Guest post by Gillian Polack
Helen Leonard always said to me that the best way to enter a meeting was late and with a camera around your neck, because it meant that one instantly defeated the biggest problem women have in meetings: being seen. She then explained her theory that women should be stroppy. I was one of many women to whom she said these things, but for me it was a pivotal moment in our relationship. It defined Helen for me.
I had arrived late to a meeting, and she had saved me a place next to her. It was a rare chance for representatives for women’s groups to talk to the Attorney-General about a range of things. There weren’t many of us, and the AG actually turned up, and Helen was right – because I’d come a bit late, the staffers noticed me when my hand went up. That was the thing about Helen, she had a tendency to be right.
She was just two years older than I am now when she died. I took her death to heart and thought about what I really wanted to do with my life. Helen was trying to turn me into a stroppy woman, someone who could fight where others would give up. I’m good on committees and get big events arranged without too much fuss, but I needed my inner stroppiness brought out. Helen did that. Her death taught me to fight harder and to pick my battles and to leave idiots to stew with other idiots and I rather suspect that these days I don’t look as gentle as I really am. I now carry a camera, too. I don’t do the things Helen wanted me to, for she taught me another lesson: all lives are important. I had been a ‘yes-person’, doing things for others because I was good at it and because they asked me. Helen’s particular sweet crankiness taught me that it’s possible to change the world without sacrificing yourself.
Helen had a knack: she dragged women from little lives and showed them the bigger world. She reminded us that we were entitled to walk in this bigger world. Under Helen’s tutelage, I had so many remarkable experiences. I’ve talked about the experiences elsewhere. I’ve even fictionalised some of them. Their common element was Helen.
Helen had a little black book. When we were working out the program for Australia’s first Women’s History Month, I said, “We can’t get attention without big names. I can ask my writer-friends and some of my friends from various committees, but that’s not nearly enough people.” My friends helped out in three different countries and have helped me celebrate Women’s History Month ever since. Several of them will appear on my blog throughout March. Their enthusiasm and support didn’t magically turn them into enough people for a national celebration. “This is impossible,” I said. “How can we get Women’s History Month started with such a small committee and just a half dozen guests?” We had a webhost and a complete technical support team already – my US publisher had volunteered all of this. We just needed a programme.
We were sitting on rickety chairs at the National Women’s Media Centre. Around us the air was hazy with cigarette smoke, and every now and then Helen’s partner would hazard a comment from her desk across the room. She didn’t add anything at this point. She knew about the black book.
Helen and I spent two hours working through that book. At one stage it disintegrated entirely. It did the job, though. It peopled our programme. We’d put together ideal panels from the names in it – my favourite never eventuated, ‘women who Helen went to school with who are now mothers of internationally famous women’ – and Helen would ring them up and leave messages or talk them instantly into joining us. Some were travelling. Some had computer fear. Some got back to Helen later. In that one session, though, we developed a schedule of chats and panels for the following March. Anne Summers joined us, and Dale Spender, and many others.
What struck me just then was that the big world Helen was introducing me to was already there. It is for most of us, but it’s perhaps obscured by our small sense of self. We’re shy, or submissive, or polite, or reticent, or don’t want to bother people. That’s why Helen was my choice for the Cranky Women of History column. She taught me that it didn’t matter if I were all those things, I should ask my friends and acquaintances, “Would you like join me in celebrating Women’s History Month?”
I live a small life now. I live in a small flat and don’t get out much. Most people don’t even know about my strange past life. My current existence is really not so tiny, though, when you stop to look. My inner world and my friendships give me a much vaster existence than the size of my flat. Being stroppy means asking people, listening to people, paying attention to them and to oneself. And then those people become your friends. This is how Helen grew our lives. It’s hard to shrink into nothing after having known her.
This is what Helen Leonard taught me. That women’s issues are about all of us. They’re for all of us. We need to find our personal equivalent of walking into major meetings late, carrying cameras. We need to all become Cranky Women of History.