Speech

Address By

Her Excellency the Honourable Quentin Bryce AC CVO

Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia

ON THE OCCASION OF

Book launch of “Eilean Giblin, A Feminist between the Wars”

National Library of Australia, Canberra

15 July 2013

Ms Anne-Marie Schwirtlich,

Director-General, National Library of Australia

Dr Nathan Hollier,

Director, Monash University Publishing

Dr Patricia Clarke,

Author

 

Ladies and Gentlemen

Anne Marie, thank you for your

warm welcome.

 

Good evening my friends

I want you to know how delighted

I am to be with you in our magnificent National Library

– our great Australian cultural institution.

I love the way it has a certain grandeur, but at the same time is accessible, easy to approach, to come into.

And when we do, there are always exciting, fascinating, inspiring, wonderful things to see and to learn. So many treasures to capture our imaginations.

Always something new to look into, to make us think.

I love the energy of the foyer, the comings and goings. 

It’s a place of many important community gatherings, and in this centenary year of our beautiful city Canberra, our Library has led the way in bringing our national capital’s history alive to us, new knowledge, fresh understandings.

 

I am thrilled to be launching a significant addition to that history.

The story of Eilean Giblin, A Feminist Between the Wars, by distinguished author Patricia Clarke.

 

My friends

It’s most appropriate that we come together here for this celebration of the publication of Pat’s 12th book.

It represents an extraordinary contribution to scholarship, to advanced research, to our knowing more about our individual and collective histories and cultures.

The National Library is Pat’s second home. 

She is here most days I am told and is proud to have held a reader’s ticket for the Petherick Reading Room since at least 1981.

Pat is an enthusiastic participant in the life of the Library, a constant presence at lectures, concerts, exhibition openings, a great friend, respected for her sharp mind and undiminished intellectual curiosity.

 

Qualities that are matched with a generosity of spirit, warmth and an ever-present twinkle in her eye.

Supporters like Pat play a vital role in the strength and character of our vibrant cultural life.

We are indebted to our author for her meticulous, dogged research, searching and following trails.

There must have been many frustrating clues that led nowhere.

Pat’s engaging writing brings to us a captivating story from the earlier part of the twentieth century.

That era between the first wave of suffrage successes and the transformative influences of the second wave of feminism, in the latter half of the century.

 

Patricia Clarke describes Giblin as living on the edge of achievement.  She writes

“although her life was unique it was also typical of that of many talented and activist women between the wars.  Emancipated to the extent that they had the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, very occasionally considered for public appointments, they were still largely tied by the ethos of the era to domestic arrangements that limited their consistent involvement in feminist causes,
and certainly circumscribed their potential employment”

 

(I suspect that many of my young women friends juggling work, family and community commitments, might opine “plus ca change”)

 

Patricia notes that a few women in Giblin’s time achieved fame.

Some were honoured, but most, like her subject, worked with little recognition for small, incremental, but essential feminist advances.

Giblin’s life engaged me immediately.

First up: I am very keen to know more about those years between the wars. 

It seems to me that they have been neglected to some degree – for example, the leaders, the politics, the social and cultural influences.

And second: the personality of a woman determined, impatient, curious, with a fine intellect.

It’s difficult at first to warm to her.

You can sense her annoyance and frustration with so many aspects of her environment.

You can almost feel her self-containment.  It’s such a strong characteristic.

The stiff upper lip; seldom a touch of softness or an affectionate note,

For example in the correspondence with her husband, the distinguished gallant soldier who became a noted economist.

Patricia became interested in Giblin through the diaries she kept in Canberra during World War Two.

They are treasures that have provided a great source of study for many, but Patricia wanted to know more.

She writes

“I wanted to know who this diarist was, what life experiences made her who she was, and how she related to the era in which she lived.”

With assiduous research, a capacity for thorough investigation, for chasing unlikely threads – skills that I envy – Patricia fulfills her purpose.

 

My friends

I was especially impressed by Eilean’s devotion to hard work across many years to establish an independent, non-denominational women’s college at the University of Melbourne.

Years of leadership, stickability, strategy, patience.

In an early history of the college, her suitability as an outsider for this task was described.

“She is an intellect, a socialist, a person of independent mind, a person whose views on social questions were ahead of her time, and who is known for what was then regarded as unconventional dress”

I must say that I love the sound of some of the clothes that she and her husband got into: hilarious stuff.  Was it sustainability or thrift they were after?

 

My friends

There is a very strong theme of a room of one’s own in the chapter about the college. 

Virginia Wolfe’s cri de coeur shines through the arguments put, and the speeches made, and the long struggle to establish that much loved institution of learning.

I reflected deeply on the influence of Wolfe’s great polemic feminist work at Sissinghurst recently, sitting in Vita Sackville-West’s chair in her study in the tower, kept exactly as she left it.

In my thoughts: The values and principles of feminism, the courage, the isolation, the sisterhood, the scholarly discipline, the passionate advocacy, the achievements of the women’s movement, the understanding we share of what a room of our own means to us.

 

My friends

This isn’t the first time I’ve launched a Patricia Clarke book

A fact that brings me particular pleasure and a treasured memory of Life Lines that Patricia co-authored with my dear friend Dale Spender.

A fabulous collection of letters and diaries from 1788-1840 that has been reprinted many times.

I find myself turning to it again and again.

I am deeply grateful to historians like Dale and Patricia reconstructing and writing women’s history.

The extent of their work is immense, and its quality of the highest order.

It has been important and influential in my life – for my generation.

By rediscovering the lives of those whose work has been obscured by time, we reframe the way we understand our history. 

We challenge the boundaries we set ourselves as individuals, communities and nations. 

We are inspired to re-conceive the world. 

Adrianne Rich, the American feminist poet and essayist, said it bluntly and well. 

“Revision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction, is for women more than a chapter in cultural history. 
It is an act of survival.”

 

Congratulations Patricia on your splendid book. 

Eilean Giblin: A Feminist Between the Wars.