27 November, 2007, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, Australia
Principal Garvey, teachers, students, parents, friends, distinguished guests – thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight. It is a great honour, and not a little daunting too. I well remember my own Macrob Speech Night in 1986 – good lord, 21 years ago, can that really be true? – and what an immense privilege it felt to be seated in this great hall, let alone gracing its stage.
The last time I addressed an audience of Macrob students was at a Monday morning General Assembly when I was in Year 11. I was the elected studentrepresentative on School Council and due to give my monthly report on Council business to the student body. I remember being seated on stage in the more modest school hall, waiting my turn while the Guest Speaker gave her talk. On this occasion the illustrious speaker was the novelist Helen Garner, the mother of one of my classmates. Her daughter, Alice, had recently conducted a survey of her friends on behalf of Helen, canvassing for ideas for the talk. What would we like to hear about? What could she possibly have to say that would stimulate and entertain a polyglot group of smarty-pants’s like us? ‘She can talk about anything she likes’, I said to Alice, ‘EXCEPT WOMEN. Anything but women! We know we’re wonderful. We know we can do anything’. With a dramatic roll of my eyes, I thus dismissed the logic of all those other notable women who had fronted up to our General Assemblies to inspire our dreams and ambitions with tales of their own achievements, and exhort us to make the most of our prodigiousskills and talents.
So after my indignant display of self-belief, I was deflated like a balloon when Helen began her speech like this: ‘With apologies to the girl who said she didn’t want to hear about women, that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about because I can’t think of anything more important’. Perched up on stage, trapped between Miss Blood and Mrs McNair with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, I felt a hot wave of humiliation wash over me. I hope that tonight I don’t come away feeling quite so vulnerable and exposed. If I look like a rabbit caught in the headlights of your scrutiny, at least you’ll know why.
Helen Garner later sent me a note – I have it still, folded tenderly in a little box of keepsakes – that explained why she had framed me like that. She was amazed and exhilarated, she said, to hear the almost wearied self-confidence and optimism of girls of her daughter’s generation. It made her feel, she said, like all the hard work of the women’s movement in which she’d so stridently struggled had been worth it after all if what had been created was a cohort of such headstrong, resilient girls.
I must admit that some two decades later, I look back on that self-assured teenager I was and marvel myself at her certainty in the inherent power and ability vested in her womanhood. I fear that some of the other intrinsic ‘features’ of womanhood that I have experienced, including infertility, traumatic child birth and postnatal depression, have knocked some of the stuffing out of that bright-eyed girl. It would, in certain respects, be easy for me to regale you with tales of my own professional successes: my academic qualifications, my accolades, my teaching experience, my writing career, my work in federal politics, my media appearances. Each of these areas has provided me with a great deal of personal satisfaction and a reasonable degree of public influence. I am proud of my efforts and believe that my contribution to scholarship and public culture – particularly in the arena of feminist history – has begun to repay the debt I feel I owe to society for the opportunities afforded by my first-rate publicly funded education, my dedicated teachers and my ever-supportive parents.
But I am also mindful of what happened at my twenty-year Macrob reunion last year, at which a few dozen of my fellow alumni buzzed around in the new school wing and filled in the gaps since we had thrown off our grey blazers and long socks for good. (Good riddance, we all said to long socks!) Now it was my turn to be amazed by the fact that none of us was particularly interested in what others were doing for a living. We all assumed that our talented former class mates had found fascinating, challenging vocations for themselves. ‘I’m a doctor’ or ‘I’m a lawyer’ rolled off the tongue, but did not make a lasting impact. Much to my surprise, what we lingered over were the pictures of each other’s children, secreted away in our wallets and handbags. ‘This is my Lucy, and here is my Sam. That was a few years ago now. Here they are at Luna Park. Lucy just lost her first tooth. Sam was in a dreadful mood that day’. The childless among us hung back, looking slightly chastened by the intimate sharing of birth stories and complicit laughter at our toddlers’ wild antics.
Was this 2006, or 1966? Hadn’t Germaine Greer claimed in her earth-shattering 1974 critique of patriarchy, The Female Eunuch, that biology is not destiny? Could she have been wrong? Greer, Garner and their international compatriots battled to change the attitudes and institutions that confined women to their roles as wives and mothers, limiting their participation in public life and confining their social purpose to one of reproduction. But judging by the enthusiasm that my former classmates showed for each other’s happy snaps, was it possible that the communal gratification in our experience as mothers outstripped pride in our professional achievements?
These are provocative and potentially dangerous questions to be posing. Women have, for over two hundred years, fought tooth and nail to overcome the prejudice and discrimination against their sex based on the notion that women are by nature best suited to the private sphere of home and family while men, by predetermined nature, are more appropriately stationed in the public sphere of commerce and industry. On the eve of the centenary of women’s suffrage in Victoria, we should not forget that only one hundred years ago, women could not vote in this state. Opposition to women’s citizenship rights was based on the idea that homes and families would be systematically destroyed if women were encouraged to take an interest in civic life. We can now laugh smugly at such a crazy notion – and yet there is still much work to be done before we finally break down all the barriers to women’s advancement within and enjoyment of the public sphere. Equal pay, paid maternity leaveand affordable, high quality child care will be campaigns my and your generation must win before we can claim that feminism’s work has been done. (And that is only in a wealthy country like ours, not even dreaming of raising the quality of life for women in developing nations where contaminated water kills five million people every year.)
So why would I want to raise the issue of women’s intense pleasure and satisfaction with their destiny as mothers when Helen Garner’s generation of feminists fought so hard, and so effectively, to break women free of the socially constructed prison of conventional femininity?
Well, I suppose it because I believe my time at Macrob equipped me very well for many aspects of my life. It buoyed my confidence in my intellectual capacities. It inspired my belief that I could go out into the world and do whatever the hell I wanted to do. It fostered a desire to make a difference. It nurtured a democratic temperament that valued other people for their humanity, not their background or their status. It developed qualities of independence and discipline and self-control. It taught me to respect myself and to respect the authority of women.
But what it did not do – and perhaps this is not the role of public education, even girls’ education in this day and age, and believe me I am not pointing the finger or laying blame – what my very fine, much beloved school did not do was prepare me for the parts of a woman’s life that have nothing to do with achievement or success or advancement or independence or mastery or control. What my non-professional experience of the world (thus far) has taught me is that life is not a performance sport. We can strive to be the best student, or the best doctor, or the best lawyer or the best historian, and there will be tests we can take – or paces we can put ourselves through – that will mark and measure our pre-eminence. We will be applauded and rewarded for our efforts. But if we try to measure the accomplishments of our womanhood, and particularly our motherhood, by the same paradigms of success and failure, we are bound, like Sisyphus, to fail. (Or, if it’s more apposite to evoke a Greek goddess, like Medusa, we are forever destined to have a bad hair day.) If we carry the principles and strategies of competition into our relationships, we inevitably come out the losers.
We have just witnessed an historic federal election that was very much, I believe, a contest fought over values. In the end, the electorate voted overwhelmingly to throw out a government that had sought to ingratiate into our culture the idea that ruthless disregard for the rights and principles of fairness and decency is justified by economic growth, material accumulation and unlimited consumption. We now have a female deputy prime minister who has vowed to restore some of the autonomy and social consideration that all families need to hold tight. Let us hope that the corporatist worship of private wealth and scorn for vulnerability will no longer set our public standards and drive our public processes. How does this aspiration relate to my message tonight? Well, I think the election results mirrors my strong sense that the prize at the top of the professional ladder can not be measured by economic value alone. As women, we cannot expect to buy our way out of the deficits in our physiology, or the chaos of our emotional lives, or the unexpected pitfalls that might appear before us. We can neither outsmart nor outspend the hard-wired contingencies of a woman’s life.
Let me make it quite clear that I am in no way advocating a return to the days when the shape and destiny of a woman’s life was predetermined by her sex. Women are wonderful and we can do anything. (Although possibly not all of us are wonderful enough to do everything all at once!) But, in the end, what will secure our wellbeing, I believe, are the social connections – the friends, the family, the partners and the children – with whom we can share our weaknesses as well as our strengths, our doubts as well as our knowledge, and our fears as well as our convictions.
Motherhood may seem a very long way off to most of you. The average age for first time mothers in Australia today is about 30, up by 3 and a half years since 1985. You can do the maths to work out how many more years it will be, if these demographic patterns continue, before most of you start your own families. And, if current trends persist, up to 25% of you will never become mothers at all. (So you’ll have to bring photos of your cat to your high school reunion.) Perhaps my reflections seem as irrelevant to you as Helen Garner’s talk about the 1970s women’s movement appeared to me twenty years ago.
Schools, like grandmothers, provide an important anchor point in the life of a young woman. I recently lost my 92 year-old grandmother. I had the honour of writing a eulogy for her funeral. If I may, I’d like to conclude with some of those words, spoken with love. ‘When I was feeling lost and alone as an 18 year-old travelling abroad, my grandmother consoled me with the words, “Always be true to yourself”. She didn’t mean that it was okay to be self-centred or individualistic; indeed throughout her long life my grandma showed through her deeds that she was committed to public service. What she meant was to trust in your heart and have faith in your judgment, staying true to your principles and beliefs’.
As you leave the familiar harbour of this venerable school, to chart new waters and navigate your own bold course, I hope that what you might stow away from my reflections tonight is a sense that to enjoy the full quality of life and experience that our affluent nation, our exemplary education and our hard-working feminist foremothers have provided us with, it is vital to nurture and develop the whole woman in you. It’s vital to care for your body and your spirit and your heart as well as your mind. And it’s vital to nourish and enrich the family, community and society in which you daily live through the practice of compassion and understanding.
Thank you again for inviting me here tonight. I wish you all well for your future success and happiness. And if you want to see the photos of my kids, I’ll show you later.
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