Research and writing with honesty

Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Iola Mathews interviewed by Nicola Wetzel

Balancing research with personal experience is often tricky for non-fiction writers. Ahead of her Writing Women's History workshop, part of our Having a Voice series, WV intern Nicola Wetzel caught up with Iola Mathews to find out how she researches and writes about women's stories.

What resources do you use when you’re writing about women’s history?

It depends on your subject. Writing ‘Chequered Lives’ about my pioneer ancestors, I drew on their letters, diaries and memoirs. But those were written by the men in the family, so I had to flesh out the women’s stories with further research and some imagination. What was it like, for example, for my great-great grandmother in 1836 travelling on a ship from England with six children under eight, pregnant again and suffering from seasickness and morning sickness? I got help from a book about the old sailing ships and a visit to the Immigration Museum.

Read other books on women’s history (memoir, biography, family history, general history) and they’ll teach you a lot about structure and style. My current book is a memoir spanning twenty years in the women’s movement. It includes the Women’s Electoral Lobby (1972 on) and my work at the ACTU during the Hawke-Keating governments. I’m drawing on my diaries, files, former colleagues, newspapers of the time and reference books.

How do you know when you’ve done enough research?

For most of us, research is the fun part and writing is much harder. Once you have a topic, do your basic research and make a plan before you start writing. Then do extra research as you go along, because questions will arise and you’ll need to check for accuracy. I like to type up chronological notes on each chapter before I start writing it.

What should you focus on when writing women’s history?

There are many different ways of writing about women’s history, and mine is only one way. Concentrate on people and their stories, whether it’s your own or other people’s. I was fortunate to live through interesting times and I’m trying to put some of that on the record. To quote one writer, ‘Women’s liberation was the only successful revolution of the twentieth century’.

I’m writing about my time as a journalist, feminist, activist and political wife. It’s about my struggle to combine a career with children, stepchildren and a husband who was away a lot of the time. It’s also about the bigger picture of how many people worked to bring about major reforms for women and what more needs to be done today.

What would you say is the difference between feminism in previous generations and now?

The feminist movement is a ‘broad church’ and we’re not all the same. I’m a ‘moderate’ feminist and worked for reform with supportive men as well as women. Others who were more radical were more interested in consciousness-raising, protest movements and fighting the patriarchy. Nor did we all focus on the same issues. I concentrated mainly on work and family issues (affirmative action, equal pay, superannuation for women, childcare, parental leave etc.), while others were engaged on issues like women’s health, refuges and the specific needs of indigenous women or migrant women.

I’m not sure there has really been a third or fourth wave. I have a feeling that feminists today are mainly focused on self-empowerment, gender identity, women’s safety and fighting misogyny. Those are very important, but I’d like to see a return to collective action to pressure governments, such as we experienced in WEL and the ACTU.

How personal should you get?

There is a huge range of feeling on this, from Helen Garner who believes you should let it all out, to others who hide their personal feelings and experiences. I try to write as honestly as I can, without hurting other people. It’s a difficult balancing act.       

About Iola Mathews

Iola Mathews OAM was a journalist with ‘The Age’ and one of the founders of the Women’s Electoral Lobby. She was involved in reforms for women over twenty years, including ten years at the ACTU working with the Hawke-Keating Government. She is the author of three books and established Glenfern Writers Studios in St Kilda with Writers Victoria and the National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

About Nicola Wetzel

Nicola Wetzel is a Writers Victoria Intern from Heidelberg, Germany. She studies Public Management at Hochschule Kehl and through this internship she wants to gain new experiences in what it’s like to work in a not-for-profit organisation.