In Focus: Professor Clare Wright

This trait became the “sense of critical inquiry” driving Professor Wright’s books. She investigated women’s place in supposedly egalitarian Aussie pubs in Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans (2003); the role of women on Victoria’s goldfields in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014); and the trailblazing fight by Australian women for the right to vote in You Daughters of Freedom (2018).

Rebels and You Daughters were the first two books of Professor Wright’s democracy trilogy, which she is now completing with a book investigating the fight for voting rights by Indigenous people in Australia.

Despite all the awards and acclaim for her work, Professor Wright believes she is only just “finding her voice” as a writer. Surprisingly, writing and presenting TV shows, including the ABC documentaries Utopia Girls and The War that Changed Us, helped her refine her craft the most.

Historian Professor Clare Wright has raised the profile of her profession and many causes, but she remains an introverted activist and an unofficial mentor, she tells Will Brodie.

Professor Wright finds it hard to say no, and she says no “six times a week”.

When we meet for our interview at a café, she displays this quality immediately. Having ordered a pot of tea to keep herself awake after a night of writing until 3am, she starts chatting with the young woman at the cash register. They discuss what Professor Wright is writing about and the cashier’s career path, and it’s clear IE will have to wait a few minutes.

Professor Wright is one of a rare breed in modern Australia: the public intellectual. She’s achieved that by saying ‘yes’ – endlessly.

It makes her crazy busy. In the week we talked, she also slaved away on her latest book; sat alongside Senator Penny Wong at a federal election campaign launch; took calls about an upcoming TV production; visited Ballarat to attend the 10-year anniversary of the Stella Award for Women’s Writing (which she won in 2014 for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka); and worked on her Archive Fever podcast series with Yves Rees.

She also promoted ‘A Monument of One’s Own’, a campaign to have more statues of famous women erected. Did you know only 4 per cent of Australian statues represent historical female figures? That’s a classic Clare Wright mission – to publicise a startling and previously unheeded truth.

In this packed week, Professor Wright also took part in a seminar on gendered violence, in which she experienced an exciting phenomena – an all-women panel. Professor Wright says even supportive, supposedly feminist men can tend to take over at such events.

“It just happens so frequently and it’s part of the ether – men don’t even notice it – but women know it happens all the time,” she says.

“We internalise from such an early age that men are the ones who are entitled to be taking up the space, that we give it over as well.”

When there are no men on a panel, Professor Wright says, “Women just have a riotous good time! There’s this energy which just lifts the roof off.”

The mother of two boys, she empathises with the difficulties males navigate. But her advice to them is simple: “If you’re not sure, communicate, talk. You’re at the top of the pyramid. You are white, you are male. You are well educated. English is your first language”.

Patriarchy not loosening grip

Professor Wright is as blunt about society: “Our patriarchy is not going to give up power. Patriarchy is a systemic form of oppression. Individual men do not give up their power without a fight”.

It’s hard to believe she ever, even subconsciously, defers to anyone, but Professor Wright insists she is timid by nature and needed theatre classes as a child to improve her social skills.

“I worked to overcome my introversion. I was an only child. I grew up mostly around adults.”

American-born, she moved to Australia with her mother at five years of age. Her mum was a tech school teacher, her stepfather taught at La Trobe University. Professor Wright says she was “raised with a very anti-elitist temper and very much with a democratic ethos”.

From Year 9 onwards she attended Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School in Melbourne – one of few Victorian selective schools – which suited her “perfectly”.

“I found my people,” Professor Wright says. “There really was this ethos that girls could do anything; there was no reason anything about our gender should hold us back from anything we might want to do in life.”

The school was a meritocracy where “you could aspire to be whatever you wanted to be”.

“That wasn’t taught to us as feminism per se, it was just the ethos of the school,” she says. Surrounded by high achievers and excellent teachers she loved, Professor Wright thrived.

Professor Wright says she was not a “natural activist”, but she now realises school provided her first taste of campaigning.

When a Student Representative on the School Council, she confronted her school leaders over the Christian content of songs chosen for massed singing at the end-of-year gala.

She’d noticed the “silent dissent” of non-Christian girls who weren’t singing, and felt their voices were “literally being stifled”.

Professor Wright, who is Jewish, was made to “feel foolish” for her rejection at the time, but at the next year’s gala, a Russian folk song was sung.

It taught her that seeking change can bring both humiliation and exhilaration. It revealed an “outsider’s perspective” derived from being a “first generation immigrant from a minority religion”.

That meant she was “kind of outside looking in” at Australian life and culture.

“I didn’t necessarily take for granted the things that other people take for granted,” she says.

We don’t give teachers anywhere near the respect and recognition they deserve.

“I learned to write in a much more conversational style, a much more direct style with a sense that each scene leads seamlessly onto the next scene. It’s a fictional device as well. It makes readers ask, ‘what happens next?’”

But she’s strictly a non-fiction writer. “Writing history has meant that I believe in the significance of every story I tell because it actually happened,” Professor Wright says.

“And I generally tell stories that haven’t been told before, and I have a sense of the injustice of their lack of exposure. So I’m evangelical about the work. I’m passionate about the narratives.”


Professor Wright is aware her public visibility means she’s become a role model for some young women.

For her, that means emphasising her vulnerabilities. Professor Wright set out to “burst the bubble” of her “shiny life” – successful career, long-standing marriage, three healthy kids – with a speech in the Epic Fail series at the Wheeler Centre.

Professor Wright’s 2014 speech, titled ‘The Year my Brain Broke’, discussed her diagnosis of severe clinical postnatal depression in 2007, when “no strength of character or force of will” would get me through “feelings of utter incompetence”.

“For at least two years, I had struggled with the daily challenge to scale the summit of my own wretchedness. Most days were like snorkelling through tar. Dark, heavy, suffocating days punctuated by panic and a generalised sense of impending doom.

“On the outside, I was a solid citizen. On the inside, I had fractured into a million little pieces.”

The response to that speech was “extraordinary”, vindicating Professor Wright’s instinct to share.

“It’s a responsibility to let people know that you have struggled, that the last thing women need is role models presenting some idea of perfection, because women already all the time think they do things inadequately.

“We’re trained to think of ourselves as deficient.”

Professor Wright avoids formal mentoring programs, keen to avoid administrative red tape, obligatory emails, and token interactions. Instead she has “a lot of very significant relationships” upon which she expends a lot of time and energy.

Professor Wright never had a mentor herself, but always wanted one. But then she once showed an admired female writer and historian her work and “she tore it to shreds”.

“I just sort of came away shell-shocked and realised that I actually didn’t want her to critique my work,” she says.

Professor Wright was after nurturing – and that’s what she tries to provide.She encourages women to “trust their instincts, listen to their inner voice, follow their knowing”.

“I ask everyday questions. What are you going to do next? What are you going to do with your life? Are you happy with the people you have around you? What ethics are you going to follow? What’s going to be your moral compass?”

History and teaching

Professor Wright is saddened that many schools don’t teach Australian history because a “beautiful new relaunched curriculum” starts this year.

Not enough students are choosing the subject. “I would say that the broader culture wars have had their impact in education,” she says.

Yet, Professor Wright sees students at open days with “a gleam in their eye because they’ve got a passion for history”.

“They love it. It speaks to something inside them. It lights them up from the inside. And then their parents come over and ask, ‘what jobs can you get if you do history?’

“Then I reel it out. You can work in museums, heritage, archaeology, journalism. And studying history builds critical-thinking skills, narrative skills, and empathy.”

Beyond saddened, Professor Wright is outraged by the plight of Australia’s teachers.

“I come from a family of teachers, and I love teachers,” she says. “I know how hard they work, and I think the workload on teachers these days is extraordinary and unfathomable.

“And it’s a national disgrace that we don’t afford our teachers the status and remuneration that rewards their effort and the role they play, because they’re social workers, they’re educators, and they’re negotiating all of these incredibly difficult new rules of engagement around gender and sexuality.

“They’re at the coalface of the culture wars in many ways. And we don’t give them anywhere near the respect and the recognition they deserve.”

Never a dull moment

Seeking a picture many weeks after our interview, I’m updated on Professor Wright’s activities. A statue of working-class feminist activist Zelda D’Aprano will be unveiled in October outside Trades Hall in Melbourne.

The Archive Fever series 4 podcast rolls out soon. She’s now Professor of Public Engagement at La Trobe University as well as Professor of History. She’s trying to sell a Forgotten Rebels TV series to the US.

And she’s just said ‘yes’ to a role as an expert adviser to “provide overarching strategic advice” to the Federal Government to develop a National Cultural Policy – by helping trawl more than 1200 public submissions.

Concluding her Epic Fail speech, Professor Wright said: “Achievement is a state of grace, not the sum total of relentless activity ... and hard work often brings just rewards, but it’s not what sets you free”.

Those words could be a touchstone for Professor Wright as well as a salve for others, for her output remains astonishing.