International Women’s Day 2023 and Women’s Work

The theme of 2023’s International Women’s Day, ‘Embrace Equity’ raises more problems than solves for us here in our Women’s Work blog. Understanding difference and the categories of difference that societies create is the work of a lifetime and often, imagining strategies of achieving equity, especially through trying to achieve equality, have better outcomes in one’s own mind than they do in real world implementation. The fact is, the category ‘women’ is a ‘meta’ category and has so many categories within it that there can never be equity by providing all women with special opportunities. These opportunities might help some women (white, ‘western’, middle class, educated, single without children) compete equally – or equitably - with men (an equally complex, yet universally better situated cultural category) but never all women. Already we are bogged down with too many cultural, political and philosophical issues to be clear here. Let’s re-start with what matters to us. Relish!

Making and selling relish is, for us, a feminist activity that, whilst we know we cannot achieve universal equity in either making or selling it, has other values. Making our relish is a deliberate and reflexive action in homage to our family ancestors who passed down the recipes to us. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the lives of those to whom we owe so much. Women who passed from this earth long ago have their stories told and re-told in the making of the relish so that children today know things about their forebears and their lives and times that might otherwise have been lost to us. An example is our Granny Ida. Granny was born in 1885 and died in 1971 when Kristina was 13. Gran was a very active and vibrant 86 when she suddenly passed from a stroke. Anyone could find out these details by searching records, but Granny’s recipes and the memories of our living family elders who remember her, provide us with knowledge and lessons that can’t be learned from research. In powerful ways, we practice the knowledge passed down to us. We live it and remember the lessons in embodied ways. We read her recipes, we make the relish and we literally eat both the relish and the stories embedded in it. The details that I recall below are all loaded. Each sentence is saturated in meaning and history and are feminist stories in themselves ready to be unpacked and illustrated with examples, memories, objects and music.

Our Granny Ida was born in Glebe in Sydney to poor Scottish migrants who had 9 other children. They left Scotland during dramatic political times. Gran’s father was a Buchan from Aberdeen and her mother, Helena, was a McNichol Burnett from Dundee in the Scottish lowlands. Her father’s family had been cleared off the highlands and they came to Australia destitute but staunch Presbyterians who believed that God would provide. God did provide, but only enough for scant survival. It was up to the women of the family to provide small luxuries that they grew or made to make life bearable. The family lived in a 2 bedroom terrace house with an outside dunny. They did, however, have a narrow, but long backyard where they could grow fruit trees and have a small vegetable garden. They also reared chickens. The house still stands in Gottenham St and although it has been substantially renovated and extended, it is still possible to imagine what life for a large family in such a place would have been like. Cramped would probably be the first adjective that comes to mind, but if one researches the history of Glebe in this period it can be imagined what life near the slaughterhouses was like. Bubonic plague, for example, came to Glebe in 1900. Kristina’s mother, Barbara, has many memories of the house and visiting Granny and her mother, Helena, there. She talks about the different treatment that children were given in those days, how they were to be ‘seen but not heard’ and how she was often banished to the garden on visits. She has memories of Helena’s appearance. She had a ‘bust like a pigeon’ and a ‘fearsome scowl’.

Granny Ida married Johann Bruchhauser in 1907. Granny Ida, and her daughter and Kristina’s grandmother, Helen, told many stories about Johann’s German family. They came from Bavaria and were vintners and butchers and suffered terrible violence and eventual interment during WW1. Johann, however, did not live to see WW1 as he suffered a poisoned cut to his hand and died of septicemia at 28. Granny in her early 20s and left with 2 small children, Uncle Bill and Kristina’s grandmother, Helen, had to move back home to Glebe to survive. It’s unclear whether Granny was already a trained tailoress or whether she became a tailoress after Johann died. Either way, she went to work for a tailor from the time of Johann’s death until she was well into her 60s.

Granny Ida didn’t only work on her treadle machine making men’s suits, jackets, over-coats and tailored articles for women. With her mother, Helena, and later with her daughter, Helen, she kept a vegetable garden and tended fruit trees. With her sewing machine she provided the whole family with little (and sometimes big) luxuries including doll’s clothes, school uniforms and fully lined dresses and jackets. With her mind and hands she provided jams, pickles, apple pies and, of course, relishes. As well as these luxuries, our family would always have a roast chicken for Sunday lunch. When Kristina was a child the chickens came from Helen’s backyard in Cronulla, south of Sydney, a generation before they were grown in Glebe. All the girls would help. Kristina remembers Granny Ida killing the chicken. Helen would clean it and after boiling the copper, dunk it in so that the feathers would come out easily when Kristina and Helen worked together to pluck it.

When Granny Ida was in her late 50s she married Jack Hindmarsh who had been a long time lover. Sadly Jack died of throat cancer after a year or two just after Helen’s husband, Ron, died of the same disease. Granny Ida and Helen were very close and spent a great deal of time together, even more so after their respective spouses died. They also spent more time visiting the rest of the family which meant that their attention and the luxuries they provided were redoubled.

My brief recounting of some key facts about Granny Ida’s life already shows that if we define equity as being ‘fairness’ then she experienced very little equity. But if equity means taking opportunities to make life as good as it can be, no matter what your starting point and what life throws at you, then Granny Ida is a great example. Would Granny call herself a feminist? It’s easy for us today to say that Granny was a self-sacrificing altruist and that a man in her position would not have responded (or needed to have responded because the women in the family would have supported him) to life’s circumstances by freely helping and supporting those she loved. It’s easy to say that she behaved in a pre-conditioned way that was expected of women in those days. But Granny Ida was aware of feminism. Kristina remembers her rather shocked response to the second wave feminists of the 1960s and their interest in systemic injustice and sexual freedoms for women. Granny Ida was a first wave feminist through and through. Her focus was political freedoms and the right to vote for women. Making and providing the things that make life better for everyone for free was not a contradiction with feminism for her. It is for us only when this work is taken for granted. Making and re-making Granny’s recipes, for us at Women’s Work, is a way of making it visible that Granny Ida has not only left us with something valuable, but that during her life she was always giving us valuable things. This is our chance to be grateful for what she has left behind and remember what she has already given us. It is important now that we don’t take this for granted. That is why Women’s Work exists. In this world where the work of women is taken for granted, and the truth is that Granny’s work was when she was alive, then we need to pay what is fair for the work and the luxuries we receive. That is equity.