Shaping a historiography: gendering the Australian legend

Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia rejected Ward’s ‘mateship’ myth and the labour movement’s contribution to nation building. Succumbing to the ‘siren entreaties of bourgeois culture’ Labor betrayed the working-class in parliament; the unions timidly resorted to state-sponsored compulsory arbitration instead of pursuing revolutionary action. Embracing White Australia, the labour movement ensured that racism became ‘the most important single component in Australian nationalism’, in a culture that reverently clung to its imperial ties.[1] A New Britannia was a shrill expression of the New Left challenge to established Australian historiography, clearing the ground for a reconsideration of Australian historiography and an interrogation of national myths. Connell and Irving’s Class Structure in Australian History (1980) and Rowse’s Australian Liberalism and National Character (1978) provided two of the most coherent New Left critiques of Australian nationalism; the tone of ‘Old Left’ romanticism was replaced with a critique of class structure, the ‘hegemony’ of the industrial ruling class and prevailing liberal ideology.[2]

Dixson’s The Real Matilda provided a sharper analysis of Australian ‘mateship’ culture that had treated women with ‘contempt’ and ‘brutality’ and had excluded them from the workplace and public life and hence from the national story. Dixson’s critique of Ward’s myth of the typical Australian exposed its ‘womanlessness’ and a ‘peculiarly limited style of masculinity’ of Australian national identity.[3] Like her New Left contemporaries, Dixson’s work had an explicitly political ambition: to challenge the prevailing organisation of Australia’s power structures and institutions, to create ‘a less fiercely competitive society’. Significantly, this project required not only reformed institutions but a new language: The Real Matilda included ‘a kind of glossary’ to clarify a new understanding of ‘women and identity’, including ‘androgyny’, ‘machismo’ ‘patriarchal society’ and ‘role model’.[4] Written in 1976, The Real Matilda appeared as the Whitlam Labor government was cast from office, ushering in seven years of conservative rule. Although the denial of equal pay to women, a wage policy established in the first years of the Commonwealth, was overturned in the mid-1970s, signalling a gradual reversal in the policies and cultural practices that had denied the citizenship of women, the achievement of a less fiercely competitive society remained unfulfilled.

Despite the assaults from McQueen and Dixson, several important studies of Australian national identity returned to Ward’s work and the noble bush worker, indicating the legend’s enduring hold on the popular imagination and the narrative strategies of historians considering Australian national identity. In Inventing Australia, Richard White argued that Ward had stressed the nationalist element of the bush worker myth while marginalising its significance as a tool for ‘romanticising imperial expansion’, and as ‘a symbol of escape from urban, industrial civilisation’.[5] Anticipating the thesis advanced in Benedict Anderson’s influential Imagined Communities, White asserted that ‘[t]here is no real Australia waiting to be uncovered. A national identity is an invention.’ The historian must look to the inventors of the various forms of national identity cultivated since white settlement, and ask ‘what their function is, whose creation they are, and whose interest they serve.’[6] The writers and artists of the 1890s had propagated the bush legend as an escape from Australia’s rapidly urbanising culture; Palmer and Ward tried to revive this cause fifty years later. By that time, the experience of the Second World War and disastrous Nazi fantasies of a master race had ‘helped discredit the whole idea of a national type.’ The ‘quiet’ post-war replacement of White Australia with the notion of a multicultural Australia, built on successive waves of post-war immigration, had created a more mature, nuanced and restrained sense of national identity.[7]

White wrote at a time of relative optimism about the possibilities of a multicultural Australia, when the potential disturbances of globalising capital were not fully apparent. However, by the late 1990s these pressures were increasingly evident and unemployment, family pressures, crime and drugs caused growing civic fragmentation that threatened global society.[8] In The Imaginary Australian, Miriam Dixson argued that the rejection of Ward’s Australian legend had gone too far especially in fomenting an ‘unwarranted’ self-loathing of ‘Anglo-Celtic Australia’. She took up the international debate on nationalism and argued that a more realistic and assured sense of national identity had to be drawn from Australian history, to find a way between the past quest for homogeneous ethnic integrity and the emptiness of internationalism.[9] Where The New Matilda stressed the marginalisation of women in the national story, The Imaginary Australian interrogated the ‘complex and ambiguous’ and indeed ‘collusive’ role of women, symbolised in the feminised idealisation of the nation.[10] The Australian Legend and Its Discontents explored the legend’s diverse meanings especially in Linzi Murrie’s contribution that made explicit the masculine codes implicit and unexamined in much of the previous historiography of Australian ‘mateship’ and intensified the focus on the ‘peculiarly limited style of masculinity’ observed by Dixson in The Real Matilda. The Bushman masculinity is distinguished by the centrality of the homo-social as a masculine value. The heroic individualism, so important in representations of other frontier masculinities, is absent here. In its place is the egalitarianism of ‘mateship’ that functions as a strategy of legitimation within the male homo-social group. The ‘typical Australian’ must not deviate too much from his mates.’[11] Like all good legends it proved adaptable: the bush ‘mateship’, of the 1890s could be recast for the needs of binding the digger to the requirements of war. Murrie concluded:

The Australian legend has been a powerful fiction for constructing and legitimating dominant meanings of “masculine” and “Australian” in Australian culture, forged through the mythology of mateship.[12]

In 1997, Marilyn Lake declared that ‘feminists today are among the most creative interpreters of citizenship.’[13] Since the early 1970s, the New Left’s call for a more penetrating and analytical history inspired a range of important revisions in the fields of cultural history, class, convict history and race relations. Yet none were vitally significant as the sustained revision of gender relations not only to clarify the treatment of women and recognise their contribution to Australian national life, but to demonstrate the fundamentally gendered nature of Australian history and national identity. Few studies have as powerfully analysed the burden of the ‘ideal of femininity’ placed on Australian women as Matthews’ Good and Mad Women

…a history of the lives of individual women who have been confronted by the maze of gender imperatives’, and who struggled to live up to ‘the demand that they be “good women”.[14]

Lake has been at the forefront of the reconsideration of national identity, stressing the relationship between the categories of gender, race and class and the need to explore the expression of these inter-related categories in the development of nationalist consciousness.[15] Privileging masculine conceptions of the nation required categorisation of those excluded. Lake claims the Harvester judgement of 1907 that established the concept of fair and reasonable wage for male breadwinners and marginalised women in the workforce also ‘empowered white manhood’, by entrenching legal discriminations against indigenous and non-white workers.[16] Being forced from the workforce into motherhood roles did not, however, drive women from participation in the nation. As one of the authors of Creating a Nation, the first general history of Australia to assert ‘the agency and creativity of women’, Lake and her collaborators, as Dixson observes, ‘accorded women a central role…[as mothers] women were not alienated from, but central to nation building.’[17] Creating a Nation followed the intervention of women in the private and public spheres of Australian life and revealed how the concerns and needs of women and children helped shape public policy.

Realising the interconnections between class, race and gender, it is no coincidence that feminist historians such as Lake and Anne Curthoys have been at the forefront of looking out from the imagined boundaries of the nation. Lake has argued that the development of Australian national identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries must be seen as part of a ‘trans-national discourse of nation and race.’ She seeks to locate the development of the idea of the ‘white man’ both as a ‘territorial’ phenomena in Australia, and also in its global context, part of a wider discourse of white identity, particularly with racial ideas circulating in the United States, an exchange stimulated by anxiety about ‘…the white man, a figure produced in the relations of colonial rule,’ and the dilemmas of a multi-racial state.[18]

Engaging with the recent trans-national debates on the nation and its identities, Curthoys has acknowledged the insularity of Australian history and has argued that to understand the nation we must explore the forms of identity constructed around it such as the notion of diaspora, an enduring sense of identity and cultural links, transported through migration from one nation to another. Exploring the diaspora of the various immigrant groups to Australia charts the relationship between the nation and the wider world and may return the Australian historian to an interest in ‘British identities and connections.’[19] Looking inward remains instructive: Alan Atkinson has reconsidered the history of European settlement in Australia to argue that Australia exhibited a remarkably original political culture from the beginning. Despite its multi-volume scale, Atkinson’s study employs a creative and forensic analysis of ‘talk’ and ‘writing’ to offer a positive interpretation of Australian identity that does not perpetuate the traditional marginalisation of women and the indigenous and that is sensitive to the trans-national context of the development of Australian political language.[20]

The focus of Lake’s and Atkinson’s recent works suggests that interrogating the nature of national identity requires finely-honed studies as well as the sweep of the big picture. Dale Blair’s Dinkum Diggers investigates the national myth at a discrete level of the experiences of the men who served in the First Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force in World War One. Dinkum Diggers does not present a heroic portrait in the style of Bean, but a picture of predominantly working-class men trying to cope with their extraordinary circumstances and suffering as best they could, and sometimes rather baffled by the exaggerated reports of their battlefield conduct. Blair could not find evidence of Ward’s idea that the diggers conformed to an idealised, ‘mateship’ notion of how they should behave.[21]

[1] McQueen, Humphrey, A New Britannia, (Penguin Books), 1970, pp. 42, 51, 220 and 233-236.

[2] Rowse, Tim, Australian Liberalism and National Character, (Kibble Books), 1978 and Connell, R.W. and Irving, T.H., Class Structure in Australian History, (Longman Cheshire), 1980.

[3] Dixson, Miriam, The Real Matilda: woman and identity in Australia, 1788 to the present, (Penguin Books), 1976, pp. 12, 24.

[4] Ibid, Dixson, Miriam, The Real Matilda, pp. 230, 233.

[5] White, Richard, Inventing Australia, (George Allen and Unwin), 1981, p. 103.

[6] Ibid, White, Richard, Inventing Australia: images and identity, 1688-1980, p. viii; Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, (Verso), 1983.

[7] Ibid, White, Richard, Inventing Australia, pp. 157, 169-170.

[8] Ibid, White, Richard, Inventing Australia, p. 171.

[9] Dixson, Miriam, The Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and identity, 1788 to the present, (University of New South Wales Press), 1999, pp. 2-3, 128-161.

[10] Ibid, Dixson, Miriam, The Imaginary Australian, pp. 56-62.

[11] Murrie, Linzi, ‘The Australian Legend and Australian Men’, in Nile, Richard, (ed.), The Australian Legend and Its Discontents, (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia), 2000, p. 90.

[12] Ibid, Murrie, Linzi, ‘The Australian Legend and Australian Men’, pp. 91-92.

[13] Lake, Marilyn, ‘Feminists creating citizens’, in Hudson, Wayne, and Bolton, Geoffrey, (eds.), Creating Australia, (Allen and Unwin), 1997, p. 97.

[14] Matthews, Jill Julius, Good and Mad Women, The Historical Construction of Femininity in Twentieth Century Australia, (George Allen & Unwin), 1984, p. 8.

[15] Lake, Marilyn, ‘Mission Impossible: How Men Gave Birth to the Australian Nation: Nationalism, Gender and Other Seminal Acts’, Gender & History, Vol. 4, (1992), pp. 305-322.

[16] Lake, Marilyn, ‘On being a white man, Australia, circa 1900’, in Teo, Hsu-Ming and White, Richard, (eds.), Cultural History in Australia, (University of New South Wales Press), 2003, p. 109.

[17] Ibid, Dixson, Miriam, The Imaginary Australian, p. 59; Grimshaw, Patricia, Lake, Marilyn, McGrath, Ann and Quartly, Marian, Creating a Nation, (Penguin Books), 1996.

[18] Lake, Marilyn, ‘White Man’s Country, the Trans-National History of a National Project’, Australian Historical Studies, number 122, (October 2003), pp. 354, 360; see also, Lake Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, (eds.), Drawing the global colour line: white men’s countries and the international challenge of racial equality, (Cambridge University Press), 2008.

[19] Curthoys, Anne, ‘We’ve Just Started Making National Histories, and You Want Us to Stop Already?’ in Burton, Antoinette, (ed.), After the Imperial Turn, Thinking With and Through the Nation, (Duke University Press), 2003, pp. 85-86.

[20] Atkinson, Alan, The Europeans in Australia, 2 Vols. (Oxford University Press), 1997, 2004 and The Commonwealth of Speech, An Argument about Australia’s Past, Present and Future, (Australian Scholarly Publishing), 2002.

[21] Blair, Dale, Dinkum Diggers: an Australian battalion at war, (Melbourne University Press), 2001, pp. 192-193.

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