Women in White Australia
Professor Rae Frances, Monash University, 24 September 2013
MAT TRINCA: Good afternoon. My name is Mat Trinca and I am the Acting Director of the National Museum of Australia. Firstly. I would like to acknowledge the Ngambri-Ngunnawal peoples of Canberra on whose land we meet today and pay respect to their elders past and present.
Welcome all of you to today’s lecture, which is part of a series that we are holding in conjunction with our major exhibition Glorious Days: Australia 1913. A special welcome, if indeed they are connected, to those of you in the Windsor area outside Sydney. I can see people manning technology here avidly so I trust that they are connected to us. Welcome to you. They are watching online via the Hawkesbury digital hub.
Glorious Days is a fascinating study of what Australia was like in the year that this city Canberra was founded. The exhibition is full itself - and I hope I am not saying this with too much personal pride- of a great sense of pride and hope that characterised the first decade or so of this great experiment, the Australian nation. I say ‘experiment’ because in many respects much of the thinking of that first decade or so was about the possibility and promise of this infant nation. What could Australia be? What kind of society might we construct here?
Our speaker today will be examining those questions in terms of the history of first wave feminism and Australia’s role in that international movement. Australia after all granted adult suffrage to women in 1901, although importantly restrictions on Aboriginal women and men would remain and be finally lifted in 1962.
But 1913 was also a year when Australia was on the brink, without really knowing it, of a calamitous, bloody war that would change the course of history, and of course the war also had an effect on the suffrage movement of the time. To speak on these and related issues, we are lucky to have with us today Professor Rae Frances, a distinguished professor of history and dean of arts at Monash University. Professor Frances has a wide range of research interests. She has published on the history of work, on women’s history, on the history of contact between first and settler peoples in Australia, and on religious and community history, and she has coedited several collections of essays on the history of Australia and New Zealand.
Professor Frances has also served on a wide variety of boards and organisations, having been president of the University of New South Wales branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, a member of that university’s governing council, a board member of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, and the Council of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences - those titles couldn’t get any longer. She is also importantly a member of the Council of the National Museum of Australia, so in some respects she is my boss. Could I ask that you please give a warm welcome to Professor Rae Frances whose lecture today is entitled ‘Women in white Australia’. [applause]
Prof. RAE FRANCES: Thanks, Mat. I will remind myself that in some sense I am his boss from time to time. Good afternoon everyone. It’s a great pleasure to be with you here today on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. I would also like to take the opportunity to pay my respects to their elders past and present.
In my talk this afternoon I will be introducing you to some of the women of early twentieth century Australia and the issues that preoccupied them, and those issues are surprisingly relevant to us today over 100 years later. Some of the women that I will be introducing you to will be familiar, I think, to many of you, but others will not.
I am going to begin with one of the more obscure women whose story nonetheless provides us with a window into women’s lives in pre-war Australia. Our story begins not in Melbourne or Sydney where most of the women in Australia lived in the early twentieth century but in the remote gold mining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.
[image shown] As summer drew to a close in March 1907, a beautiful young French woman Desiree Ernestine Adrienne Lesire, alias Violet Debreuil, disappeared from the Kalgoorlie brothel where she had been working for a wealthy French madam Blanche D’Arville - probably also not her name either. She left behind a note explaining that she was to marry a man called Gool Mahomet, an Afghan camel contractor from the nearby town of Coolgardie. [image shown]
She was, she said, tired of this life, so tired. It’s not surprising that she was tired. Quite apart from the demands of brothel work in an outback mining town, in the years prior to her decision to leave the sex industry, Desiree had travelled the world in search of better business opportunities. She had come from France with D’Arville some time prior to 1906 probably when that madam returned from a trip to Paris to recruit new ‘girls’, as they were called, in 1900.
During her time working in the Brookman Street brothels, Desiree became the madam’s favourite. When D’Arville decided to tour America and Europe in 1906, she took the younger woman with her. When they came back to Kalgoorlie, she left Desiree in charge of one of her houses and departed again for a holiday in France.
Gool Mahomet’s life was equally itinerant. [image shown] He was born in the village of Smilikhenderra near Kabul in Afghanistan and came to Australia some time in 1887. He landed at Fremantle in Western Australia and then moved on to Parachina in South Australia where he worked on the railhead. He then started in the camel business carrying loads across the outback of Australia from Mt Morgan in Queensland to the copper mining areas of northern South Australia, and finally to the eastern goldfields of Western Australia where he met his future bride. You have to remember this is in the days before the railway, before sealed roads. Horses weren’t much use in most of the terrain they had to cover, so the camel trains were really the lifeblood of communications at that time in central Australia. [image shown] Those lines show you some of the tracks that they covered.
Mobility remained a feature of the couple’s early married life. [image shown] First, they bought a market garden at Leonora, north of Kalgoorlie, but this venture did not succeed and they soon relocated to South Australia. [image shown] The rest of Desiree’s life was spent in the close confines of the so-called Ghan towns around Maree and Farina where she had six children, some of them possibly amongst this group [image shown]. I am not entirely sure of that, but they are pretty cute kids anyway. Now known as Miriam Bebe, Desiree would have spent her days in the company of the other wives in these marginal townships, some Aboriginal, some European. [image shown]
Like these wives, she was expected to observe Islamic patterns of interaction with members of the opposite sex who were not her immediate family. Farina was hardly Kalgoorlie, let alone Paris. Conditions were pretty primitive and there wasn’t much excitement. Her husband Gool Mahomet assumed the role of respected elder and leader in the Ghan towns of Central Australia and in old age was the mullah of the Adelaide mosque - a beautiful mosque if anyone hasn’t seen it. It’s still there. [image shown]
Can you imagine what this transition must have been like for Desiree Lesire as she became Miriam Bebe, from Paris to the outback of Australia – extraordinary! It was a huge step to take not least because it involved crossing the colour line. In the notes she left behind at the brothel in Kalgoorlie, she explained how she reconciled herself to her decision: ‘He I am to marry is black skinned but he has a white heart and a good heart.’ But she was also acutely aware that this in making this choice she was cutting herself off from her former life and associates: ‘Farewell it must be, I go, farewell’ - I think she liked a bit of drama as well.
Desiree’s story might seem exceptional, but her life alerts us to some important themes that preoccupied women in the young Commonwealth. As we have seen, before deciding to marry and settle down, she had led a highly mobile life travelling the world in search of better opportunities in the sex industry. She was one of many such women who took advantage of the fast steamships and the new routes opened up by the Suez Canal to move between Europe and Asia and the so-called new worlds of the Southern Hemisphere. The fact that so many women were making these journeys didn’t go unnoticed. They gave rise to fears that there was in fact a traffic in young, white women, referred to sensationally at the time as ‘white slaves’. Particularly concerning to many social reformers was the possibility that these young women were destined to service the lusts of so-called ‘coloured’ men. Desiree’s union with Gool Mahomet would have scandalised most contemporaries and fuelled the fears that many white Australians had of racial mixing.
[image shown ‘The inside of the white slave traffic’] This 1913 poster is for an American movie but the concern it expressed was a worldwide phenomenon before the First World War. Women were prominent in the campaigns to put an end to this alleged traffic and participated in international conventions to find ways to achieve their aim. Prostitution and the so-called ‘white slave traffic’ was high on the list of concerns of these delegates [image shown] at the Seventh International Woman Suffrage Congress in Budapest in June 1913. According to the Australian delegate at this congress:
This delegate also pointed out that since women had been enfranchised, there had been stronger legislation and subsequent reduction in commercialised vice in Australia - so a direct link between women’s votes and the suppression of commercial sex.
The importance of this issue can be seen by the fact that the only two resolutions passed at this congress related to prostitution and the ‘white slave traffic’:
Australian feminists acted on this resolution, petitioning their state governments, while the British feminist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who was the president of the International Suffrage Alliance, wrote to the Australian Prime Minister. At the local level, even conservative women’s groups sought to raise awareness of the issue by distributing pamphlets designed to alert young Australian womanhood to the dangers that awaited the naive and unwary. [image shown] This pamphlet was issued by the Queensland branch of the National Council of Women. It was endorsed by a number of Christian women’s groups containing a message to girls. It urged girls to be ‘ever on your guard, especially against strangers, who make it their business in life to lay plans for entrapping bright, attractive, innocent girls, and selling them for immoral purposes.’
But let’s stop for a moment and go back to Desiree Lesire. Was she really one of those innocent girls sold for immoral purposes? The evidence would suggest otherwise. Like most of the women who came from Europe at this time to work in the sex industry in the ports and mining centres, she had worked in brothels before. There were a few cases where young women were tricked into setting off for a foreign country expecting respectable employment only to find themselves in brothels but, from my research, these were very much the exception. Most were like Desiree, professional women who came in small groups and sometimes with male companions making choices about where their best chances in life lay, which is not to say they had unrestricted choices - obviously they didn’t. Opportunities for women in the workplace were severely limited in the early twentieth century, and this was also something that concerned the feminists of the day. I will come back to that in a little while.
But for now, let’s leave Miriam Bebe on the edge of white settlement in the north-east of South Australia and shift our focus to Melbourne and a very different kind of woman with a very different kind of life. I am sure you all know where Melbourne is but, just to be fair, I am going to give you a map of Melbourne too. [image shown] Here is the glamorous Vida Goldstein [image shown]. Vida Goldstein was born in Melbourne to a prosperous family. She was well educated by the standards of the time. Although her father didn’t believe in women’s rights, her mother did fortunately. She never married but devoted her life to politics and feminist causes. She was the epitome of the new woman of the turn of the century.
Vida’s political passions give us a wonderful window into the issues that concerned Australian women in the early twentieth century: compulsory arbitration and conciliation, equal employment rights and equal pay for women, the appointment of women to a variety of official posts, and the introduction of legislation which would redistribute the country’s wealth. Her desire to enter parliament and her ambition to become Prime Minister were based on her determination to put her ideals into practice. She was one of the first women in the British Empire to stand for parliament but, perhaps not surprisingly, she received a mixed reception from the public and the voters as this contemporary piece of verse suggests:
So although Vida got an impressive 51,000 votes on this occasion, half the number of the leading candidate, she never succeeded in her bid to enter parliament, despite five attempts. But 51,000 votes suggests that Vida wasn’t alone in her convictions and causes. While she stood for the Australian parliament, like other women she engaged in feminist politics on the international stage. You have to remember that at this time Australian and New Zealand women were celebrated by their sisters overseas who were still fighting to secure the vote for themselves.
In 1902, soon after the new Commonwealth gave white women the vote, Vida travelled to the United States to speak at the International Women’s Suffrage conference. She was an immediate hit and elected secretary of the international organisation. Nor was it just feminist groups that noticed her. The editor of the Boston newspaper composed a song for her, and she gave evidence in favour of women’s suffrage to a committee of the United States Congress.
At the same time that she was reporting on Australian politics in America, she was collecting information on various social issues for different groups in Australia. The Victorian government asked her to investigate the methods of dealing with neglected and delinquent children in the States while she was there. The Criminological Society asked her to report back on the US penal system. The Trades Hall Council asked her to look at American unions and report on their effectiveness. When she came home to Australia she used all this intelligence gathering and experience to give an illustrated lecture tour throughout Victoria, not with powerpoint, I don’t think - lectures that people were prepared to pay to hear. [image shown] Here she is in London in 1911 taking part in what was described as a ‘great suffragette demonstration’. She is accompanied by several other Australian women including Margaret Fisher, the wife of the Prime Minister, and Emily McGowen, the wife of the Premier of New South Wales. Vida explained her purpose in going to London:
They were really internationalists in the genuine sense of the word. Vida’s visit was described by the press in England as ‘the biggest thing that has happened to the women’s movement for some time’.
The women’s suffrage coronation procession, which was that great suffragette demonstration in 1911, was five miles long and included 40,000 women from all over the world, marching seven abreast and led by the splendid Mrs Drummond mounted, as you see here [image shown], on horseback. They were accompanied by 70 bands and followed by 700 formerly imprisoned suffragettes all dressed in white. You can see them down in the right-hand corner with the ‘from prison’ banner - glorious days indeed to be a suffragette.
The Australian and New Zealand delegation marched behind this gorgeous banner [image shown] which you can see in our wonderful exhibition designed, painted and carried by Australasian artist Dora Meeson. The banner proclaimed in short and vivid form the message that women’s suffrage had been a success in Australia and that British women should also be given the vote.
While in London, Vida met up with one of the more spectacular Australian expatriates active in the suffrage cause in England, an Adelaide woman with the wonderful name of Muriel Matters. Muriel Matters was an actor, elocutionist and journalist. She moved to London in 1905 where she became active in the Women’s Suffrage League. By her own account she found the British very parochial and bound by tradition. She resolved to use her skills as an orator and journalist to become an agitator for change. It’s exactly what she did.
She began her propaganda efforts by touring the countryside of south-east England in a caravan spreading the suffrage message. But before long she decided that something more dramatic was called for, so she chained herself to the grill of the women’s gallery in Parliament House, an antic that led to her being imprisoned. They had to cut her free with bolt cutters from the grille. But undeterred the following year Muriel took to the skies in an airship with 56 kilos of pamphlets to shower over London. Now you see why they called her ‘that daring Australian girl’. Muriel’s life has recently been rediscovered and celebrated in the 2010 Adelaide Fringe production of Why Muriel Matters. [image shown] I will quote from the program:
Note to self: I must see that play sometime.
Muriel shared many of Vida’s causes. She denounced the exploitation of women workers and advocated for women’s unions. She advocated for equal divorce laws, equal pay for equal work, endowment of motherhood and support for unmarried mothers.
When she visited Australia in 1910, she and Vida persuaded the Australian Senate to send a resolution to the British Prime Minister detailing the good results of the enfranchisement of Australian women. They thought this might encourage the British parliament to consider votes for women. This is what that resolution stated:
That resolution was passed unanimously. The second part of the resolution stated:
This resolution was passed by a majority, but four voted against it because they thought it a little presumptuous of the young Australian nation to be telling Mother England what to do. They didn’t feel quite comfortable about that. That was a rather long resolution basically saying what that banner said: ‘Trust the women mother as we have done’.
Although both Vida and Muriel advocated women’s trade unionism, they were not personally involved in organising women workers. Not so our next woman Emma Miller whose story takes us to Brisbane. [image shown]
Emma Miller came from England to Australia at a time when women were entering the paid work force in unprecedented numbers and were moving into a greater range of occupations. Most notably, they were found less often in domestic service and primary production and more frequently in factories, shops and offices. I will show you a couple of graphs to show you how quickly this was happening in that decade after the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed. We have a census in 1901, the first census for the new Commonwealth, which shows you the figures [slide shown]. The first bar graph is primary production and then going across left to right manufacturing, transport and communication, commerce and finance, public and professional work, and the last big graph is domestic service. Ten years later [slide shown] that red bar shows you which are going up and which are going down. You can see the big winners are manufacturing, commerce and finance and even professional work to some extent; and the big losers are domestic service and primary production. That is just in the space of a ten years.
Conditions for many of these new workers were primitive and the wages often less than half those paid to men in comparable occupations. Emma Miller seems to have inherited something of her father’s activist spirit. She used to go with him to Chartist meetings in England as child. She was a seamstress when she was in Brisbane, and in 1890 helped form a union of female workers, one of the first unions of women workers in Australia. That was the start of a long career in labour organisation. She later travelled to the western regions of Queensland organizing men as well as women for the Australian Workers Union. She became a legendary figure in Queensland, known affectionately as Mother Miller. She’s now still remembered in Queensland with several busts and statues erected in her honour. [image shown]
Her most famous moment, however, was the part she played in the 1912 general strike, when she led this large procession of women in a march on Parliament House. [image shown] Legend has it that, when they were confronted with a police cordon, she took the pin out of her hat and stuck it into the horse of the police commissioner who was thrown and injured - probably not a good tactic. Less dramatic were the efforts being made by women in all of Australia’s cities to secure recognition for the principle of equal pay for the sexes.
In the spring of 1913, Melbourne Trades Hall was the venue for a major Women’s Convention at which all but two of the resolutions dealt with the issue of equal pay for equal work. Of those other two resolutions, one that was passed unanimously dealt with paid maternity leave:
As I said at the outset, it’s interesting how 100 years later these issues are still very relevant in the public domain. The other resolution that was also carried called for the state registration of nurses, ‘believing it to be in the interests of and for the protection of women and children and the public generally’. This move supported the Trained Nurses’ Association, which itself had prepared a Bill for nurses’ registration, a move which hastened the professionalisation of this branch of women’s employment. Again, a very concrete example of the way in which women put their newfound voting power and their sense of political intervention into practice to help women in all sorts of ways.
More contentious was the issue of equal pay for women compared to men. The Women’s Convention highlighted the complexities of this issue, both as a matter of principle and as a question of tactics. Whilst the women present argued that women were the equal of men and had equal responsibilities, some of the male delegates from the women’s unions challenged them on both counts. Alfred Wallis, from the clothing trades union, claimed:
Many of the women delegates objected strongly to his views. The president, Amy Witham, maintained that ‘while women worked they did the same quality and quantity as men’. Witham also asserted that ‘they were all there to do the best for the race, and it went against the grain to hear anything of women’s inferiority’. She cited Marie Curie’s role in the discovery of radium as an example of women’s intellectual achievement. She also noted that where:
She rested her cause. But that didn’t persuade Wallis, who argued that if women were ‘clever, they were always of a masculine nature’.
While this argument might seem academic, it had profound implications for the tactics to be pursued in the quest for equal pay for women workers. If one accepted that women were equal to men as workers, then the claim for equal pay for work of equal value, which was the proposition favoured at the convention by most of the delegates, it wasn’t problematic. However, if you believed that women were in fact inferior workers, then the achievement of such a provision would inevitably mean that women would be thrown out of work as employers would prefer the more productivity male workers. It could also involve wage-fixing tribunals in complex and difficult assessments of the extent to which the sexes really did produce work of equal value.
The formulation proposed by the clothing trades union was ‘equal pay for women when engaged in the same kind of work as men’. This had already proved successful in securing equal pay for a large number of women in the fruitpicking industry under a federal award in the previous year, a fact which had given new hope to women unionists. Indeed,many unionists saw the federal arbitration court as the only hope for women in industries that competed across state boundaries, for the obvious reason that if you increased the wages in one state, that would provide neighbouring states with an unfair advantage.
Others also saw a link between the prospects of achieving equal pay for women and immigration levels. Vida Goldstein, who we met before, was opposed to the principle of the White Australia policy but believed that all immigration should be restricted until equal pay was achieved. It’s really interesting the way, again, issues about the impact of immigration on the standards and conditions of Australian workers are still an issue in Australia today.
The delegates to the Women’s Convention were also mindful that while the fruitpickers’ victory had delivered a degree of wage justice for some women, it begged the question of how to improve the wages of women in occupations that didn’t employ women alongside men - and that, of course, was the vast majority of occupations in 1913 where women worked in segregated women’s occupations. The answer in this case, according to an impassioned speech by Mrs Barry, was a concerted organising campaign. This is what Mrs Barry had to say:
She was to be disappointed, one fears.
Another feature of the 1913 Women’s Convention was the tension between the view of some women that only by separate organising would women achieve any real gains, as opposed to those women who argued that the only hope for women was to form strong alliances with men and the increasingly entrenched political parties and industrial unions. The convention itself was originally conceived as a broad-based convention of organisations interested in women’s wages and welfare, including the Liberal Party, the Anti-Sweating League and the Women’s Political Association, but the Trades Hall Council refused to lend its support to an event which involved ‘cooperating with our political opponents on the question of equal pay for equal work’. That, again, was a sad forewarning of what was to happen to a united cross-party alliance of women seeking improvements in women’s conditions.
While equal pay, sweated labour and restricted job opportunities preoccupied activists in Australia’s populist coastal cities, other women with different passions were active on Australia’s remote frontiers. In the far north on the islands of the Torres Strait, Florence Buchanan might also have believed in Emma Miller’s motto: ‘The world is my country. To do good is my religion’, although her mission took a very different form. These are a couple of books produced about her life [images shown].
As we can see from these images, she was a slightly-built woman with close-cropped hair, most unusual at a time when women sported the generous coiffeurs like the one we saw on Vida. Nor was it just her haircut that made Florence so unusual. Orphaned as a young child, she was always frail and suffered from near blindness. As if these were not burdens enough, when she was 17 years old she had a horse-riding accident that left her crippled for life.
Her interest in missionary work probably began when she migrated with her brothers to Queensland in 1888. They bought a large cane farm near Bundaberg, and Florence devoted her energies to teaching the Melanesian workers English and Bible stories. Before long, she was in charge of the South Seas Evangelical Mission and moved to Thursday Island where she sought to convert the multiracial community of divers and traders to Christianity. The rest of her life was spent in various kinds of missionary work in Singapore and the Torres Strait where she was particularly interested in the Pacific Islanders who were deported from mainland Queensland after the White Australia policy came into effect in the early decade of the century, and she died there of tuberculosis in 1913.
Florence exemplifies a different kind of new woman of the turn of the century, one who saw a better future not in feminist politics but through Christian proselytising. But it was not all about the converted. In the same year that she died, she addressed the annual Congress of the Church of England in Brisbane on the subject of ‘The mission field as a vocation for women’. Christianity provided careers for women as well as salvation for the colonised peoples of the British Empire.
While Florence’s path was hardly mainstream, she wasn’t alone in her adventurous approach. On the other side of the continent, the young Daisy Bates was engaged in welfare work amongst the sick and elderly Aboriginal people exiled on the islands of Bernier and Dorre off the Western Australian coast near Carnarvon, and I am sure you have all heard of Daisy Bates. [image shown] I was just talking to one of our Museum staff who was telling me about the collection of Daisy Bates material we have in the Museum, which one day we will put on display (Collection highlight on the Daisy Bates collection http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/highlights/daisy_bates_collection).
The men, women and children sent to these islands came from all over the north-west of the state of Western Australia. They were rounded up by government officials who suspected them of suffering from a venereal disease or from leprosy. The sad part is that they actually had no accurate way of diagnosing these things. Daisy Bates was struck by the plight of these people, who had been taken away from the people and places they loved and dumped on these barren islands amongst strangers. They became the subjects of medical experimentation. Bates described these islands as ‘the tombs of the living dead’.
But what was Daisy Bates doing on these islands in the first place? Unlike the spinster Florence Buchanan, Daisy had had a very romantic life. She was a serial bigamist, and by the time we encountered her on the lock islands in 1911, she had already been married three times, including once to the notorious Breaker Morant. Like the other women we have met today Daisy led a highly mobile life, migrating as a young woman from Ireland to Queensland, then returning to London after her marriages to work as a journalist for five years before setting off again to Australia. She went particularly to the north-west in pursuit of a story about atrocities committed on Aborigines.
Her time in the north-west saw her develop an interest in Aboriginal society and culture. It was this combination of amateur anthropology and journalism that was to sustain her subsequent career and to make her such a well-known figure both then and now. When she visited the lock islands in 1911, she had been invited by the WA government to join an expedition led by the famous anthropologist [Alfred] Radcliffe-Brown.
The following year she was on the move again. This time, she pitched her tent amongst the Mirning people on the southern coast of Australia near the border between South Australia and WA at Eucla. [image shown] Has anyone here crossed the Nullarbor? A few of you have. Anyone crossed it before the sealed road? It’s not much fun, is it? You will know just what a remote spot Eucla is. It seems like the back of beyond, and before sealed roads it was even more remote than it is today.
When Daisy decided to leave Eucla in 1914 to go east to attend a conference, she had to cross over 400 kilometres of desert in a small cart pulled by camels. She was very intrepid indeed. Most of the rest of her life was spent in remote Aboriginal communities like Yalata and Ooldea where she acted as a self-appointed intermediary between white society and what she regarded as the dying race of local Aboriginal people. [image shown]
While Daisy Bates wasn’t involved in the organised women’s movement, she’s a great example of how individual women fought for their own independence and equality. When it was clear that none of her husbands were going to provide for her as she expected, she made a career for herself as a journalist and then as an anthropologist, although she had no formal training in either. She later tried to convince the Northern Territory government to give her a paid job as the protector of Aborigines but was reportedly considered unsuitable on account of her sex. Undaunted, she managed to make an independent life for herself surviving on her savings and the proceeds of her journalism. That’s probably where she has become something of a controversial character because, in order to sell as many of her stories as possible, she made up a whole lot of stories about Aboriginal cannibalism, which as you can imagine really upset the local Aboriginal people when they eventually got to read the stories that she was writing about them.
Her intrepid example, however, no doubt helped change views of what was possible for modern women to achieve. Daisy’s life reminds us that, while this extraordinary white woman could carve out a role for herself in early twentieth century Australia, the options for non-white women were much more limited. Here she is with a group of local Aboriginal women [image shown]. She wasn’t the only one who thought Aborigines were dying out. The federal government had policies which were not aimed at reversing the Aboriginal population decline. On the contrary, Australia became famous for the introduction in 1912 of a baby bonus, a £5 payment to the mother on the birth of each live child. To qualify, the mother had to be Australian born, but the legislation didn’t distinguish between those who were married or not married and was payable to rich and poor alike. It did, however, specifically exclude Asiatics or Aboriginal natives of Australia, Papua or the islands of the Pacific. The legislation was passed by the Fisher Labor government concerned about both the quality and quantity of the white race at a time when all political parties supported the ideal of white Australia as a harmonious prosperous society free of racial tensions in which so-called coloured aliens would be excluded and the Indigenous population would eventually die out.
The government hoped that the bonus would encourage white couples to have children and perhaps, more importantly, reduce white infant and maternal mortality by allowing mothers to employ a midwife or doctor to assist at the birth. It is very significant that the payment was available to unmarried mothers as well as wives. This was again one of the ways in which the feminists had had an impact on federal policy. As that Australian delegate that we met earlier explained to the seventh International Women’s Suffrage Congress in Budapest in 1913, the inclusion of unmarried mothers was indicative of the more inclusive approach of modern feminists who drew no distinction between the respectable and the so-called fallen woman:
But very rarely did this solidarity stretch to non-white women or, if it did, was unlikely to have had any impact on government policy at that time. While many Australian feminists were determinedly internationalist in their outlook, I wouldn’t want to suggest this was a universal or even a majority point of view in the pre-war period. There were at least as many women interested in women’s issues who were also avowedly patriotic and imperialistic. One of these was Julian Barbara Waugh, a Sydney woman who was for several years the lady mayoress of Parramatta. An active member of the Women’s Liberal Reform League of New South Wales, in 1909 she seconded a resolution to support the effort ‘to contribute to a dreadnought for the mother country’. The motion was carried and the women all sprang to their feet displaying the utmost enthusiasm.
From 1913 to 1918 Waugh was president of the Women’s Liberal Reform League which she believed voiced the women’s point of view on legislation affecting women and children. Mrs Waugh’s enthusiasm for all matters military and imperial alerts us to the factors that brought an end to those glorious days of pre-war women’s activism.
During the First World War, Australian feminists, like their sisters elsewhere, were split by the conflict into those who wholeheartedly supported the war effort and conscription, and those who opposed militarism, especially conscription. While Julian Waugh spent the war years raising funds for the war effort and speaking out in public in support of military conscription, Vida Goldstein established the Women’s Peace Army. The war divided the women’s movement, as it did the Labor Party, and 1913 marked the end of the high optimism that surrounded the winning of female suffrage.
At the same time, as the lines of the two major political parties became clearer, there was less space for separate feminist activism. When Vida stood for parliament as an Independent woman candidate for the last time in 1917, she secured so few votes that she lost her deposit. As Jenny Scott Griffiths told an International Congress of Working Women in 1920 just after the war, ‘The suffrage promised women a good deal more than it actually gave them.’ Less than a decade after 1913, the vision of women as a great force in politics had blurred, if not completely receded.
Let us reflect on where this lecture has taken us today. Geographically we have covered pretty much the length and breadth of Australia and ventured across the globe. Politically, we have seen women from across the political spectrum with a broad range of ideologies and allegiances. And intellectually we are left with a challenge: What did the women of 1913 achieve? Were their dreams just illusions? A century later, are their causes still relevant? I leave you to be the judge. Thank you. [applause]
MAT TRINCA: Thanks, Rae, for that very stimulating and extraordinarily wide range across the experiences of women in pre-World War I Australia. I would now like to throw the session open for questions.
QUESTION: I was reminded of fronting the chairman of ICI in the 1950s trying to gain equal pay for the job that I was doing. In light of the history, what do you consider the greatest issue at the moment that is confronting women?
Prof. RAE FRANCES: So many issues, how to prioritise them, I guess? I think some of the biggest challenges that face women are also challenges that face humanity as a whole. A lot of those are to do with how to re-prioritise our civil and political life so that we value peaceful and harmonious culture as much as we value material wealth. I think if we could do that - I am clearly a person out of 1913, a dreamer - that would lead to a lot of benefits in terms of the way we negotiate our international relations. Some of the women in the world who are suffering the most are actually not women like us white women in Australia, but they are women in developing countries and women in war-torn countries. To help those women is the biggest issue that I could see - if we could find solutions to those problems. But again huge questions, and I don’t have the answers.
QUESTION: Thanks for your talk. You mentioned towards the end of your speech the ideas about women participating in World War I and the conscription debate. I was reminded of pamphlets like the blood vote and the propaganda materials that were raised by women and by women’s movements throughout that campaign. How do you think stereotypical gender identities like women as mothers that were seen throughout the blood vote in which the idea of a woman protecting their child and protecting against all kinds of war shackled women’s feminist sentiments throughout that period? Were they able to separate themselves from what they were traditionally conceived to have their main role as mothers and as caring feminine identities or were they more able to break out of those roles? Does that question make sense?
Prof. RAE FRANCES: That perfectly makes sense. It’s a really good question. It’s a dilemma that I think women face today, as then. It’s the question of what kind of rhetoric you use in order to persuade people to your point of view. The first wave feminists were caught up in that dilemma. They knew that by appealing to the essentially feminine and maternal role of women they would probably win a lot of votes. But at the same time, as you point out, that’s potentially limiting for women because it casts women always in the role of mothers. What is the value put on women who are not mothers, women like Vida Goldstein? Maybe that’s why Vida got so few votes at the end of the war, because a single woman didn’t have as much traction when you have all this propaganda, on both sides. It wasn’t just the anti-war vote that mobilised the idea of women as mothers, you had the pro-conscription people harking back to the mothers of Sparta and saying, ‘You must be like the mothers of Sparta and sacrifice your sons for the good of the country.’ I think it was very limiting on the women’s movement on both sides. It was a tactical decision that they made. Who is to say whether it was a right decision or not; whether they would have been as successful if they hadn’t pushed that line so strongly.
QUESTION: I was just wondering if you could jump to the present and give us some comment on the state of feminist studies and feminist history at Monash and other Australian universities now and in the immediate prospect. And in a lighter vein, would Julia have done better if she had worn a big hat?
Prof. RAE FRANCES: I wouldn’t like to think what kind of hat Julia would have chosen. There is enormous interest still in these issues at Monash. I can’t comment on other universities. I see one of my colleagues here from the ANU. It depends how you pitch it to this generation. Most people will see the logic of an issue if it’s put in a broad context. If you come in and declare at the outset that you are pushing a very strong feminist agenda and if you are very one-eyed about it, then you are going to alienate your audience - and for good reason: They come to university to learn, to understand, to see the evidence, to make the judgments for themselves. If it’s presented that way and if it’s presented in an historical context, then these are all intelligent people - some of them young; some of them not so young - and they engage with those issues and they make up their own minds.
But it is something that people are interested in learning about still. We still have a women’s and gender studies program at Monash. It gets a lot of students - I have to say most of them are women. But outside that specific program, throughout the curriculum certainly in the arts faculty, whether you are talking about history, politics, international relations, sociology and so on, it’s a theme that people address as part of the curriculum just as they deal with other issues that are of interest to people - issues of power, inequality and so on.
QUESTION: I hadn’t realised that equal pay in some areas came in so early. Did it affect males who were in those industries because the male basic minimum wage was supposed to cover the woman and the children of the household?
Prof. RAE FRANCES: Well, of course, that was the main argument against providing women with the same wage as men because the argument was that they didn’t have dependants. There is some fantastic evidence in the arbitration court transcripts of the women’s advocates in the cases were put particularly in the 1920s. I am most familiar with Muriel Heagney’s cases that she put on this point. She gathered evidence about the number of dependants that women had as workers. It wasn’t as cut and dried as people thought.
A lot of the early cases for equal pay were actually successful, I have to say, because of a cynical tactic on the part of men because they concluded that, if employers had to pay women the same as men, they wouldn’t employ women. That was actually quite effective in some occupations like cutters in the tailoring industry. There were very few women employed as cutters once they got equal pay.
MAT TRINCA: It’s really related to that relationship between Australia and Britain. It seems counter-intuitive for many people of this country to imagine that at the time it was actually the province that was informing a debate in the metropolitan centre. I would just ask you to comment on that, but specifically I am interested to know how the Australian women were received in London aside from those people in the suffrage movement. Were they derided in the press, for instance? How were they regarded?
Prof. RAE FRANCES: I confess I haven’t done as much research in the British press as I would like to, and I will do that now. My reading of it is that they were celebrated by a fairly wide spectrum of people as ‘exotic’. People like Vida Goldstein, Mrs Fisher and Mrs McGowen weren’t what people expected of antipodeans - maybe Muriel Matters because she was so daring and outrageous fulfilled what they thought a colonial would be more - they were quite surprised at how elegant, educated and articulate the colonial women were. They were taken seriously because of what they were saying. It was very threatening to the establishment in Britain to have these women coming and saying, ‘Look we have got the vote. We are not monsters. We are not the shrieking sisterhood.’ And also to come with resolutions from the Australian parliament saying that the sky didn’t fall down.
QUESTION: I was surprised that you didn’t take a broader look at the issue and emphasise the fact that South Australian women had the vote before Federation. In my reading of the Constitution they would have voted in the first election because the Constitution said that the state rolls would be used. Nor did you emphasise the fact that the Poms didn’t get women’s suffrage until well after the First World War. This places the work of these people in this era in a much different context worldwide that I felt hadn’t been emphasised quite enough. And also I thought it was child endowment that we first had for women, not a bonus.
Prof. RAE FRANCES: Thank you for making that point more strongly. You are absolutely right: they did have the vote in South Australia from 1894 and also the New Zealand women of course. I guess I was focusing on 1913 and the new Commonwealth as my emphasis. That’s why they were so celebrated internationally because they didn’t have the vote in Britain or the United States until well after the First World War. It’s difficult to know where to put the emphasis, and I am pleased that you have reminded me of that. It was the baby bonus. Child endowment was the Second World War.
MAT TRINCA: We can both take courage as Western Australians of origin, Rae, that in Western Australia women had the vote in 1898 or just before the referendum on the Commonwealth was held.
Prof. RAE FRANCES: It’s hard to do everything in a 40-minute lecture. In fact, there were women who had the vote in Melbourne council accidentally in the 1860s, and then they realised that prostitutes could have the vote so they quickly undid that.
MAT TRINCA: Thank you. Sadly, we have run out of time. Could I ask that you thank Professor Frances for what’s been an enlightening and stimulating journey into the place of women in Australia in 1913. [applause]
It was a lecture that had a sense of surprise but also of challenge, especially when we start to think about which of those issues continue to play so strongly today.
Could I also suggest you take time to visit the Glorious Days exhibition and also to visit our bookshop where you can find, in a shameless plug, this wonderful companion volume called Glorious Days: Australia 1913, which is a snip at $44.95. I encourage you to go in and pick up a copy.
I will also remind you that the final lecture in this series will be presented on Tuesday, 8 October by Dr Guy Hansen. He will be speaking on the topic of ‘adulation, fame and money - sport and celebrity in 1913’ - again a topic apposite for today. Finally, thank you all for attending either in person or virtually and we look forward to seeing you all again soon. Thanks. [applause]
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Date published: 4 October 2013