I am lucky enough to have an incredibly strong and powerful group of female friends (the Vagina All Stars – one day we’ll have t-shirts). I wanted to start by writing about them, but realised that perhaps I’d first go a bit further back in time.
When I was a kid mum had her own clique of Vagina All Stars, a bunch of strong, passionate, intelligent and powerful women who called themselves Mothers and Others (otherwise affectionately known as ‘mums and bums’).
If I have the story straight (which I think I have because I did actually bother to ask, eventually), mum met these women around the time I was born. She met them all through various organisations and networks; AME (the alternative school mum and dad were involved with), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Quakers, the Home Birth Association, Majura Women’s group and other local peace groups. Somehow they all met and had what mum explained to be a common desire to “combine parenting our little kids well and supporting each other as we grappled with motherhood & parenting, [while] working for change at the local, national and international level...” She said:
We wanted to work on issues that we saw as important at the time and that were often inter connected- children's play, war toys, peace issues, environment issues, the first Gulf War, arms bazaar, supporting women and families in war torn Sarajevo etc The thing that linked [all these issues for us] was a desire to make a better world then and into the future for children.
Mum and her friends still have all their meeting notes and their campaign plans. I was too young to understand any of that and the detail of it is really their story to tell. But I want to tell you about what they did and how much of an influence they have had on my life.
Looking back on the work that I do and the way that I am in the world, I can confidently say that these women and their activism formed a vital part of who I am. I was an asparagus that they tended. And so I am going to tell you about them and their power and what they did to change my world.
They taught me about friendship and action and the value of bleeding the domestic into everyday life. Of creativity and expression and the power of art and irreverent laughter. They taught me about grief and how to own it and release it and keep it sacred amidst laughter and fuck ups and canoes in wild weather.
These women grew me up and tied me firmly and powerfully to my community and my domestic space. They shoved my head down a backwards telescope with the lens set to ‘world problems’ only for me to see my home and my kitchen and my neighbours. These women taught me the value and the glory of care through their passion and conviction in the mundane and through the protest banners made of old nappies, their activist outfits of tatty dressing gowns, and their slogan ‘we are mothers, the others are our children and amongst the nappies and sticky buns we work for peace’.
All of us ‘others’ have tales to tell. My brother remembers his media debut when he was photographed watching television in a chook pen with one of the other kids. I remember standing outside the supermarket collecting donations for families who were in the siege of Sarajevo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, water purifying tablets. Apparently they were a part of a wider campaign and had been provided with a list of items that were desperately in need. Each family got a package of things wrapped in a homemade woollen shawl made by the mothers. I remember making finger puppets for the children in Sarajevo and having to eat my bun in my left hand, cooling my gluegun burnt finger in a plastic cup of water. Mum explained recently that “The puppets were made by ‘the others’ as a gift to the children....a tangible way we thought you could be involved.”
All of us Others remember our mums protesting the Arms Bazaar that used to be held in Canberra (a horrendously bizarre bazaar for manufacturers to spruik the latest in killer technology) dressed in pyjamas and dressing gowns waving protest banners made from nappies. That particular event has become the stuff of legends as even those of us who weren’t homeschooled and were old enough to be at school hold some collective pride in the ‘embarrassment’ of mothers.
The details of their actual campaigning are vague to me. Mum assures me that they still have all their meeting minutes stashed away somewhere along with their banners and artworks. They must have been organised and networked well because I think they were instrumental in ending the Arms Bazaar and certainly motivated a wider bunch of women to be active.
I know that the Mothers are asking each other ‘did we achieve anything?’ as they see clothing catalogues full of highly gendered products that encourage boys to be violent and girls to be ‘cute’. Same shit, different century. One of the most powerful countries on earth has just elected a misogynistic moron who immediately acted to make it illegal for USA funded organisations to talk about abortions in other countries. I agree, it’s hard to work out what you achieved.
But you certainly taught me a lot.
I don’t know what the other Others would say, but I can say that Mothers and Others you grew me up to be a strong powerful woman with a sense of self-worth, an appreciation for the value of care and the domestic, and the sense that I am just as good as the boys. You taught me to fight for my inherent worth, not just for the privilege of acting like a man.
I feel powerful and valuable BECAUSE I am a carer (among other things).
Recently I’ve changed the way I introduce myself. I used to say “I’m Millie, I work at the uni…”. These days, I take a deep breath (because let’s face it, this still takes courage) and I say “I’m Millie and I am a carer. I care for a lot of people in my community. I am also the Chair of our food cooperative, I work with a network of people seeking to re-story Australia and create a more just and sustainable nation, and I am trying to write a book about sharing. I know over 100 people in my suburb by first name and I feel secure and valued. Oh, and I’m casually employed at the university”.
Mothers, you set me on this path. And others are following, redefining, reintroducing and participating in this small but powerful act of defiance.
But you also taught me that I do not have to be a carer or a mother, or even vaguely interested in the domestic space, to be woman. I’m sure that you, along with my dad, were crucial in this too. I’m not joking when I tell people that my husband is the house spouse at the moment and is responsible for the cooking, shopping and a lot of the cleaning. I’m also not joking when I say I’m sending him to a friend’s place to learn to cook good curries as professional development. Thanks to you lot, when people get awkward and laugh about this, I just look at them like THEY are the weirdos and we quickly move on.
Mothers and Others, I assume a different kind of normal to the normal that you assumed, and that is something that you should be proud of.