Merle Thornton’s Bringing the fight is published by HarperCollins.
Autobiography is not new to the genre of feminist writing. As Margaret Henderson stated in Marking feminist times: Remembering the longest revolution in Australia, autobiography, memoir and ‘life-writing’ play an important role in ‘expanding and realigning the historical and literary record’. Furthermore, Henderson contended that the modes of autobiography allow women ‘to provide feminist role models’. The front cover of Merle Thornton’s Bringing the fight positions Thornton as a role model— from the tagline, ‘before Germaine [Greer], there was Merle’, to the glowing endorsement from singer-songwriter Katie Noonan, ‘Merle inspires me’. In reading the first couple of pages, it is clear that Thornton is writing to the young women of today who may not understand how contemporary feminism grew from the women’s movements of the twentieth century. Ultimately Thornton would like her experiences to encourage the next generation of feminists and urges them to ‘take over’ and to ‘bring the fight’. While this may fit the convention of a feminist memoir, adhering to convention should not be taken as criticism. Thornton’s memoir proves that she is a feminist role model whom the next generation of feminists can look up to.
Thornton’s memoir feels like a timely publication. In recent years there has been an increase in the Australian public’s interest in the history of second wave feminism: from the response to historian Clare Wright’s suggestion on social mediafor a statue to commemorate Zelda D’Aprano’s chain-in to the Commonwealth Building, to the two–part Amazon Acres program on the History Listen program on ABC’s Radio National, as well as the publication of Iola Matthew’s memoir Winning for women: A personal story. And let’s not forget Brazen Hussies—a documentary that aims to ‘reveal’ the women’s liberation movement in Australia from 1965 to 1975—currently in production. What makes Thornton’s memoir truly stand out is the way that it takes us beyond what Henderson and Maryanne Dever have described as the ‘familiar south-eastern axis’ of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and introduces the beginning of second wave feminism in Brisbane to a broad audience.
Thornton’s memoir appears intended for a general audience. This is underscored by the accessibility of Thornton’s writing and the way that her book is organised in short chapters. In writing her memoir, Thornton has acknowledged that her son, Harold, helped to pinpoint some of the more precise details of her life. Thornton has also drawn on the transcript of her oral history interview with Henderson and Dever. In 2012, Henderson and Dever completed a project that involved placing Thornton’s personal papers in the National Library of Australia. They were motivated by a desire to ensure that Australia’s second wave feminist movement could be located in the archive and that researchers could access the accounts of activists who participated in this movement. Thornton’s personal papers, and the transcript of Thornton’s oral history interview, were intended to be released to the Library upon the completion of Bringing the fight. Read in this context, Thornton’s memoir offers an important contribution to a specialist’s understanding of second wave feminism in Brisbane and Thornton’s personal reflections and observations provide additional context to her archived material. In particular, her recollection of the 1971 nation-wide anti-apartheid demonstrations—which coincided with South Africa’s rugby tour of Australia—provides an important perspective on the unique impact that Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s state government had on social movements in Brisbane. While there was a high number of arrests in Sydney and Melbourne, a heavy police presence and the declaration of a state of emergency by Bjelke-Petersen were distinctive to the demonstration in Brisbane. Thornton’s account demonstrates how a protest in Brisbane could quickly turn from a ‘fun’ demonstration of dressing up as a witch and casting spells and hexes on antagonistic ‘rabble-rousers’, into a frightening experience of police brutality.
Thornton’s memoir begins with her recollections of growing up in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1930s and 1940s. She details memories related to family, religion, education and class. In moving into her early adulthood, Thornton discusses her enjoyment of undergraduate studies, the beginning of her relationship with Neil Thornton and her alignment with libertarianism. Thornton then sheds light on her early employment in public service, her marriage and children, moving to Brisbane, her involvement in Aboriginal rights, her interest in pursuing a postgraduate degree and her experiences in academia. Thornton does not shy away from the gendered discrimination that she experienced in the workplace and the barriers that she faced as a married woman with children. The narrative builds up anticipation to Thornton’s famous chain-in to the Regatta bar with Rosalie Bogner. Thornton and Bogner both recognised that the exclusion of women from the public bar not only infantilised women but that it also prevented women from socialising with their male peers and co-workers, ultimately making it harder for women to advance in their careers. Thornton tipped off the press and the protest subsequently attracted a lot of attention. Not all of this attention was kind or encouraging, as both Thornton and Bogner were subjected to hostile phone calls, and disgruntled letters to the editor were printed in The Age and Courier-Mail. After the Regatta pub protest, Thornton details her work with the Equal Opportunities for Women Association, travelling overseas, further experiences in postgraduate studies and academia, feminist and women’s liberation activism in Brisbane in the seventies, the development of women’s studies, motherhood and her appointment to the National Film and Sound Archive Advisory Committee.
Bringing the fight is a timely and important contribution to our understanding of second wave feminism in Australia. While Thornton is most well-known for her chain-in to the Regatta bar, her memoir demonstrates that her achievements— as a feminist, a libertarian and an academic—are far more extensive. Thornton writes in a way that is both cheeky and endearing; I found the book impossible to put down.