An exhibition of material from the Monash University Library

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Australian Women Writers


An exhibition of material from the Monash University Library,

Rare Book Collection, March 29 - July 31, 2007


Writing produced by women in the first half of the twentieth century challenged previously given roles of gender and negotiated a rapidly changing social climate. Australia became an independent nation in 1901. By 1903 it was the only country where white women could both vote and stand for national parliament. Women’s writing between 1900 and 1950 reflected the suffrage movement, as well as the effects of Federation, two World Wars, increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, women entering the workplace, and emergent discourses of sexology and psychology. New subject formations were taking place around gender, race, and nationalism.

While the women’s movement began in the late 1880s and 1890s, the high point of suffrage was between 1906 and 1914. Women’s new freedoms were viewed as a mixed blessing.1 An article in The Age discerned that the New Woman “wants independence, individual and economic as well as political independence…she wants absolute freedom to choose her occupations and interests. She thinks that all legal or conventional obstacles should be removed which debar woman from determining herself, as freely as man determines, what are the real limitations of sex, and what the merely conventional”.2 In contrast, the 1903 Royal Commission into the Decline of the Birthrate concluded that the selfishness of women was a significant cause.3

While the New woman was regarded with varying ambivalence, even seen to be “shaking [her] well-manicured fists in the face of God’s immutable laws,” another relatively new social identity, the girl played an important role in post-Federation constructions of national identity.4 Neither wholly child nor wholly woman, she represented Australia’s promise not only in the independence of her outlook but also as future bearer of the race. Whereas the New Woman was primarily an urban manifestation, the girl was a product of the bush. Writing for the Australian Magazine in 1908, John Garth argued that “the real abode of the Australian girl is in the country”. Shaped by her pioneering heritage, “no finer feminine comrade can be found on earth”.5

As an admirable companion, the girl did not threaten gender relations in the same way as the New Woman. She might do similar things to the New Woman, like ride a bicycle or take up a job, but ultimately she was destined for marriage, hearth and family. Bourgeois domesticity was safely intact, even biologically confirmed. “Above all things, “Garth discerned, “the Australian girl is ‘normal’ in mind and body and consequently it is not in her to be intellectual”.6 The Australian girl emblematised a natural progression of femininity, being free of the social pathologies that preyed upon the New Woman or girls from other countries. She showed neither the degeneracy exhibited in the “vapid English girl,” nor the mannish traits displayed by the “typically assertive American girl”.7 Instead she struck a happy eugenic medium. In nationalising a particular form of femininity, the Australian girl at once refined the scope of a nascent sexual identity while, at the same time, counteracting the volatile feminism of the New Woman.

Women writers contributed in part to this creation. The heroine of Catherine Martin’s novel, An Australian Girl (1890), declares her independence from colonial ties yet remains committed to an unequal, indifferent marriage. In 1902, Louise Mack envisaged a happier romance with An Australian Girl in London, with her title character finding married love with an Englishman while remaining ‘true’ to her own country.8 Other publications like Marie Pitt’s “How Kitty Kept the Camp,” Rosa Campbell Praed’s My Australian Girlhood, Lilian Turner’s An Australian Lassie, and Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books reinforced the girl as a free-spirited entity but firmly within the parameters of the status quo.9

From the 1890s onwards, a woman-oriented culture was becoming increasingly visible. For instance, there was a growing market for journals devoted specifically to issues of interest to women. Groundbreaking journals like The Dawn (1888-1905 run by Louisa Lawson), Woman’s Voice (1894-1895 run by Maybanke Anderson) and Australian Women’s Magazine were succeeded by Woman’s Voice (specifically devoted to the suffrage movement) and more populist journals like Australian Women’s Mirror and New Idea (or Everylady’s Journal, as it would later be known). Such journals were crucial in extending and authorising women’s presence beyond the private realm. In the early 1900s, The Woman’s Sphere carried advertisements by women doctors, chemists, and doctors searching for patients. Both it and New Idea began a series of women in professions. New Idea featured interviews with prominent women. Later still, similar articles would appear in periodicals such as the Australian Women’s Mirror. In The Disenchantment of the Home, Kerreen M. Reiger argues that the core ingredients of the dominant familial ideology—the home as a sanctuary and as woman’s sphere—rested upon the assumption of the complementarity in marriage of a sexual division of labour. Articles and stories emphasized the importance of clear masculine and feminine spheres. The years around the turn of the century and the 1920s and 1930s in particular were marked by discussion of ‘woman’s sphere.’ Magazine culture like The Home that catered primarily to a female market and had now well-known women writers and artists published in its pages. In the latter period there was a conservative reaction against the feminists’ stress on women’s contribution to the public world. Everylady’s Journal, for instance, promoted the domestic sphere far more heavily in the 1930s than its predecessor, New Idea, had ever done.10

Women’s networks also began to be formalised, with the emergence of clubs like the Lyceum and the Austral Salon and local reading circles. Nettie Palmer was a founding member of the Ex-Rays, a group of some twenty old girls from Presbyterian Ladies College who met regularly to discuss literature. Running from 1903 to 1944, the Sandringham Ladies’ Reading Circle attracted both socialist and Labour members who were, no doubt, influential in shaping the direction of any literary talk.

Although starting in the 1890s, the full effect of women’s growing professionalisation as writers only began to be felt in later decades. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that modernism arose as a reaction to the “woman question” and in response to increasing numbers of women entering the literary marketplace. “Indeed,” they contend, “it is possible to hypothesise that a reaction-formation against the rise of literary women became not just a theme in modernist writing but a motive for modernism.11 Following their 1890s predecessors, many women writers of the early twentieth-century combined what were considered more “serious” artistic endeavours with “bread-and-butter” work such as writing for popular journals, book reviews, and children’s literature.

This opened the way for their work to be critically devalued. In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Mass Culture, Andreas Huyssen contends that:

Mass culture has always been the hidden subtext of the Modernist project. In the age of nascent socialism and the first major women’s movement in Europe, the masses knocking at the gate were also women, knocking at the gate of a male-dominated culture. It is indeed striking to observe how the political psychological, and aesthetic discourse around the turn of the century consistently and obsessively genders mass cultures and the masses as feminine, while high culture, whether traditional or modern, clearly remains the privileged realm of male activities.12

Unfortunately, women writers sometimes internalised these negative opinions. Judith Butler refers to this as the “paradox of subjectivation.” She states, “the subject who would resist such norms is itself enabled, if not produced, by such norms”.13 Accordingly, agency is a reiterative or rearticulatory practice that is immanent to power, not a relation of external opposition to that power. For writers like Zora Cross or Nettie Palmer, taking up the pen as critic was a way in which they could assume authority, even as they repeated past critical opinion. In An Introduction to the Study of Australian Literature, Cross wrote:

So far, in Australia, it is in the realm of fiction that women writers have succeeded. In the mass, their efforts in this field can be creditably linked with the output of men. Not so in verse. Though a considerable number of women persistently sing, the thought and passion and feeling behind the song are not very intense. Mary Gilmore stands on a lonely peak, far, far from the majority, because the hot sparks of a real woman’s song are behind her.14

Palmer, too, was dismissive of women’s poetry:

In general, it may be said that the Australian women poets have contributed less than their quota to that stream of really vital work which it is here our purpose to study. Of efficient verse they have made a great deal, far more than it would have been possible to mention here, ere the omission of everything else; but romantic associations, spread out over long, shapely verses, do not make poetry. It is originality, or perhaps intensity, that has been lacking.15

Palmer’s thinking here is common to modernist critical discourse. As Rosalind E Krauss discerns, originality in modernism is usually bound in a kind of aesthetic economy with the notion of repetition, whereby a second term must be reduced or repressed. Male writers are therefore positioned as originators while women writers are derivative, offering pale copies or versions of their colleagues’ more “seminal” work.16

To some extent, the culture of literary clubs and societies reinforced and authorised values assigned to women’s writing. The Literature Society of Melbourne was predominantly a male institution. In contrast, the Melbourne Literary Club attracted a wide range of men and women writers when it was established in 1916. Its members dominated the Victorian literary scene for the next decade and included Frank Wilmot, Bernard O’Dowd, Marie Pitt, Mary Fullerton, Frederick Macartney, Nettie and Vance Palmer, Elsie Cole, Mary Wilkinson, Percival Serle, Bernard Cronin, Louis Lavater, Frederick Sinclaire, and H.H. Champion. The club even had its own magazine, Birth. However, in 1922, the club and its magazine were superseded by the newly formed and shortlived Institute of Arts and Letters. Then in the 1930s, the Bread and Cheese Club was formed. Its exclusively male membership reflected a more general backlash to the growing acceptance of women within the professions. Like the Melbourne Literary Club, the Bread and Cheese Club produced its own magazine, Bohemia. Ted Turner wrote to Marie Pitt that “the rule of no women members was formed at the first meeting, done to keep a lot who infest the literary scene out”. Pitt distanced herself from Turner’s implied mob of female scribblers by responding:

I quite sympathise with your rule ‘no women in the club’—I’ve been somewhat of a lone wolf myself—so if I am not eligible because I happen to be nominally feminine instead of masculine (however comprehensive I happen to be) I obey your decision and withdraw my hankering to belong to something away from the beaten track of the conventional in literary clubs.17

Later, Pitt pointed out that as she did not feel herself to be a particularly gendered individual, she also did not desire to join any women-only clubs. 18

Mary Gilmore also sympathised with the men’s only rule of the Bread and Cheese Club, but saw it as emerging out of men’s need to bond collectively together. Unlike Pitt, she saw this as an underlying difference between the sexes. With an archness matching that of Jane Austen, she wrote:

…men may be convivial and women may not, and that perhaps is the root of difference and the fence between them. There are no Armies of women. When there are they cease to be women. I said to a demobbed man yesterday, ‘It must have been terrible coming back to Civilian life after the fellowship of the Army.’ And so I can understand your Bread and Cheese Club…19

By the 1930s and 1940s, however, women writers such as Flora Eldershaw would overcome some of the sexual politics of the earlier years to play significant rather than token roles in literary organisations such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund. But even then the question of gender would resurface in familiar ways. For example, the minutes of the 1940 Quarterly Report of the Fellowship of Australian Writers record that Eldershaw, then a Vice-President, hosted a special function on May 15th to present the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal to Xavier Herbert for his novel, Capricornia. She had also "at the request of her fellow executive members...delivered a most informative and enlightening critique on the novel".20 The House Committee minutes for the same function, however, contain the note: "Savouries - Miss Eldershaw be approached re. same".21

Many women writers attempted to sidestep the presumptions of gender through the use of pseudonyms. Nettie Palmer published under the pseudonyms of “Shalott,” “Owen Roe O’Neill” and “L”, Mary Fullerton used the epigrammatic “E,” while Anna Wickham used John Oland. Marie Pitt also adopted the pseudonym of “Joseph Marizeeni” when writing her most overtly feminist poems. Mystery novelist Hilda Bridges often assumed male pseudonyms. These pseudonyms strengthened the separation of the narrative self from the authorial self, distinguishing the imaginary from the real and the embodied. For women writers who kept their gendered signature, the two realms were often collapsed, especially if they wrote openly about sexuality and intimacy. Zora Cross and Dulcie Deamer’s writing was read as confirmation of their sexual exploits. As had occurred with other modernist women like Nancy Cunard and Mina Loy, their writing became circumscribed by the gossip of their lives. While Deamer played up to expectations by reinventing a self-consciously bohemian self, Cross struggled against it for the rest of her life.

Making a living as a writer remained a challenge for many of the women represented in this exhibition. Dymphna Cusack in later years observed “when collectors tell me of the fantastic prices they have paid for second-hand copies of Jungfrau I remember that I received £23 from its writing”.22 Some writers also felt that the very status of being a writer was devalued in Australian society. As Miles Franklin lamented, "in Australia the writer has ceased to have any of that social notice or esteem which is kept for those who succeed in business or become conspicuous in sport".23 Marjorie Barnard pointed out to Leslie Rees with some irony that the 1934 Victorian Centenary literary competition was worth £200, while the golf championship attracted five times that amount.24 However, while she may have deplored the set of priorities embodied in the respective prizes, the issue for Barnard was not simply a financial one.25 As her collaborator Flora Eldershaw argued in relation to the expatriation of Australian writers, financial remuneration was but one aspect of a larger cultural agenda:

The export of brains, literary and otherwise, is one of our most important industries, even though it appears in no trade balances. Young men and women of promise are continually crossing the sea to make their way in a larger world. A surprising number succeed, and we are the poorer for their loss. If we do not offer them sufficient rewards we cannot hope to keep them. By rewards I do not mean only payments in hard cash, though that is a part of it, but also freedom to express themselves, reputation and scope.26

This exhibition brings together writers of established reputation and those less well-known; it also brings together genres that cross boundaries of high and low culture. Accordingly, we are showcasing genres such as the novel, poetry, children’s literature (including the sub-genre of teen literature), memoir, crime/mystery fiction, romance, travel writing, and non-fiction. Significantly, many women writers would cross genres. Often romance would be underscored by a crime plot; poetry and romance are also often twin genres. The exhibition also coves topics of particular interest such as the growing division between the bush and city, the impact of war, reflections on writing itself, and the emerging figure of the Modern Woman. As the works collected here demonstrate so clearly in their diversity, there is no single feminine tradition in Australian writing of this period. In selecting the works we have, we are neither seeking to reinforce an existing canon of Australian literature nor to propose an alternative one; rather, what should be apparent here is women’s significant participation in the realm of the ‘literary’ and the cultural agency of women.

In bringing together this selection of Australian women’s writing we are endeavouring to show how those better known writers from this period were not exceptions nor were they members of an isolated minority: they sit here in the context of a thriving literary world in which many women actively participated. Susan Sheridan has observed the importance of contributing to a ‘wider feminist project of reading women writers together, with and against on another, for differences as well as similarities in what they tried to create out the knowledges and commitments and desires that textured their lives”.27 This exhibition forms part of that project.

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