Jacquelyn Baker interviews Kath Kenny, author of Staging a Revolution: When Betty Rocked the Pram (Perth: Upswell, 2022).
Congratulations on the publication of Staging a Revolution, Kath! Your book tells the story of Betty Can Jump—a play produced by the Carlton Women’s Liberation Group and performed at the Pram Factory in 1972—and follows five major players: Claire Dobbin, Helen Garner, Evelyn Krape, Yvonne Marini and Kerry Dwyer. What motivated you to write this book?
About five or six years ago, I started to notice (as did many other observers) the way feminism was having a resurgence in the media and in publishing: everywhere you looked, it seemed, women were telling personal stories. Women’s testimonies about their lives only grew with the rise and viral spread of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement online. I started wondering about that second wave phrase ‘The Personal is Political’, and I thought it would be interesting to understand how second wave feminists told their personal stories. Around the same time, the author Bernadette Brennan devoted a few pages in her literary biography of Helen Garner, A Writing Life, to a 1972 play at the Pram Factory called Betty Can Jump, in which the cast performed monologues about how they felt ‘as women’. Garner performed in the play and wrote some of the play’s most affecting scenes – her first writing for the general public – and that experience, and the rapt responses of women in the audience who were seeing their lives on stage reflected back to them, was formative in Garner’s development as a writer. I wanted to know more, and I tracked down the director of Betty Can Jump, Kerry Dwyer, and discovered she had kept the most extraordinary archive of materials – production diaries, interviews with the cast and crew, and meeting notes. I quickly realised these materials would allow me to reconstruct an engrossing narrative. There were descriptions of early consciousness raising meetings at Garner’s house, a visit by an American actress who led women from the Carlton Women’s Liberation Group and the Pram Factory through exercises where they had to finish the phrase ‘As a women I feel like… ‘ (Helen Garner was freaked out, but she managed to stay and improvise feeling like a ‘piece of elastic that is stretched and stretched and stretched’). There were vivid descriptions of planning meetings for Betty at the Pram Factory (in one early meeting, a 1970s mansplainer ran around brandishing copies of the script, telling the assembled women they wouldn’t get anywhere “without help from us men”). And there were testimonies about women in the audience who laughed and cried during the show, shocked to see their lives represented on stage. There was also an amazing cast of characters that demanded my attention, including a 23-year-old Carmen Lawrence: her then partner, Vic Marsh, was cast to play the show’s male characters, and she would sometimes sit and watch rehearsals, giving the cast advice on how to knit the historical and contemporary elements of the play from the scaffolded seats at the Pram Factory – when she wasn’t busy helping to establish the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), which played a key role in bringing the Whitlam government to power later that year.
Despite the success of the play, Betty Can Jump has often been relegated to the footnotes of Australian feminist history. Why do you think this has been the case?
One reason is that theatre is an ephemeral artform. The short films, bands, theatre and art exhibitions which were such a big part of what has been called ‘the cultural renaissance’ of second wave feminism were bound to specific times and places, to individual performances or screenings. The written word has an advantage in its ability to be circulated at greater distances and for longer periods, and the women’s movement is often remembered as a very literary movement, one characterised by an outpouring of women’s writing in books and journals and newsletters. And yet as I describe in my book, the women behind Betty Can Jump researched some of the same history of women in colonial settler Australia that Anne Summers did in her 1975 Damned Whores and God’s Police. Three years before Summers’ book was released, the Betty women hit upon the same criticism of the way Australian women were consigned to one of two roles: a woman was either a whore or a saint. Another reason is the way that history – even histories of collective movements such as feminism, which eschewed celebrities and celebrated the collective – tends to focus individuals, on their actions and work. Betty Can Jump was a collective creation, so there was no star author to help sustain its afterlife in our historical memory.
Staging a Revolution is a work of narrative non-fiction. Why did you choose this genre?
I’ve worked as a journalist, an essayist and an arts reviewer, and I’ve always tended to blend different styles in my writing, including memoir (perhaps with the exception of a formal piece of academic writing). And my academic training is in cultural and gender studies, where there has often been more leeway to play with different writing modes and experiments. From a personal perspective, I was a baby in the early 1970s, when second wave feminism was changing the world for my generation; later, I was one of the young feminists who clashed with Helen Garner over her investigation into sexual harassment accusations against the master of Ormond College. So, I had a stake in the story, and it seemed to me that it would be false to pretend to be a disembodied or disinterested narrator. It seemed more interesting to me to write a book that uses all of these different knowledges and experiences and perspectives – as an academic researcher who can bring some rigour to the work, as a journalist who can uncover interesting stories and details through interviews and investigation, as a memoirist who can reflect on my own investments in the story, and as a theatre reviewer who could make connections between what women were doing on stage in the 1970s and theatre that women are making today. My publisher Terri-ann White established Upswell as an imprint committed to publishing trade titles that defy easy categorisation, and that make a contribution to the culture: ‘books that last’. I wanted to write a book that would interest both scholars and general readers, a book that was not simply a history, literary criticism or memoir or even a feminist argument, although my book, at different points, includes elements of all of these genres.
Impermanent events of 1970s Australian feminist activism were often elusive to capture and have sometimes been difficult to recount by those who were there. You have done a terrific job in capturing and telling the story of this transitory event. What was the most difficult aspect of telling the story of Betty Can Jump?
The archives I encountered were a treasure trove of so many fascinating stories and characters. If I found one thing difficult, it was deciding what to include and what to leave out: I needed enough detail to vividly bring the story to life, without overwhelming the reader with minutiae and stalling the narrative pace (the historical and social context I give at times seemed necessary, but too much can slow the narrative pace, so it’s about trying to find a balance).
Your book clearly shows that the women behind Betty Can Jump spearheaded the feminist cultural renaissance in Melbourne. What do you think is the importance of cultural disruption and cultural transformation?
I like a quote from Margaret Henderson, a scholar of Australian feminism, who says that cultural actions and works can act ‘as a vanguard for the creation of a women’s culture and feminist social order,’ carving out oppositional female cultures, and creating windows into alternative ways that social and political life might be organised. When the cast of Betty Can Jump satirised gender roles with exaggerated clothes and behaviour, and adopted male personas, they were estranging audiences from the ordinary and the taken-for-granted. In one scene the women attached fake penises in jock straps to their costumes and played ocker men in a pub, in another scene Evelyn Krape dressed Yvonne Marini in a ludicrous bridal outfit of a giant wedding ring around Yvonne’s neck, a gag with a smiling mouth painted on it over her mouth, and blinkers on the sides of her eyes. Yvonne wears huge high heels, ten sizes too big, a rubber glove stole and a bra with a baby’s milk bottle and plastic nipples attached. In exaggerating and mocking gender roles and behaviours, they were suggesting that gender is a performance, and therefore something that could be changed. I think in some ways they were pre-empting Butler’s now famous proposition that gender is not a ‘noun’ or a fixed identity, not ‘a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed’. I think is also important to remember that performance and disruptive spectacle were important ingredients of the women’s movement’s social and political activism from the very beginning. In 1968 protestors at the Miss America pageant had marched a live sheep on the boardwalk outside the venue and crowned it Miss America. In Australia students at the Australian National University entered a cow wearing a ‘charming black and white coat’ in the Miss University competition in 1971. Zelda D’Aprano was photographed chained to Melbourne’s Commonwealth Building in 1969; and women planned stunts where they boarded Melbourne trams and insisted on paying seventy-five per cent of the fare (what women were paid as a proportion of men’s wages) to draw attention to the issue of pay inequality. The elements of spectacle and theatre grabbed the attention of the media and captured the imaginations of spectators. And the women involved in Betty frequently talk about how the experience – of creating work with other women for the first time, about their own lives – was a watershed moment, one where they discovered and developed their talents, gained confidence and, for the first time, created a “culture for women.”
Your last two chapters slightly shift the focus away from Betty Can Jump to look more closely at one performer, Helen Garner. These chapters question the generational clash, or mother-daughter battle, which was wrought by the publication of Garner’s controversial book, The First Stone. What prompted you to rethink your involvement in this clash as a young feminist and what potential do you see in feminists speaking across generations?
Recently I started thinking about how often the media likes to tell a story of feminism as a series of fights between feminist waves, or mother-daughter battles. Young feminist writers and activists deride the older generation’s supposed lack of sophistication. Older generations, meanwhile, will often express feelings of betrayal and disappointment that their radicalism and example are being discarded and their achievements trivialised. Before The First Sone was released, two major weekend newspaper features framed the book as a story of a great generational battle between women. I read the book in that framework in the 1990s, but when I reread it again more recently, I read it as a more nuanced and less certain book than I remembered.
I think these generational battles are distractions, and I think it suits patriarchy quite well to see women fighting.
When I read issues of MeJane, the 1970s women’s liberation newspaper produced in Sydney, I was astounded at how contemporary many of the stories seemed: they covered issues such as the double shifts at work and home that working class women do, the plight of Vietnamese students in Australia during the war, the specific issues faced by migrant women, the power relationships between straight women and queer women (or what we would call queer women today). The final issue of Mejane, in 1974, included stories making connections between women’s health and the environment, water supply and food security. During a recent London School of Economics panel that problematised the idea of ‘feminist waves’ Avtar Brah (2019) criticised the wave metaphor for setting up false divisions between feminist generations, and for unhelpfully homogenising feminists within each wave of feminism. Clare Hemmings (2019) concurred, adding that ‘recognising shared desires across place and time…might be more powerful than the psychic imperative to kill the mother’. We might not always agree, but I think we have a responsibility to try to understand each other across generational differences. And that’s something I respect in Garner’s work and her approach: the desire to always maintain the conversation, to try to reach a better understanding.
If there was one lesson or takeaway that you would like feminists to walk away with after reading Staging a Revolution, what would it be?
That understanding our history better – what worked, what didn’t – is one way to avoid revolutions that take us around in circles, and into revolutions that take us somewhere else.