An equal history

PROFILE – Marilyn Lake, Feminist Historian


IF MARILYN LAKE regrets one thing about her youth it is how scornful she was. Smart, sassy and giddy with ’60s feminist hubris, she was contemptuous of the women she thought she wanted to help.She condescended to older women in floral dresses making tea and scones and selling raffle tickets for women’s auxiliaries. As for the housewives she and other women’s libbers had targeted for consciousness raising, they were seen as “a group like sheep, who didn’t have a particularly high IQ and had to be helped through the hurdles”.

She winces again recalling one of the placards carried in demonstrations calling for women’s freedom: “Smash the family!”

“How insensitive it was to carry those banners when Aboriginal people were trying to resuscitate their families, which had been smashed systematically for decades,” she says now.

She pauses and, in a vignette of the domesticity she once despised, gets up from her kitchen table to check the banana cake in the oven before taking an overseas phone call from her elder daughter, who wants Mum’s advice on what to do about her accommodation problems.

There’s the difference between 20 and 50, the age Lake turned this year: more patience, more tolerance, and an understanding that life cannot be reduced to absolutes.

But Lake’s feminism still burns strong, a defining force in her life and in the shaping of Australian public discourse.

Lake, a professor of history at LaTrobe University, is probably the nation’s most prominent female historian. She is certainly one of our best-known in international circles, her profile abroad higher than that of many others who are household names in Australia, such as Henry Reynolds.

She has built much of her career injecting the untold history of women into the national story (pre-feminist Australian history courses having been, as fellow academic Miriam Dixson so drily puts it, “Stag Studies”). Lake’s latest book, published this week, is Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism.

The flourish of confidence represented by the definite article in the title is not only factually accurate – there have been no other such histories – but typically Lake in its assertiveness and challenge. Who would dare to follow up the history of anything?

According to her younger sister, Pamela Gatenby, Lake was bolshie from childhood: “She was a terribly argumentative child from a very, very young age, and often would express strong and determined views that at times would drive people crazy coming from a small child. She had a strong sense of purpose, and that was acted out in her relationships with me and her brother and our parents.”

By the age of nine Lake had vehement views on right and wrong; by 14 she was giving out on contemporary political issues; by 16 she had entered university; by 19 she had done honors and married. Her husband is Sam Lake, now professor of zoology at Monash, whom she met while studying at the University of Tasmania, and with whom she has two daughters. She won a personal chair in history at 45.

“I did everything very young,” she says. “It’s a funny feeling; it’s as if I’ve had a very long life.”

But she was also typical of her generation. She married in 1968, “the year, demographically, both in which the highest proportion of Australian women ever married, and the year that saw the lowest age at marriage. I was statistically average.

“Marriage then signified escaping your own family, and it signified sex. It was about falling in love, and I fell passionately in love. I only knew Sam six months. He said I should try for an overseas scholarship, but I was very impetuous and said, `No, no, I want to marry you!”‘

Her feminism was born partly of the marriage – Sam had feminist colleagues on campus who introduced Lake to the fledgling women’s liberation movement in Hobart – and partly of having been “a witness” to her mother’s life.

“My mother was the classic 1950s mother and wife. She wasn’t economically independent; she didn’t have her own income, therefore she had limited options. But she thirsted to go to university herself; she yearned for the bigger world. And so I took for granted that I must get a job and an income.”

Most feminists of Lake’s generation can cite a particular book as having profoundly influenced their outlook. For Lake, it was Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics. “We assumed – we libertarians – that sex was meant to be liberating. But books like Kate Millet’s showed that in fact masculine power was encoded into the way heterosexuality was enacted in our daily lives. As (American feminist) Catherine McKinnon famously said, `You might have a good f— but we all know that getting f—ed is getting f—ed’.”

But over time she also learnt where ’70s feminism got it wrong. Mothering was not something women did because society coerced them; she found it deeply pleasurable. “That strand of feminism didn’t know what it was talking about in the sense that, for me, it was not about guilt if the kids went into the creche. It was about my own conflicting desires; I equally desired to be with them and I desired to do the intellectual work.”

In her intellectual work Lake became increasingly preoccupied with the invisibility of women.”Women’s politics are not taken seriously as politics, so it’s written out of political history. History is constructed as the record of public men’s deeds, as the history of parliaments and the main political parties.”

Her attempts to redress the imbalance have sometimes drawn fierce criticism. “Is feminist history bunk?” asked the headline of a national newspaper article written in 1995 by John Hirst, reader in history at LaTrobe University. Hirst was responding to Creating a Nation, a general history of Australia, foregrounding the role of women, co-authored by Lake and three other historians.

Hirst argued that history’s higher purpose was to explain the processes of change, and that the chief human actors in transformation were usually men. Feminists could not simultaneously declare that women had been excluded from power and that they must have an equal place in history. “Since feminism’s claims about the past treatment of women are true, its claims on history cannot be realised,” he wrote.

As for Lake’s analysis of the Anzac myth as a misappropriation – in that it was women, not men, who literally gave birth to the nation – Hirst wrote: “This is not history of any sort – it is a feminist wail.”

Hirst, says Lake crisply, has no conception of how women might be historical actors who helped shape the nation. She wrote in reply to him that “Men used to accuse women of taking their jobs; now they say we’re taking their history”.

Today she says, “They don’t mind you doing your own women’s history, as long as you go over there and do it, but this wasn’t a history of women. We had been audacious enough to occupy the high ground of the general history. That’s why he moved in to defend the territory.”
She was similarly attacked when she wrote on 19th-century socialism, arguing that it was animated by men’s desire to rescue their “manhood” because capitalism had humiliated them.

“I was one of the first historians to write about the history of masculinity, and that engaged men like nothing else,” she chuckles. “Men paid attention because it was about them, and they’re important.”
Eventually she decided to abandon the topic: “I suddenly thought one day, `This has just reinstated men at the centre of history. I don’t want to do this any more’.”

Fellow historian Henry Reynolds says Lake’s most controversial work was probably an article about the early Bulletin magazine and masculinity: “She attacked all the heroes of late 19th-century Australian left-wing intellectual life, pointing out their misogyny and how their talk about equality was based on misogyny. That was most confronting and provocative; it’s not surprising that many, many historians who looked favorably on these people got pretty upset.”

Personally, he admires the way Lake stirs the possum: “It’s a pity there isn’t more of it in Australia.”

Lake and Reynolds share a similar strength, or weakness, depending on your perspective. Liberal Senator Nick Minchin has described Reynolds, a passionate advocate of Aboriginal land rights and reconciliation, as a partisan player whose public pronouncements “color his record as an objective historian”.

Lake, too, could be accused of caring too much about the issues she analyses. She warmly admires early feminists, whom she sees as having created a “maternalist” welfare state in Australia, and who were among the few voices protesting against white abuse of Aborigines, including the stolen children, in the first half of this

Lake believes no one is completely objective. “Everyone writes from a particular perspective. So John Hirst writing on federation, which might be more acceptable to John Howard and Nick Minchin (than Reynolds’ work), is nevertheless writing out of his own desire. John just loves that sort of history and those founding fathers.”
Many of the early feminists Lake documents wanted an equal “moral standard” for men and women: for them, it meant asking men to be as sexually chaste as women. Lake, as a modern-day feminist, seeks an equal moral standard in a different way; she agitates for men to become as responsible for housework and children as women, and for a shorter working week for both sexes.

She recently debated on radio the merits of an advertising campaign to shame men out of the office and home to bath the baby at 5pm. Perhaps it could show the Prime Minister ironing his own shirts?

In your dreams, honey. But then, she’s used to that; a feminist historian is a dream-catcher.

The launch of Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism will be on Friday, 8October, at 6pm at the South Melbourne Town Hall. For further details call the Victorian Women’s Trust, 9642 0422.


Marilyn Lake

1949: born in Hobart.

1965-8: BA honors at University of Tasmania.

1975: publication of first of eight books.

1976-82: PhD in history at Monash University.

1988: appointed founding director, Program in Women’s Studies, La Trobe University.

1995: appointed to a Personal Chair in History, at La Trobe. Elected as a fellow to the Australian Academy of Humanities.

First published in The Age.