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The Second Wave Began in Brisbane

By Nicole Maree

(As featured in the upcoming issue of wom*news!)

Growing up in Brisbane I had always known about the Regatta Hotel’s place in the history of the women’s movement. My mother had begun her nights out as a young woman in the late 1970s with her girlfriends by having a drink at the Regatta in honour of Brisbane feminist activists Merle Thornton and Ro Bognor, who had chained themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel on the 31st of March 1965 in order to protest the exclusion of women in public spaces, so that aspect of Brisbane history feels like a little part of my own feminist family history. But what I didn’t know was the story of how this demonstration was the first feminist direct action protest of the second wave in the world, and would come to characterise and inspire the activism of second wave feminism – at that time called the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The story began with a discussion among some feminist women at the University of Queensland. At the time it was not just against social custom for women to drink in Queensland bars, it was actually illegal, and publicans could be fined for serving women alcohol. When the Queensland Government was proposing amendments to the Liquor Act, a small group of feminist women, including Merle Thornton, decided that there was an opportunity to petition the government. They met with the Queensland Minister for Justice to request he remove legislation preventing women from drinking in public bars. By Thornton’s account the Minister had been polite though patronising, even offering the women a beer in jest, but their proposal was decisively declined. Having attempted the persuasive approach, the next step was radical action. For Thornton, direct action “articulated a loss of patience with intolerable restrictions”.

The following day Merle and Ro entered the Regatta Hotel, strode casually to the bar and ordered a lemonade. Of course, they were refused service, but Merle and Ro were prepared for such an eventuality and proceeded to chain themselves to the bar-rail at the Regatta Hotel; they weren’t leaving any time soon. While the women were ordering their drinks, the ‘male auxiliary’ (mainly consisting of the women’s husbands) were handing out pamphlets outlining their arguments for why women should be able to drink in bars. Meanwhile, the bar staff had alerted the police. The police attended, first uniformed then plain clothes, but Merle and Ro refused, politely I imagine, to leave. Their action was immediately divisive – some of the men in the bar offered to buy them drinks, while others heckled them.

The media response was overwhelming, and their actions are reported not just in Australia, but all over the world. They were dubbed the “bar room suffragettes”. After the protest they received a groundswell of public support with press coverage largely in favour of their actions, they also received angry and negative phone calls and messages, including death threats. Negative attention extended to parliament house, with Queensland parliamentarians saying that their “husbands needed psychiatric help” and that their children should be taken into care – so egregious and unnatural was the proposition that women might want to enjoy a pint at the pub. While some people have the perception that the Regatta protest was simply about the right to drink, and have criticized it for not being about the ‘real’ or ‘more important’ issues for women. For Merle the bar room protest was not about beer (she had ordered a lemonade) so much as it was about the acceptance of women in public life and the end of the “confinement of women to the private domestic world”. These were and are very important issue for women and for feminism. After the Regatta protest, women all around Australia began demonstrations, entering public bars and insisting on staying, and all around the world women were entering public life and insisting on their right to do so.

Thornton’s activism led to not only the bar protest, but to the formation of the Brisbane activist group Equal Opportunities for Women (EOW), which went on to successfully campaign for the elimination of the marriage bar within the Commonwealth Public Service. At that time any women employed in the public service were “deemed to have resigned” upon their marriage and were compensated with a week’s pay for every year of service to “compensate for the loss of her career”. The EOW concentrated on formal aspects of discrimination, including equal pay, jury duty, and public childcare services. Bill Hayden, the federal ALP member for Oxley and future Governor-General, was a member of EOW, and as an opposition backbencher brought forward a private members motion using the research undertaken by EOW that urged for both the elimination the marriage bar, as well as the institution of maternity leave. This action pushed the Government to make the necessary changes to the Public Service Act, in 1966, to end the marriage bar and introduce the first maternity leave legislation in Australia. The EOW had won.

But it was not enough for Thornton – her indomitable passion for social change led her to focus on changing not just laws, but social understanding. Thornton began teaching the first ever Women’s Studies course in Australia at the University of Queensland, with fellow academic and head of Sociology Paul Wilson in 1962. When Merle started working as an academic, the male and female staff had segregated common rooms, but Merle changed all that by simply sitting in the male staffroom. Apparently the male staff were too frightened of her to say anything, so the university quietly and without a fuss refurbished the women’s staff room, which became used for another purpose, and the male staff room simply became ‘the staff room’. Thornton also gave public lectures at UQ on sex education and the contraceptive pill, which had only recently become available for women in Australia, titled Contraception and the Humanising of Women.

Merle Thornton’s activism has had a profound and personal effect on my own life. Not only do I take the freedom to drink in a public bar as a given, or that I will retain employment upon marriage; I am also studying the university course that she founded.

Image: (2012) Nicole Maree

Just this year I had the great privilege of meeting Merle and sharing a drink with her and a crowd of fellow feminists in the ‘Thornton Room’ at the Regatta Hotel. We had successfully invaded the public ‘men’s space’ at the bar and were even using foul language – everything those opposed to women drinking in public bars had feared would happen.

Next time you’re having a drink in a public bar in Queensland, whether it’s the Regatta or not, raise your glass in honour of Merle and Ro – two truly great women who started the second wave.

~ Nicole Maree

References

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