‘Girl Talk: One Hundred Years of Australian Girls’ Childhood’ by Gwenda Beed Davey

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2017, 210 pages

As it happened, I started reading this book during International Day of the Girl  (October 11). It’s telling that there is no International Day of the Boy- and nor should there be, considering the straitened and frankly bleak lives that many girls live throughout the world compared to their brothers.

The very first picture in the opening pages of this book, subtitled ‘Group of girls with the Leones and the di Giglio Band, St Kilda, 1911’ shows a musical band of men, with young girls in the background, dressed in white, looking for all the world as if the characters from Picnic at Hanging Rock had turned up at a musical soiree. The text of the book itself starts at a very different place with the ‘sexting’ events of 2016 where young girls texted images of themselves to two boys, only to find their images shared and viewers invited to vote for ‘slut of the year’. It seems hard to even place those 1911 girls, all hatted and demurely dressed in white, in the same analytic frame as those internet images.

This is what Gwenda Beed Davey does in this book. As she writes in her introductory essay ‘Being a Girl in Australia’,

This book looks at the changes in girls’ experiences and behaviour through their own words, their ‘girl talk’. The book will consider what has changed and what has remained the same. Ten women, all born in Australia, have recorded their recollections of their childhood, in decades from ‘around 1910’ to ‘around 2010’ (p.2)

She defines childhood as ending at around 13 years of age, when puberty sets in and childhood games are often abandoned.

In an article for the National Film and Sound Archive, where Davey worked as a Research Fellow, she explains that she more than twenty years ago she had  recorded a number of oral histories for the National Library of Australia. Some of these interviews were made available for the body of this book, supplemented by more recent interviews which brought the book up to 2016.

After the introduction, each chapter is devoted to each interview which is presented as a separate continuous first-person account, with the questions removed. However, the presence of the questions lingers in the topics addressed, with a common emphasis on games played and rhymes recalled, reflecting the author’s interest in childhood games through her earlier involvement in the ‘Childhood, Tradition and Change’ research project (see its fascinating database here). As they are interviews, there is not a lot of narrative shaping, and the endings are rather abrupt. Davey has prefaced each chapter with a paragraph-length introduction, and each interview is seen as being emblematic of a particular decade.

So who are some of the women we meet here? Ethel Carroll, born in 1914, grew up in a series of rented houses with her extended family. Her father was a strong unionist, and worked as a bootmaker. She was brought up in the Methodist church, and through gaining a 1/2 scholarship, was able to attend Stott’s Business College.

Maxine Ronnberg was born in 1920 and lived in Mortlake in rural Victoria until she was thirteen. Her father was a stock agent, and she grew up in the family home where there was a governess, cook and housemaid, as well as the stockmen and drovers.

Jean Phillips was born in 1925 and moved from Collingwood where her father was employed in a boot factory to the nascent Canberra in 1927 where her father worked as a doorman at the ‘new’ Parliament House. They lived in Ainslie in a government house where the rent never changed. She left school at 14 because she didn’t like it and became a dressmaker.

From this point on, the interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2016. Dorothy Saunders was born in Sydney in 1932 and came to Melbourne when she was two. Her father was an industrial chemist educated at Sydney Tech, while her mother was a secretary. She lived at Seaholme, near Altona, which was an undeveloped suburb at the time. During the polio epidemic she went to live in the Blue Mountains for 6 months, and the family later shifted to Ferntree Gully when her father feared that Altona would be bombed during WWII. She had a wide extended family, but her father was very bad-tempered.

Claire Forbes was born in 1940. Her father fought in WWI, and he was left a life-long Pacifist. He was 55 years old when she was born, and he died when she was 15. She was part of a huge Catholic family, and they lived in a small Queensland country town and holidayed in Coolangatta with her large extended family. She had a rural school upbringing, with the Art Train and the Rural School on the ‘rail motor’ bringing extra curricular education to this remote area.

Sue Broadway was born in 1955, if not ‘in a trunk’, then certainly surrounded by vaudeville and greasepaint. Her mother was an entertainer who made the transition to television. Sue herself participated in eisteddfods and followed her mother to the Royal Show and shopping centres. Her father was a teacher and she went on the Moratorium marches.

Patricia Ciuffetelli, born 1961, grew up in Queanbeyan and then Canberra. Her parents were both born in Italy and came to Australia in the late 1950s. She did not speak much English when she started Catholic school. She had a large extended family, the result of waves of chain migration from Italy.

Tara Gower, born in Adelaide in 1981, is a Yawaru woman who dances with the Bangarra Dance Theatre. She was born in Adelaide but shifted to Broome where her father’s grandparents lived, and where many people were ‘coloured’ in Broome’s highly multi-cultural community. She went to St Mary’s, the ‘black’ school but later went to the ‘white’ high school. She considered that her childhood ended  at 12, when her father died.

Jodene Garstone was also of indigenous identity, and 12 years old when this interview was recorded in 2011. This is the only  one of the interviews with an informant who was a ‘girl’ at the time, rather than a retrospective account. She too was born in Broome, but at the time of recording lived in Kununarra, and was at Geelong Grammar on a scholarship. While recalling a childhood eating bush food with friends, she had aspirations to be a surgeon, while her brother was studying law.

I found myself wondering about the author’s role in this book, given that the body of the work is the interviews. An oral history interview is always a shared production. While the questions by the interviewer might steer the shape of the interview, the real wealth of the interview comes from the participant.  In terms of the book itself, as distinct from the interviews from which it is formed, the main contribution of this author lies in the choice of interviews, the selection of pictures, the crafting of the small prefaces before each chapter and her introductory essay ‘Being a Girl in Australia’.

The introduction performs three roles here, and I’m not sure that they combine effectively.  Perhaps if Davey had spelled out more specifically her intent in writing this introduction, it might have been easier to know how to approach it. She has chosen a number of themes, where first she gives a historical precis of the theme across the hundred years covered by her informants; second, she provides a commentary on current (i.e. 2017) events in relation to that theme; then third, draws out illustrations from the interviews themselves.

It’s interesting to look at these themes.  She starts by looking at education, then moves on to health.  There is a long section on past-times and games, which perhaps reflects her earlier research interest in childhood games in the  ‘Childhood, Tradition and Change’  project.  Her discussion then takes a more contemporary approach in exploring ‘The Age of Fear’ and ‘Sexualization, Representation and Experience’. These sections roam far beyond the interviews to discuss helicopter parenting, Bill Henson and Safe Schools. Her theme of families is more firmly rooted in the interviews, but the section on diversity includes the contemporary question of single sex schools and detention centres. She returns to a historical narrative to deal with the 1920s strikes, the 1930s depression and the three major wars. Her section headed ´War, Bereavement and Loss´includes the Stolen Generation and child migrants.

While it is important that the stories revealed in these interviews are placed within their historical context, some of the themes that she identified seem to have been imposed onto the data from a 2017 perspective, rather than emerging from what her respondents said.  Today ‘Class’ sounds rather old–fashioned and 1970-ish as a historical and analytic theme, but it just leapt out from the interviews, as did the influence of extended family. Nor was church observance explored, even though many informants mentioned it. Although class, family and religion don’t have the currency of topics like Female Genital Mutilation, Social Media or Offshore Detention mentioned in the introduction, they are the themes raised by these women, many of whom were middle-aged or older when interviewed.

That said, I enjoyed reading each of the interviews, particularly the ones set further back in the past. Each chapter is between 15 and about 30 pages in length, and the women´s voices come through the narrative. Even though they are mainly told from an adult perspective, they capture the diversity of lived experience across one hundred years, in a range of settings, focused on a life–stage that is too easily overwritten by later events and sensibilities.

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I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

 

 

Source  Review copy courtesy of Australian Scholarly Publishing.

2 responses to “‘Girl Talk: One Hundred Years of Australian Girls’ Childhood’ by Gwenda Beed Davey

  1. The Ronnbergs sound like very prosperous stock agents. In an area which is very class conscious – Western Victoria – that sounds like a squatter’s lifestyle. Though one property nearby where I spent some time while a schoolboy had a dozen houses for workers and a 20 bedroom homestead. Another step up!

    I think too of my mother, born 1932 on a Mallee wheat farm, and her stories – the pitchfork through her foot, plucking wool from dead sheep. Does Davey draw any conclusions? Can she, when the women’s circumstances are so different?

    • She doesn’t really come to any conclusions as such, which I found a little disappointing. There are commonalities between the stories, but I felt that a conclusion could have drawn them out more clearly.

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