What Helen Reddy taught me about women’s voices

Helen Reddy https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84654997
Women’s voices: Helen Reddy, Long Hard Climb. Capitol Records – Billboard, 11, August 1973, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Women’s voices letting out your inner roar

The day the great Helen Reddy had died, I was speaking to another strong mother about telling women’s voices and their stories. She is smart and the family organiser – a logistics make-it-happen family member. We talked about her admirable parents and their partnership. Then we began talking more broadly about wives and their stories, and particularly farmers’ wives.

We spoke about how women’s voices are often lost as they deferred to their husbands. Worse still, some husbands disrupted their wife’s storytelling. The worst cases would even correct their wife while she told her personal story. It does not always happen but when it does it can disrupt the whole flow of the tale.

The “family organiser” spoke then about male farmers and how they are often seen as the breadwinner of a farm but their wives play a vital role.

Letting voices be heard

She described how women working on farms could be hands-on with livestock and machinery, but even those that weren’t were integral to the running of the farm.

“Once they are gone, that is often the end of the farm,” she said.

Women keep the farm running – enough food on the table, clothes that fit and are clean, chores in town to ensure bills are paid. Farming is a big job and it takes a partnership to make it work. Along with the running of the farm, there are the children who need to get to school, do their homework and get their chores done. Then there is the community involvement required in a town. Without farmers wives, there is no cake stall or thrift store. Without those, how does a town grow? That might seem like only a paragraph in a book, but each element creates its own story thread. What was it like before? When did times change? The struggles, the laughs? How a family coped and the impact on the town? The women’s voice list could go on.

Confidence in your story

Recently a woman I was interviewing pulled out of writing her life story. It was frustrating, not because of the work, but because she does have a great migrant story to tell, a great medicine story to tell and fabulous retirement story to tell. She felt the book was too fancy for her. It may be coronavirus cabin fever, but isolated from friends and family, it seemed like she had lost confidence that her story – her woman’s voice – was important. Yet her story, her family’s history, her memories of her mother and father and her life in Australia alone were enough to fascinate both her family – and me.

Roaring our women’s voices

Helen Reddy didn’t just sing, she belted out: “I am Woman, hear me roar,” but I cannot help but feel that women are not yet roaring. We might roar about equal pay, conditions and God, knows our right to decide who touches our bodies, but we are not roaring our stories.

One of my heroes is Mary Crooks, executive director of the Victorian Women’s Trust. Mary was quoted in The Age today about Helen Reddy.

“Women’s voices had been denied over centuries and here she was saying, I’m invincible, I’m strong, I’ve had pain in my life. We’re making progress, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

It is brave to believe someone will be interested in your words

I also bumped into an old journo colleague at the Queen Victoria Market two days ago. He said I was gutsy to walk out on a job at The Age to start my own business telling people’s life stories. In my dark moments, I have wondered whether it was brave or foolish. Starting something brand new is always terrifying, but as another of my women heroes, Chris Hornsey once said: “If you do something new, it should be terrifying. If it is not, then either you don’t want it enough or you are not trying hard enough.” Or words to the effect of and each time I approach something new, I wonder if I am terrified.

I suspect that is why I cannot sing Helen Reddy’s words “Yes, I paid the price but look how much I gained. If I had to, I can do anything” without tearing up. Because putting yourself out there does take courage. It is brave to believe someone will be interested in your words. So for those women (and men) hanging onto untold stories out there know that it is time to tell your story. Know that those lines on your face were earned from life’s experience. Reflect on how much you have achieved. Remember to look at how much you have gained. Your story is the most personal project you will ever work on. All life stories have quietly told moments but other times, they need to roar off from the page.

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