An Interview with my Mother

On Christmas Day, my mother and I had a brief spat. The point of friction was that I was enjoying a re-run of Mean Girls and, as the time approached 7.20pm, I hadn’t turned over to the ABC yet.

“Can’t I just get it up on YouTube for you later, Mum?”

“But it’s the QUEEN! We’re missing THE QUEEN’S CHRISTMAS MESSAGE!”

This illustrates the clash of cultures between a mother and daughter separated by 45 years of age. My Mum seriously still cares about the Queen.


I was an accident. At 45, my Mum had two sons (aged 20 and 23) who were somewhat on the cusp of leaving home. Then, the surprise of her lifetime happened. At her age, she was discouraged from continuing the pregnancy: the risk of my being disabled was 1 in 5 and Mum found herself negotiating for my life based on hypothetical scenarios. But with the fierce determination she is often underestimated as having, she signed up for the commitment of bringing up another human.

Her own mother had passed away a few years earlier, and had apparently mused that she always thought my mother would have a little girl. A demure, sweet and shy little girl.

I asked my Mum yesterday how she would describe me. Impetuous. Headstrong. Driven. Bossy.

It’s ironic that my name’s Hebrew meaning is the pleasant one.


I feel like we both love each other very much but there’s some invisible elephant between us, preventing the truth and honesty that comes from vulnerability. I feel that this might revolve around the question of “what it is to be a good girl”. Can I explore this with you?

– Email to Mum, January 2018

I decided to sit down with Mum and talk about the gap between us – not only of generations but of social norms.

We talked for hours. Primly, with pen and paper readied and having messaged me at least five times in advance of our ‘casual chat’ asking how she could prepare, Mum sat with excellent posture warily bracing for the inquisition. We talked about growing up in a big country town in the fifties, marrying in the early sixties and raising children for the next forty years.


Did Mada (my family’s name for my maternal grandmother) enjoy being a housewife?

Oh no, she hated it. Absolutely hated it.

How did you decide upon your career?

I was told to do Commercial (a course of useful secretarial skills, like shorthand, typing and accounting) and I cried myself to sleep.

But there was no resistance?

No, we just accepted it. 


Her posh girls’ school seems to have emphasised ladylike behaviour as much as it did education. Demureness and deference is how Mum describes it. She still tuts disapprovingly at female presenters sitting crossed-legged – a 1950s reflex she can’t shake. She still pathologically puts herself second to her husband and her children.

I can think of at least a dozen opportunities I have missed in life because I didn’t want to offend . A job at the school, teaching music… I guess I didn’t want to make a fuss.

Mum mentioned being terribly aware of the toll the Depression and World War II had taken on her family – a father fighting in PNG, a mother raising children alone terrified of invasion, of having to share an egg, a luxury, with her brother – I wonder if the vividness and immediacy of that parental sacrifice made it harder to challenge the set course of social expectation.

So many stories Mum told were laden with heaviness of duty, of lost opportunity, of barely concealed sadness. Of female teachers, ‘spinsters’, who had never married when so many men didn’t return after the Great War. Of insecurity from illness – deadly influenzas, the commonness of death in childhood. Of accepting, and getting on with it.


How did second wave feminism and the sexual revolution affect your life?

I wasn’t terribly aware of it. If it wasn’t in the Women’s Weekly I didn’t hear about it.

Have you read Simone de Beauvoir’s the Second Sex?

No. I don’t think that came to Rockhampton.


When we turned to talking about me, Mum’s internal conflict became clearer. She yearned to give me the education, freedom and confidence that she was denied, yet the impact of these things scared her. She was a product of her time, and had found safety and comfort in the roles she was given.

What worries Mum most is my anger.

In her life, if someone caused her offence, if someone did something to her that she didn’t like, she felt she had little recourse but to sit and fume. In an era where women teachers were only offered temporary contracts after marriage, in an era before No Fault Divorce, many women held very precarious positions. She wouldn’t want to be unladylike (that would lower her social worth), she wouldn’t want to make things difficult for my father. So whenever I challenge ideas, engage with controversy, speak up about disenfranchisement and inequality, demand respect for myself and my body, Mum worries. She worries I’ll be punched. She worries what people will think. She worries that I’ll make things difficult for my husband. These worries tell me everything about life in country Queensland in the 1960s.


After our talk, I pulled out my copy of The Second Sex. I underlined phrases that mirrored my Mum’s matter of fact description of the expectations of womanhood during her life. That marriage was to be a woman’s fundamental project. That, unlike men, women were unable to choose personal liberty (or, not without significant personal cost). That society chose for her (and she felt she had no recourse but to accept) her place as a deferential woman.

For as long as I can remember, my Mother has been the person who has given me most love, who I perhaps care about the most, and yet from whom I feel a profound separation; as though we were two animals of different species staring blankly at each other, marvelling at each other’s oddities. I have come to realise that it is not merely our 45 year age gap that causes this curious distance, but the inevitable generational conflict between competing ideas of womanhood. What Mum made it her life’s mission to be, is precisely what I rail against.


Mum, I feel as though your lifetime has been weighed by the mantle of a very different expectation of womanhood, and that I challenge that. And you worry for me, and try to reign me in.

I guess I should also say: As you caution me, you trigger the societal judgement that I try so hard to writhe free from, and make me doubt myself. I know I try to drag you forward, and that terrifies you. For who are you without being Dad’s second? Who could you have been had you not been forced to do Commercial when you were a musician in your heart? My impatience is born from seeing your potential, and the potential of all women, when that cloak can be shed. But equally, what you have achieved has been incredible and inspirational. You – like many women of your era – carry the emotional burden for entire families, for a generation of men who can’t express themselves. You have nursed and carried and cared. You are resilient and inexhaustible.


How are we similar?

Well, we’ve always had the music in common.

Mum started teaching me to play the piano as soon as I could hold myself upright. She has the discipline and patience to still practice carefully every day, to have spent 18 years collecting the music I had flung across the room in a frustrated tantrum.

At Christmas I gave my mother a book about the forgotten women of music. She would appear intermittently to give impassioned summaries of the chapter she had just read, still stewing over the injustices and losses to music of erasing women performers and composers.

I smile. I love that she shares this with me. That when we catch up she’ll always have a story that starts with “did you see/read about … [something to do with feminism]”.

She’s reaching across the chasm to me, and in sitting down to interview my Mother, I am reaching out too.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Witches, old wives’ tales and our history of not listening to women

She haunts our fairytales, our tales of warning and our paperback mysteries. She lives at the edge of society, on the margins of civilisation and the foreboding forest, at the meeting point of the wild and untamed. She knows the difference between the mushrooms that are delicious and the mushrooms that are deadly. She is turned to in secrecy and at great risk by desperate women seeking to harness their bodily power, aiding or hindering fertility. Her knowledge renders her an outcast and there hangs about her a sense of danger – for why else is she always single (a spinster!), childless (barren!), uninterested in male attraction (hideously ugly!). A knowledgeable woman – woman who knows things – is a frightening thing indeed.


Garlic for colds. Peppermint for indigestion. Ginger for nausea. Unless I turned to the medically qualified internet, I could not be sure whether these actually work or if they’re an old wives’ tale, and yet I still add these natural remedies to my pharmaceutical panoply. Part of my scepticism comes from herbal preparations being the domain of the charlatan. Once, feeling very vulnerable, I had a very expensive trip to a naturopath where I emerged laden with all sorts of evil-smelling potions to assist weight loss. It was expensive and it worked, but I still felt as though I’d been sold a version of the emperor’s new clothes. Mostly, I think my agnosticism about anything herbal comes from the idea that it’s somehow not scientific. Not tested. Not respected. Don’t medicines come in packets and cost money? And when I scrape back some of these assumptions, what remains are duelling images of a woman in a sagging house between the village and the forest offering ginger tea, and the clinical environment of the lab coat and the degrees and the stringent research and the globally‑monestised system of pharmaceuticals. And I realise that I don’t think the woman of my imagination has real health knowledge.

This utterly hypothetical deductive analysis caused me to wonder how much knowledge we have lost – or at least, undervalued – through ignoring women’s wisdom, through assuming the advice is inherently unsound and untested, through confining old wives’ tales to whispers between generations in the corners of domestic worlds rather than something accorded a spotlight, funding, publication and circulation. What have we lost by not giving the realm of women’s learned knowledge a real chance? To be scrutinised and debated and improved? For women healers to have space and primacy to learn and teach and be believed? The 21st century specialist medical field of surgery, after all, evolved from butchery. We scoff at what has been believed, tried and tested; recommended as “medicine”; developed and matured as a field (medicinal cocaine and cigarettes, anyone?), but understanding these ridiculous beliefs is important in the historical development of medical knowledge. Yet it seems we’ve never allowed the feminine domains of knowledge to advance beyond the derisively-termed ‘alternative’ field. After all, wouldn’t the decades of qualitative case studies obtained by the women of the herbs, the centuries of stories of women as primary caretakers of the ill and injured, be an interesting starting point for more institutionalised research?

In European history, women traditionally served as the healers – their expanded social role compared with contemporary gender norms always causing some concern. But as the feudal era dissolved, the large-scale institutionalisation, protection and control of knowledge began. Churches and the nascent university system worked to own and define sources of knowledge. And, as these were the institutions of men, women healers were cast out of this structure, and derided as heretical, as witches. Centuries later, I’m still falling for this propaganda campaign.

I pause here to make myself utterly clear. Medicine is awesome. It’s keeping me alive! I use a lot of medicine! In the context of this piece I’m terribly uninterested – really – in the efficacy of these herbs. The point I’m trying to make, the story I’m trying to uncover, is how historically we have undervalued and largely sidelined women’s wisdom – not only in this field but in many others. I wonder, what could we know, in this case about herbs and witches’ warnings, if we’d given women’s ideas the same opportunity for development and maturity as a dude’s ideas? And what have we lost by belittling women’s knowledge as too simplistic, too unscientific?

Historians have found strong connections between gossip and accusations of witchcraft: women who developed and shared knowledge – social and medicinal – were slandered as gossips and burned as witches (gossip being seen as the linguistic equivalent to witchcraft), such was the masculine fear of this feminine knowledge. This epistemological dismissal of women’s knowledge continues today. Communication amongst women is often derided as idle chatter, speculation and gossip. Untrustworthy. Unreliable. But what is feminine prattle to the outer‑world is our encyclopaedia. Glenn Close, recently speaking about Hollywood’s reckoning with systemic sexual assault, said, “…Gossip is what women do to keep themselves out of danger.” It is also what women do to learn and to teach.


There’s another side to this story. There’s that evergreen Punch cartoon, tagged with the caption ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’ Throughout history, bits of women’s wisdom have found themselves a male patron to carry them into the mainstream, shedding any doubt that it was ever found wanting.

Paracelsus, a Swiss physician considered one of the pioneers of the Renaissance’s medical revolution, wrote in the early 16th century, “The universities do not teach all things so a doctor must seek out old wives, gipsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.” These lessons from the margins of society, carried into the fold by a more respectable source, could be included in the lexicon of scientific research and development. And this knowledge, from old wives and witches, ensured Paracelsus his place as one of the most influential medical thinkers of the early modern era. Now imagine if the women whose ideas have been appropriated were themselves given further space for experimentation and exploration? In this age of encouraging women’s participation in STEM, it’s ironic that we’ve really held a place in this academic chronicle for millennia.


I can find one silver lining; one really awesome social element to this. The wisdom of witches and old wives might not have had access to the means of widespread distribution or been enshrined in learned tomes next to their names. It might not be famed or respected. Yet, this knowledge endures. Women’s knowledge endures. From herbal remedies to how to survive in a man’s world, women’s whispers have survived through a resilient oral history of the domestic world, passed from woman to woman down generations – a surprisingly strong intellectual chain. Recipes, remedies, warnings. Just like we quietly pass on to one another which men to avoid, or how to be safe, or how to cope with the complexities of our bodies. Lessons borne from survival and experience. So while I urge for a re-examination of feminine traditions of intellectual discovery, at the very, very least, we women can comfort ourselves with our secret oral history: while they’ve not been listening, we’ve been learning.

Image: Mark Tegethoff

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Diary of a Traveling Ghost

Transylvania, Romania, May 2017

Something must happen to me in the plane. I cannot emerge from long-haul travel unchanged. I disappear into myself, in that darkness, through those lost days and nights and emerge quieter, simpler and more watchful. My normal instinct for inserting myself into every scene and every conversation as a lead actor evaporates, and I become a quiet audience. A voyeur. A ghost who likes to watch. Quietly slinking through the lives and homes and habits, feeling, touching, learning, leaving no impact.

I have been told I look like I’m from this part of the world. I search for myself in the faces, expecting to find home or heritage. What I find in the faces is signs of great wear. Skin looks tired, more creased, more worn far earlier than I am used to. I realise I haven’t seen anyone I would bundle as middle-aged: the path from young to old doesn’t seem to have any rest stops. It is no romantic stretch (but one backed up by economic and social data) to think that life must be a bit harder here. And if it’s harder here now, what must it have been like twenty years ago, pre-EU membership, thirty years ago under one of history’s great insane dictators, seventy years ago under a largely forgotten Fascist leader who rivalled any for brutality.

I notice young people doing unskilled jobs, jobs usually done by migrants in the West. Young people with tertiary educations don’t drive cabs where I come from. I am struck by how ethnically homogenous the work force is – there don’t appear to be many migrants here. Then I realise, Romanians are the migrants for everyone else in Europe.

Our small local bus is driving through a faded story book. The snow-capped mountains form an enormous backdrop to the utterly flat countryside. Pitched rooves sag comfortably onto houses that could have been built centuries ago, the sharp spires of Romanian Orthodox churches the only disruption to the uniform height. Despite being the connection between two major regional towns, our bus will happily stop regularly, sometimes giving people a lift of a few hundred metres. This gives me ample time to stare out the window at a lifestyle confined to the past in my world: a horse-drawn plough in a slightly dilapidated field; a person working alone with a hoe; the complete absence of large-scaled mechanised agriculture. Then we pass a drive-through Subway. They don’t have those in Australia.

Bucharest, Romania May 2017

I love hardcopy maps. They make me feel like an omnipresent spirit circling a city from above, wondering where to swoop. I task my husband with asking our small pension for one and, after a lengthy search on their part, he returns with a map carefully marked with brothels and strip clubs. This either says everything about Bucharest’s tourism industry or everything about my husband.

After the architectural, cultural and human destruction wrought by Romania’s Communist regime, I expected Bucharest to be a grim, concrete, wasteland. Instead, it is one of the most beautiful cities to become lost in: quiet, clean, happily shabby here and there, and filled with surprising parks which are cool and well-used by youth and elders alike.

I could live here.

We discard the brothel map.

Comrat, Gagauzia, Moldova, May 2017

Regardless of age, all women in Romania and Moldova wear thick, flesh-coloured pantyhose. It is boiling hot. Is this a comfort thing? To avoid chaffing and rubbing of shoes and thighs? Is it modesty – the hose providing a fig-leaf for the short skirts and high heels beloved by the local teens?

With their open-toed sandals and thick hose, older ladies wear bright headscarves. Older gentlemen wear brimmed hats that seem too small as they sit perched high on the head.

My husband, as quintessentially Anglo-Saxon Australian as a kelpie, tall and brawn and bearded and snappily dressed in colour and tailoring (though toned down at my suggestion), is as out of place as a flamingo at a pigeon party. For a start, only Orthodox priests seem to wear beards. His beard worn with colourful shorts has garnered some odd looks from passing priests. And, as at 5’2” I am comfortably tall amongst the locals, his 6’2” seems unnecessary. Even in the height of summer, shorts are rare here. Triple denim is ubiquitous.

I saw a Zara in Transylvania. I wonder how long it will be until what looks weird to me will look weird to them. How long till they discard the scarves and the hose and the small jaunty hats for whatever Zara is selling?

Is capitalism the new colonialism as it sweeps in and displaces time and heritage with the new and the cheap? 

Chisinau, Moldova May 2017

We are staying in a grand Soviet-era hotel. Hotel Chisinau. There are two lifts but only one works at a time and then it can only travel in one direction. Well, this is what my charades with the dedicated lift operator tells me. This is ok, because I tried the lift once and it stopped at random intervals for random periods and it was small and terrifying.

Each wing has a dedicated well-coiffed lady in blue. She pops out to show you to your door.  I visited other floors and no matter how silently I entered the long, expansive hallways, out one would pop. The lady in blue proudly shows you to your bed and pulls back the duvet to reveal your top sheet neatly folded underneath. I cannot explain this opportunity for self-action.

Finally, breakfast is a complicated dance of pre-ordering the night before from a choice of three dishes. In the morning, one visits reception to obtain a ticket where you confirm your choice from the night before (but if you haven’t made such a choice the night before you will be banished, without breakfast), and take your ticket to the restaurant in a dungeon (possibly a former wine cellar) where you exchange it for your meal. It is a pleasant and communal method of food delivery. To accompany breakfast is a large television displaying writhing, lingerie-clad women. Rationing, scrupulous fairness, and utilitarianism still reign in Hotel Chisinau and I couldn’t be happier.

Tiraspol, Transnistria, May 2017

As one who loves to travel, and as one who tempers their addiction between hits with quick fixes of travel writing or documentaries, I’m really bothered by the apparent profundity of everyday experiences when cast through a white gaze.

In short, how can I visit places and not be a dick?

Today, I’ve heard people complain about the quality of coffee. Only instant is provided by the hotel in this unrecognised, breakaway region which lauds Lenin and Soviet-style Communism. Not sneering at what others have, and appreciating what they do have, is a good start to not being a dick.

I also momentarily removed my ghost guise to chastise a tourist in a church who was sneakily taking photos of both the church and its attendees despite warnings not to. I don’t care, he said. You’re a dick, I said.

Odessa, Ukraine, May 2017

I’ve just realised I haven’t seen a single gym, or yoga studio since leaving Vienna three weeks ago. I haven’t seen anyone running either. I guess there are other things to do with your time here.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 2017

There’s a natural process that occurs when the traveller knows they are nearing their time of departure. The energy for adventure quietens. The mind seeks reflection and quiet: to absorb all that it has seen and learnt. I’m sitting drinking coffee not even ten minutes from my door. Sam is getting a haircut. We are transitioning from invisible ghosts who roam a city trying to know all its secrets back to normalcy. It doesn’t matter whether I’m gone for months or weeks: as the airport lounge nears, so too does this transition.

The anonymity of the wanderer is waning. For weeks I have worn no makeup, dressed in the same clothes. I have two pairs of shoes and no perfume. A cheap pair of earrings and three items of makeup for the one or two ‘special events’ I have attended. I become a person I barely recognise when I travel. As she begins to enter her hibernation, I think, ‘I must wax my eyebrows when I get home’ and start questioning my certainty that these sneakers go with every outfit.

I walk everywhere here. At home I’ll hop in the car to drive 200m to the shops if it’s cold or hot or nearly dark or maybe looks like rain. Here I won’t countenance public transport for less than 3km. There’s no reason to rush after all. My chronic illness doesn’t vanish – of course – it just doesn’t matter if I stop a million times to sit and watch. Or if I need to rest and spend a day within 20 metres of my bed. I am in suspended time where the world is just for me, the voyeur. The city will keep on performing its part and it will be there for me to watch when I am ready.

But all too soon this ghost-like suspension will evaporate. As desperately as I try cling to its cobwebs, it will disappear as the texts resume and the chores resume. Connectivity to reality will puncture my invisibility and I will be seen again.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

A Non-Compliant Woman

Our lives are full of shoulds. For women, these shoulds act as the hands that form and shape a lump of clay. Like clay being formed into something suddenly respected as art, we are pressed into behaviours that see us recognised as ladies. This pressing begins so young, and is so omnipresent, that it becomes an intuitive and unthinking framework for every interaction. Like how we’re so used to stepping out of others’ ways, deferring space. Like when we’re told to smile, deferring our faces.

When we start challenging these shoulds, it’s uncomfortable, it’s shocking and it’s scary – for us, and for others. These shoulds are in fact, compliance. Compliance with a world that wants to bind and conscribe our behaviours, voices, bodies and ambitions, veil them beneath manners, politeness and contentedness with the progress we have made from being the chattel of fathers and husbands.

‘You should write happier things,’ says my mother, worried about the emotional and societal implications of my ‘complaining’ all the time.

I have started watching for acts of everyday compliance – instances where I subsume my preferences or comfort for another’s. They’re everywhere. But this has become much more than proving that if I don’t move from the path of oncoming pedestrian traffic I’ll get shoulder-checked five times a day.

I understand now the myriad ways I have complied my entire life. I understand why a barely known middle-aged man rested his hand high on my seven year old thigh. Why a guy refused to wear a condom when he had sex with a friend of a friend. Why so many of us yield to accepting what is done to us even though it makes our blood chill. I understand that we have been moulded and pressed and shaped so that we are compliant and cannot resist. I need to push against the hands that want to form us into something prettier and nicer and quieter. I am trying harder and more consciously to be a non-compliant woman.

Since I started my micro-movement of non-compliance, I have been terrified of the consequences of pushing back. ‘You’re going to get punched in the face one day,’ my mother has oft said following a small act of perceived surliness or, as I like to call it, standing up for myself. I’ve been screamed at. Ridiculed. Glared at. But what I take these reactions to show is the genuine and deep-seated fear that men have when we challenge the expectation that we’ll comply.

Some examples:


I hadn’t seen him for a decade, yet every few years he’d crop up on messenger and just check in and say hi. Somehow, I would fold into myself and become 16 year old Naomi, on the cusp of her first heartbreak. Anxious to do everything right lest I made something go wrong. I was so eager for his approval. I was so eager to keep him happy and not upset him.

As each conversation ended and I morphed back into 30 year old Naomi, I’d feel sick afterwards. So unaccustomed to this role of subservience, of ego-stroking. Is this what it feels like, really, underneath all the superficial male-awarded affirmation, to be a cool girl? To comply?

So it went until he caught me on a day when I was grumpy, busy and NOT in the mood to listen to white boys playing four chords on the guitar and expecting me to swoon.

‘You’re still into music aren’t you,’ he asked. ‘Wanna listen to a song I recorded?’

‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I would find it awkward. You know I’ve taken music seriously my entire life. I’ve performed professionally. For a brief moment it was going to be my career. I tend to want to offer constructive criticism. If you enjoy playing that’s great. You don’t need to know what I think to enjoy music and I’m worried that what I think won’t be what you want to hear.’

This honest response unleashed a flood of comments that I was a stuck up bitch with massive tickets on myself and that I was incredibly rude and by the way I was really unattractive.

I just really didn’t want to listen to him play the guitar.



‘You should get a job here!’ A smartly-dressed older man beamed at me.

I broke from the conversation I had been maintaining in my head while I waited in the queue to return his comments with an expression that said, ‘Huh?’

‘Here, at Priceline! You’d look gorgeous in their pink uniform.’

I looked down at my orange, undoubtedly food-splattered shirt and to the woman behind the counter wearing a pink blouse and a humiliated expression.

‘Pretty in pink! You should get a job here because you’d be pretty in pink!’

‘I have three degrees and an important government job. But I’ll throw all that away for the chance to be pretty in the uniform of your choosing.’

‘It was just a compliment! You don’t need to be sarcastic.’

I’m guessing the correct reaction was to laugh merrily and accept his gaze.



I was at a wedding, a handful of friends and I taking a break in the fresh air from the furious dancing.

‘Do you guys have a lighter?’ An unknown wedding guest approached our group.

‘Sorry, none of us smoke,’ I said. ‘But those guys over there were just smoking so perhaps they can help out?’

‘Are you trying to get me to fuck off?’ My new acquaintance demanded aggressively.

‘No, I was trying to be helpful. But now you’ve spoken to me like that you can certainly fuck off.’

The atmosphere suddenly shifted. His body language morphed into something larger, squarer, and stronger. His eyes narrowed on me. I saw his hand tighten around the beer bottle he was holding. Women are very, very finely tuned into these atmospheric changes.

Just as it seemed he would explode, my partner calmly said, ‘Mate, she was trying to help and you blew up at her.’

Suddenly, our friend was on more familiar footing: how two white guys sort out a little problem.

‘Oh yeah no worries mate.’ He shook my partner’s hand.

‘No hard feelings love,’ he said to me, ‘give me a hug.’

‘No thank you,’ I said, offering my hand instead.

‘I just want a fucking hug what the fuck is wrong with you.’

It was a friend’s wedding, I was already weakened by one small round of resistance. I listened to the damn guitar and gave him a hug so he would go away, so I didn’t get hit and so I wasn’t rude. It was easier.

Why not just be nice to people instead of assuming the worst? Is what I want not valid? Especially when my niceness is exploited by intentions that are clearly not the best? Why is it so much more horrible to be truthful and honest, to be a non-compliant woman, than to allow myself to be formed into something quieter, meeker, smaller and unhappier? So what if the guy told you to smile where you were in your head about a serious issue? Well, raising a defiant eyebrow might be the first step to having a framework for saying what you really want, what you really feel, when it really matters. I send a question back: why is the scrutiny not directed at those who uphold the shoulds, who react angrily to non-compliance, who exploit the expectation that someone will acquiesce to their wants, who assume we won’t ask for more than we were given. Are not they the ones who should be doing things differently?

For many women, facing the condemnation of non-compliance is too terrifying because our social worth is bound in the approval our every action is given (or not) from men. Not complying will get you yelled at or dumped or hit or raped. So they just listen to the damn guitar. It’s easier. It makes them go away. But it hurts our souls and binds the fabric of compliance even tighter. I imagine that non-compliance allows us to stretch fully, to be radiant and brilliant and powerful without limit. And to imagine the true possibility of a womanhood without shoulds is terrifying in the most beautiful way.

To look into the eyes of someone who has asked me to submit to their expectations of my femininity, and refuse, is the most powerful act of womanhood. I feel adrenaline and power and strength race through my blood. Then afterwards, the shaking, rage filled tears of doing what I know is right despite criticism to calm down and not overreact; despite snarling, warm, drunk breath spewing insults at me; despite the fear of being hit – or worse. Non-compliance is more anguishing the more intimate the hands that press my compliance are, because it is shattering a relationship that was built upon my compliance, and I see that, to some people, I am not loveable when I say no.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Why Taylor Swift disappoints in Trump’s Dystopia

I don’t like Taylor Swift.

Her music isn’t relevant to this assessment. I don’t like her. The person. Or, allowing that she is an extremely clever performer adept at constructing a version of herself for public consumption, I don’t like the Taylor Swift that Taylor Swift chooses to have us see.

I’m not alone in this weird revulsion of someone I don’t know. As an avid reader of absolute trash (I’m not a natural blonde: I spend a lot of time in hairdressers and my hairdresser has an excellent supply of tabloid magazines), I’ve noted the sneering coverage of her relationships. But last year, around the time of the ill-fated and weirdly eager Hiddleswift display, I noted mainstream media and feminist sites joining the derisive chorus. People, it seemed, had reached peak Swift. Her all-American goodness was now making us nauseous. I shrugged. After her last album release in 2014 followed by the saturation of a world tour in 2015 followed by endless pictures of perfect days with perfect friends in perfect outfits, we’d had a lot of Swift. But the coverage was starting to seem a little cruel, a little too gleeful in celebrating any slips. I didn’t like seeing a young woman torn down for her success but I shrugged again. She’d go away, tweak her brand a little, and comeback to dominate the music that gets stuck in our heads once we’d forgotten we had been so sick of her.

She went away so completely that she wasn’t publicly seen for months. Her normally active and candid social media accounts were quiet, sharing simply the odd promotional shot or birthday shout-out. She didn’t even host her annual Independence Day party (usually replete with all her famous friends). What a master media manipulator, I mused.

And then, last month, she was back. With new music, a new style and a new boyfriend. But this time, the press was instantly savage. As was I. And it was nothing to do with her music. Editorials seemed to clutch at wild and flimsy justifications for this dislike: her music video rips off Beyoncé! She’s playing the victim card! She’s perpetuating the angry, black man stereotype by positioning herself as an innocent ingénue in her rift with Kanye! She’s an evil capitalist mastermind for telling her fans to buy, buy, buy merchandise to ensure privileged access to tour tickets! There is legitimacy in these criticisms, but, to me, they didn’t seem to explain the whirlwind of bitterness. It’s not Swift, that has changed, really. It’s society.

The world Taylor Swift has emerged from her latest chrysalis into is deeply changed from the one she ‘left’ in 2016. This is a world that brooks no ambiguity in one’s position regarding the political battlelines drawn. And yet in this most politically charged environment, Swift is silent. Swift’s is a career built on mass appeal, on statements of personal empowerment that can be interpreted to ensure they offend no one. She hails from a red state, and her mainstream domination owes much to her early success in the famously conservative country music industry. Many of her fans would have voted Trump. In this context, her silence starts to look if not self-interested at least self-protective. And why not? She’s an entertainer. Why wade into the mess that is American politics?

Except that in 2017, it seems that everything has been lit with a torch of social passion, and much of the energy of this moment is coming from young people, women, and members of the arts community. This is an age where Teen Vogue is providing some of the best political analysis of the year. This is an age where eviscerating critiques of social inequality are happening not in our parliaments but on our stages. This is a moment where to be silent is to be incredibly out of touch. Silence, in 2017, seems to be a luxury of immense privilege.

It is a weak argument to simply compare Swift to other more politically active musicians and we should not necessarily expect political leadership from pop stars – except that Taylor Swift is an avowed feminist, uses female empowerment as an extensive motif in her music and personal branding, and has invoked feminism in her criticism of others’ behaviour, including Kanye WestNicki Minaj, and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. So it is reasonable to be disappointed by her curious silence amidst the electrifying Women’s March movement, and her lack of engagement on the myriad social issues specifically targeting her fan base – particularly young women and the LGBTIQ community – in a Trump presidency.

Until we look more critically at Swiftian feminism that is. Taylor Swift’s is a personal empowerment brand of feminism: aspirational, mercantilist, neo-liberal. It is focussed on the achievements of the individual. It tells a story of individual talent triumphing over the odds, not of the structure that creates and protects those odds. It is ignorant of – or reluctant to examine – its own privilege: white, tall, thin, straight and conventionally beautiful and wealthy. In Taylor’s performance of female friendship, there are some brown bodies and some bigger bodies, but these are by far the exception. And all of them seem merely to be superficial accessories. Another thing to aspire to, to collect, to spend money on obtaining.

This feel good ‘feminism’ was fine for entertainment before Trump, before Brexit, before white extremists felt the world was safe for them to start publically burning things again, before Australia decided to rip itself open as it mused on whether human rights were indeed rights for all. In 2017, white and blonde and tall and thin and silent is the ultimate goal according to the new regime. Taylor Swift could be another Ivanka Trump, her individual success apparently refuting any suggestion of discrimination or inequality. Her obedience is what ensures acceptance. But for those not accepted by the establishment, to merely champion individual success, to not acknowledge and challenge systems of oppression, to be silent, is to seem complicit. In neo-liberal Swiftian feminism, it is Taylor Swift that profits, not we along with her.

There is an important and laudable exception to Swift’s attempt to stay silently uncontroversial, and a disappointing example of the feminist and mainstream media showing a reluctance to accord credit where it was due. In August this year, jurors in a civil trial agreed with Swift that she had been assaulted by a DJ during a public appearance. Swift used this decision to advocate that victims of sexual assault be believed and heard, and to defend a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Acknowledging that her wealth gave her an opportunity to pursue the case, a privilege often out of reach for assault victims, she pledged to donate money to organisations supporting victims of sexual violence. In this moment, Swift challenged the system that dismisses women’s experiences, offered courage and precedent to young women, gave a voice to those without her platform, and sought to identify and rectify the inequalities of money and legal power that protect male perpetrators. It was a rare moment of politics, of noise, and it was powerful. Perhaps we should be hopeful this experience will empower Swift to continue to engage with social issues. Perhaps we should be disappointed that a high profile victim of sexual assault chose not to link her experience with the cultural impact of a President who boasts that he can commit sexual assault with impunity.

It’s not just Taylor Swift, of course, that has fallen foul of our new expectation for socially conscious engagement. Three years ago the tall, white, thin, conventionally beautiful and straight Iggy Azalea’s first two singles achieved the kind of success that had until then only been reached by the Beatles. In 2017, Izzy’s reputation is as tattered as a post-party piñata. Any attempt to engage with Azalea’s appropriation of and profit from black culture has been met by her rebuttal that this criticism is sexist. Azalea’s failure to think with nuance about her privileges as a white woman shows that, like Swift, she grasps the feminist tenets that are most self-serving: the bits that protect the individual and the system – a system that likes female celebrities when they’re compliant, white and beautiful.

I have a sense that we’re readying for battle. If entertainers want to simply entertain, fine. But if they want to profit from engagement with the issues that are tearing Western societies apart, we expect them to have done their homework. We expect them to have an understanding of how issues of race and gender intersect to affect equality – that is, intersectional feminism. We expect that their understanding of feminism is sophisticated enough to listen to legitimate critiques of their behaviour and get better. We’re expecting a lot of our women in 2017: we want the call for equality to be for us all.

Women are taught not to make waves. And Taylor Swift has reaped great success from negotiating a fine line between celebrating women and not challenging the status-quo. And this was fine. But, as is evident from a sudden zeitgeist of criticism of Swift, this approach is becoming out of date. A violently fractured Western world has turned ‘Taylor Swift’ into a battleground, and her silent intersection with this cultural moment seems to make her complicit in our political projections onto her body. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect political leadership from pop stars, but culture and music has always been at its best when it serves as society’s truthful mirror. And in this shit show of a world, we want – we need – our heroes to be wave makers, and not just hit makers.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Living at college in ignorance and bliss

In Latin, alma mater means nurturing mother. In so many ways, the residential college I attended was my nurturing mother. It was also the sexy older sister: seemingly confident and knowing, yet knowing so little. I started to become who I am today at college and those three years in the early Noughties are the crucible of my longest, strongest friendships, of my identity as a powerful and unapologetic professional woman.

But, ten years later, the shadows that lurk uncomfortably in my memories are hard to ignore. And it is this underbelly that has been exposed in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities: students who lived at college are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. And my personal experience suggests that a pernicious and resilient culture of insularity, socially constructed behavioural norms, socially encouraged high-risk behaviour and secret traditions must be addressed before colleges can truly be safe places for young people.

Released in August 2017, the AHRC report presented damning findings: around half of all university students (51%) were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. Overwhelmingly, men were the perpetrators. Overwhelmingly, the perpetrator was known to the victim, likely a fellow student.

The survey also uncovered attitudinal and structural barriers to reporting assault and harassment, victim dissatisfaction with institutional responses when reports were made, and very low confidence amongst the survey set that enough was being done to protect students and support victims.

A particular area of concern highlighted by the AHRC report was that college students (that is, students who live on campus in residential settings owned by or affiliated with the university) represented a disproportionate number of victims: seven per cent of the survey respondents identified as living on campus, but they represented 34 per cent of students who had been assaulted.

I was not surprised. I knew those insular halls would hold the worst secrets. And I was sickened: not by the figures, but by the memories that immediately attached themselves to these figures, tugging at my conscience. Daring to be remembered beneath those happy images of friendship, and debauch parties, and sunny antics. Daring me to remember my complicity. My role as victim. My role as bystander. So here are the things that I think combine to create a more high-risk environment for sexual assault and harassment in Australian colleges.

Insularity created a permissive environment both for crimes occurring and perpetrators being protected. It created an over-confidence in our safety. I moved 700km away from home to attend university and my parents insisted I stay at college. They thought it was safest. There were about 1000 collegians all together and there was a sense we all knew each other if not personally, then we certainly knew people in common. At the very least, we knew what ‘type’ everyone was based on the college that had become their family.

From across a crowded first day lecture theatre, the ruggers and jersey that we always wore (often without shoes), the single book and pen carried (as we were so close to home), marked us out as instant allies. You’re a Jabba? I go to Women’s!  A friendship was instantly established based on mutual friends, upcoming parities and legendary rivalries. From the lecture theatre to parties and bars: what did it matter if you went home with a random guy you’d never met before? You probably knew a few guys in the hallway and you were only 200 m from home anyway. I rarely socialised with non-collegians. They thought we were weird.

The AHRC report highlights something I knew to be true: organisational contexts can play a role in increasing violence – especially sexual violence – against women. The report points to ‘all male residential colleges’ as being of particular concern. In my experience, the all male colleges were able to amplify the behavioural norms of hyper-masculinity. In the social microcosm that is the college community, we absorbed mutually created social roles and rules. We played them up and we perpetuated them. I knew of one young man allegedly sexually assaulted by his supposed brothers because it was rumoured he was gay.

Reference to his assault became a popular chant at inter-college sporting events. These colleges, so steeped in a regressive and binary view of gender, remain incredibly out of step with progressive society. While plenty of evidence exists for the ongoing importance of women’s only spaces (both for safety and ensuring opportunity), all male colleges should be abandoned by society, for in some dark and forgotten corners of these residences, a musty, out-dated and violent form of patriarchy flourishes like a fungus.

These college-constructed gender norms dictated our relationship experiences. We knew what consent safe sex were in theory. But in practice we didn’t know how to own our bodies. There was a hazy area between having fun and things going too far that none of us really knew how to negotiate. I was once pressed to do something I didn’t want to do. My demurs were couched in that faintly Victorian language that marks one as a lady not wishing to seem easy, not wishing to offend. Now it would be clear: this isn’t something I’m into so you need to stop and back the hell up. Right now.

At the time, I thought, ‘what an incredible compliment that he wants me so badly! I mustn’t ruin this and embarrass myself by coming across as frigid’.

I escaped because of a distraction. This is why – with their captured audience of young people at risk of sexual harassment and assault – colleges must teach consent beyond getting a yes out of someone eventually. That’s not consent, that’s acquiescence. Consent must be be vocal, ongoing and enthusiastic. For the latter to happen, colleges need to encourage embodied sex positivity: for all genders, for all sexualities. In that environment, I couldn’t be enthusiastic any more than I could forcefully say no. Enthusiastic is as bad as frigid in a patriarchal world.

As the AHRC report notes, college life is drenched in booze – tickets to parties where endless home-mixed drinks were served out of garbage bins; free busses to bars that offered $2 spirits.  We were in our homes with our families though, so we felt safe despite our high-risk behaviours. So many times we rescued each other and laughed about how crazy we’d been.

In hindsight things were not right. The whispers when one girl didn’t return for a second year. I heard something about her passing out in a room with a bunch of guys, about her waking up saying she hadn’t wanted that to happen. No more questions were asked. It seemed shameful and undignified. We were collegians – leading lights of the future. We didn’t get into messes like that. Now, I see clearly what really happened ­– a culture of secrecy, an expectation that we would drink to excess, boys trying to prove their masculinity with sexual conquests, girls not knowing how to say no.

In these socially pressuring environments, it is easy to see how consent would be distorted by an expectation to participate in tradition. Mascots were a symbol of these ‘hallowed rites’. My college had a doll as its mascot. Each college would try to steal mascots. If successful, that mascot would be subject to some mildly humiliating photo shoot.

A few years ago, my friends and I reunited our college’s centenary ball, the old and the new smooshed together in a grand ballroom. We were shown footage of our mascot’s recent demise. Mary – our mascot, – was strung by the neck and dangled out of a window. Residents of the men’s college were screaming sexual obscenities at her. She was dropped to the ground and a ute drove over her repeatedly. She was set alight and the assembled crowd jeered with college pride.

I shook uncontrollably and tears of rage filled my eyes. This was nothing to do with college pride and all to do with sexual assault. Yet, important person after important person (all quite famous) rose to the stage for speeches, promising vengeance on this apparently light-hearted prank. That’s the final thing wrong with the colleges: they’re self-perpetuating. Each generation goes further than the last in the pursuit of holding up the traditions, the rules and the roles we were sworn into. Colleges need to step back and critique these traditions and games. After eight years away from the college environment, I could see this problematic behaviour for what it was.

At college, I learned that women could be celebrated for their wisdom and professional success. Ambition was championed. Opportunity seemed limitless. I loved college. But. To look back on these years is difficult. With maturity, self-confidence and a better grasp of feminism, I see how toxic many ingrained behaviours and traditions were. Colleges derive their cultural strength and endurance from insularity, privilege, money, elitism and deference to accepted behaviours. Colleges spit people into society who believe this is ok.

Colleges must take responsibility for ensuring ongoing sex positive consent education, disavowing lingering sexism and privilege, critiquing and reviewing traditions, and creating a culture of belief and support for victims. My instincts are that the situation is much worse than the AHRC report tells: the college community has a way of protecting itself, of creating and sustaining culture. Those close to the problem may not realise the truth of what is going on for some years, if indeed they ever do. It took me ten years after all.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Gefilte fish for whom? Remembering and forgetting in Eastern Europe

I joked that my recent holiday itinerary read like Hitler’s ‘To Do’ list. Poland. Ukraine. Germany. I didn’t intend to spend half my holiday kneeling at sites of tragedy, but when you find yourself in the vicinity of places that echo notoriously through history it seems impossible not to join the procession of modern-day mourners. But as much as I was confronted by sombre monuments of grief, in other places I found myself searching for evidence that anything had happened at all. Eastern Europe, it seemed, is locked in a macabre waltz of remembering and forgetting. Who is remembered and who is forgotten, what events are enshrined in human memory and which have turned to dust, seem to have everything to do with building a story we – the victors, the bystanders, the inheritors – can live with.


The day before our scheduled visit to Auschwitz I said, ‘I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

My husband replied, ‘I’m worried about you going to Auschwitz’.

‘Why?’ I asked, expecting a beautiful desire to protect me from the pain of being in such a place.

‘Because you’re going to get angry at people and I’m going to spend the day trying to ensure you don’t get angry at people and then trying to calm you down after you get angry at people.’

‘Ok,’ I said. ‘That’s why I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

But compelled by my Jewish family history and the insistence of Polish tourism, I disembarked at Auschwitz. I cutaway here to a scene from the film, The Reader – based on Bernard Schlink’s brilliant meditation on the culpability of every day Germans, the tension between generations, and Germany’s efforts to come to terms with its crimes.


[Auschwitz survivor, speaking forty years after her liberation]

People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. What are you asking for? Forgiveness…? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.

My notes from this day, which I thought might form the basis of this piece, were a torrent of misdirected anger. Frustration with tourists who scuttled to take photos of piles of shoes that belonged to people who burnt in Auschwitz’s ovens, with those who took sombre selfies no doubt hash-tagged ‘#neverforget’, with the hungover group of guys in personalised buck’s trip shirts. I wanted to force these people’s faces to the light and scream, ‘you just don’t get it, do you?’

Then I had a drunken conversation in the pub with a guy who listened to my rant and admitted he had taken photos in Auschwitz because he simply didn’t know what else to do. He was so shocked that the robotic motion of raising his camera was his way of engaging with the unimaginable and controlling his grief. As I reflected upon this, days later, I realised my furious, lashing temper was my own reaction to not knowing what to do. I turned my bile upon those around me for there were no Nazis upon which I could unleash my grief.


The next day I went to Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish district, the area Jews had been permitted to live from the 1500s until they were interred in an overcrowded, policed ghetto in 1941. Poland’s Jewish culture had been the world’s most significant for many centuries, before being destroyed during the Holocaust. From a pre-war population of 3.5 million, today the entire Polish Jewish community is thought to be around 20 000. Or, as the ever-informed Krakow cab driver told me, ‘there are very, very few Jews who live in Krakow today.’ So I was surprised to turn a corner into the heart of the Jewish district and find Little Israel: lively stalls hawking menorahs and fridge magnets of Rabbis, and cafes trumpeting kosher menus and Krakow’s best gefilte fish – a Passover staple of cold, ground fish balls.

This wasn’t a sign of a local Jewish revival – this was a cynical play to the thousands of foreign Jews who come searching for their families. This was a performance. The creation of a sellable culture that barely exists in Poland’s reality and is still struggling for acceptance in a country with lingering anti-Semitic prejudices.

A week later I was lost in Warsaw. Google was trying to send me into a very secure apartment building. The map the concierge had frowned over before marking, tentatively, with a question mark, matched my location exactly.

‘Want ghetto?’ a shabbily-dressed man barked at me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to respond.

‘Want ghetto!’ he repeated, more insistently. I nodded. He set off quickly. I trotted behind him, I guessed I was meant to. We crossed a few car parks, and turned a few corners. We came through a back gate of the apartment building Google had sent me to. ‘Ghetto’ he said, pointing into a very private looking courtyard. Then he left.

And there it was. A small sign pointing to an ominous and incongruous hunk of wall, enclosed entirely by an apartment building. ‘Remnant of Warsaw Ghetto Wall’. This wall had violently deprived the liberties of nearly half a million Polish Jews. It had starved them of their freedom, dignity, work and living essentials. It was enormous –nearly double the height of the Berlin Wall. And it was so hidden, so forgotten. I couldn’t believe how lost it was.

Author with the Warsaw ghetto wall

The author at the Warsaw ghetto wall

Nothing comes out of the camps. I worry that museums of death – Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields ­– with their overwhelming statistics, overshadow the personal and the individual. They create a giant mass of ‘victims’ distinguishable only for their mass suffering.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Victor E. Frankl writes of the consumption of prisoners as a literal human resource. Stripped of dignity and humanness, prisoners were used until their bodies were no longer useful, stripped of any bodily items (hair, for instance) of enduring material value, disposed of, and replaced. I could not participate however remotely in allowing people to become numbers and resources.

I followed Ilana’s advice and went to literature. In every country I visited, I read the testimonies of survivors – not just Holocaust survivors, but victims of Communist repression too. I wanted to remember the people and not the regime. They had names, not just shoes left in a pile in a concentration camp. I want to remember these people not by their deaths, but by their lives. Where their memory burns is not in the monuments of their deaths built by their murderers but in their stories, if we care to listen.


This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.