Witches: What Women Do Together
by Sam George-Allen
Published March, 2019
by Bri Lee
Allen & Unwin
Published May, 2018
In Witches: What Women Do Together, Sam George-Allen tries to understand why she spent so many of her formative years flinching from the solidarity of feminism, and toward the pedestalled position of being ‘taken seriously… as a woman alone among men.’
A passage early on in the book struck me with an intense familiarity, connecting me to a whole archive of memories, which I suppose I had deposited on the seabed of my mind:
Being let into the boys’ club is such a monumentally disappointing prize. Remembering with a friend recently, we were appalled to realise how much of our teen years were spent silently in male friends’ houses, watching them play video games. They didn’t even offer us the controller. This was what we were rewarded with for being the ‘cool girl’? What a crock of shit.
For most of primary school, I would go to after-school care each day until my parents finished work and could pick me up. This being the early 2000s, we did not yet have access to individual tablets or phone screens. In the after-school care room, there was one TV, a huge, black, bulbous thing, fuzzy with static. While the girls would play various make-believe games (usually based on the Saddle Club, the least popular girls having to pretend to be horses), the boys would line up and wait for half an hour each to have a three-minute turn at either Mario Kart or Grand Theft Auto. I found the video games themselves dull, but I wanted to be in with the boys, so I eschewed the girls’ collective horseplay and buckled down in the individual heroism of the video game queue. When I beat the boys’ scores, I did not earn their respect: I was mocked for being a show-off. When I didn’t beat them, it was just proof of how girly and inferior I was.
Nevertheless, I persisted. Why did I do that to myself? What did I hope to earn? And why did I recently kick myself when I realised the cinema tickets I’d bought were for a ‘Chicks at the Flicks’ session? And why did so many of the women I love and respect grow up telling anyone who would listen that they just preferred the company of men?
These are the kinds of questions that more and more women are asking ourselves, in unprecedented numbers and ways, so that we might call out the kyriarchal systems that assault and oppress us. #MeToo and #TimesUp are two viral pinpricks that speak to an immensely strong, surging feminist force that has been percolating and for a long time – and also to a contemporary feminist praxis, literalised in the cross-stitch of the hashtag, that enacts solidarity first through acknowledgement of the female subject’s specificity, and then through linking the common experiences binding these subjects in oppression.
Witches is George-Allen’s attempt to reframe her internal conversation, to understand how women doing things together is in fact the most powerful mode of doing. Or, as she explains, ‘I started writing this book, during my crisis of comparison, as a sort of self-help exercise. I was finally trying to stitch together my feminist theory and my deeply flawed practice.’
What follows is a kind of hashtagging, cross-stitching of stories, of female experiences. She writes about and with teen girls, girl bands, beauty bloggers, sportswomen, dancers, trans women, midwives, sex workers, farmers, matriarchal societies, nuns, an Aboriginal elder, and of course: witches. George-Allen acknowledges that she can’t possibly be representative of all experiences. ‘What I am trying to show,’ she writes, ‘is an alternative – many alternatives – to the stories we are usually told… Look at all these women, I want to say. Look at what happens when we come together. Magic, some people say, is change driven by intent. Of course we are witches.’
Writing of the fallacy of the neoliberal ‘promise of happiness,’ Sara Ahmed uses the example of standing in a queue to demonstrate why it is that marginalised individuals and communities will continue to invest huge swathes of time and labour in order that they might attain ‘the good life’ (a prestigious full-time job, home ownership, marriage, children, a slim physique, cultural capital in the dominant system, and so on), even though their cultural marginality makes the possibility of this attainment very small, and even though attaining ‘the good life’ will almost definitely not bring ultimate fulfilment but simply the desire for more or else. The longer one stays standing in a line for exclusive concert tickets, for example, the more one becomes invested in staying in that line: ‘The failure of return extends one’s investment.’
Annie McClanahan calls this ‘debt culture’. Far more than just living in economic instability, debt culture refers to the unreciprocal ties that bind marginalised identities and persons to broader social systems that offer them little in return. In this vision of debt, to be unfairly indebted is to be told that you owe something (whether that be your money, your lifestyle choices, your existential goals, your specific modes of inter-personal connection) to an enveloping and normative institution that you never signed up for but are nevertheless told is your only possible benefactor.
Like George-Allen, even as a child-female I was aligned with a kind of ‘debt culture’ subjectivity, and my debt, I thought, was to maleness. I had internalised the founding premise that masculinity and maleness were aligned with respect and with power, and I invested my time and emotional capacity in gaining acceptance to this group – which, by virtue of the fact that I am female – I could never reap the full benefits of, no matter how many video games I played.
So how do women gain the courage to abdicate the time and emotional investment they have already poured into the queue of patriarchy, and to instead try to do something else – something that will be impossible to sublimate into a neoliberal metric of ‘success’? Is it ever possible to step outside the queue?
George-Allen cannot answer that question on behalf of every woman, and she knows this. Instead, the power of her response is in her book’s form. Instead of generalising, George-Allen uses Witches to make space for other women to speak – and to highlight that her own narrative only comes into being by virtue of its connections to the narratives of other women. This happens as she interviews and incorporates the responses of an array of Australian women from different cultural backgrounds, careers, generations and geographical spaces into each chapter she writes. She uses real names, she quotes directly, and she paraphrases with care.
When she writes about dancers, for example, she begins by recalling her participation in organised dance classes as a schoolgirl, and then her eventual elision into the bad posture and sheepish physical unease of her female adulthood. Surveying examples of female dancers in popular culture and literature, she then segues into dictations of her conversations with a young woman, Esita, who dances in an all-girl dance-troupe of I-Kiribati women in Brisbane. Esita tells George-Allen about the cultural preservation and celebration that inheres in the dancing she does; about the cultural confidence-building that she and her Kiribati sisters cultivate when they move their hips and flick their skirts in tandem like their matrilineal forebears have done before them. Speaking to other dancers also – from New Zealand dancer and choreographer extraordinaire Parris Goebel, to female members of the Queensland Ballet, to Vanessa Marian, a dance and body positivity activist in Western Sydney – George-Allen is better able to consider the multifarious and context-specific ways in which power and empowerment flow when women move their bodies together in time.
Inspired, George-Allen takes a dance class herself. She writes,
When I asked her, Esita compared the feeling of dancing in sync with others to how it feels when you’re ‘in the pocket’ playing music, and I finally, almost, I think, got it: when you’re doing something right with a bunch of other people, the sense of connectedness to one another and the satisfaction of performing to the fullest extent of your abilities combine to create something bigger than all of you… I almost never put my body into step with another’s.
The narrative, crucially, is not that George-Allen is now somehow able to speak from the perspectives of those she has interviewed. Instead, what she has gained is attunement: the ability to act with other women, by paying attention to their specificity en masse.
In the case of the chapters that focus on the experiences of women from two of Australia’s most marginalised communities – that is, trans women, and Indigenous women – George-Allen does something different
In these chapters, she understands that simply quoting women within her own narration will not do: she must cede her space, to make room for co-narration. ‘Trans Women: Transitioning to Girl Power,’ and ‘Aunty Dawn Daylight: Dawn in Brisbane,’ are co-written with trans woman Liz Duck-Chong and Jagera and Turrbal elder Aunty Dawn Daylight, respectively. While George-Allen’s passages are printed in one font, Duck-Chong’s and Daylight’s passages are printed in another. Following on from their blocks of text, George-Allen reflects on what they offer, describing how Duck-Chong’s and Daylight’s revelations have helped her – a straight, cis, white woman – better understand the breadth of experience of womanhood, and also how limited her own experiences are.
George-Allen’s acknowledgement of her privilege does not constitute a pointless, self-flagellating self-disenfranchisement. She highlights that though her existence is demarcated by different limitations than those of her co-authors, they each stand on the common ground of alterity in a society that privileges macho, white maleness.
For example, Duck-Chong writes about being a trans woman and having constantly to affirm her female-ness to TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). She describes the defiance of limiting gender roles that is inherent in trans personhood:
Transphobes lay traps for themselves in how they reduce womanhood to a series of haves and have-nots… We live in this liminal zone that they claim to but don’t even begin to understand, and our boldness and joy wins out.
What George-Allen does next is very useful. She wonders how she can reconcile Duck-Chong’s honouring of trans womanhood with her own womanhood, and with the reality that though we must all fight for a more inclusive future, we all do have to live in the world now, not as it could be but as it is. George-Allen writes:
Recognising that money is a construct doesn’t relieve my poverty; knowing that gender isn’t real doesn’t make my lipstick and ten-step skincare routine any less appealing to me. Wanting to be feminine and wanting to dissolve gender as we know it can exist side by side.
George-Allen’s words have such agency here because they work as an addendum to Duck-Chong’s own testimony. By crafting a chapter structure in which multiple perspectives make each other stronger by virtue of their difference, George-Allen formally enacts the #MeToo mentality. She opens up a space in which something called ‘feminist wonderment’ can occur.
Ahmed writes that feminist wonderment is a phenomenological mode whereby subjects are able to see the world in more than one way at once, from the perspective of outsider and from the perspective of the one who sees the outsider as outsider. In feminist wonderment, viewing the world through the eyes of other women ‘works to transform the ordinary, which is already recognised, into the extraordinary.’ In this sense, a queue is still a queue, and by virtue of the fact that women live in the world, imperfect and patriarchal as it is, we may have to stand in it to get by. But as long as women are standing in the queue together, passing along nourishment to those in front and behind them, sharing stories, laughing, learning from each other’s pain and endeavouring to lessen it, something small but radical is still happening. After all, there is nothing like waiting in a queue to bring people together. The queue becomes a place of resistance.
This queue of resistance was literalised when I joined the hordes of angry, impassioned women, young and old, who went to see Bri Lee speak at a recent literary festival. Lee’s Eggshell Skull has generated an immense affective ripple. Eggshell Skull is Lee’s memoir about her time as a judge’s associate at the Queensland District Court, the sexism inherent in the man-made law that hinders the ability of sexual assault complainants to receive justice at every step, and then Lee’s own experience on the other side of the bench – as a complainant in her own sexual assault case, against a childhood friend of her brother’s.
Like George-Allen, Lee’s journey to feminist empowerment begins in the muck of internalised misogyny, with ‘a fear of being branded girlish and attention-seeking… [truly aching to be] cool like the boys’. The first half of the book focuses mostly on the numerous sexual assault cases that Lee encounters as a judge’s associate. It familiarises us with the limiting bureaucratic processes that have women repeat and repeat their experiences of abuse over and over, and that then poke holes in women’s cases when they forget details, or offer inconsistent retellings.
It soon becomes evident that a similar epiphany is unfolding as in George-Allen’s Witches. Both George-Allen and Lee are describing their experiences of realisation, of revelation, of feminist wonderment: that the way our culture has been built relies on the systemic mistrust of women. For Lee, that the way our legal system works in relation to sexual assault is to divide women from each other, isolating their stories and collapsing them individually, rather than seeing them for what they are: part of a greater pattern. This becomes clear to Lee when a male sexual assault complainant, with no corroborating evidence about a case that happened over three decades ago, manages to secure a guilty verdict for the defendant. Lee does not doubt that this is the right verdict, but she does reflect,
With hindsight, I genuinely believe that a woman saying the exact same words might not have been able to secure a conviction… After all, why would a man lie about something like that? What did he have to gain? But a woman, well, you never know what they’re up to.
Faced with the knowledge that justice is an extremely unlikely result for female sexual assault complainants, Lee nevertheless continues with her own battle against her own assaulter. Certainly, she craves retribution and catharsis on an individual scale, but the image that arises time after time – the axis on which Lee hinges her strength – is that of ‘her’.
In one of many moments of doubt, wondering as to the utility of filing her own complaint when the abuse she faced constitutes ‘just one tiny teardrop in a putrid ocean,’ Lee imagines ‘another young woman, somewhere, waiting for a moment like this too’. Later, when again unsure about whether to go on, Lee proofreads a sentence for her Judge, about a man who convinced his prepubescent stepdaughter to keep his abuse quiet ‘by making her feel guilty that she would just upset her mother if she spoke out.’ The image arises again:
… I thought of her. She had a composite face of all the girls and women I’d seen in court throughout the year. She was out there, somewhere. Maybe she hadn’t called Samuel yet, maybe she had but didn’t do it at the copshop. She would be my ward… I would do it for her, whoever or wherever she was, so that when she came forward, eventually, people would believe her.
In this sense, the mentality that Lee manifests and advocates for is less #MeToo and more #HerToo. Like George-Allen, Lee is cis, white, able-bodied, heterosexual and privileged. The importance of what she is doing lies in her willingness to de-centre her personal narrative without dismissing it, and to acknowledge that her liberation will not be complete without the liberation of all women. When she speaks from her privileged position, she opens up the door for other women to speak. There is a reason why defence barristers in sexual assault cases consistently try to challenge and dismiss the women in the jury pool, explains Lee. When women are together in a group of men, even if there are only two women and ten men – the women give each other confidence to speak up, and to speak out, to say the truth from their perspective, the one that is constantly belittled.
A common thread that emerges in contemporary feminist praxis, particularly within the #MeToo movement, is just that – the thread itself. As Kase Wickman among many others has noted, feminist cross-stitching has become a ‘tool of the resistance,’ with ‘stitch n’ bitchers’ cross-stitching subversive feminist messages onto hoops of fabric that have previously been relegated to the category of twee.
The reclamation of needle and thread work as feminist iconography and metaphor is not a new idea, but it remains pertinent, and potent. Its power is multiplied as millennia of female testimony meld with the globally connective force of the world wide web. Needlework has for centuries acted as a woman’s pen – she has sewn disparate or disjointed material parts into harmony, and has let reparation be the tale she has spun. With Witches, and with Eggshell Skull, Sam George-Allen and Bri Lee stitch us further into the feminist solidarity of the future.
Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press: 2010.
Annie McClanahan, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture. Stanford University Press 2017.
Aleesha Paz, ‘Raise Your Needles: In defence of public knitting,’ Sydney Review of Books, June 2019.
Kase Wickman, ‘How Feminist Cross Stitching Became A Tool of the Resistance,’ Bustle, September 2017.
Madeleine Gray is a recipient of a 2019 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Thorne that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Eloise Grills and Melissa Thorne.