Outskirts online journal

Catherine Kevin

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About the author

Catherine Kevin is a senior lecturer in Australian History in the School of International Studies at Flinders University. She has published widely on the history of the reproductive body and maternal loss, race relations in Australia and their cinematic representations. Her two current projects are on the history of miscarriage and the history race relations in mid-twentieth century rural New South Wales and the making of the film ‘Jedda’ (1955).

catherine.kevin@flinders.edu.au

Publication details

Volume 28, May 2013

 

Connections Made and Broken:
Intimacy and Estrangement in Australian feminist historiography

For well over a century, Australian feminist politics has concerned itself with conditions for intimacy and estrangement. I refer here to a range of significant, mutual exchanges of affect, and to moments of separation, loss of attachment and reciprocity in relationships. Shining a stark light on the most personal spaces in women’s lives has been an often painful and always necessary part of the critique of unequal distributions of power that have delimited gendered subject positions. Women’s sexual and maternal relationships, their relationships of care within extended families and feminised professions, their sense of connection with their bodies and its mediation by sexual partners, children and doctors, their connections with other women – their friends, lovers, mothers and feminist foremothers – all such intimacies and the hurtful, ambivalent and liberating release from them, have been central to the development of feminism’s political, theoretical and historiographical aims. Indeed the stories of these relationships, both closely drawn, and highlighted in the service of demonstrating broader structural and cultural phenomena have played a crucial role in the emergence of a shared experience, politics, community and history.

In this article I consider approaches taken to questions of intimacy and estrangement in feminist history in Australia since 1975. Pioneering works, namely Damned whores and God’s Police (Summers 1975); The Real Matilda (Dixson 1976); and My wife, my daughter and poor Mary Ann (Kingston 1975) demonstrated that in order to understand the nature of women’s subordination, feminism needed histories that would describe the changing contexts in which oppressive forces had shaped women’s relationships, as well as the variety of their oppressive effects. The trajectories of feminist engagements with theory in the 1970s generated particular historical questions that enabled accounts of intimacy and estrangement to feature in these early works. This ambitious body of scholarship laid a solid foundation on which Australian feminist historians have since built, offering vivid depictions of women and the contexts and dynamics of their relationships, but the story of the emergence of this rich body of work is complex and at times contested.

Since 1975 theoretical developments within feminist history have expanded the field in many directions, offering increasingly multi-dimensional understandings of women’s lives, but in the process feminist historians have been forced to question their desire for intimacy with the academic discipline of history. They have worked beyond its borders productively, coming back to enrich it, without always feeling enriched in return. I offer here a cursory charting of the shifting thematic and theoretical preoccupations of feminist historians, both in terms of the different historical understandings that they have brought to bear on intimate gendered relationships and in terms of the intimacies and estrangements between feminist history and more dominant forces in the discipline. In these sections of the article I consider feminist historians’ sense of belonging within the wider discipline – its recognition of feminist innovations and their implications for history, and feminist historians’ commitment to the discipline as an appropriate and fruitful location for their work.

As part of this charting I will turn my sights on the emergence of the history of emotions, a field directly concerned with historicising expressions of intimacy and estrangement. Key figures working within this field have written of their indebtedness to historians of gender in the development of their aims and as a model for the kind of impact they hope to make on the discipline. This optimism and embrace of feminist insights has not been a consistently characteristic response from other historians but suggests feminist history has generated productive inroads into previously constrained fields. The scholarship that features in this special issue builds on the histories I will canvass here and exemplifies the feminist inroads into understandings of intimacy and estrangement that are both expanding and deepening our historical inquiries.

Women’s Liberation, Theory and History – uncovering intimacy and estrangement

The vigorous revitalisation of Australian feminism from 1969 brought with it theoretical interventions for critically analysing and reconceptualising the intimate, social, economic and political lives of Australian women. In 1984, outlining the influences on Women’s Liberation in the early 1970s, Ann Curthoys wrote that

[T]he early women’s liberation movement, while in part revolt against New Left men, was nevertheless imbued with New Left politics. … The connection of early women’s liberation with the New Left meant that Marxists had a lot to contribute to early feminist theory, explaining women’s oppression as a product of capitalism. (1984, 81)

This preoccupation with the oppressive effects of capitalism on women was evident in various ways in the major pioneering works of academic feminist history that were published in 1975 and 1976 (Summers 1975; Dixson 1976; Kingston 1975; Ryan and Conlon 1976). Divisions of labour and the public and private sphere, the unpaid domestic and sexual work of women, their low and absent wages and the segregation of the work force are themes that surface across this body of scholarship.

But for many of the women who were positioned to expand or refocus their political engagement towards feminism in the 1970s, or whose involvement in women’s liberation was their first foray into political protest, the focus on class that was sustained by the New Left did not adequately address the questions about women’s status that were reflected in their own lives. Many women’s liberationists were the products of the expansion in tertiary education and the middle class after World War Two and their concerns could cut across class divides, as evidenced by their identification of issues in their own lives or those of their mothers that they saw as relevant to feminist critique.

The key issues were housework, childcare, work opportunities, pay, abortion and sexual exploitation and objectification. Working class women were seen to suffer more than middle-class women from various forms of oppression in all these areas, but the real point was that middle class women suffered too. (Curthoys 1984, 82)

Their disadvantage as women was understood in terms of the low status of the labour of domesticity and childcare and the difficulty of gaining recognition for this work or redistributing it in order to make room in their lives for alternative occupations (for which women were increasingly prepared). This undervaluing of women’s traditional and primary occupations and of their potential to vary their contribution to wider society became increasingly understood as part of the systematic exploitation of women. This exploitation also limited women’s sexual and reproductive freedoms and thus their power in sexually intimate encounters; insisted on reiterating low expectations of women beyond their prescribed sexual, maternal and domestic roles; and, perhaps most powerfully, threatened to commit acts of violence towards them. In short, women’s exploitation was attributed to patriarchy, which Kate Millett’s profoundly influential Sexual Politics (1970) described as the sexual domination of women that is manifest across cultures and classes; is ideological and institutional. At the heart of this critique was a suspicion of intimate heterosexual relationships and traditional family life.

The divergent intellectual contributions of the New Left and Millett’s theory of patriarchy can be seen working together in the early feminist histories of Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson, which described social structures responsible for generating misogynist attitudes and their concomitant identities that not only confined men and women to their designated spheres, muting their potential beyond them, but also determined the assumptions made in existing histories of Australia. These two germinal feminist works recognised that since the beginning of European settlement, the idealised context for women’s intimacy was within white, heterosexual and legal marriage, and that forces beyond their control rendered many women’s lived realities unable to even approximate this ideal, leaving them subject to harsh judgments and punitive measures. These works also recognised, if somewhat in passing and more by implication in the case of Summers, that even where the ideal was reflected in their official status as wives and mothers, these roles could be profoundly disempowering for women and therefore precluded satisfying experiences of heterosexual intimacy. While Summers described the sexism that oppressed women as ‘a vast array of cultural assumptions, prejudices, myths, fears and other ideologies’ (p. 25) Dixson’s analysis, after opening with the claim that Australian women are the “Doormats of the Western World”, described the family structure as a site that ‘probably always denied an adequate outlet to woman’s healthy and sound emotions by the extent to which it accentuated her subordinate social status’ (p. 67). Indeed, of the two books, Dixson’s is more invested in psychoanalytic concerns and therefore in detailing the emotional effects of patriarchy on women. She powerfully conveys the psychological wounds that undermined women’s confidence and therefore their capacity to resist complicity in their own subjugation.

Historical investigations into attitudes to Australian women have been significantly aided by the history of attempts at the regulation of women’s sexual and maternal lives. These were bureaucratic and thorough and thus left a rich archive of commentary on the intersections of sex, race, children, economy and work. Records such as the Reports of the Commission of Inquiry into the Birth Rate, the Harvester Judgment and Wages Boards decisions assume this idealised set of relations between the sexes, as well as suggesting much about the participation of women in the paid workforce. This evidence was crucial to Anne Conlon and Edna Ryan’s Gentle Invaders, a history of women’s paid work that described the gendered inequalities of Australian capitalism (1975). But this evidence has also been used to expose intense anxieties about women’s (and men’s) refusals to conform to racialised and heteronormative ideals of intimacy. Judith Allen’s century-long history of women and sex crimes Sex and Secrets, primarily an examination of court records, vividly illuminated this anxiety, describing the legal (and social) strictures on women’s sexualities and the personal and political consequences for women when these were breached, particularly by the crimes of prostitution, abortion and infanticide (1980). All of the early works so far discussed sought to historicise the contemporary inequalities that engaged their authors at the time of writing. The experiences of earlier generations of women that they detailed, and the ideological and material structures they described as generating these experiences, exposed the underbelly of long-standing and still dominant patriarchal prescriptions of intimacy.

Feminists Embrace the New Social Histories

In the 1980s, feminist historians already well practised at engaging beyond disciplinary boundaries, were quick to understand the opportunities of the shifts occurring in the humanities and social sciences more broadly towards the new social histories. The increasing dominance of historical inquiry that was interested in experiences previously marginalised by mainstream histories was a natural fit for the by now established interests of feminist historians. Social-historical approaches loosened the grip of the models of sweeping accounts of the nation and Marxist histories that had informed the central questions and structures of Australian feminist history’s foundational texts. Discussing feminist histories written in the early 1980s, Susan Magarey has written that

One important effect of the new social history was an immense expansion of the concerns that could now be considered proper to historical research, writing and discussion (2007).

In a number of collections Pat Grimshaw co-edited in the early 1980s we find a broad spectrum of themes addressed as women’s history. In one instance, The Half Open Door, individual women’s accounts of their formative experiences as professionals, mothers, wives and artists are presented (Grimshaw and Strahan, 1982); in another, Families in Colonial Australia, we find close analyses of a range of dimensions of colonial family life such as immigration, schooling and women’s labour in rural families (Grimshaw, McConville and McEwan (eds) 1985). Grimshaw has been a leading feminist historian of the family and her 1979 critique of Dixson’s unrelentingly grim view of patriarchal family life in The New Matilda signalled her interest in a more complex feminist interpretation of family structures that identified the ways in which they could be a source of emotional and intellectual sustenance for women. At the same time, entering the historical fields of the family and women’s work from another angle, Kerreen Reiger deployed the new social history to detail changing domestic practices as they pertained to modern technologies and expectations of women in their relationships with children and spouses in the space of the home (1985, 1991).

While this attention to increasingly diverse and detailed accounts of the family enhanced historical understanding of intimate and heteronormative domestic spaces, relationships between men and women came under new scrutiny. In 1986, Marilyn Lake published her article on the politics of respectability in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia, which took up the challenge of writing the history of masculinity as a route to a more rigorous historicisation of a concept of woman. Lake identified powerful reactionary and misogynist currents in late-nineteenth century culture that rejected marital intimacy in favour of homosociality and individualised freedom. This essay picked up the theme of the living wage, introduced by the pioneering Gentle Invaders, interpreting the Harvester Judgment as the capitulation of a masculine culture hostile to the domestication of masculinity by family life. This hostility was intensified by and exposed masculinist sensitivity to social reformers who sought to curb the corporeal and economic effects on women and children of men’s alcohol, gambling and violence that were features of this culture (Lake 1986).

Christina Twomey’s work on marital estrangements in colonial Australia details both the limited options women had for addressing the economic effects of desertion and the unhelpful interventions of social commentators and policy makers who sought to reassert and further privilege the place of marriage in the moral and social economy, rather than conceptualising alternative trajectories for women who innovated in their own ways in the interests of survival for themselves and their children (2002). These accounts of the ruptures and resistances to the normative heterosexual intimacy of early Australia offered powerful depictions of marital estrangement. Although neither Lake nor Twomey explicitly stated their aim as being the historicisation of estrangements, both contributed significantly to our understanding of the discursive and material dimensions of estrangements for Australian women in the respective (and overlapping) periods they address.

Penny Russell’s work historicising a concept of gentility has done much to shed light on middle- and upper-class women’s intimacies and estrangements by addressing this concept in terms of the continual re-working of its limits by those who sought to define their own choices, identities and communities by it. Careful attention to contingent, particular and shifting frames of acceptable language and gesture has enabled an understanding of the transmission of emotion within these frames (1994). Russell’s extensive scholarship in this field has thus expanded the study of women’s everyday intimacies in the Australian past by interrogating class lines and detailing the ways in which a self-conscious gentility regulated modes of communication and relationships. Remaining with this expanded sense of the differences of heterosexual intimacy across (often porous and unstable) class divides Kate Bagnall has contributed to our understanding of intimacies that breached racial divides. Bagnall’s archival pursuit of marriages between white women and Chinese men, both rich and poor, since the late nineteenth century explores the challenges often faced by these couples negotiating extended family relationships and broader society under the shadow of disapproval fuelled by discourses of miscegenation and white nationhood (2002; 2011). Bagnall’s work has done much to illuminate the lives of white women living under the racialising gaze, a gaze that could be deeply unsettled by intimacy between a white woman and a Chinese husband, a vision that picked at the meaning of whiteness.

Race and Sisterhood

If white women and their diverse experiences had previously been rendered invisible by generations of historians, there were of course other invisible presences that needed to be restored to a vision of the past. Developments in the new social history tugged at the questions of sisterhood, of who could be central to feminist politics and feminist history, and how to describe the dynamics between women who occupied vastly different positions within colonial systems of exploitation but often shared the intimate space of the domestic realm. Ann McGrath and Lyndall Ryan published early accounts of Aboriginal women’s pasts that demonstrated a reconsideration of the priority of stories of the oppressed (1980; 1981). Some of those who had been cast as victims of the structures of capitalism and patriarchy were now figured as being in possession of oppressive power by virtue of their racialised cultural inheritances.

The writing of Aboriginal scholars such as Jackie Huggins (1998) and Jennifer Sabbioni (1996) and the increasing influence of postcolonial theory drew further attention to important questions of voice and perspective in writing on Aboriginal women’s experiences. Numerous non-indigenous scholars responded to these concerns by turning their attention to the complex layers of intimacy and estrangement in relationships between European and indigenous women, analysing the ways in which European women were blind to, exploited, understood and negotiated their power. Many feminist researchers uncovered bonds of love and friendship between indigenous and non-indigenous women, whose relationships – however unequal – were crucial to the ways in which European women understood their contributions to the communities within and alongside which they lived, and to the ways in which they positioned themselves in relation to political questions about the management of indigenous populations (Cole, Haskins and Paisley 2005).

As well as cautioning non-indigenous feminist scholars against making assumptions about shared ground with indigenous women, indigenous women wrote of their lives and the lives of their mothers, contributing enormously to historians’ understandings of the historical effects of colonisation in its many forms. The collaboration between Jackie Huggins and her mother Rita Huggins (1994), the autobiographical writings of Doris Pilkington (1996) and Doreen Kartinyeri (2008), among others, have told of intimate relationships within families and communities that suffered profound forced ruptures and often permanent estrangements. The title of Anna Haebich’s detailed synthesis of the histories of government policy and practice and their impact on indigenous families across Australian colonies, states and territories, Broken Circles (2000), evokes this history of estrangement powerfully, while the relationship between Jackie and Rita Huggins illuminated by Auntie Rita and Jackie’s accounts of writing the book, demonstrate the resilience of intimacy in the face of forced ruptures.

Julia Martinez has illuminated heterosexual intimacies and estrangements across racial and cultural divides in her recent study of marriages between Indonesians and Indigenous Australians in the early- to mid-twentieth century. By necessity Martinez, like Haebich and the (auto)biographical writing of Huggins and Huggins, returns us to the question of regulation, in this case particularly to citizenship, immigration and marriage laws (2011). While she demonstrates the neglect of the intimate relationships between Indonesian and Indigenous Australians in the historiography, Katherine Ellinghaus’s substantial comparative account of marriages between white women and Indigenous men in Australia and the United States of America reminds us that detailed scholarship focused on Australian couples had previously suffered a similar neglect. Like Martinez, Ellinghaus’s study must be situated within and informed by the history of government regulation of mixed marriages but through this she captures something of the imaginative and emotional lives of her subjects as they manage their socially and legally precarious relationships (2006). The concerns of Martinez and Ellinghaus are informed by post-colonial interventions that have generated the impressive body of scholarship by indigenous and non-indigenous historians to which their work belongs, which I will come to shortly.

Feminism and Foucault: useful connections?

For feminist historians, the diversification of their practice was not just the expansion of themes considered ripe for historicisation but the development of new possibilities for approaching the historian’s task. In the introduction to her book Good and Mad Women, Jill Matthews described her four main areas of inquiry. As well as historicising the more familiar fields of the social and systemic, Matthews included the biological and the psychological as crucial to her account of the construction of femininity in twentieth-century Australia (1984). Although these inclusions saw Matthews historicise categories of knowledge as loci of power after a fashion that might have borrowed from Michel Foucault’s critique of the discursive formations of historical subjects, she instead conceptualised the task as writing the history of two important dimensions of the ideology of femininity. Foucault’s analysis of power was no doubt beginning to make an impression on feminist approaches to the past in the 1980s, however Matthews was not alone in advancing a similar but distinctly feminist critical history of the limitations imposed on women by scientific disciplines that looked first to her colleagues in feminist history for ways to conceptualise the problem at hand. Reiger’s The Disenchantment of the Home, as well as Jan Kociumbas’s account of parenting advice, also bypassed any deference to Foucauldian concepts in their examination the scientific authority that pervaded the lives of women and attempted to transform domestic chores into fields of expertise in which women needed training (Reiger 1985; Kociumbas 1982).

It was during the 1990s that feminist histories such as Lynette Finch’s The Classing Gaze (1993) and Gail Reekie’s work on single parenthood and illegitimacy, including her bookMeasuring Immorality (1998), explicitly deployed Foucault’s concepts to interrogate contexts far beyond his own frames of reference. This was particularly true of those – like Finch and Reekie – who sought to identify the mechanisms by which some women’s ‘private’ lives were exposed to scrutiny and determined by the authoritative interpretations of normalising discourses. The question of the extent to which Foucault offered insights that could advance a feminist project engaged Australian feminist historians in lively debate in this period. Was his insistence on the destabilised subject a luxury feminists could not yet afford or was it merely an echo of extant critiques developed by feminist theorists without his help (Di Stefano 1990)? Was Foucault’s neglect of gender and race, indeed colonial power, in his conceptualisation of biopolitics the best reason to reject his approach (Dean 1994; Hartsock 1990), or a fruitful point of departure that might open up new and rich fields to feminist scholarship (Perkins 1993; O’Farrell 1997)? Those feminists who expressed their indebtedness to Foucauldian frameworks also described their projects as exposing the limits of his offerings; the kind of correcting and extending that he had himself urged historians to undertake (Stoler 1995, 209).

The project of coming to terms, through history, with racialised power dynamics and the formation of complex subjects through whom they were expressed, has been stimulated by the intellectual interventions we abbreviate as the ‘linguistic turn’, to which Foucault made significant contributions. This has suggested a range of strategies for further advancing the feminist aim of interrogating the nature of the historical subject, pressing researchers to question not only the stability of the ground on which traces of the past were created, but also the nature of their own subjective engagement with historical evidence (Allen 1986; Scott 1991; Russell 2004). As we have seen, the cautions of indigenous scholars foreshadowed challenges posed to feminist history – indeed all history – by the linguistic turn. Postcolonial feminist Ann Laura Stoler then engaged the concept of biopolitics proposed by Foucault as the operation of complex and diffuse power in the intimate lives of historical subjects (1975-76). Stoler challenged Foucault’s silence on race and empire, powerfully bringing this understanding of power that determined the limits and possibilities for conceptualising and managing one’s body, desires and intimacies in the modern state, to bear on the colonial landscapes inhabited by women and children (1995; 2002; 2006). This project has been pursued most explicitly in the context of Australian feminist history by Hannah Roberts (2001). Even more recently, the emergence of critical race and whiteness studies, under the leadership of Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Fiona Nicoll, embraced the challenges of the linguistic turn by demanding a rigorous historicisation of the categories of race and whiteness in the Australian context. As well as interrogating the encounter between past and present, these questions opened the field of history to a more detailed account of race, but also of emotion, affect and embodied subjectivity that reflected this enlivened sensitivity.

Feminist history and the history of sexuality

The history of sexuality is difficult to cordon off from the rest of this discussion, as it has been perhaps most explicitly invested in ideas of intimacy and connection, and has featured in much of the historical writing already discussed. In 1975 Summers’ contention that Australian women had been constrained by their descriptions as ‘damned whores’ or ‘god’s police’ figured interpretations of women’s sexuality and class status as mutually determining of the limits of their experiences. Allen’s Sex and Secrets (1980) offered a more detailed account of sexual and reproductive lives that positioned women as outside of moral and legal codes, subjecting them to regulatory regimes and incrimination, but also demonstrating the ways in which women sought and at times managed to occupy spaces outside these codes but beyond the gaze of the authorities.

Kay Daniels, writing in 1984, brought together the themes of women’s work and sexuality foregrounded in earlier feminist histories in So Much Hard Work: Women and Prostitution in Australian History. Prostitution was again brought into focus by Joy Damousi’s account of convict women’s sexuality in Disorderly and Depraved (1997) and then, most recently, in an updated overview of the history of prostitution in Australia by Rae Frances, Selling Sex (2007). While the theme of prostitution has been especially pervasive in accounts of the penal colonies from a range of perspectives since the 1960s (Robson 1965; Shaw 1966; Hughes 1987), in which it has often been interpreted as a way of managing the uneven sex ratio that plagued the colonies until the late nineteenth century, it took feminist historians to inquire into the various ways this particular sexual economy shaped the lives of women, and the legacy of this history for gendered subjectivities in Australia.

In more recent decades, feminist historians have generated a body scholarship that explores lesbian and other queer sexual identities in Australia. Ruth Ford has written on reading sex and desire in the lesbian archive (1996), cross dressing (2000; 2006), lesbian women in the armed forces (1996) and definitions of madness in the service of regulating female ‘deviance’ (2003; 2008). Frank Bongiorno recently pointed out that Ford’s substantial body of work has emphasised ‘the resilience of a variety of ways of understanding, practising and representing sexual desire between women, notwithstanding the emergence of modern western legal and medical discourses of homosexuality’ (Bongiorno 2013). Other contributors to this field include Sally Newman, who has focused on historiographical questions, offering accounts of the state of the history of sexuality as a field and exploring the encounter between historians and traces of intimacy and desire in the archive (2003; 2005 2010; 2010). Rebecca Jennings began her research on the history of lesbian sexualities in Britain but, more recently, has explored themes in the Australian, in fact mainly Sydney, context such as lesbian motherhood (2012), lesbian bars (2010) and transnational dimensions of the lesbian scene in the mid-twentieth century (2010).

Since 2011 two substantial works that offer an overview of the history of sexuality in Australia, Lisa Featherstone’sLet's Talk About Sex: Histories of Sexuality in Australia from Federation to the Pill (2011)and Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (2012) are clear statements about the robust health of the history sexuality, as a field, in this country. While both historians published their own distinct and original contributions to the field in the lead up to their books, which are furnished with further advances on this work, these histories also attest to the rich Australian historiography from which both authors have drawn, and the particularly weighty combined resources which are the legacy of feminist historians who have been engaging with this crucial aspect of intimacy for nearly four decades.

Feminism and the discipline of History – intimacies and estrangements

In the mid- to late-1980s Judith Allen and Marilyn Lake gave clear and distinct signals that Australian feminist historians were reflecting on the extent to which they were invested in their relationship with the academic discipline of history. In her essay ‘Evidence and Silence’ Allen described strategies for reading the archive that explicitly rejected the Marxist, empiricist and phallocentric precepts at the heart of the discipline in favour of ‘locating the silences or non-discursive domain against which such evidence is framed’ (1986, 188). This was not just a rejection of the dominant values that, she argued, continued to determine approaches to history. Allen concluded that history was intractable in its commitment to these values:

It seems likely that alternative approaches used by feminists ... have not and will not produce the kinds of work professional historians will regard as valid history. ... The question then must be whether it matters for feminism if feminist critique does not have the effect of altering the professional discipline of history. (188)

Ultimately, this essay refused responsibility for the ‘theoretical and methodological housework’ that would be required of feminist historians to alter the discipline.

In the same year and in contrastingly optimistic tones, Joan Scott published her game-changer essay on gender as a category of analysis. She argued that this category must become as central to historical research and understanding as the analytic categories of class and race, suggesting its transformative potential for all historical scholarship. In so doing, Scott claimed some of history’s plum territory for an approach to the discipline that was simultaneously borne of the insights of almost two decades of feminist theory and a profound challenge to them. Two years later, Marilyn Lake put out a call to arms, envisioning a fierce battle as feminist historians ‘strive, one and all, to capture the fortress of the “general history”’ (cited in Damousi 1999, 620). This second half of the 1980s was a period of confidence and exhilaration in feminist history. It had become clear that feminist histories had not, to date, altered the primary preoccupations of the discipline as a whole, yet while some declared themselves ready to stride out of its hallowed and constraining fortress and get on with the job of feminist history in more conducive spaces, others were ready to storm the building and take over.

Lakes’ battleground was staked out eight years later when her co-authored Creating a Nation, conceived of in 1986, offered a new version of Australia’s national history that made sex, race and class the central and organising analytic categories. Beginning with the story of an Aboriginal woman, Warreweer, whose birth at Sydney Cove in 1791 was attended by her close female relations and some British women she had befriended, this radical rewriting of Australia’s history foregrounds the specificity of women’s contributions to the making of the nation as well as the effects of its repressive dimensions. The book’s aims take the reader into many previously darkened corners of Australian experience, expanding the visible frame to include intimacies between women and children as well as accounts of gendered violence, forced estrangement and resistance to the repressive order (Grimshaw, Lake, McGrath and Quartly 1994).

But in Joy Damousi’s account of the conflict this book generated, written nearly a quarter of a century since the launch of Australian feminist history, and over a decade since Scott’s clear proposal for a transformation of the discipline, the positive energy that had enlivened these challenges seemed to have dissipated. In surveying the responses to Creating a Nation, which Damousi herself praised, she dwelt particularly on John Hirst’s refusal to accept the authors’ contention that women’s absence from public life did not mean that they were insignificant to the story of the nation. Disappointment pervades Damousi’s essay:

Gender history has produced some of the most exciting and innovative historical research published in Australia. But, paradoxically, it occupies an ambiguous place in Australian historiography. (p. 620)

At the time of writing, Damousi was developing one of the most significant recent contributions to explicitly historicising the emotional lives of Australians through her work on psychoanalysis, loss and mourning (1999; 2001; 2005). The standard histories of the Australian nation, to which Creating the Nation has posed the most direct feminist challenge to date, appear to remain incompatible with the kinds of nuanced accounts of human relationships and the emotions they generate that have occupied many feminist historians, and in the case of Damousi in the scholarship I mention, a feminist historian of the emotions.

Histories of emotion and the embrace of feminist history

Having described a small sample of the many Australian feminist histories that have enabled an understanding of the conditions that have been carved out for; closed off; prescribed or scrutinised relationships of intimacy, it is possible to say that we have a substantial body of feminist literature that historicises intimacy and estrangement. Indeed the histories of mutually dependent modes of idealisation and regulation of intimate relationships offer strange and particular versions of intimacy that are not entirely recognisable to us in the present and suggest the ways in which choices about intimate relationships have flexed and strained at the boundaries of acceptability in changing historical contexts. The concerns of feminist politics, so closely entwined with the lines of inquiry pursued by feminist history, have positioned feminist historians at the forefront of theoretical and methodological innovations and therefore as leaders in the history of intimacy and estrangement.

So, how might this historiography be read in the light of the comparatively newer field of history of emotions? In Jan Plamper’s interviews with a number of key figures in the emergence of this field, his interview subjects William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein and Peter Stearns have referred to the trajectory from women’s history to gender history – ‘a way of doing political, social and cultural history’ – as an aspiration for the future of the history of emotions (Plamper 2010, 249). As Barbara Rosenwein has written elsewhere, like the history of gender, ‘[I]n the end, the problems and methods of the history of emotions should become the property of history in general’ (Rosenwein 2010, 24). At the same time, Peter Stearns has credited gender history with being an important stimulus to his pioneering work on emotions. So it seems that while engaging beyond disciplinary boundaries, if somewhat warily, with the work of philosophers, anthropologists and scientists, historians of emotions have productively sought company with feminist historians.

In the context of this special issue, Rosenwein appears to offer a neat approach that can be deployed to organise the divergent and intersecting terrain addressed by the contributors. Her conceptual framework for historicising emotions is the examination of emotional communities. These communities are, she writes,

precisely the same as social communities ... but the researcher looking at them seeks above all to uncover systems of feeling: what these communities (and individuals within them) define and assess as valuable or harmful to them; the evaluations that they make about others’ emotions; the nature of the affective bonds between people that they recognise; and the modes of emotional expression that they expect, encourage, tolerate and deplore (Rosenwein: 2002, 35).

Emotional communities can be seen to operate on a number of levels: informing intimacy between a couple, close friends or a parent and child; sustaining and endorsing communities of larger groups such as professions or those that form around particular interests and activities, such as local feminist communities; and at the level of global relations where emotions can be a kind of gesture that is widely understood and therefore utilised in public forums. Rosenwein argues that experience can be effectively historicised by identifying the emotional communities to which individuals belong, adapting as they move between them and as the communities’ memberships, purposes and value systems change over time. The scholars whose work is showcased here offer examinations of intimacy and estrangement in relation to a number of distinct emotional communities.

Articles in this special issue

Margaret Allen and Jane Haggis evocatively describe the limits and possibilities of ‘friendship and mutuality’ between white women of the colonial missionary class and Indian women between 1880 and 1940, as depicted by the Indian Christian writer Krupabai Satthyanadhan and within the culture of the Women’s Christian College in Madras (now Chennai). They reveal the deeply historical nature of the emotional communities at the college in this period, which were powerfully influenced by two principals. The respective capacities of these two women for friendship with their Indian students and colleagues were shaped by the political atmosphere that shifted expectations of the future of the British Empire in India from the late nineteenth century.

Striking quite a different note, Karen Hughes’ article examines the life of Ruth Heathcock (1901-1995), whose friendships with Aboriginal families during her formative years profoundly shaped her sense of community in changing contexts, her career and her identity. This account picks at the dividing lines that have coursed through characterisations of race relations during the twentieth century and, as Hughes so eloquently writes, ‘affords insight into ways in which … gendered spaces of intimacy, friendship and the familial carry new possibilities for cross-cultural engagement and anti-colonialist change in the present’. While in Allen and Haggis’ article, the trajectories of British imperialist ambitions inflect the possibilities for intimacy in localised sites of imperialism, Hughes’ account is of a life in which connections with Aboriginal women and their communities are resilient in the face of powerful discourses that would judge unsuitable those friendships and the ‘creolised spaces’ that emerge from them.

The Australian feminist communities described in the articles by Susan Magarey, and Isobelle Barrett Meyering, refer to intimacies of friendship and desire. They also describe the fissures and frays – the painful emergence of differences that are an inevitable part of sustained communities seeking to challenge dominant emotional and intellectual discourses and experiment with new approaches to activism and everyday life. But the undercurrent of friendship that runs through these histories is strong. Indeed Susan Magarey has elsewhere published an excerpt from an interview with Margaret Allen that captures the role of Women’s Liberation in a history of intimacy between women. Thus the 1970s can be read as a crucial turning point in that it opened up new possibilities in women’s relationships with each other:

There was always a feeling that ... in the ‘60s, that you had your girlfriends, as they used to say in those days, but when you got a boyfriend the girlfriends wouldn’t be as important ... And I think that changed. My women friends had become important and have always remained very important for me. (Allen in Magarey: 2012 245)

This valuing of a central and permanent connection between women as friends, in the face of competing and more socially recognised intimacies, enriched this political community. Magarey’s article explores the concept of sisterhood as it was developed in the Women’s Liberation Movement. It was both a political framework, a way of articulating the aims of feminism ‘as the solidarity of all women, as shared goals and values, shared political commitment’, and yet finally she returns to the emotional bonds of friendship networks established within the Movement. In the individual stories of Women’s Liberation, these have emerged as a powerful legacy of political participation.

Within this enhanced emotional framework friendships could also take a battering and, as Barrett Meyering’s article demonstrates, parenting from within feminist communities could force to the surface passionate differences and disappointments that came between women. Some mothers who joined the movement felt their children were not welcomed, or that their status as mothers, particularly mothers of boys, marginalised them. It was not always clear even to these mothers how their feminism and motherhood might be successfully combined. Radical interventions into traditional family structures and into the gendered training believed to be inherent in standard parenting were approaches that emerged as part of a broader feminist agenda, as did methods for redistributing the motherload. But, as Barrett Meyering so carefully and persuasively argues, agreeing on a sustainable method for these interventions, particularly experiments with care-giving, proved to be the source of hurt and disappointment between some women. At the same time, the persistence of feminist mothers and their supporters demonstrated a shared and optimistic commitment to the possibilities of transformation of individual women and of future generations.

Zora Simic offers here a history of interlinked intellectual, creative and political communities connected through practices of penning, publishing and reading women’s writing. This set of communities was engaged in cultural production and its critique. Its members championed their contemporaries, revived interest in those authors who had fallen into obscurity and continually debated and revised their appraisal of the role of women’s writing in feminism and the wider cultural sphere. Canvassing a series of significant moments in a history of the 1970s and 1980s, a period in which women’s writing was increasingly made available through the emergence of feminist publishing houses, literary and academic journals, Simic’s research uncovers layers of intimacy. This is located in the highly personal content of much of the literature – women’s embodied and affective experiences brought out from the shadows. It is also located in their collaborations aimed at expanding the space available for women’s writing, and in their energetic commitment to engaging with questions about the quality and meaning of each other’s work which, in turn, sustained a public conversation that signalled its significance. Simic also illustrates the wider context in which cultural critics expressed what can only be described as a rather crotchety envy of this set of entwined communities, while others recognised the ways in which Australian literature was being reshaped by the increasing presence of women writers. Some women did query their investment in a feminist trademark for their writing and it is here that the theme of estrangement emerges most clearly.

Marisa Young’s article examines a community invested in another kind of cultural production and in the previous century. She illuminates the relationship between artistic pursuits, communities of women and various forms of mobility, describing the emergence, in colonial South Australia, of opportunities for women to participate in art and design education, practice and consumption. This facilitated the development of relationships between women that crossed boundaries of generation and class which, in turn, enabled women to move out of the private and into the public sphere. From this location, they could develop the social networks, economic means and confidence to move beyond their domestic space, their home colony and country. Young argues that while South Australia has long been seen as offering colonial women relatively early entry into tertiary education and the opportunities it created towards the end of the nineteenth century, women’s artistic communities were an important forerunner to this history, giving some South Australian women had access to networks beyond the private sphere from the middle of the nineteenth century.

This collection provides clear evidence of a thriving feminist history of intimacy and estrangement that inherits – though not uncritically – the insights of a rich and diverse tradition of feminist historical practice. While these themes have rarely been drawn out from the broader context of the histories they illuminate, their central place in historical understandings of the manifestations of power, struggle, connection and pleasure, that is, in accounts of meaningful lives, provides a tangible thread that can guide the task of tracing the emergence of feminist historical inquiry and its own intimacies and estrangements in relation to the discipline of history.  


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