A new Australian herstory

Karen Kissane reports on a new history of Australia that, for the first time, interweaves women’s stories with the more familiar yarns of our country’s past.

IN A HOBART factory in the early 1800s, a roomful of women simultaneously turned and slapped their bare bottoms at a sermonising minister. History records their outrageous behavior, but not what sparked it. That is typical of the way history has been written and studied until recently; by men, about men, and from men’s point of view. Women have had little or no place in mainstream history books, and women’s stories, which have only started to be pieced together in the past couple of decades, have largely been confined to texts on women as a group.

This changes with the publication of `Creating A Nation’, a book by four women historians with backgrounds in women’s studies. It is a new mainstream history of Australia that in many ways is quite a traditional narrative, but one in which women’s history is emphasised as much as men’s. The authors believe it to be an international first, with no equivalent in history books about other countries. They hope it will be used as a school and university text, but wonder, too, whether their new entity will fall between the cracks of different disciplines: too mainstream for women’s studies, too feminist for mainstream courses. Either way, laughs co-author Marian Quartly, it will still sit nicely in airport bookshops.

`Creating A Nation’ was written by Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly. It has all the familiar refrains of Australian classrooms _ Aborigines and settlers, governors and prime ministers, labor movements and immigration _ but with new harmonies.

Most histories are based on economics and politics; this one also examines the personal and the social. The writers have explored the links between the private and the public worlds of earlier Australians: the status and effects of marriage and divorce, families and childbearing, and the role of women in the home, in the workplace and in public debate.

“The so-called public/private divide is a fiction,” says Marilyn Lake, associate professor in history and director of women’s studies at La Trobe University. One example, she says, is the way “women’s determination to limit their families in the late 19th and 20th centuries led to a reformulation of public policy on immigration. The three million migrants after World War Two arrived directly as a result of individual, private women’s decisions not to have more children.”
Patricia Grimshaw, professor in history at Melbourne University, says women’s lives have traditionally not been studied because they “appeared not to have been event-driven”; women, it was thought, had had no effect on history and were passive creatures of their times. In fact, she says, women were frequent figures in the public world and have made up at least a third of the paid workforce since industrialisation. “Women had an enormous impact on the Arbitration Commission and the course of unionism, for example, because they constituted a threat to the working man’s conditions because they were forced to take lower wages than men. The shaping of the labor movement in Australia has been based on the existence of women as workers.”
The traditional emphasis on men in Australian history has, they argue, helped create a male mythology about what it is to be Australian.

“When people talk about the typical Australian, people think in terms of masculinity without realising it _ the bushman, the digger,” Marilyn Lake says. “They say `He’s laconic, laid back, tall and fair and gangly’. It’s a shock to hear someone say, `The typical Australian looks good in a bikini and lipstick’.” She finds it ironic that soldiers who fought at Gallipoli were said to have “given birth to the nation”; it was women urged to ever greater efforts to increase the population who literally gave birth to the nation. But it had long been felt that Australia would not win its own identity until it had been blooded; in 1906, long before Gallipoli, one public figure predicted that: “We will never have a true Australian nation until the blood of our sons is shed on the battlefields of Europe.”
But although maleness was to be sacrificed at need, it was to be preserved at all costs from the depredations of female advancement. In 1867, members of Victoria’s Legislative Assembly warned that: “Women’s suffrage would abolish soldiers and war, also racing, hunting, football, cricket and all other manly games”.

The book shows how much has changed, and how little. It seems that political leaders have always decried women’s refusal to devote themselves solely to home and family, at one point accusing them of “race suicide” because of their role in falling birth rates. In 1903, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the problem and came to conclusions that sound familiar today: that women were having fewer babies because they were unwilling to submit to the strain and worry of children, because they wanted to
avoid the physical discomforts of pregnancy and birth, and because of “a dislike of interference with pleasure and comfort”.

Governments had tried retaliating by restricting sales of contraceptives and information about their use but in NSW, at least, this was stopped by a pungent judgment from the Supreme Court’s Justice Windeyer in 1888. He upheld the right of a free-thought lecturer and bookseller, charged with obscenity, to sell works on “preventatives” such as condoms, cervical caps and soluble pessaries. Such information had until then been the preserve of medical professionals. Ruled Windeyer, “Information cannot be pure, chaste and legal in morocco at a guinea, but impure, obscene and indictable in a paper pamphlet at sixpence.” But news does not seem to have spread fast; by 1935, Melbourne’s Royal Women’s hospital was admitting one woman with septic abortion for every two deliveries.

The female story in `Creating A Nation’ is not, however, confined to women’s noble fight for civil liberties. Women then, as women now, were not a homogeneous group, and some were just as likely to inflict oppression as to suffer it. White women abused black women by scouring their skin with kitchen pads or bathing them in boiling water in futile attempts to get them “clean” _ cleanness being confused with paleness in a society that created “racial hygiene laws”. Women who saw themselves as guardians of public morality, such as Frances Perry, the wife of the first Anglican archbishop of Melbourne, refused single mothers admission to maternity hospitals. Says Marian Quartly, associate professor in history at Monash University: “Middle-class women also oppressed working women, although not with the same viciousness as they did black women.”
Historians are just beginning to come to grips with the need for class and race analysis in any national story; the authors of `Creating A Nation’ hope that this book will make it impossible for others to write history without also examining the effects of gender. One of the stories that opens the book shows how enriching that process can be.

Governor Phillip is introduced through the story of Barangaroo, an Aboriginal woman more senior in her tribe than her husband Bennelong.

Bennelong told Phillip at one point that Barangaroo wanted to give birth to her child at Government House, a place the couple had often visited. Phillip refused, insisting that she would have “better accommodation” at the hospital. “Better accommodation” was not the point; Barangaroo probably wanted to deliver at Government House because birthplace was important in Aboriginal society, allowing a child special association with a site. “Barangaroo’s gesture,” says the book, “may thus be seen as a politically significant attempt to incorporate the introduced world into an Aboriginal one”. It is a lovely illustration of the mutual bewilderment of black and white, male and female, poor and privileged, and of the missed opportunities that have resulted.

`Creating A Nation’, by Grimshaw, Lake, McGrath and Quartly; McPhee Gribble, $19.95.

First published in The Age.