The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Posts Tagged ‘motherhood’

Women We Love: Judith Wright

Posted by Nic Heath on June 3, 2010

“I wither and you break from me;
yet though you dance in living light
I am the earth, I am the root,
I am the stem that fed the fruit,
the link that joins you to the night.”

From ‘Woman to Child’ (1949), by Judith Wright

Judith Wright (1915-2000) was an acclaimed Australian poet also known for her environmental activism and as a campaigner for Aboriginal rights. I recently read Wright’s memoir Half A Lifetime and was captivated by her independence and the determination of her younger self to forge her own way.

Wright was born in Armidale in 1915. She attended New England Girl’s School and later studied at Sydney University. Wright left Sydney and spent the middle years of the Second World War in NewEngland before moving to Brisbane in 1943 where she found work at the University of Queensland. In 1946 Wright’s first book of poetry, The Moving Image, was published. In 1950 Wright moved to Mount Tambourine with her future husband Jack McKinney, and that same year Wright gave birth to their daughter Meredith. Jack McKinney died in 1966 and Wright lived in Braidwood, NSW until her death in 2000.

Wright was born 95 years ago on May 31, and to mark the day I have asked Sydney University’s Dr Brigid Rooney to answer a few questions about the legacy of this remarkable, unconventional poet, and particularly about Judith Wright’s relevance to women today.

What was remarkable about Judith Wright?

Judith Wright was remarkable, first and foremost, for the brilliance of her poetry – publication of her first two volumes, The Moving Image (1946) and Woman to Man (1949), met with almost instant acclaim, and many Australians (of various generations) encountered several striking poems from these early works when we were at school – such as ‘South of My Days’ (1945) and ‘Woman to Man’ (1946). She continued to produce remarkable poetry beyond these first collections, but they are perhaps less widely known, although increasingly some of the later poems and collections have become iconic for environmentalists and Indigenous groups – such as ‘Eroded Hills’ (1951), ‘At Cooloolah’ (1954) and ‘Two Dreamtimes’ (1973). Indeed her collection, The Two Fires (1955), was inspiration for a festival of arts and activism (established in 2005) in the NSW town of Braidwood where Wright lived during the last decades of her life. But she also offered an example of someone for whom the values relayed in her poetry seemed to fuse entirely with the choices and commitments she made in both her personal and her public life. She became a tireless campaigner for Indigenous and environmental causes, and – although she worked largely behind the scenes, writing letters, administering committees, lobbying politicians and so on – hers was also an influential voice for these causes in Australian public life, partly by virtue of the respect and admiration engendered by her poetry. Her poetry and public roles were reciprocal and mutually reinforcing.

What does Wright’s poetry offer a feminist analysis? What are the feminist themes that run through Wright’s work?

Some of my answer to this is contained in my response to your last question. I have many favourites among her poems. Wright’s poetry offers a powerful exploration of experiences that pertain particularly to the female body and female-oriented experiences of ‘time’ and of life cycles – of death and birth, of pregnancy, and desire, and the interconnections and rhythms of these processes or states. Her very acute observation of the natural world – of the land, of its plants and animals, its birdlife, of the seasons and the elements – is often mediated by this gendered experience. She moves from enclosed, intense, private and individual experiences, through symbolism, outwards toward that which touches the universal human condition. Her voice is captivating, magnetic, yet her versifying is often quite traditional, looking back to her favourite poetic models – the Romantics in particular, like Blake, Keats and Shelley, yet also to some of the modernists, like Yeats and Eliot. These male literary progenitors provided a poetic framework, but what she does with this framework is to convert and transform it to express a woman’s experience. Later she experimented with other poetic forms, from other cultures, from Japan and elsewhere, and they sit alongside these Anglo, often patriarchal models, quietly interrogating a world that operates too rationally and mechanistically to divide body from spirit, human from nature, and so on. From a feminist point of view, Wright’s work is both productive and ambivalent, an occasion for reflecting on the relationship – or tension – between traditional poetic forms or modes and her distinctive qualities of voice, imagery and thought.

What was the relationship between Wright and second wave feminism?

In summary, Wright was a very sympathetic supporter of feminism, and spoke from her position as a woman and as a feminist sympathiser. She did not become deeply or personally involved in activist forms of feminist campaigning. She was much in demand as a speaker, however, at literary and other public events, and she canvassed her views on the topic of women and writing, for example, at an Australian Society of Women Writers’ Biennial Conference in 1980.
In Half a Lifetime, Wright relates her bitterness at realising the different destinies open to boys and girls and yet as an adult she devoted herself to environmental and indigenous causes, particularly after she stopped writing poetry. Do you have any idea why she didn’t invest herself in the feminist movement?

This is a tough one and my thoughts on this come from my overall impression of Wright’s life choices and her writing. I think that her lesser engagement with feminism, despite her obvious sympathy with feminist goals, was partly to do with her generational position and experience, and partly to do with her own personality, inclinations and orientation towards others. Wright was a fiercely independent and strong-minded woman, yet in some ways typical of a generation of Australian women (if not also of other white, middle class women in other first world nations) whose careers fell between the two public surges of activism associated with first and second wave feminism. For this generation, youth and maturity encompassed two world wars and the Depression, and they had to negotiate separately and individually the complexities these circumstances brought for women around social destiny and career path. Judith Wright, as the fifth generation descendant of a white pioneering family, however, was also born into a privileged landed class. This circumstance imbued her with a double sense, of closeness to the land, and an increasingly acute awareness of the illegitimacy of white belonging, its basis in the historic dispossession of Aboriginal people. So care for the land and redressing the wrongs done to Aboriginal people were understandably her sustained and driving commitments and top priorities.

I also think that, for Wright, a more vigorously activist approach to feminism would not have been completely congenial, in personal and emotional terms. She was dutiful towards and bonded with a number of men in her life, yet also perfectly capable of standing up for herself and for her views. It seems to me that, in the earlier part of her life at least, she enjoyed loving connections with often mature, older men, either within her own family (father and brothers), or role models and life partners. She had deep, loving and lifelong friendships with a number of women of course, including her daughter, Meredith. Her first life partner and later husband, Jack McKinney, a World War One veteran and self-taught philosopher, was very much her senior in age. His philosophical orientation and passion attracted her. She took on and championed his in some ways eccentric intellectual endeavours, and his ideas entered her poetry. Her poems engage seriously and deeply with McKinney’s ideas, giving them a life and longevity that they might not otherwise have achieved on their own. It is clear from their letters that Judith and Jack enjoyed a profoundly loving relationship. After his death, and at a time when she had assumed both governmental and activist roles in the areas you mention, she developed another very close relationship and intellectual partnership with one of Australia’s most senior and influential public servants, H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs – knowledge of their relationship was long confined to themselves and a small inner circle but more recently, belatedly, has been revealed in the public domain. None of this ever precluded Wright’s interest in and sympathy for feminism, but I think that these orientations and positions militated against her making a very strong investment in the feminist movement as such.

What is her legacy to Australian women today?

I think Wright’s poetry, which conveys a woman’s perspective without being ‘feminine’ in a simple, domesticated sense, is perhaps her greatest legacy. It’s a legacy made more powerful and resonant through the energy with which she also contributed to and advanced those twin public causes – of caring for the environment and dealing with the ongoing impact of Australia’s colonial past and present. Her poetry – not just her miraculous early poetry but right through to the work of her maturity and older age – conveys the wisdom and experience of life, of birth, of love, and of the self in dialogue with the other. It possesses extraordinary lyrical power, a vivid clarity and an emotional truth that surely means it will continue to be loved by women (and by men), young and old, for a long time to come. Wright’s poetry is a legacy for all, but I suspect it holds a particular power for women. She has inspired innumerable younger women – especially poets and others – through her writing and her activism. I think women often pass their appreciation of Wright on to other women, to their daughters, and even to their sons. Inseparable from this legacy is the evidence of her active commitment to making the world a better place for both women and men, and for present and future generations. At times she expressed pessimism, in the face of the threats to humanity and to the natural world that she apprehended all around, and in some of her thinking in these areas she was ahead of her time. But her response to these threats was not to withdraw, but to engage and act, and this example might also be her legacy.

Brigid Rooney
27 May 2010

Many thanks to Dr Brigid Rooney for both her time and her wonderful response.


Posted in Interviews, women we love | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The contentious debate about pain relief during childbirth

Posted by Nic Heath on July 20, 2009

Dr Denis Walsh, one of Britain’s leading midwives, caused a global furore last week when he spoke out against the ‘epidural epidemic’ currently sweeping the UK. Dr Walsh claims, among other things, 20 per cent of epidurals are given to women who don’t need them, and advocates alternative methods of pain relief during labour such as yoga and birthing pools.

Despite being reported by the BBC as saying in some cases epidurals are very useful, Dr Walsh’s comments have been taken as a personal insult by women all over the internet.

The collective outrage has been fed by provocative and misleading headlines:

Just put up with pain of childbirth: UK professor Dr Denis WalshHerald Sun

Male Midwife Tells Women Take Pregnancy Pain Without DrugsFox News

Dr Walsh’s comments seem to have struck a sensitive seam of guilt felt by many women in relation to childbirth. The many stories and blog posts on the web about the issue have drawn thousands of comments from readers, and many mothers speak defensively about guilt and of being judged.

 Remola from Wagga on a Herald Sun forum:

“All I can say is I AM A SUPER MUM just for being a mum and I’m happy to say I took the drugs 2 yrs ago and I will take them again if I feel the need despite what is said.”

Mammamia reader claystep asks “do mothers really need more stuff to feel guilty about??”

Another point of contention is Dr Walsh’s gender.

Liz45 on Crikey:

“To have a male carry on in this manner is just too ludicrous for words. What the hell would he know? … He can say what he likes, safe in the knowledge that he’ll never have to experience it!”

Mia Freedman struck up the refrain, ‘no uterus, no opinion’, in her blog post on the subject, ‘Brave man tells women in labour to toughen up because pain relief is for wussbags’, which many of her readers reiterated.

This is surely a counterproductive and reactionary response to Dr Walsh’s comments, not to mention one that is plain sexist. The reasoning behind it is dangerously exclusionary. It’s too easy to substitute one element and end up with something much more malevolent – say, ‘no uterus, no admission’ etc. Suddenly such logic is pretty clearly discriminatory.

It is the sort of thinking that many feminists have been seeking to overturn for years – when applied to circumstances such as the role of women in professional sport like AFL.

Dr Walsh is a senior midwife and associate professor in midwifery at Nottingham University, a good reason to take into account his opinion, and there have of course been more rational responses to his views.

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists president Dr Ted Weaver:

What we want to get away from is the sort of maternity care where mothers are given an epidural to shut them up so they can…be baby-sat while the labour progresses.

Alison Bailey commenting on Crikey:

“As women, we have been inculcated to believe that childbirth is a horrible and scary experience full of pain and fear. It is well known that fear increases pain and no doubt also increases the number of women opting for epidural, regardless of how their labour may or may not go.”

This whole episode raises a number of questions – like why have women reacted so strongly to a man recommending more options for women during childbirth, while actions to limit choice – the new restrictions on homebirths – have been almost entirely unremarked upon? Why would a woman feel guilty about her labour? And what can be done to make childbirth a more positive experience for women?

Posted in Media Watch, Parenting & Family, reproductive rights, Women's Health | Tagged: , , , , | 13 Comments »

The Latest On Government-Funded Parental Leave

Posted by Clem Bastow on September 30, 2008

With Australia being the only OECD country other than the United States that doesn’t have some form of compulsory paid-parental leave, one could be forgiven for thinking that Parliamentary debate on the topic has been pitifully slow. Well, presently a number of reports have indicated that such a scheme is needed in Australia (a nation says, “duh!”), and the Productivity Commission has put forward a proposal that would see working couples (both hetero and same sex, which makes a nice change) who have a baby given up to $11,854 in paid leave, rather than the existing $5000 baby bonus. The bonus would be remodelled as a “maternity allowance” for stay-at-home mums.

The 18-week scheme would be at the adult minimum wage of about $544 a week, and would be expected to benefit about 140,000 mothers a year. Mothers would be able to share the paid leave with their partners, but only if they were deemed the primary carer. An extra two weeks of paid leave would be available to fathers or same-sex partners.

Only those who have been in the workforce for at least 12 months would be eligible for the proposed scheme, which would cover the self-employed, contractors, and part-time and casual workers. Employers would be “paymasters” of the scheme, initially making the payments and then being reimbursed by the Government.

Women who are not in the workforce would be eligible for a $5000 “maternity allowance”, replacing the baby bonus. They would also get family tax benefit B and their partners would still be eligible for the two weeks’ paid leave reserved for fathers.

Both Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull have flagged their support for the proposals, but many – including Liberal families spokesman Tony Abbott – have suggested that the proposals are skewed towards working mothers, with stay-at-home mums getting a bum deal.

“I would have very serious reservations about a government-funded scheme that isn’t matched by equal government benefits for mothers who aren’t in the paid workforce,” Mr Abbott said.

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Posted in Family, Media Watch, Politics, Women's Health | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

That’s ‘Essential Baby’, Not ‘Get A Load Of These Babies’

Posted by Clem Bastow on September 19, 2008

Essential Baby is Fairfax Digital’s web presence for mums and parents, covering all things baby – from pregnancy to Baby Crocs (god, I sound like a marketing executive). So it figures, then, that they would run a story about the breastfeeding rates of various countries (apparently Norway is beating Australia 90% to 65% when it comes to breastfeeding, largely because that country provides better support to breastfeeding mothers, according to the experts questioned in the piece). It’s quite an interesting insight into the way certain countries choose to assist (if at all) mothers who choose to breastfeed.

Which is why I am having trouble working out why the Fairfax Digital team decided it would be best to create this little graphic/blurb to use on The Age Online as a click-through feature:

A note to the design team: babies are suckling on them, not FHM readers.

Posted in Family, Media Watch, Sexist Stock Photo Watch, Women's Health | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Tick Tock Goes The Biological Clock

Posted by Clem Bastow on September 11, 2008

The idea of women having a ‘biological clock’ when it comes to having babies has long been a favoured punchline in the battle of the sexes (not to mention television situational comedy and chick lit). But is it a compelling reality (for some women) driven by, well, biology, or simply a societal pressure that has made its way into our collective subconscious? A group of NSW researchers seem to believe it’s the former:

The Garvan Institute of Medical Research is targeting professional Sydney women aged between 25 and 35, warning that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is not enough to preserve fertility, and IVF cannot be considered a fail-safe back-up plan.

Newtown gynaecologist Gabrielle Dezarnaulds said women have a fixed number of eggs to last them a lifetime and fertility drops sharply from the late 30s as the number and quality of eggs dwindle.

Success rates for assisted reproductive technology also decline the longer a woman’s biological clock has been ticking, she said.

“I’m not saying you should get pregnant before a set age, but go and chat to your GP, even if you’re not aiming to get pregnant immediately. Work out a time frame when you might start to, and if you are ready to have a baby, get on with it.”

Generally speaking, when research/opinions like these are aired, there is always a bristling amongst women (myself included) who sometimes feel it paints them as little more than baby factories who need to get cracking; the former Howard Government’s “one for you, one for the country” initiatives did little to ease these worries.

But is it worth considering what bearing waiting to have children may have on those of us who choose to have babies? There is something to be said about scientific (rather than societal) ideas of when the female body is most fertile. What are your thoughts on the issue – do you have a biological clock, and is it ticking?

Posted in Family, Media Watch, Sex And Love, Women's Health | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Sunday Tele Waggles Its Judging Finger At Four-Star Mums

Posted by Clem Bastow on July 27, 2008

You know what? However a woman chooses to have a baby, whether at home, in a hospital, underwater, with loads of drugs, no drugs at all, vaginally or via caesarean, or in a spaceship cubby with pan-pipes playing and a Batman mask on, that’s her choice (and her partner’s). So what a joy to see the Sunday Telegraph come up with this doozy of a graphic to illustrate their story on ‘maternity hotels’:

Let’s see, what can we count here: there’s the odious “What Recession?” moral/economic judgment based on the apparent frippery of mothers choosing to give birth in a “luxury” environment. There’s the naff sexualisation of the mother-to-be in the photo via the headline made to conjure up thoughts of porno mags (“Penthouse Beach Babes”). Assuming the woman in the photograph is Cinta Taylor, who is interviewed in the story, how do you think she would feel about this bit of photo editing?

‘Maternity hotels’ are nothing new; there are options at certain Melbourne hospitals to have one night in the ward proper after giving birth, and then transferring to a hotel nearby with a nurse and midwife on standby; Sofitel Melbourne and Frances Perry House offer one such program, with costs covered by private health funds (in other words, in this instance, the Tele‘s “what recession” gripe is redundant). It’s just another option in the myriad options available to prospective mothers, and I have absolutely no problem with it whatsoever. But like any new concept in obstetrics, the ‘maternity hotel’ has its detractors and supporters; from the Tele article:

Australian College of Midwives president Professor Pat Brodie said anecdotal feedback from interstate was that women enjoyed the luxuries of a hotel while having midwifery care.

“Midwives providing post-natal care in a social setting like a hotel would appreciate the opportunity to provide continuity of care, get to know the woman and offer advice and support,” Professor Brodie said.

“Sometimes that’s difficult in busy post-natal wards.”

This is not a perfect answer to the problems of hospital crowding, nor is it the definitive way to have a baby. But if a mother-to-be has an uncomplicated birth and decides to spend the first few days of baby bonding in a four-star hotel room, I see no reason why she should be chastised for apparently spending too much, or for – heavens above – giving herself and her partner and newborn a treat. I am not one of those “motherhood is the most amazing thing any woman can do” people, but you know, if you do do it, well done you – have some room service and a pay-per-view new release! You’re worth it!

There are already too many value judgments made on mothers (see ‘too posh to push’, to breastfeed or not, blah, blah, blah) and I can see that this is just another excuse for the conservative media to tut-tut at mothers, who just can’t seem to please anyone these days.

Posted in Family, Media Watch, Women's Health | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

When Child Stars Turn Into, Uh, Um… Great Women?

Posted by Lee on June 27, 2008

I’ll admit it, I never used to like Christina Aguilera very much. A dislike that can can be vouched for by editor Clem Bastow who I have shared many a debate over the years about Christina’s merits as an artist and a female entertainer/role model.

I didn’t understand her chap-wearing provocations and overt need to talk about her sexual awakenings every time she spoke to a journalist a few years back.

But these days, I have grown very fond of lil’ Xtina. Motherhood, a friendship group that doesn’t include Paris Hilton and a more sophisticated approached to her sexuality has served her well the in not just the public’s esteem, but also my own.

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