Dr. Claire French was born in 1924, Claire Anna Maria Margaretha Wieser, “in the backwoods of Bavaria” as she has described, where “pagan beliefs and superstitions were rife” and “so was Communism amongst the factory workers who lived in her neighbourhood.” She described her mother as “a staunch Lutheran”, her father as “a freethinking artist from the Tyrolean mountains”, and her paternal grandmothers and aunts as “bigotted Catholics”. She has said that she received some of all these ideologies right from her earliest childhood, and that “to this were added the experience of fascist and national socialist authoritarianism during her school years.” In early years she was educated by nuns in Italy. For high school her education was in Germany, where the teachers were partly nazi and partly anti-nazi. She has described her education as “pluralistic in the extreme”.
During the war she was conscripted to the German paramilitary organisation for women working for Tyrolean mountain farmers and later in the military hospital. That year of paramilitary service was conditional for enrolment of women at any German University: educated women were seen as dangerous … the authorities wanted “incubators”, as Claire named it. After the war she studied modern languages and politics at the University of Austria, and in 1945 she was conscipted as interpreter to the military government first by the American and then the French Army Forces. She has said: “In 1951 she finally had enough of Europe and embarked for Australia, where she worked as a housemaid, grape picker, and interpreter and finally as a secretary at Melbourne University. There she started her studies from scratch again as a part time student, graduating in 1956. In that year (an Olympic year she noted), she married Jack French, with whom she had a daughter and two sons.
As Claire has told it: “Between babies and housekeeping she pursued her chosen academic career of research and teaching at Monash and Melbourne University, and also teaching for thirty years at the Council of Adult Education. She gained an M.A. in German literature, and finally at the age of 65 a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies.” Her thesis studied the gender roles in the Welsh saga collection “Mabinogion” with regard to the role of the Celtic Goddess in Her different aspects. It was published in 2001 in English under the title The Celtic Goddess, Great Queen or Demon Witch and in German under the title Als die Goettin keltisch wurde (When the Goddess became Celtic).
Claire taught courses in European Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Spirituality and Celtic Studies. She contributed lectures and workshops addressing Goddess to the C.G. Jung Society of Melbourne. In 1993-94, Claire taught a series on GAIA, a cutting edge course that included references to writers in ecofeminism, ecospirituality, women’s spirituality, science, paganism, consciousness, new ways of living, and global politics.
Claire became my friend in the mid-late 1990’s when we were both writing articles for an Australian feminist publication called “Pandora”. I invited her to travel interstate to my place to teach a workshop on the Winter Solstice weekend in June 1997. It was titled The Celtic Goddess and Her Women. She came and so did about thirty women, and I facilitated Winter Solstice ceremony as well. Later that same year she came again, and taught a workshop addressing Goddess in the Paleolithic Age, matriarchal societies, the patriarchal takeover with special regard to the stories of Inanna, Demeter and Epona, and the re-emergence of Goddess as saint, fairy and Gaia consciousness. Claire did not to travel much after that. Over the ensuing years I travelled to visit her. We would always have great conversations from within our shared Goddess and feminist perspectives, hers always so well grounded in her “pluralistic” European education; and the stories of her childhood and youth and heritage entranced me.
I travelled as often as I could to visit her and share conversation. She enjoyed my appreciation of her achievements, experience and knowledge, and she always encouraged me in my writing and ceremonial celebration of the seasonal year. I was keen and helpful with publicising her work, putting some of it on my website () and and contributing it to Return to Mago blog. I would like to have seen her more often. Phone conversation became difficult as her hearing declined, though we communicated via email quite well. Claire sent me chapters of her autobiography which she was translating into English (Meine verkehrte Welt (My upside down World). The translation has now been completed and will be published soon.
When Claire passed this year, her daughter notified me. I had sent an email to Claire that day, which her daughter saw later. Due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, I could not attend her funeral in person, but thankfully it was on-line. In the weeks after, I would still think of her daily as I had usually done, imagining her with her daily tasks and the challenges of old age, but would then be a little shocked as I remembered that she was not any longer there. I no longer had my grandmother elder, whom she had become in my mind. I missed her, and would weep.
When her daughter was clearing up Claire’s house, she wrote to ask if I would like two prints/paintings that had adorned Claire’s bedroom wall. I accepted though I did not know where I would put them, nor was I familiar with the artist or the work: I would make space for them since they had meant so much to Claire. When they arrived and I unwrapped them, I felt Claire’s presence again, and here in my place. It is a wholing/healing experience to have them. I recognise that I continue to hold some of Claire’s flame in my heart and mind, and feel supported by that: a reciprocal ongoing presence.
Glenys Livingstone 2020
Glenys Livingstone is the author of PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion which is based on her doctoral research (University of Western Sydney, Social Ecology. 2002). She has been on a Goddess path since 1979, and has contributed to several anthologies, including Goddesses in World Culture (ed. Patricia Monaghan, and Goddesses in Myth, History and Culture (ed. Mary Ann Beavis and Helen Hye-Sook Hwang). Glenys lives in Australia, where she has facilitated Seasonal ceremony for over two decades, and mentored students. She continues to write and to teach a year long course on-line.