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Jennings, Catherine Ruth (Kate) (1948–2021)

by Gideon Haigh

from Australian

Catherine Ruth Jennings Writer.
Born Temora, May 20, 1948; died New York, May 1, 2021

“I would like to speak. I would like to give a tub-thumping, table-banging rap and be listened to, not laughed at.”

Sydney’s Vietnam Moratorium protest on May 8, 1970 had been a noisy but largely conventional set of anti-war slogans until 21-year-old student Kate Jennings seized the microphone and tackled the issue aslant, with the reminder that a little radicalism at home might go a long way.

Jennings took aim at the attitudes of her “brothers on the left in the peace movement” who insisted that women “work towards the Revolution and then join the ladies’ liberation auxiliary if we have any time left”.

This was not preaching to the choir; it was informing the choir that it was out of key.

“Go check the figures — how many Australian men have died in Vietnam, and how many women have died from backyard abortions,” scolded Jennings, amid catcalls of male derision. The draft? Sure, “we all feel very strongly about conscription”, but “women are conscripted every day into their personalised slave kitchens. Can you, with your mind filled with the moratorium, spare a thought for their freedom, identity, minds and emotions. They’re women, and your stomach is full.”

And so, unflinchingly, forth.

In the span of 10 profane, risqué and hilarious minutes, Jennings, who has died in New York aged 72, went from a wild-haired Sydney University student to an avatar of feminism’s dawning second wave.

There had not been much fun in her upbringing, on a farm near the hamlet of Coleambally in the Griffith irrigation district. Her mother, a bitter and thwarted writer, held her stolid farmer husband in worsening contempt, and finally deserted the family. Jennings later evoked the discontent of an unhappy home in her terse and astringent novel, Snake (1996), set in the ironically named burg of Progress. (Her brother is Dare Jennings, founder of clothing company, Mambo, and the Deus ex Machina retail concept.)

There is also a glimpse of her younger self in the character Girlie, who “read books like a caterpillar eating its way through the leaves on a tree”.

Her political initiation, she recalled, came when, in early 1969, she moved into a Sydney share house that turned out to be “a den of Trotskyites” — not that, at the time, she knew what these were. Among them was the irrepressible activist Bob Gould, with access to mind-expanding foreign magazines and books.

Jennings wrote prolifically and rapidly: poems, short stories, essays, agitprop. She edited a spiky collection of women’s verse, Mother I’m Rooted (1975). She also rejoiced in all the standard pleasures and vices. Her essay, “Crazed, Delinquent Fabulousness”, is a classic of the genre of inebriation. Eventually, however, alcohol became a malign force in her life: she honoured August 7, 1982 as the last time she took a drink, and became a proselyte of Alcoholics Anonymous.

By then, Jennings had moved to New York, out of restless contrarianism — most Australian second-wave feminists gravitated to London. She made her way as a jobbing writer on a dodgy social security number, a “wetback” until she obtained her green card after five years. In that time, Jennings fell in love with Bob Cato, 25 years her senior, a prolific creator of cover art for musicians such as Bob Dylan, The Band, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin and Van Morrison. She and Cato married in 1988. As Cato suffered the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the years before his death in 1999, Jennings improbably took a job as a speechwriter at Wall Street investment bank Merrill Lynch.

The result was the novel, Moral Hazard (2002), in which “bedrock feminist and unreconstructed left-winger”, Cath, navigates her way through a financial firm, Neidecker Benecke, “whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas”.

One of very few fine Australian novels to grapple seriously with work, and perhaps the only one to engage memorably with finance, Moral Hazard was short-listed for and should, frankly, have won the Miles Franklin Award. It is tender, moving and scathingly epigrammatic. “Tobacco companies are immoral,” observes one character. “Children are amoral. Bankers are feckless.” Jennings returned to the same world for her 2008 Quarterly Essay, American Revolution: The Fall of Wall Street and the Rise of Barack Obama.

In Australian letters, however, Jennings remained a writer apart for being so dedicatedly untribal, a friend of Les Murray and Shirley Hazzard, an admirer of Philip Roth, a repudiator of postmodernism (“Derrida is not in the remainder bins unfortunately”), and as quick to call out bullshit as she was on that stage in May 1970 when she told the crowd full of leftist men that they stank “from their motherfucking socks to their long hair, from their jock straps to their Mao and moratorium badges”.

Gideon Haigh wrote the foreword to the 2015 Text Classic reissue of Moral Hazard.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Catherine Ruth (Kate) Jennings

Additional Resources

Citation details

Gideon Haigh, 'Jennings, Catherine Ruth (Kate) (1948–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jennings-catherine-ruth-kate-31782/text39245, accessed 17 October 2021.

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