Danielle Scrimshaw on writing queer women into history


Danielle Scrimshaw is one of our own: an ex-Farrago columnist who went on to combine her history and creative writing majors to write She and Her Pretty Friend (Ultimo Press), a general non-fiction book about queer women from Australia's early colonial years until now. The book is rich with historical rigour and compelling narratives all interwoven by a charming authorial voice—particularly when Scrimshaw weaves her personal experiences into history through references to contemporary events, memes, and cultural touchstones. A few months ago, I sat down with Scrimshaw over Zoom—me in the new Farrago office, her in her own home office setup.

She and Her Pretty Friend (SAHPF) emerged from Scrimshaw's honours project in History here at the University of Melbourne. Scrimshaw says that "[she] knew vaguely that [she] wanted to research queer history in Australia, and it was just kind of trying to narrow it down." She ended up settling on three figures, each of whom receive their own chapter in SAHPF: Anne Drysdale, Augusta Freundenberg, and Lesbian and Katie Lush. But, of course, her research extended beyond this, as Scrimshaw reflects: "And then after I graduated, I had all these notes about other people, I was really like, this could be something. I just kept on researching it after university until it developed into a book."

In her introduction, Scrimshaw writes: "access to queer women's history in Australia requires an unnecessary privilege". I'm struck by the significance of something as simple as SAPHF existing as a book about queer history, written for a general audience. When I ask Scrimshaw about this decision, she speaks to the privileges and access she gained as a student at the University of Melbourne, recalling, "A lot of the books and articles I was using wouldn't have been available to me if I wasn't a student. Some of the articles and books were published in the 80s, the 90s, and the books were published through like academic and small publishers, and most of them are out of print. I was able to get them through Baillieu Library, but otherwise, you would have been forking out, like, up to $100 online for a second hand." This experience meant that "just to have it available in bookstores was really important, because there wasn't really an available resource for queer women's history in Australia, there wasn't one place that you can go to and read, that had an introduction to history. You kind of had to go and just track down all these other lives."

In transforming her honours research into a book, Scrimshaw not only reworked the style but also wrote herself into the book, with an almost memoir-style strand running across SAHPF. Having majored in creative writing as well as history, Scrimshaw says, "I don't think I would have written this book any other way". These personal anecdotes were important to her, as a way to highlight her own identity alongside these historical women: "I wanted to have those personal narratives embedded through it. While I was researching it, I found that I related to a lot of the stories, and I also was developing my own queer identity. [When] I did my honours year, I was pretty young. I think I was 22. Anyway, I was still navigating my own relationships and how I felt about myself. So, I think that influenced a lot of the way I came to these stories while doing my research. And I wanted it to be like an infusion of my own queer history as parallel to these". That's the strength of books such as these, and, indeed, all stories both fictional and non-fictional, centring traditionally marginalised voices—a chance not only to inform or learn but also to spark a sense of connection. Scrimshaw, drawn to queer women throughout history as a queer woman herself, was compelled to delve deeper into previously untold stories. 

The research process for SAHPF proved the challenges of researching women's history. "It's really difficult when a big chunk of the evidence is missing," Scrimshaw said. "You can't really draw conclusions in a lot of cases. So I've included all these women with the acknowledgement that I can't know for sure if they were all they all were queer, or what we now call 'queer' anyway. And that's another difficult thing as well, because they don't have those labels in the 1800s and early 1900s. So it's just like, how do we go about writing a queer history of people who didn't have these labels available to them at the time?" She recalls being surprised by "how obsessive I could get over small details", explaining that "some of the women didn't leave a lot of diaries and everything, so I used Trove a lot, just finding them on newspapers and picking up on any random detail to try and create a map of the person's life [...] there's so much in [archives] that I feel like is undiscovered."

Ultimately, Scrimshaw is a strong advocate for studying and discussing queer history—so strong that she wrote this book. Scrimshaw elaborates upon the tensions of researching these women with the knowledge that sexuality is nebulous and that these women would have come to it with a different understanding of the concept: "I think for me, it was just important to consider the potential for a queer history with these women, people who are buried together and who lived together for such a long time and showed quite obvious affection to one another. I think we need it, I think it was just like bringing a queer lens to that relationship rather than to just be like, 'oh, they were just really good friends', which happens too much. And the representation of queer women specifically, because a lot of published queer history in Australia focuses on men, and it focuses [beginning] around the gay liberation period in the 70s—which is really good!—I think because the sources from that period are more available to us. But uncovering some of the earlier stories was important to try and like, see how far back in Australia's colonial history we could go. And from what I found, [it was] all the way back. So like, there's always been queer women in Australia." The resulting stories are, by turns, engaging, dramatic, and full of gaps offering a certain allure: the presence of queer women in Australia's history is gratifying.

Looking towards the future, Scrimshaw wants to return to a novel she has been writing since before SAHPF, which she describes as "a retelling of my uni experience". We share our fondness for local writing and art, with familiar stories and settings existing for us to gravitate towards. Throughout the conversation, I was struck, as I often am, by the bonds of community, including a sense of community formed across history—the kind that Scrimshaw has so carefully articulated in her debut work.

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