Shut up woman! What creating a women’s magazine has taught me about womanhood
Complex relationships, isolation, and anger that goes unshared; after three years and two hundred submissions, Kat Vella has learned some things about women’s existence in regional Australia. She takes a look back on the pieces that have given an insight into what is occupying the minds and mental energy of women in regional Australia, and more interestingly, what isn’t. In the process, she is challenged with a tapping of what she thought was dead-and-buried, her own internalised resentment of women.
“Shut your mouth darlin’, adults are talking”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that phrase from men growing up, and in my early adult life. That phrase, together with a dozen other acts of aggression targeted at me simply because I was a woman, unfortunately took up residence within me for many, many years. They shaped my self-image, turned me against myself and other women. Without being consciously aware of it, I had developed some ugly ideas about women. Their experiences were frivolous to me, silly even, or of little consequence. Women needed to shut up when men were talking, right? So, I shaped myself into being more man-like in many ways, alienating and feeling shame at many parts of my character, my very human parts.
More times than I can count over the past three years since starting Mona, I have asked myself, do women even have anything important to say? I had read plenty of women’s mags in my life and saw nothing exceptional that was furthering the conversation of gender equality, rather keeping it firmly in the same place: women were homemakers, eternally interested in cooking, child-rearing and looking nice for others.
Ten pieces into reading submissions for our third edition, it dawned on me how much reading Mona’s stories has confronted these ideas for me. In so many ways, the women I have met through building this magazine have helped me arrive to a more nuanced and layered appreciation of what being a woman, being me, means. It’s been interesting to observe for me where connections of thought intersect and diverge among women geographically hundreds, and sometimes thousands of kilometres apart and from various cultural and class backgrounds.
There are clearly universal experiences that connect women in rural Australia. Duty, service, stoicism, and survival being some strong themes that have emerged for me over the past three years. But noting what is present in women’s stories has led me to realise what is absent, and this has perhaps been the most interesting for me.
Here is what I have learnt about womanhood after three years of making Mona...
Women historically have seen themselves through the eyes of others and what they do for them. But this is changing.
Women study the people they love. They take constant mental notes of the things they need, what bothers them, how they change, what makes them smile and feel good, what will set them off, make them angry, or withdraw. They are the consistent witnesses of the lives of the people they love.
One piece that explored this in beautiful detail was Hot Buttered Toast by Nicole Kelly on the Mona blog. In this piece we are invited to share a seemingly inconsequential memory; the first time she tried real butter on toast. As Nicole walks us through the day after her grandfather’s funeral, she notes the rhythms of her grandmother, silent and steady, reassuring, even while mourning her husband. Nicole writes:
I watched her, a woman who had seen seven decades of life and loss, carry her grief around the kitchen, intent on looking after others, until finally she settled with her own cup of tea at the small kitchen table, across from me. We sat in silence, just the two of us, looking out the window towards her river. In that moment alone together, I savoured her presence, as much as that first taste of butter on my tongue.
Nicole describes this dutiful, stoic, sacrificing woman, admiring her as she is “carrying her grief” around the kitchen but never succumbing to it. I asked myself when I read this how much of the residue of the war-worn, battler woman that shaped our grandmother’s generation, particularly in the country, still lives in women today, and does it serve us anymore? Did it ever? How much of ourselves are shaped by the generations that came before us?
In other stories I’ve read, women’s relationships are a mirror, reflecting back at them the value and respect they feel for themselves.
One of my favourite pieces was Shay Baynton’s Decade about reflecting on a decade of motherhood to four children. As she recounts all the milestones over the years raising her little humans, what is noticeably missing is Shay herself. The experience of the previous 10 years has passed her by in an instant and she ponders what she, an individual separate from the role of ‘mother’, has learnt, if anything. She writes:
Going back to that mirror saved me more than once. I needed that visual reminder of how tiny they were, how much bigger I was, how capable this body could be for them even when I was sure my mind had gone. My brain struggled to comprehend that time was passing and that years would go by and somehow, I’d find myself standing at the end of ten years.
I almost didn’t accept this piece. I had a real visceral response of discomfort reading it. Billions of women are mothers everywhere, every day. I struggle with the camps of feminism that portray motherhood as something divine and goddess-like. I feel it only serves to perpetuate the limiting idea that by nature, women are carers, home makers, and therefore domestic servants. I had come to resent the way motherhood consumes women and becomes everything about them. But what I loved about this piece is its honesty. Shay confronts so simply the reality for women that there is no option when you are a mother that motherhood becomes everything you are. You are raising, educating, and keeping alive other human beings that are totally dependent on you for everything. How can that not be the most important thing for you every single day? How can that not in some way, totally consume you?
For me, this honesty helped me make peace with my own decisions not to be a mother and to graciously let go of the lie of “women can have it all”. “Having it all” is not reality and I am in awe of the women like Shay who choose to confront this fantasy for themselves and other women, despite the backlash they may receive for sharing their truth.
What has been surprising, but refreshing is how romantic relationships have not been a prominent feature of women’s thoughts in our pieces. Thoroughly debunking the idea that Hollywood and other historical and cultural rhetoric has hammered into us that finding the right partner is the holy grail of women’s existence. Where we have seen a presence in stories of romantic love, however, has been from older women, again, challenging the cultural expectation that once women pass a certain age they should fade into the memory of their younger selves, become invisible and not desire anything more from life.
In The Ups and Downs of Internet Dating, in our very first issue, Alice Ann Maverick shares the tale of her experience as a single woman in her seventies navigating the online dating scene in a limited pool of prospects in a small town. She is determined to find someone who likes dancing, adventure and good conversation, not settling for a man that is looking for a wife replacement. She writes:
Perhaps it is the age group and the fact that these men only want a ‘nurse or a purse’, as my friend says, or perhaps they have been looked after too well by their former wives that they find it difficult to communicate which is what most women want? ‘Hi’ or ‘How are you?’ is a good start but sometimes that’s the extent of the conversation.
I loved the defiance in this piece: a woman who refused to see herself as society sees her. I think this was one of the first pieces of writing I had read in my life that stood confidently as an example of full life after youth. It gave me a real sense of excitement for growing older and not having to carry the burden of others’ expectations anymore.
What has not been lost on me is that what we read in Mona needs to be viewed with an understanding that everything about what women share with the world has been filtered through their social lens. There is obviously so much more going on that we don’t see, but women are rarely given space to share what sits outside the expectations of what women should enjoy, think about, do, aspire to, and desire. That’s why we think Mona is so important.
Women need solitude and independence to explore who they are. But on their own terms.
Virginia Woolf famously explored how women needed a “room of one’s own” to be able to understand themselves and what they really think, to be able to write. What is clear to me after three years of reading the stories of women who are already engaged in the art of writing is that Virginia’s wish is still very much a fantasy. Finding the physical, emotional and intellectual space to be alone with themselves is still so foreign to modern women that when a piece comes along that attempts to explore just that, it feels terrifying.
Like in Perilous Paradise by Connie Eales in Issue 02. Connie finds herself as an octogenarian living out in the “sticks” on a 100-acre property, kilometres from another human soul, after her husband passes away. Determined not to die in a retirement village, she takes on the daily tasks her husband would’ve done, fixing things, operating heavy machinery, almost getting herself killed in the process.
On my own, my paradise became a dangerous place. The day I got my fingers caught in between two heavy sash windows in an outbuilding, I thought I would die because nobody would hear me cry for help as there were no other people within eye shot or ear shot.
However, she discovers the freedom of not having to depend on anyone in the day to day and the pleasure of her own company:
What gets me out of bed and eager every morning? It is the prospect of enjoying beauty – both man-made and natural, and doing whatever I like, whenever I like.
Another piece that reflects this need for women to create their own spaces and wield their skills to build literal lives for themselves is the experimental piece, Concrete Feminism, in Issue 03. Through a series of short essays and poems, Nakita Kitson refuses to accept the spaces allocated to women by the construction industry and chooses instead to be the master of her own home.
The ad on Facebook Marketplace only said ‘Free Aviary’. It didn’t state anywhere in the fine print That I would pay for that aviary By swallowing my feminist outrage
Instead of the gift of solitude, the overwhelming norm we have seen in submissions are stories of how isolation is an experience that pulls women under and drowns them in circumstances that are beyond their control, especially in small towns.
The collaborative piece Stories of Isolation on the Mona blog by five women from the same community shared how aspects of their lives had separated them from the world and support. Things like mental illness, parenting children that don’t fit within the neurotypical box, age, and chronic illness. And the piece He is Right that depicted how even in her own home, a woman can feel the most alone and isolated surrounded by people who are supposed to love and nurture her.
But… Where is all the rage?
Anger, rage, firework-blasts of emotion cracking off at whatever grinds their gears. We haven’t so much as seen a terse word!
It puzzles me how we have not been inundated with pieces shouting into the void to release whatever rage is bubbling away in our collective guts. In fact, even on our visits to towns to run our workshops there is a strange absence of anything that could even be interpreted as anger… Where are they keeping it?
In Issue 03 two pieces simmer in this unexpressed rage. Shannon Benton’s piece A Good Role Model and The Miss’ piece Those who Can, Teach. The first about the relationship with a mother and the expectations of a daughter, and the second about the state of the education system in New South Wales, primarily employing women and seen as “women’s work” because it’s a nurturing role.
I guess this gets to me because I am still processing my own anger, even at nearly forty years old, at feeling betrayed by my culture and upbringing that so fervently suffocated me with ideas about womanhood that kept me silent and cooperative. I’m still unpacking years of failed relationships formed on a foundation of my people pleasing and denial of my own needs.
I don’t think there is an absence of anger because country women somehow live the utopia of women’s existence. Rather I think there is a palpable resistance to behaving in ways that would be considered impolite or rude for fear of copping the ‘crazy lady’ label. Women in regional communities have been historically bound to these ideals of decorum for their survival and success. No wonder it’s taking a while to tap into emotion that may encourage behaviour unbecoming of a ‘lady’.
I think what it speaks more to is of the strangle hold that rigid gender roles of the past have over regional women’s identities still today. Specifically speaking in terms of what particular box of a woman’s life she feels safe to open and share the contents of with others.
The women’s stories in Mona have galvanised my feminism journey. Every story I read that challenges the one-dimensional, superficial ideas of womanhood teaches me to love every complicated part of myself. What I set out to create for other women, I have ended up creating for myself. I will be forever full of gratitude to these women who have so courageously broken new ground for other women like me in regional communities.
Kat Vella is one of the founders and editors of Mona Magazine. She is an educator, activist and journalist who lives on Wiradjuri Country in Griffith, New South Wales. She is national committee member of Rural Australians for Refugees and is passionate about social justice, feminism and education. Apart from finding her work at Mona Magazine, she has been published in regional mastheads and The Guardian Rural Network.