2 June, 2010
Ladies and gentlemen, I am really delighted to join you here this evening at our marvellous National Library:
· so thoroughly Australian, yet world class in every respect;
· your people,
· your expertise
· and your standards in collection, access and preservation.
And I’m especially pleased to be here to celebrate a decade of the Australian Women’s Archives Project:
· a truly important living and growing body of work established and developed by the National Foundation for Australian Women, in partnership with The University of Melbourne;
· a vital resource for the enhancement of Australia’s
· and historical understanding.
Tonight, we honour the efforts of
o exceptional researchers,
o superb technicians,
o and courageous and generous donors of time and treasures –
the individuals who have through meticulous record,
· professed the offerings and achievements of Australian women.
· thoughtfully and lovingly retrieved women’s history from silence and obscurity,
· so that we may set about to reassemble and reinterpret our collective past.
I was privileged to observe one of our country’s finest examples of archival management and curatorship when I was Principal of The Women’s College within the University of Sydney.
There is a profound sense there of the College’s place and part:
· in Australia’s history over the last nearly 120 years,
· in nurturing some of our most esteemed and prominent women:
- women of extraordinary intellect and facility
- at the frontier of their disciplines
- forging models of women’s leadership.
I so admired the work of Dr Rosemary Annable:
· her contribution to the preservation of the history of the College, its staff and students
· and her leadership and editorship of the College’s outstanding Biographical Register Project
· she is, in my mind, the genuine blue stocking article!
And I would relish taking time out to visit the archives:
· they were so beautifully timbered and fitted out,
· the room at optimum temperature
· for the precious records stored in boxes, shelves, drawers and tissue;
· I would utterly lose myself down there, unable to resist the lure of the trail
· I would hold our sisters’ stories – the lives of my heroines – in my grateful, shaking hands,
· then I’d suddenly look up and wonder how many hours had passed, and panic that I’d been locked in for the night!
These are wonderful memories for me, but more importantly, they shine a light on
o and nation-building endeavours.
Not long ago I was reading the papers from the 50th anniversary celebration of the Sophia Smith Collection at the Smith College, Massachusetts.
I’ve always wanted to visit Smith College, and I guess that’s largely because of how much I have admired the writing and work of Australian-American author, Jill Kerr-Conway, who was Smith’s first woman president.
I quoted her only last week when I was at the University of Sydney to describe how I felt about my time at the Women’s College:
…the places and people that give our lives an aura of magic potential.
And, remarkably, in the same week, I met a group of Smith College academics who were out here:
· for an international women and sport conference,
· and a meeting at the Women’s College!
There’s a lot of wonderful serendipity in this role.
It’s what I love most about it.
The threads you can draw together to create whole new fabrics.
I digress though.
Back to Smith – in 1942, the College committed itself to the preservation of the record of women’s lives and work.
There were some pearls offered on the 50th birthday of the Sophia Smith collection that I’d like to share with you here.
They remind me of the universal bonds of respect and compassion among women across generations and borders:
· how we cherish one another’s achievements and what we have done to progress the lives of women everywhere;
· our understanding of the debilitating consequences of silencing women’s public and professional lives
· and our capacity to turn that around, constructively and triumphantly.
In the 1930s when feminist historian, Mary Beard, led the effort to establish a World Center for Women’s Archives, she displayed marvellous creative talents:-
· in cajoling donors and sponsors,
· and excavating,
· and cataloguing women’s history.
She conceived of the project not as antiquarian or purely curatorial but as:
· a political venture,
· a meeting place for women of many minds,
· the source of an educational revolution,
· and the site from which women’s public protests and social leadership might emanate.
This is what she said:
Papers. Records. These we must have.
Without documents, no history.
Without history, no memory.
Without memory, no greatness.
Without greatness, no development among women.
Twenty years later, when talking to an old friend about her life’s project, Beard put it this way:
What I’ve been trying to do for years is to awaken women to the reality of their historic power…
to incite women to realise who and what they have been, with a view to their realising better who they are and what they are now doing.
Friends, we owe a debt to Mary Beard and to the many, many women worldwide who have swept up the baton since – and the women (and men) of the Australian Women’s Archives Project.
I can’t find better words than those of Sarah Pritchard, former Director of Smith College Libraries:
· you have affirmed women’s agency in creating her own history
· you have shown us that history looks different through women’s eyes, and that no woman’s life is a single story
· you have taught us about the critical role of archives – and documents – how we must always be able to go back to the original sources and establish new links and interpretations
· and you have allowed women to toot our own horns!
Happy 10th birthday Australian Women’s Archives Project!
You’re a fledgling, a debutante:
· knowing and savvy for your tender years
· with centuries to catch up on and never a departure date.
Ursula Le Guin wrote:
When you find the hidden catch
In the secret drawer
Behind the false panel
Inside the concealed compartment
In the desk in the attic
Of the house in the dark forest
And press the spring firmly
A door flies open to reveal
A bundle of old letters
And in one of them
Is a map
Of the forest
That you drew yourself
Before you ever went there.
Thank you, my friends, for leading us to what has always been, but never fully known.