gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month: Kathleen Jennings

My childhood, when I talk about it, has strong tones of the Little House or the Billabong books. We had a cattle property, a wood stove, home-made bread, party-line telephone, School of the Air – the works. While the people who would later become my friends at university were memorising the theme to Fresh Prince of Bel Air, my mother read out loud to us in the evenings and my father did leatherwork or smoked his pipe on the steps.


It was a world of opinionated, strong-minded individuals, of immensely capable women and easy-going men. My father, an army officer, would willingly start arguments about the role of women in the military, and yet he encouraged both my younger sister and I to join the reserve (we didn't). My mother, when we informed her that "Mommies don't do paperwork", told us severely that this one did.

Education was valued – particularly for girls – and the potential for women's achievements was (as at least as far as I ever gathered) assumed to be unlimited. Women gave tracheotomies on classroom floors, went droving, threatened intruders with shotguns and put out bushfires with their dresses – obviously they could do something as mundane as politics or law. Yet daily life (for men and women) was never subordinate to grand schemes – the little domestic tasks were not only woven through the fabric of the day, they made up that fabric: sewing and woodwork, cooking and branding, chopping wood and feeding chooks.

For too long, I assumed that if something was “character building” it meant the activity would be was annoying, dirty, fiddly, dull, against my will and probably involve sleeping outdoors (my mother refused to go camping and said the house was primitive enough). I have since learned two lessons:

1. The first is that character building is like muscle-building, or practising scales – endless little irritations that one day come together to give you the attitudes and skills you need to do big important things.
2. The second is that the little irritations – the chores, the discipline, the cooking and dishes and hemming and washing paintbrushes – are themselves big important things.

When the details of daily life assume any significance in epic stories, it is frequently for one of two reasons. The first is that (particularly but not exclusively for women) they are a terrible fate the main character is trying to avoid. The second is that they are a means to an end – the wax-on, wax-off which will train some latent ability (predominantly but not exclusively for men).

In too many books I have read recently, a strong female character seeks to escape the every-day fate of other women in that world, and the author aids her by running down, denigrating and mocking the activities of those women (rather than the structure of the world which may limit the choices available).

I think it is fairly obvious that this approach can cheapen those other characters, but it also cheapens the value of the main character. If she becomes great only because of the opportunities available to her or the supernatural gifts conferred, what does that offer the reader, who may have a very earthbound view of her the reader's own potential?

I love grand adventures in which I can lose myself, and don't want those books to stop – but there is a special joy for me when those books acknowledge the small things. I also love those books which particularly honour small things. The beauty and heartbreak of everyday life, the extraordinary people doing ordinary things, the thousand little magics that make the world worth saving – those books which make me want to go out and look at marvellous little things, and actually go out and *do* something wonderful.

In books as in life I've come to believe a strong character is one whom the author – and the reader – respects in two ways. The first is by believing that character is strong enough to do the things which, in the world of the story, are great. The second is to show that the things that character does are important and dignified because that character does them.

Sewing Shawl

Kathleen Jennings

I have illustrated for Small Beer Press, CSFG, Adromeda Spaceways, and Fablecroft. My stories have been published by Antipodean SF, Andromeda Spaceways and I have a story coming out in the After the Rain anthology, ASIM. I also have a short Australian steampunk comic coming out in the anthology Steampunk! from Candlewick Press later this year!
I live in Brisbane and blog is at


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