Woman River

[Transcript of podcast created 11 December 2017] Hello, I’m Betty McLellan for Radical Feminist Reflections. And today I’m going to focus on the need for radical feminists to remember our past, in order that our present and future activism stays on track. The temptation to give in to the rabid individualism promoted at every turn today can be avoided if we remember our connectedness with women throughout the ages.

     I’m calling today’s topic: Woman River.


Woman River. Some of you will recognise the term “Woman River” as the title song of an Album by feminist singer/songwriter, Carole Etzler, back in the 1970s. On the album cover, Carole reveals her inspiration for this song. She explains: “An older woman was recalling her grandmother and her mother, and thinking about her daughters and granddaughters – and she said ‘It’s like a woman river flowing on’.” It’s true, isn’t it? We’re not simply individuals. We are each part of a great river of women flowing through history.

     The reason this topic is on my mind, of course, is that just recently (2017) my book about my own grandmother has been published by Spinifex Press here in Australia. It’s called Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: a psychological biography. As is the case with most women throughout history, Ann Hannah’s life, my grandmother’s life, by history’s standards was unremarkable – but, in actual fact, she was remarkable!

     During the years I spent writing this book, I realised how important it is that feminists not take our foremothers for granted – not think of them as society thinks of them. Yes, mothers and grandmothers are the glue that keeps families together and provide nourishment for communities and cultures (as is often said) – but they are much more than that. And, as feminists, it’s important that we have an interest in our foremothers (our own ancestry as well as our feminist foremothers) and attempt to discover more than society has allowed us to see.

     Remember Dale Spender’s amazing Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them published in 1982 (ARK Paperbacks)? Her book is the result of painstaking research into the lives of many women throughout history, from Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich. Dale was determined to discover more than society had allowed us to know about these women. And we, all of us, are the richer for it.

     In this present day, often referred to as the Information Age, information is coming at us at rapid speed – online commentary, Facebook, Twitter… We can learn so much in a very short space of time and, in some ways, it’s exciting and illuminating. But it can also be bewildering. It’s coming so quickly that, before we’ve had a chance to think about this bit of information – what it means, how it will affect our lives, how it will affect the lives of women generally, the next bit of information comes at us, with the same degree of urgency that we understand it and absorb it. But there’s no time.

     I worry that we – and I’m thinking particularly about ourselves (radical feminists) and our mission to make the world a better, fairer place for women – I worry that we may lose our ability to think and analyse and, therefore, make thoughtful decisions about how to act. I worry, too, that we may lose our ability to think longitudinally. It isn’t all about the present. It’s about past, present and future. What was it like for women in past centuries? How far have we come? What tools do we have in this present age that will help us analyse the past and make strategic decisions about the future?

     It was such an eye-opener for me when I decided, about 5 years ago, to analyse what I knew about my own grandmother’s life. I had been a feminist for several decades and thought I knew a lot from my reading about the ways women had been oppressed throughout history. I had spent many years railing against patriarchy at every opportunity because it supported and promoted the domination of women by men. But it wasn’t until I focused on one woman’s life, my grandmother’s life, that the utter powerlessness that everyday women experienced became a reality. Let me tell you a little of what I discovered.

     My grandmother was an ordinary kind of woman whose life and death were of interest only to those of us who knew her. She had lived with my family since before I was born. Mum and Dad had only been married around 12 months when the decision was made that she would give up her home (her husband had recently died) and move in with them. So, there never was a time when Nana was not part of my growing up – but, in recent years, it dawned on me that I didn’t actually know her.

     I knew things about her. I knew she was born in London in 1881 and migrated to Australia with her husband and four children after the First World War. I knew she was cockney, and that her cockney way of speaking stayed with her till the day she died at age 97. But I never really knew her.

     It wasn’t till I was introduced to feminism in my 30s that I had any interest at all in expanding my knowledge of her, the struggles she’d endured, the joys and sorrows of her life. From time to time, I found myself thinking about some of the things she used to say and pondering on what might have been behind those words. She was a quiet, unobtrusive kind of woman so, in the hustle and bustle of my life, growing up, it was easy to ignore her. BUT NOW, (five years ago) I WANTED TO KNOW.

     Eventually, it became important to me to write about her life in the form of a psychological biography. I couldn’t write an actual biography because I didn’t know her well enough, but I decided that I could do a psychological analysis of those things I did know.

     I should mention that my primary motivation was not the ancestral thing. I know that it becomes important to some people, as they age, to delve into where they came from but that has never really been important to me. In my case, my motivation was feminist. I wanted to analyse the oppressions my grandmother had hinted at in some of the, almost, throwaway lines I remembered her saying.

     So, for each of the chapter titles in my book, I have used one of my grandmother’s sayings – and analysed it in a Feminism 101 kind of way. Some of the sayings are positive, and some quite distressing.

     For example, one day when I was quite young, I overheard my grandmother say to my father “I never wanted to come to this country. ‘e made me come.” Remember the cockney accent – ‘e made me come. He being her husband, my grandfather. He was her second husband – her first husband, James, died of consumption just a few years into their marriage, leaving his wife and little daughter to fend for themselves. One of my sisters recalls our grandmother referring to James as “the love of her life”. Her second husband, Arthur, certainly was not.

     In that chapter, I never wanted to come to this country. ‘e made me come, I wonder out loud what it must have been like for women in the late 19th, early 20th Centuries, when men were the absolute authority. They could do as they liked and there was no help available for women and children – no laws – no women’s services – virtually no one to talk to. To think that my grandmother was living in London when Emmaline Pankhurst and the Suffragette movement was at its peak, and yet she knew nothing about it. She never spoke of anything political, of any social movements of the time. I guess her life, in those early decades, was all about survival – financially because of hardship, and physically because of the imperative to continue living with a bully, a perpetrator of violence toward her and sexual abuse of her first-born daughter. [I’ll say more about that in a minute.]

     Then, as if Ann Hannah’s struggle wasn’t difficult enough, her husband made the decision in 1920 to move the family all the way to Australia. Now, we know about the tactic perpetrators use of separating victims from family and friends, of isolating them from all systems of support so that a woman is utterly at his mercy. But, moving from England to Australia was a big one. Ann Hannah and her children were now totally under his control. But Ann Hannah, my grandmother, was a survivor!

     Now, I want to make mention of one of the other chapters in my book. Remember what I said earlier – that I used things I remembered my grandmother saying as chapter headings? 

     This chapter is called “’e was a wickid man” and, I tell you, this was the most difficult chapter for me to write. This is how it came about: One day when I was very young, around 8 or 10 maybe, I asked my grandmother, “what was our grandfather like, Nan?” And her response – “’e was a wickid man”. At that time, I didn’t have a clue what she meant, but maybe because of the emotion in her voice, I didn’t dare ask any more about him.

     As I grew older, of course, I picked up snippets. Not that my grandmother, my mother or her sisters actually ever talked about the subject in my presence, but my siblings and I slowly pieced together the awful truth that he had sexually abused our Aunty – his step-daughter – from around age 7 till she began dating young men at the age of 18. He certainly was a wicked man!

As I dug deeper and took the time to analyse all that my grandmother went through, I allowed myself to feel the utter powerlessness that she must have felt. And reminded myself that she, in many ways, represented “everywoman”. Even women back then who were lucky enough to have married well or to be married to non-violent men, were still subject to the dominance of a man. The law, the church, community attitudes all reinforced that feeling of inferiority and powerlessness.

     Today, thanks to feminism, community attitudes have changed to a great degree. We do have laws. We have women’s services offering support and encouragement to women. But our task is not over! In all our work as radical feminists, speaking out against the many ways that women are still oppressed, supporting women who are victims of men’s violence, exploited and abused by pornography, prostitution, surrogacy, and so on, we are reminded that patriarchy is still in control and that societies still operate for the benefit of men.

     As I remembered, analysed and wrote about my grandmother’s life, I was reminded again of how significant the word “remember” is. Mary Daly alerted us to this. Patriarchy dismembers women, she said, pulls them apart, exploits them, seeks to destroy their essence. So, a very important task of radical feminists is, as Mary Daly suggested, to re-member women – to assist women in the present, women shattered by patriarchy, to reject the violence of men in all its forms, and have confidence in their own ability to bring the pieces of their lives back together again. Those who have been dis-membered will be re-membered. They will survive.

     And we are assisted in our task of re-membering, by our ability to remember. Remember the powerlessness of women in past generations, and well as today. Mourn the loss of those who didn’t survive the violence of patriarchy, and celebrate the many, many women who did survive. Ann Hannah, my grandmother, was a survivor.

     So, this is the point I’m making today: We, radical feminists, do need  to pause and see ourselves as part of, and integral to,  the Woman River that flows on and on throughout history, so that we are strengthened to continue working in the present to improve the situation for women today, and also, for all the generations of women who will come after us.

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