‘Famously fed up’. How the work of feminist writer Kate Jennings changed Australia

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Nicole Moore, UNSW

Any social movement needs inspiration. It needs people who can imagine a different future and, more than that, make that future graspable.

Kate Jennings did that for the Australian women’s movement — with her incandescent anger, her sharp tongue and her courage, ready and able to speak straight into the face of power. Her death, in New York aged 72, offers a moment to reflect on the role of writers and literature as forces of social transformation.

many women are beginning to feel the necessity to speak for themselves, for their sisters.

i feel that necessity now.

When Jennings lined up for her turn to speak at a Vietnam moratorium rally on the lawns of Sydney University in 1970, she was a half-drop-out from Sydney’s English Department, living in Glebe.

With the group of determined women libbers at her back, she perhaps wasn’t clear what her speech would do — that it would effectively inaugurate second-wave feminism in Australia and help it become a movement with its own momentum. A new chapter for the world’s longest revolution. But she did know that the time had come.

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When the speech appeared as a performative poem in her 2010 retrospective collection Trouble: Evolution of a Radical, she recalled that the group had conceived it as deliberately incendiary.

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“Call the speech what you like — agitprop, political theatre, over the top, in your face — but we were genuinely angry, famously fed up. I wrote the speech at a boil: we were getting nowhere asking the men in the movement to listen to us.”

Written from within the mix of galvanising struggles then being fought around the world, the speech tore shreds off those for whom women’s issues were secondary or trivial. She compared the number of Australian men who’d died in Vietnam with the number of women who’d died from illegal abortions.

It was a shocking thing to do then: a similar comparison, now, of the victims of domestic violence to the number of Australian soldiers lost to recent conflicts or suicide, would be met with outrage too. The speech was hardline, uncompromising, militant.

okay i’ve stopped trying to understand my oppressor

i know who my enemy is

i will tell you what i feel, as an individual, as a woman

i feel that there can be no love between men and women

And that passion came from poetry. It wasn’t the theorists or social commentators who inspired the radical feminism powering the speech, she recalled, but the eloquence of visionaries.

In 2010, she listed Robin Morgan, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Valerie Solanas’s SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto as her touchstones. This was writing that was “unafraid to be emotional, luminous with rage,” she recalled. “Manifestos and poems that jumped off the page. I loved it.”

Mother I’m Rooted

Jennings’ other extraordinary contribution to the transformational feminism of the 1970s is one of its most revelatory — the huge, collaborative women’s poetry collection called Mother I’m Rooted, published in 1975.

Its confronting title is a distillation of the protest and exhaustion she saw in the poems. With Alison Lyssa, another poet and activist, she planned an anthology as inclusive as possible and advertised for poems — “trying to reach the women Out There”. Within two months they had over 500 replies.

The final volume lists 152 poets, including established ones, unknowns with new feminist pseudonyms, seasoned activists from the old left and many names that would go on to make their marks. It has experimental, Greek-Australian writers contesting the definition of poetry and forthright, white, working-class women writing about the washing — though no First Nations poetry.

It is a beautiful social document now, broken up by lambent photographs of ordinary women together. And its call for women’s control over not just what counted as poetry but over the publishing process itself was hugely influential, arguably changing the literary landscape in Australia forever.

Fierce honesty

Across her writing life, Jennings produced essays, novels, short stories and journalism, as well as poetry, all written with a fierce honesty and wit, refusing what she saw as cant and sentiment.

After she moved to New York in 1979, she continued to write about and for Australia, but often with an outsider’s cynicism. Women Falling Down in the Street, a collection of short stories from 1990, won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Prize and perhaps typified her interest in revisionary engagement with her part in Australia’s cultural life.

The novel Snake, from 1994, explored with concision and power her country childhood on a farm outside Griffith in NSW, and found an international readership.

In 2002, after her husband’s death from Alzheimer’s disease, she published Moral Hazard, a short but perfectly voiced novel about a writer making a living on Wall Street to support a dying partner. One of the few Australian novels to confront the operations of capital directly, even pre-empting the 2008 global collapse, it won a number of prizes, including the ALS Gold Medal.

The legacy she leaves is complex and multi-voiced, marked often by a reassessment of her younger self by the older Jennings and, perhaps, by a certain distrust of any shared story she couldn’t control.

But that legacy has been transformative and extraordinary, by any measure.The Conversation

Nicole Moore, Professor of English, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How reading habits have changed during the COVID-19 lockdown

People have sought more security and safety in their reading.
Andrii Kobryn/Shutterstock

Abigail Boucher, Aston University; Chloe Harrison, Aston University, and Marcello Giovanelli, Aston University

During times of crisis, people find themselves faced with lifestyle changes. One of the earliest and most noticeable changes seen during the COVID-19 lockdown was how we consume media — and especially how we read.

People tend to find comfort in certain books, and reading habits and genre preferences can change during periods of stress. This helps to explain why much genre fiction has roots in times of significant social, political or economic upheaval. Gothic literature is, in part, a British Protestant response to the French Revolution (1789-99).

Science fiction, which emerged as a genre around the fin de siècle, was galvanised by both the industrial revolution and the theories of Charles Darwin. The hard-boiled detective story, which appeared in the 1930s, takes its cues from the privations of the great depression.

While it’s still relatively early to see the influence of the coronavirus and the lockdown on creative industries, there were some striking patterns in media consumption in the early part of the pandemic. Books about (literal and metaphorical) isolation, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Gabriel García Marquez’s novels One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera were among those that saw a big rise in sales. (Beyond books, horror flourished; in particular, films about global pandemics such as 28 Days Later, Contagion, and Outbreak were among the highest rentals on streaming services.)

In view of these patterns of changing reading habits during times of upheaval and signs that such changes were happening during COVID-19, our team decided to research reading habits among the UK public. We were particularly interested in the following questions about the effects of the pandemic:

  1. How much people have been reading;

  2. What type and genre of texts people have been reading;

  3. To what extent people have been returning to previously read books.

As many as 860 participants took part in our online survey, which was advertised through social media. Our findings show that the COVID-19 lockdown changed not only how people read during times of stress, but also what people turn to for comfort or distraction.

Reading frequency

Respondents generally reported that they were reading more than usual. This was largely due to having more free time (due to being furloughed, or not having a commute, or the usual social obligations or leisure activities).

Man reads to two children.
Those who were caring for children reported they spent more time reading with children.

This increased reading volume was complicated for those with caring responsibilities. Many people with children reported that their reading time had increased generally because of their shared reading with children, but had less time than normal for personal reading.

Reading frequency was further complicated by a quality vs quantity snag. People spent more time reading and seeking escape, but an inability to concentrate meant they made less progress than usual. In short, people spent more time reading but the volume they read was less.

Genre choice

Despite the early figures showing spikes in interest for content about pandemics and isolation, it appears that people quickly tired of these topics. Many respondents sought out subject matter that was at least predictable, if not necessarily comforting. Many found solace in the “security” of more formulaic genres (whodunnits and other types of thrillers were often cited). Others found themselves significantly less picky about genre than they were before the lockdown: they read more, and more widely.

Many found the lockdown to be a great opportunity to explore things they didn’t normally have the time or desire to read (like hefty classics that seemed too dull or heavy to bring on a commute) or to fill other gaps in knowledge (the protests over police brutality and racism were cited frequently as the catalyst for many readers seeking out more texts by non-white authors).


Much as with the choice of genre, readers generally fell into two camps: those that read for exploration and those that re-read for safety. The re-readers found solace in previously read books: familiar plots and known emotional registers helped stressed-out readers avoid suspense and surprises.

Unsurprisingly, lockdown also made re-reading a physical necessity for some. Some respondents noted how they were unable to visit the library or browse at the bookshop for new books. Others reported that they simply wished to save money. On the other hand, the participants who reported re-reading less than normal during the lockdown period wanted to use their newfound time to seek out new topics and genres.

The two groups also drew on different metaphors to describe their experiences: some of the non-re-readers talked about time as a commodity (for example, valuing reading something new), while the re-readers discussed the ability to travel easily, and with little effort to familiar places, characters and experiences.

Our research shows that the lockdown really did affect the reading habits of those who took part in our survey. But what might be the longer term implications of the lockdown on how and why we read? And what might happen given the possibility of a second lockdown? It remains to be seen if and how the pandemic might be responsible for continuing changes in our relationship with books.The Conversation

Abigail Boucher, Lecturer in English Literature, Aston University; Chloe Harrison, Lecturer in English Language and Literature, Aston University, and Marcello Giovanelli, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Literature, Aston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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