A conversation with award-winning historian, author and media writer/presenter, Dr Clare Wright, about her latest book, You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World, Australian ‘exceptionalism’ and the hard work of writing.

Your latest book, You Daughters of Freedom, tells the story of Australia’s suffrage campaigners in the first decade or so after federation—the story is extraordinary in its own right, but also because it is largely absent from our national consciousness. How is this possible?

Well, that’s really the Epilogue in the book, where I step out of the narrative—told on the heels of the characters, watching events unfold from their perspectives—and put my historian’s hat back on. And this is more or less what I conclude: at the turn of the twentieth-century, Australian women may have been counted as citizens in this new and exciting nation, but they have not been sufficiently accounted for in mainstream histories of nation-building since.

Core popular narratives about our national political history remain depleted of women, despite decades of scholarship to retrieve and record their role as productive and reproductive agents of change. Women—not only their actions but their ideals, their aspirations—have hardly touched the sides of key stories of national generation. I think one of the key reasons why the history of idealism and experimentation has been lost to popular memory is that federation-era optimism was soon overshadowed by the cataclysm of World War I. 

A new dawn of political, industrial and social awakening was replaced, all too quickly, by the darkness of death and grief. For Australia, the cataclysm that was World War I precipitated the beginning of a new national narrative. In this story, Federation was a false dawn. It was, we are told, Australia’s participation in World War I—and specifically, the Gallipoli campaign—that proved our worth in the eyes of the world. Australia’s confidence as a nation, we are told, can been attributed to its performance in the Great War. This narrative has established the tendency to equate patriotism with military service, rather than with national traditions associated with progressive reform and democratic rights. 

But before 1914, before Gallipoli, young Australia had burst onto the global stage not only promising hope for a better future, but also delivering evidence of how that future might be gained. In the social laboratory of the Antipodes, Australian women and men had together come up with an experimental formula for robust democracy and had tested its results. Trial had not produced error. The sky had not fallen. The proof of concept was there for the world to see and to emulate.

Seen in this context, Gallipoli—with its militarist narrative of youthful sacrifice, not youthful optimism—was not the birth of the nation. It was the death of the nation we were well on the way to becoming. And Australia’s world-leading white women—as citizens, not soldiers—have been lost to that story.

As described by your publisher, You Daughters tells the Australian suffrage story through the eyes of the ‘redoubtable’ Vida Goldstein, ‘flamboyant’ Nellie Martel, ‘indomitable’ Dora Montefiore, ‘daring’ Muriel Matters, and the ‘self-effacing’ Dora Meeson Coates. While researching the book did you develop a particular affinity or frustration with any of the five? Who of them would you most like over for dinner?  

This is a bit like nominating your most-loved child! One is not supposed to play favourites. But I must admit I did develop very close and abiding ties with some of ‘my’ protagonists. I will always have a place in my heart for Vida Goldstein. She was the woman with whom I was most familiar before starting research for You Daughters. I had already featured Vida in two television documentaries I’d written for the ABC—Utopia Girls in 2012 and The War That Changed Us in 2014—and she was the subject of a long scholarly article I published in the international Journal of Women’s History. Vida is a force to be reckoned with; to my mind, as important a figure in Australian history as Alfred Deakin.  I’ve amassed quite a body of research on her now and my respect and admiration grows with every new nugget of information I find. To me, she’s part of the furniture.

So in some ways it was more fun getting to know the characters I’d never come across before researching You Daughters. In particular, Muriel Matters, who is a total gun. And Dora Meeson Coates, who is a reluctant heroine. Muriel always knew she wanted to make history; Dora M.C. kind of stumbled across her role in history. Both are fascinating women.

Nellie Martel was in some ways the most difficult to get a beat on though she played an incredibly important part in the suffrage movement in both Australia and England. She keeps popping up, like an Edwardian-era Forrest Gump, and then disappears entirely from the record. In the book I speculate why she bowed out of public life, but I’d love to know with some evidentiary certainty.

But of the Suffrage Five (as I’ve come to think of Vida, Muriel, Nellie and the Doras), it is Dora Montefiore with whom I enjoyed the most passionate research relationship. I just adored learning about this absolutely fascinating woman, who spoke and wrote in English, Russian and French; who was involved in a socialist sex scandal in her 50s; who barricaded herself in her London home for six weeks as a massively high profile tax resistance stunt; who travelled the world on the profits of her Australian property portfolio; who was the Australian representative of the Communist Party in the interwar years; should I go on?!

So, to answer your question, I’d like to write a full-scale biography of Dora Montefiore, but I’d like to have dinner with Vida. I’ve got so much to ask her…

You’ve noted elsewhere that the suffrage activists were of their time, which meant that in Australia they won the vote for white women only. In Britain, the issue of class was also at play given the property-based franchise, with some activists fighting for universal suffrage and others for extending to women the existing limited franchise. Does this tell us something about the politics of gender and class?

The story of women’s suffrage certainly tells us something about gender and race. Absolutely it does, and this is why You Daughters is a work of history, not of right-on feminist polemic. Can you have heroes who were also racists? Or if not racists in the way that we might use that term today, at the very least, people of their time, which means that their thinking was deeply racialised. For the most part they bought into the dominant ideology which maintained that ‘the British race’ was superior. The first-wave feminists were proponents of the White Australian Policy; if not actively campaigning for its legal establishment, then certainly not advocating against it.

The story is somewhat more complicated in relation to gender and class, because the largely middle-class leaders of the suffrage movement, both in Australia and in England and America, were intensely aware of their privilege, and wanted to use their education and financial security to win rights, freedoms and opportunities for working-class women and their children. Dora Montefiore was motivated to establish the first Womanhood Suffrage Society in Sydney after her husband died and she was advised by her lawyer that, as a widow, she didn’t have custody of her own children. Dora had the resources of the wealthy establishment Montefiore family behind her, but she felt deeply for those widows who had no such support. Vida was politicised after doing slum work in inner-city Melbourne with her feminist mother. And all the Australian women who went to lend their enfranchised hand to the British suffrage movement commented on the dreadful extent of poverty in England, contrasting it to the relatively universal affluence of Australia.

The unofficial motto of the British movement was ‘shoulder to shoulder’, reflecting the cross-class nature of the struggle for the vote.  And yet full adult suffrage was not one of the claims of the British Suffragettes, largely because not all British MEN had the vote. Australia—with universal adult suffrage (for non-Indigenous people)—was right out on its own there.

There’s a beautiful line late in You Daughters where you write that Australia was—in the period between Federation and the First World War—‘a nation that had reverse-colonised the landscape of ideas: the ideas of freedom, representation and democracy that were the cornerstones of the new twentieth-century democratic state.’ Using your words, can you see Australia regaining its ‘national self-consciousness as a country of leaders, thinkers and innovators’? What would it take?

This is the $64,000 question! It’s certainly the question I’m most frequently asked—always with a wry smile verging towards a grimace—when discussing this book: ‘so what happened?’ I find it really interesting that Gillian Triggs, in her just published book, Speaking Up, outlines what she calls ‘Australian exceptionalism’. Triggs, the former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, tells us that in 2014 the Law Reform Commission identified 121 Commonwealth laws that infringe our traditional democratic rights—and that’s not including laws that encroach on human rights such as administrative detention of asylum seekers and the mentally ill. Furthermore, Triggs cites fifty-two examples of legislative reversals of the presumption of innocence and the passage of seventy counter-terrorism laws since 2001, laws that work to erode our individual rights and liberties. 

‘Australia has been exceptional as a liberal democratic country’, argues Triggs, ‘in failing to give legal effect to the international human rights treaties by which it is bound’. If I was uttering the first part of that sentence, in relation to federation-era Australia, I would give it a completely different ending! So yes … what happened? What went so terribly wrong between 1901 and 2001 that the notion of Australian exceptionalism went from evoking the post-Eureka achievements of universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot and the eight-hour day, and the Federation-era achievements of full (white) adult suffrage, wage arbitration and other social legislation that saw Australian lead the world in democratic, industrial and welfare reform? Why did Australia go from being a global leader to a global lagger? You could write a whole book on that topic (and I hope somebody does!), but again I think it has something to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

The fact is that the Australian nation was not born on the blood-soaked beaches of a far-flung militarised zone but in the town halls and parliaments of our own blood-stained, colonised land. 

The work practices of successful writers are endlessly fascinating to others, particularly other writers. What is your writing routine? And how do you deal with those periods of, in your words, ‘extreme doubt’?

Well, for starters, I have never written a decent word before three o’clock in the afternoon. My morning brain is only fit for administrative stuff: email, meetings, checking references, university bureaucratic palaver. Then towards lunchtime I read over what I’ve written the day before. I edit, re-write, fine tune. Then I eat lunch and, if I’m sleepy, have a nap on my office floor. By mid-afternoon I’m ready to start writing, and I’ll write like the blazes for the next three or four hours. One night a week I’ll stay at work late—did I say I can only write in my office, never at home?—and really sink down deep into ‘the zone’. I often won’t emerge until 3am. The next day I’m wrecked, only capable of admin and editing, but it’s worth it for the long period of concentration and output. In this fashion, I wrote the first draft of You Daughters in sixteen weeks, producing ten thousand words a week. This was the first time I’d written to a publishing deadline. It’s brutal!

In terms of doubt, I had a shit-ton of it before starting writing this book. The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was unexpectedly successful: I knew my readers really loved it, because they told me so in heartfelt emails and scrawly hand-written letters. I’ve long since stopped worrying about what my academic peers think about my writing—or to put it another way, I’ve stopped ‘imagining a thousand foes’, as Greg Dening described the timidity and defensiveness of academic writing—but I did feel a huge sense of obligation not to let my rusted-on readers down with You Daughters.

The fear of failure was quite paralysing, really, until I asked Hannah Kent—who had phenomenal success with her first novel, Burial Rites—how she approached her second novel. She told me to be true to the story and to ‘find the wonder’ in it. That made the penny drop. The book was not about me. The book was about the story I had to tell.  And that story was incredible and totally full of wonder.  And so I just sat down and started at the beginning and ended at the end.

The writing was hard—because writing IS hard!—but I banished all doubt for the sake of the people I was writing about. I kept thinking: if they could fight for decades to win the vote for me and my daughter, the least I can do is write their story. What also kept me going was knowing that I had an exceptional editor in Mandy Brett at Text. I knew she was my safety net; if my writing got too high-faluting she’d bring me down to earth, in the best possible way. I feel like You Daughters was a team effort.

How on earth do you balance it all—the next book in the trilogy, the Future Fellowship project on Australian mining history, the TV series of Forgotten Rebels, the podcast series, etc etc…?

Like most of us, I get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. I fell over big time about ten years ago,[1] and since then I’ve learnt to step with more heed to my own self-care. I get eight hours of sleep a night, I nap when I’m tired—even at uni!—I ride my bike to work, I praise myself for the things that I am instead of punishing myself for what I am not, I spend all my spare time with my family, I count my many blessings. And my kids are well out of nappies now, which helps a lot!

About the Author

Clare Wright is Associate Professor of History and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University and the writer/presenter of ABC Radio National’s ‘Shooting the Past’ podcast series. She is the award-winning author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and 2014 NIB Waverley Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for many other awards. Her screenwriting credits include Utopia Girls: How Women Won the Vote (ABC) and The War That Changed Us (ABC), which received a Logie nomination for Most Outstanding Factual Series. 


Dr John Doyle is an associate of the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University, where he works with the Australian Policy and History Network, and an honorary research fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, where he is currently a researcher for the Head of School and also writing a book on the politics of Australian telecommunications reform.


[1] See: https://www.wheelercentre.com/notes/cf735fac97c5