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Rosemary Ferguson Webb

Further information

About the author

Dr Rosemary Ferguson Webb is an English teacher at the Illawarra Institute of Technology. Her doctorate (2005, University of Wollongong) is in History and her thesis addresses the effect of subjectivity and agency on feminine identity (Australian Girl Readers, Femininities and Feminism in the Second World War (1939-1945): a Study of Subjectivity and Agency). While it explores a particular period, the thesis has general applicability for those interested in the sources of women’s social power. Earlier this year it was considered as a potential project for Picador’s ‘Thesis-to-Book’ venture. She has published in History journals (OHAA Journal and RAHS Journal) and also in ephemera and book collection magazines, and presented papers at a History of the Book in Australia conference and the conference on Australian and International Feminisms.

Publication details

Volume 13, November 2005

Historicising 'Experience':
A Useful Approach to Understanding the Social Power of Feminism 1

At the end of 2004 the Australian and International Feminisms conference was held in Sydney. It attracted feminists from around the world who identified with a variety of social roles. This broad representation of feminist thought and action meant that there was a mixture of emphasis on the theoretical and on the practical in those presenting and responding to the papers. Furthermore, there was a considerable age range among the participants. Some recalled a life of activism beginning with the emergence of second wave feminism in the sixties. Others saw themselves as young feminists of this contemporary period struggling to define feminism in a changing world. 2 For all these reasons the debate was lively. It was also constructive. In the same spirit of constructive debate, this article looks at an issue which worried some of the conference participants. This concern was the weakness of current feminism as a result of the popular media’s influence in encouraging notions of feminist activism as individual rather than collective effort. In a response to this notion, the article argues that analysing the development of second wave feminism’s powerful collective activism from a historical perspective reveals that feminist power can emerge from subtle, multiple and diverse sources. This leads to an awareness that the success or failure of women as a group to understand that collective action is a powerful tool for achieving women’s rights is not dependent on a single source. 3

Amid points of difference, the conference became a space where common concerns were highlighted. One motif was anxiety over the lack of collective activism in Australia among contemporary young women who, from any of the acknowledged perspectives, saw themselves as feminists. This concern was based on three perceptions: that young women were necessary to the continuity of feminism; 4 that the failure to continue collective activism had led to the erosion of many of the gains for women the second wave feminist movement had achieved through its strong collective push; and that feminism would not make further gains for women without continuing collective activism.5 The problem of contemporary feminism’s lack of collective activism was seen as even greater because popularly represented notions of contemporary feminism celebrated individual or ‘DIY’ feminist activism, especially for young women. The discussions also revealed ideas of DIY feminism as a standpoint which is reinforced by the current popular media rather than by careful, independent analysis. Kathy Bail’s DIY Feminism was frequently cited as an example. The participants’ memories of Bail’s emphasis on individualism were supported by her introductory claim in DIY Feminism that ‘Now feminism is largely about individual practice and taking on personal challenges rather than group identification’. 6 Participants further noted that Bail was not only associated with the Australian edition of Rolling Stone magazine, she also had a national profile as a commentator on (and for) youth and popular culture. 7 The participants could be seen to use Bail’s various positions to encapsulate the reasons for both the original concern that contemporary feminism was being leached of its powerful strategy of collective activism and concern over the way the popular media used the concept to negate feminism’s strengths.

* * *

DIY feminism is by no means the only contemporary notion of feminism, so why was it emphasised so strongly in the discussions and responses at this conference? 8 As the range of views and experiences of feminism was aired in this forum, DIY’s power to damage social, economic and sexual rights for all who identify as women in the west was progressively highlighted. The discussions which acknowledged the way DIY feminism was relentlessly encouraged through the popular media, also recognised that this media was controlled by capitalism and patriarchy in today’s western society. They argued that groups supporting these ideas recognise feminist power as a counter idea undermining their own power. Participants underscored the notion that a significant part of the attractiveness of such popular representations to media consumers was based on setting individualised feminist activism against the powerful collective activism of the second wave feminists. It was argued that, in Australia, DIY feminism was expressed as an attractive positive idea for young women while collective feminism was represented as both unattractive and a source of negative values on generational grounds. I have drawn the following illustration of this notion from the book by Kathy Bail which was used so frequently as a symbol of the feminists’ concerns. Bail highlighted the meaning of DIY by quoting one of her respondents: ‘We’d be really happy if you didn’t ask us about the all-girl thing. We don’t even think about it. It’s old-fashioned’ 9. The term ‘feminist’, was used by first and second wave activists to establish women’s power within, and independence from, the groups supporting western patriarchal capitalist society. 10 There was a sense at the conference that the term has now been colonised by patriarchal capitalism through the notion of DIY and the channel of the popular media.

The genesis of this article lies in this particular experience of the conference: concern that in Australia feminist collective activism is being destroyed through one of the most popularly represented emerging ideas of contemporary feminism. There is no doubt that the collective aspect of first wave and of second wave feminism made them powerful movements in a modern society. 11 A reasonable corollary of this recognition for many feminists is that individuality will produce atomisation and weakness. 12 Feminists who believe that their collective activism is an important source of power that they cannot afford to give away are alarmed at what appears to them to be the contemporary disappearance of a capacity for feminist collective action. Yet, I will argue that, in their responses, as I have laid them out in the foregoing paragraphs, some concerned feminists are restricting the concept of feminist collective activism. In doing this they are denying themselves the opportunity to recognise emerging strengths for what they see as a now-struggling movement.

Some of the expressions of concern about collective activism which restrict feminism in this way reflect ahistorical perspectives. 13 One ahistorical perspective in the discussions assumed feminine experiences rooted in gender, race and/or class are ‘natural’ rather than a result of the pressures and ideas of a particular period. Another ahistorical perspective incorporated the notion of feminism as a progressive movement. ‘Gains’ made by one generation would be automatically handed down to the succeeding generation which would continue to develop them. Both these ideas lend themselves to the possibility of imagining that there has been a degeneration in some essential femininity so that future feminism(s) must necessarily be weaker. A reassertion of the notion Joan Scott explores in ‘The Evidence of Experience’, that the social subject (and this term includes the collectively activist feminist) is the outcome of both social shaping and lived experience, is timely here.14 From this basis, Scott discusses the necessity for historicising lived experience. She points out that useful history is interested in looking at the reasons for social change in ways which ensure it ‘is not a project of the reproduction and transmission of knowledge said to be arrived at through experience’. Instead, it will analyse ‘the production of that knowledge itself’. She argues that ‘[s]uch an analysis would constitute a genuinely nonfoundational history, one which retains its explanatory power and its interest in change but does not stand on or reproduce naturalised categories’. 15 Scott’s perspective provides a basis for thinking in a historical way about how powerful collective activism became a feature of past successful feminisms in Australia. This focus on the historical roots of a social characteristic serves as a lens. It reveals the multiplicity and diversity of influences feeding into the ‘natural’ public collective activism which was such a feature of Australia’s second wave feminism. Ideally, its use encourages exploration of the potential for collective activism in post second wave feminism. Furthermore, it may even, indirectly, lead to highlighting other emerging feminist strengths. It offers a perspective on current youthful feminism and activism which is less limited than the natural and/or progressivist approaches.

The social and personal influences which fed into the Australian second wave feminist identity as a community of women publicly active in the cause of feminism can be historicised. Historicisation is a perspective tied to the notion of history as the study of points of change in a particular period. E P Thompson has shown us how the eighteenth century movements among the common people, as well as those recognised as powerful, can lead to socio-political change. 16 So a historicised perspective can focus on subtle, multiple and diverse influences contributing to the socio-political dynamism of a particular period. The significance of subtlety and diversity can be overlooked in a society besieged by the superficial, normalising analyses of the popular media. Moreover, as we accept the media’s normalising conclusions we also reinforce the values of dominant patriarchal interests affecting representations through this channel. The premise behind this article’s encouragement to historicise feminist collective activism is that western societies are patriarchal societies. 17 In such a society dominant patriarchal forces will not voluntarily shape women into feminist collective activism. Neither will these forces accept or encourage such activism when it has developed to the point of encroaching on their power.18 The destructive response of dominant patriarchal interests to the feminist collectivism it perceives as a powerful counter-force is part of the dynamism of history. Equally, Australia’s second wave feminist collectivism emerged in the first place in a patriarchal society. This, it should be kept in mind, is also part of history’s dynamism.

The support for and development of second wave feminism as collective activism in Australia came from young middle-class and upper-working-class white women, beginning in the 1960s.19 Therefore it is helpful to explore the potential for feminist collective activism among the ideas and mechanisms which most strongly shaped this social group as subjects. Gisela Kaplan introduces her work on the history of second wave feminism by drawing attention to the powerful domestic influence of mothers on those growing daughters who were part of the generation from which second wave feminism emerged. 20 Lesley Johnson has already analysed the effect of the expansion of the post-war public systems as shapers of working class and middle-class girls into ideas of public activism. In the post-war years western nations emphasised the connection between scientific knowledge and a nation’s global status. Johnson draws attention to the way that Australia’s notion of ‘educational achievement’ in those years focused on science and the idea of the educated as a group actively influencing the direction and global power of the nation. The opportunity for educational achievement included capable girls as well as boys, and those from state schools as well as private schools. However, notions of gender ensured that girls were still discouraged from identifying as public feminist activists.21 It is therefore worth considering whether the other powerful influence in the second waver’s adolescent life, the domestic feminine relationship between mother and daughter, could have supported notions of feminist public collective activism as part of youthful femininity. If this is so, it would add to the weight of proof for the assertion that unique historical circumstances made the second wavers collectively activist. This idea would provide a foundation for asking what unique historical features are feeding into current youthful femininity that could become feminist strengths.

As Kaplan’s memoirs show us, the second wavers’ mothers were socially-approved women, according to Australia’s post-war values. They were recognised as the white wives of upper-working-class and middle-class Australian men, and mothers of the rising generation of Australian girls. Mothers were understood as guiding their daughters into similarly approved womanhood. As Australia was a patriarchy, how could such women encourage ideas of feminist public collectivism in their daughters? To do so they would have to imagine this was part of womanhood. The rest of this article shows how, because they grew up in a particular historical period, the mothers encountered forces and influences which unintentionally shaped them into understanding some embryonic ideas of public feminist collective activism as a part of femininity, and especially as part of youthful femininity.

My argument depends on the notion of a subject’s ability to make individual and collective public decisions about her life. I call this notion public voice. The space for girls to negotiate this new idea of youthful femininity hinges on two issues. One of these is the way public voice in Australia was extended to second waver’s mothers at the beginning of the mothers’ own womanhood. The other is the nation’s emphasis on public voice as an autonomously wielded tool for group achievement. Both these issues were connected to notions of citizenship. I will argue that, through the way they experienced the relationship between citizenship, gender and public voice as girls and young women, these mothers came to interpret public voice as a basis for some notion of feminist collective activism as part of young womanhood. I use feminist in relation to the girls simply to mean girls acting from some sense of themselves as feminine subjects engineering satisfactions for girls and young women beyond those clearly and immediately supported by authorities. I draw on a wide range of scholarly thought to develop this argument, from reader response and memory theory to ideas of modern social power which have been influenced by Foucault.

I have deployed two concepts of reading in relation to feminine citizenship and to memory in order to explore the deep roots of public voice as a basis for feminist collective activism. One of these is that reading was a technique that Australia, as a modern, literate society, used to shape its youth (children) into citizens (adults). 22 The second concept is that of reading as a powerful experience. Powerful experiences become part of our memory and influence the way we remember or think of ourselves and the world. Reading can be a tool for producing such an effect. Powerful experiences occur for two reasons: they are novel experiences or they are repeated experiences. 23 For those girls who identified as readers, reading experiences which revealed pictures of womanhood were doubly powerful. Australia, as a western patriarchal society, traditionally emphasised the difference of masculine and feminine citizens.24 Australian children experienced gender’s social effects from the time they were born. However, when they began to grow into sexual maturity there was a new emphasis on gender, one that was more immediately predicated on patriarchal notions of sexual roles.25 This situation occurred between the ages of twelve and eighteen. For girl readers between these ages the stories of young women as images of themselves in the world must have been at first a novel experience. However, because authorities understood girls’ change from childhood to womanhood as necessary, girls were encouraged to read many stories representing ideal young womanhood. So the images were also a repeated experience. In addition, the procedures of the school reading lessons taught the girls ways to perform their newly emphasised femininity as girl citizens-in-training. Consequently, the way that those second-wavers’ mothers who thought of themselves as ‘readers’ imagined young womanhood between the years when they were twelve and eighteen would influence their ideas of youthful femininity when they were mothers guiding their daughters into womanhood.

Second wavers’ mothers were girls of this age during the time of the Second World War (1939-1945). My oral history approach asked for women who were between the ages of twelve and eighteen at this time to share their memories of reading, aiming to draw responses from those who identified as readers and thus reveal how the wartime girls interpreted womanhood. At the same time, documents published by those with authority over the girls’ reading were analysed, revealing the socially recognised bases on which the girls drew to interpret womanhood. Between them, the wartime documents on reading and the memories of girlhood reading provide a source for exploring the way that, for the mothers, public voice (that is, some capacity for a girl to make public decisions with regard to her own life) was the basis for emerging ideas of feminist collective activism as part of femininity.

In order to show how second wavers’ mothers came to interpret public voice as a basis for nascent ideas of feminist collective activism, I return to Scott’s notion that the social subject is a combination of social pressure and personal experience. This position embodies discourse change, as Teresa de Lauretis and Catherine Raissiguier respectively have demonstrated. 26 They recognise how, in a modern society, the public regulatory channels of truth/knowledge are an increasing part of the subject’s experience, yet she is still being shaped by experiences outside public regulation. These competing channels mean that, at some times, the sum of her experience incorporates a range of approved identities. 27 Through the desire for pleasure, she is also psycho-socially positioned to draw on the aspects of these identities which most satisfy her in understanding herself in relation to the world. 28 Sometimes this happens in a social situation which allows her to express the new, individually-interpreted concept of who she is and (through a fortunate misunderstanding on the part of society) be accepted as performing an already socially-approved idea of girlhood.29 Through this combination girls can understand themselves as part of an authoritatively-approved youthful femininity even though, from the authorities’ perspective, this femininity is different from, and may even challenge, the dominant ideas. These conditions are more likely to co-exist in turbulent societies.

Second World War Australia (1939-1945) was a turbulent society. Wartime girl readers in this society experienced the idea of public voice (the capacity to make individual and collective public decisions about their lives) as part of femininity differently and simultaneously in relation to three different citizen identities. Citizenship was understood across all the identities as service to the nation. It was the girls’ opportunity to develop a new combination of certain aspects of these varying ideas of citizen service which gave them room to interpret some feminist collective activism as part of young womanhood. As they were shaped into understanding themselves as feminine, the girls were also being shaped as traditional western feminine citizens. Their service was voiceless and domestically oriented. At the same time, in elementary schools, girls were being forged into modern citizens with individual and collective voices, at least within the classroom walls. Finally, the pressures of war fashioned them as wartime home front citizens with individual and collective voices which extended beyond the classrooms.

Notions of gender infused all the accepted competing citizen identities, but did so in ways which reflected the relationship between girls and public voice differently. Elementary school reading underscored these differences for senior girls. Schools were institutions for guarding the nation’s culture, and so their lessons featured traditional voiceless feminine citizenship.30 Voicelessness as a quality of feminine citizenship was a result of two ideas springing from Australia as a state with its roots in traditional western patriarchal society. The first was the idea that the strong nation was the outcome of the willing public contribution of rational individuals.31 Second was the idea that rationality was a binary, gendered quality; women were emotional beings and men were rational beings.32 Therefore, masculine decisions would be ‘trustworthy’, that is in line with the collective (national) interest.33 Men made autonomous decisions about the way they served the collective interest of the nation in the public arena. Women served by supporting men emotionally in the domestic arena. The reward for being a good feminine (voiceless) citizen was the love and approval of a masculine (voiced) citizen.

However, Australia was also a capitalist society. By 1939 capitalism’s dependence on public systems for regulating the population as part of its continued growth had reached the stage where capitalist forces were seeking to extend public life and regulation under the concept of ‘modernity’.34 One result of this was the extension of the education system. The majority of Australia’s girls now experienced elementary education.35 The extended elementary school system shaped senior girls as modern citizens as well as traditional feminine citizens.36 As modern citizens young women served the state publicly for a short while before retiring to domestic citizenship.37 Classroom training for modern citizenship was understood by authorities as ‘ungendered’. However, in a patriarchal society such as Australia where the masculine was the ideal, ‘ungendered’ was unreflectively predicated on masculine values and experience. Therefore training for modern public service incorporated the idea of some citizenship autonomy. In anticipation of this future citizen role, school girls experienced modern public voice within the classroom.38

Finally, schools encouraged wartime citizenship. They did this in ways which strongly emphasised senior girls’ public voice and incorporated ideas of how it might be immediately used in society at large for the benefit of wartime Australia. This happened in the following way. Societies sought to differentiate themselves from the other as the opposing blocs in the 1939-1945 conflict began to emerge. Democratic citizenship was a key signifier of those nations such as Australia which were aligned with Britain.39 Such citizenship was understood as both ungendered and gendered. One ungendered characteristic of democratic Australian citizenship was the notion that all British Australians were citizens and each individual citizen made trustworthy autonomous decisions which contributed to the success of the national goal.40 The result was that the citizen was expected to serve individually and autonomously as part of a national collective to achieve Australia’s wartime goals. For women, such performances crossed between public and private spaces. The exigencies of this war, with its pressure on the home front as well as on the battlefield, meant that older girls were seen as home front democratic Australian citizens.41

So, by 1939 school girls in the senior elementary system were being subjected to these three ideas of their citizenship roles. The roles each had aspects which were pleasurable to girls. As potential women, they were positioned to be supportive of masculine citizens; domestic and directed but also loved and approved. As future modern citizens, they were shaped into seeing themselves as public and powerful through trustworthy classroom contribution. As wartime homefront citizens, they were the ungendered possessors of a voice which allowed them to act autonomously and publicly at this time to achieve the nation’s collective goal of creating and maintaining the civilised society.42 As I have asserted, their attraction to aspects of each of these several notions of citizenship, led these girls – in a fragile, nascent way – to understand public voice as a tool for individual and collective feminist activism.43 Moreover, their performed activism was embroiled in the social ambiguities resulting from wartime turbulence. Consequently, authorities approved its performance because they recognised it as falling within their own parameters for girlhood. Overlooked, and therefore uncorrected to conform to authoritative notions, the girls’ subversive idea of feminine citizenship continued to exist. One result was its carryover into their subsequent white middle-class role as mothers influencing their daughters into what they saw as approved womanhood in the post-war years. By comparing the way wartime senior elementary school girls were taught how and what to read with the way these girls imagined how and what they were being taught, the elision of feminine public voice into nascent feminist collective activism can be traced.

The extent to which authorities recognised reading as a valuable tool for shaping future citizens at the elementary level of education cannot be overemphasised. The opening paragraph of the 1941 Reading syllabus for elementary level education in New South Wales stated, ‘Reading . . . makes possible an intelligent participation in the activities of modern life’.44 The authoritative documents for the use of reading in elementary schools were the departmental syllabuses, the departmental education gazettes and books by experts. Reading’s importance can be seen in the care taken to identify what should be read, how it should be read and the amount of time specified for the classroom development of reading skills.45 The documents reveal that reading was taught with the same aim and approach across the Australian states.46

These documents show that, as a consequence of elementary education’s aim to create the nation’s youth as ungendered modern citizens and the deployment of reading as a tool to this end, school girls were shaped to imagine themselves as publicly voiced. Those in elementary classrooms who had become competent readers, whether boys or girls, exhibited signs of ‘trustworthiness’ in the authorities’ eyes. They had internalised and could perform the taught values. On this basis, competent readers had opportunities for public voice. For example, the syllabuses recognised that ‘in the upper classes of the primary school the artistic and expressive sides [of reading should be] especially stressed’.47 Thus competent readers served as lead readers setting the pace and tone for the others in class-based simultaneous oral readings. They were seen to have made reading a successful collective performance. Additionally, classes were divided into groups for their reading lessons. As the syllabus instructed, ‘the teacher administers special work with small groups or individuals, after making provision for suitable activities for other groups’.48 Teachers had to spend more time developing the skills of the less competent. Therefore, competent readers could individually choose to explain the meaning of words or correct pronunciation for their group. In this way they would help the group to finish their set reading task efficiently. In the classroom, competent girl readers were encouraged to act autonomously in order to achieve ungendered, collective success.

Women who identified as readers and who were the girls of this era remembered their part in the ungendered collectivity of elementary classroom reading as a satisfying subject position. Joy and Susan were the daughters of a salesman and lived in a Perth suburb. Like others, they reflected proudly on collective classroom reading as part of learning a public decorum:

Oral reading was the norm each day at primary school. We were taught to regard punctuation as comprehension signposts, when to pause, when to raise or lower our voices and correct (their emphasis) pronunciation of words. Oral reading allowed us to extend our vocabularies because the meanings of words were discussed in class.

The organisation of small country schools meant rural girls were more widely engaged in collective reading experiences than urban girls. Betty’s Victorian reading experience was a mixture of the school grade system and the family group. She reflected:

Ours was a small rural school, twenty pupils. We recited the poetry together so that over the years we were exposed to lots of poetry. We also read our [graded] stories aloud to one another and to the whole school.

These memories also show us that the girls could imagine their active membership of a large, abstract public collectivity. Helen’s father was a New South Wales’ forestry officer. His job ensured the family lived in remote areas. She remembered reading as part of a larger unseen school collectivity, noting, ‘In the country, I loved the magazine of Blackfriars’ Correspondence School’. This magazine was called The Outpost and it published the work of its widely-scattered readers as well as professional stories and articles.

Respondents also remembered their opportunities for individual classroom autonomy as pleasurable. Both Fiona and Peggy noted they were rewarded for capable reading with ‘free reading’ from the classroom library. Kath described herself as a ‘competent reader’ and noted she was ‘always top of [her] class’. Her good reading ensured that she could make some choices and experience a ‘taste’ of voicing her decision in the wider world. Her ‘top’ position resulted in book prizes and she recalled going to the local newsagent as a prize-winner to select them herself.

However, at the same time, girls were also being shaped by the patriarchal state into gendered ideas of themselves. While this happened in many arenas, significantly, it was happening for a large proportion of Australian girls in the same social space as the notion of girls as ungendered citizens. This was the elementary classroom reading lesson. The departmentally edited school magazines functioned as the basic elementary reading text. These magazines had contents which were specifically chosen to match approved ideas.49 Gender separation and hierarchy was implicitly identified through texts like the series in the 1942 senior Victorian School Paper, ‘Men Who Filled In Our Map’. It was also specifically represented, as in the contrasting cover illustrations of Queensland senior grade School Paper for May and July, 1939. May’s cover depicts two white boys staring over a rugged empty landscape and is captioned, ‘Monarchs of all they survey’. (Figure 1) July’s cover, captioned, ‘Oh, for a book and a shady nook’, shows an early adolescent white girl reading and dreaming about the/her story; a/her knight in full panoply riding up to a/her doorway in the high enclosing walls of a castle. (Figure 2)

Figure 1

Figure 2

Wartime girls taking part in the elementary classroom reading lessons understood themselves as gendered. Sixth grade was the final primary school year in New South Wales and one which most pupils completed for the first time aged eleven or twelve. Marsali noted that the girls at her small primary school in a New South Wales village usually repeated sixth grade (no matter how many times they completed the course successfully) until they were old enough to leave school (fourteen at this time). She felt unusual because, even though she was a girl, her parents expected her to go on the train to the local high school after she passed her first year in sixth grade. Edith in Victoria, who left school education from a one-teacher rural school at thirteen and a half, recalled, ‘I was the only girl in my grade for the last two years’. [My italics]. Simultaneously, it is clear the girls enjoyed notions of themselves as part of a collective femininity and notions of their future traditional feminine rewards. Vera explained, ‘There was an assumption among us girls that after a few years in the work force we would marry and automatically give up paid employment and settle into the suburban lifestyle.’

Girl readers in elementary schools across Australia saw themselves pleasurably as feminine and as possessors of a public voice they could express in the classroom to achieve both individual and group satisfactions. They also understood this voice would bring individual and group satisfaction beyond the classroom at some time in their future. However, as the war continued, Australia’s social conditions lent themselves to the likelihood that girls could immediately use public voice to achieve individual and group goals beyond the classroom, participating in both gendered and ungendered groups. Girls could gain social approval for their activity in either group. The basis for this was girls’ progressive acceptance as home-front citizens contributing to Australia’s wartime goals.

Elementary school girls were originally drawn into ideas of wartime citizenship activity through the knitting programs. The First World War had fostered a tradition of willing homefront support for the troops which was partly expressed through women’s voluntary commitment to knitting for the soldiers. Apart from middle-class women who functioned as organisers, this had been a domestic activity.50 This notion was now re-cast in relation to the new war and the new social conditions. In the early part of the war education department magazines encouraged readers to form public, school-based groups and knit ‘comforts’ such as scarves and socks for the Australian troops.51 Some authorities expressed the intention of encouraging both boys and girls to take part in this program.52 However, it is clear that, possibly because of gendered social expectations, the activity was more often carried out through schools as part of a feminine public collectivity.53

The girl readers-cum-knitters experienced a satisfying subject position as part of a voluntary feminine public group supporting the nation. Joan A, at school in a small country town, noted:

One of my vivid memories of being a Grade 6 student at the Rainbow Primary school was staying behind at school on one or two nights a week. We girls sat around the mallee stump fire in a corner of our classroom and knitted socks, balaclavas and kneewarmers [for the troops] while our teacher read to us.

The trustworthy girl could take on further responsibility. Amelia remembered, of her school knitting groups, ‘I never learned to turn a heel, someone always [volunteered to] do it for me’. Nevertheless, girls simultaneously understood this activity as having many of the hallmarks of traditional, voiceless femininity: it was service to individual men and it was service they were instructed to perform rather being able to choose. Fay recalled how girls in her Tasmanian class were encouraged to add personal thank you notes to the soldier recipients of their garments. The sisters, Joy and Susan, remembered knitting as a ‘compulsory part of homework’ for girls in their Perth suburban school.

However, as the war moved on, the sense of national jeopardy increased. After late 1941 Australia experienced a changed position when it became the target of Japanese aggression rather than an outpost assisting Britain to repel the Axis attack.54 Schools, as the shapers of the nation’s citizens, increasingly devoted space in their magazines to encouraging youth to participate in the beleaguered nation’s campaigns as home-front citizens.55 These national campaigns encouraged girls’ identity as gendered and ungendered homefront citizens beyond the classrooms.56 They were associated, not only with knitting programs, but also with opportunities for far less directed and less domestic activities.

Some of these opportunities could be found in the salvage and fund raising campaigns in which both boys and girls took part.57 Salvage programs were designed to conserve and collect from society essential wartime industrial commodities.58 Joan T remembered with satisfaction her war contribution as a thirteen year old in Victoria when ‘as a Girl Guide [she] collected newspapers in a cart on Saturdays’. Joan T chose to become a guide and take part in the salvage program, and she collected the papers alone. As a young Australian citizen and a guide she experienced social approval beyond the classroom, both for her autonomous public performance in an ungendered collectivity (youthful wartime citizens) and as part of a modern and wartime feminine public collectivity she had joined autonomously (girl guides). The fund-raising campaigns carried the imprimatur of national approval with their aim of providing morale-raising soldiers’ ‘comforts’, such as gift packets of cigarettes and chocolates, and ancillary medical services.59 School magazines’ emphasis on voluntarism in contributing to the war effort ensured that the idea of fund raising could be associated with notions of individual autonomy.60 Fiona told the story of her relatively self-directed school-based efforts:

At Primary School [sic] two or three special [girl] friends and I organised a couple of “in school” concerts to raise funds for the war effort. Admission one penny. This was done with the permission and cooperation of the teaching staff in 1941 and 1942, as also for the occasional lunch time stall when we sold fruit from home gardens, and when ingredients could be spared home-made toffees, rock or “queen” cakes, toffees [sic] etc . . . each for a penny or tuppence.

The activities gave the girls a pleasurable sense that their individual power was affecting the collective goal. Annita, remembering a school-sponsored salvage program in Victoria, noted she took part in ‘scrap aluminium collection for the war effort – to make planes I thought.’ Yvonne in Western Australia recalled saving silver paper ‘rolled up in balls for melting down for war requisites’.

Among the readers’ notions of girls’ collective activism in support of the nation, collective activism supporting girls’ own goals began to emerge. Beverley, a city baker’s daughter, was enrolled at a Catholic school where she remembered knitting was the emphasised national contribution. She and her sister belonged to the Junior Red Cross as an extra-curricular activity. She explained that raising funds for the Red Cross was a particularly important activity for them personally, ‘[their] eldest brother being a P.O.W. in Germany’. The sisters, she recalled, ‘held several bazaars and raffles’ in their street because they wanted to raise money for the Red Cross Prisoner of War comforts program.

Through a combination of elementary school ideas of citizenship and wartime exigencies girls experienced autonomy and public collective activism for goals which satisfied them as girls, that is it could be argued, feminist goals. Moreover, the performance of these ideas was recognised as part of approved youthful femininity. Together, all these memories reveal that wartime girls were moving towards notions of feminist collective activism through their shaping into feminine adulthood and into several ideas of citizenship, each with different potential for some fulfilment of their desires. Furthermore, the turbulence of home front Australia meant that performance of this more fulfilling femininity was more likely to be recognised as accepted citizenship and so approved by society’s dominant groups.

The article closes with a larger study. This shows how the way in which feminine autonomy and collectivity were interpreted by respondents when girl children, began to change their idea of themselves and imagine the women they would become. Eloise’s early experiences of elementary school reading in the war years as both an urban and a farm girl contributed to her longer term understanding that urban young womanhood was far more attractive than rural young womanhood. Part of what made urban femininity attractive was its perceived quality of an embryonic feminist autonomy and public collectivism: girls could achieve goals pleasurable to them as girls. Eloise’s parents were farmers in remote parts of Western Australia. As a consequence of their care for her education she lived with her grandparents in Perth while she completed grades five and six. She then returned to the farm to finish grades seven and eight by correspondence. By the time she was fifteen, the same care ensured she finished her final year of education in a girls’ boarding school.

Eloise’s descriptions of her school reading can be interpreted in terms of the gap between the isolation and voicelessness of traditional British Australian femininity in rural life and modern, voiced, urban Australian femininity, in the war years, with its potential for feminist autonomy and collectivism. Eloise’s memories of her urban elementary school reading suggest that, for her, the elementary education system was gendered in ways which favoured boys. She recalled ‘boys always commandeered the encyclopaedias’ she listed as her favourite reading in the classroom. She remembered that there was very little other classroom reading material. She recalled that it was her network of elementary-school, girl friends which provided her with access to satisfying reading, adding that, ‘to counter [the primacy of boys in getting classroom reading texts] we [girls] had a network of our own and swapped comics galore’. Eloise’s memories of the years in which she was on the threshold of adolescence also reveal her experience of youthful life in a modern city. Additionally, this was an experience of girls’ life in a wartime city. As a result of the combination of modernity and war, the parental supervision of children had been reduced while the machinery of mass consumption remained in place.61

We [she and her schoolgirl friends] could wander at will. One could say city people have access to Saturday afternoon pictures with serials etcetera cartoons and two feature films and we also had friends with whom we could spend our spare time . . . No one even contemplated a girl being at risk. Dogs were friendly, traffic was practically non-existent (petrol rationing and few people owned a car anyway) as for being abducted or assaulted – no one had ever heard of such a thing.

These recollections suggest that, for Eloise, public voice and collective activism were part of what allowed girls to gain satisfactions in their identity as ‘girls’.

When her memories shifted to the wartime farm, where Eloise later undertook correspondence lessons, notions of autonomy and collectivity disappeared. She recalled how at fourteen she was working at directed tasks immediately serving the interests of the farm:

When I contemplate country life – we had dogs and horses to keep us busy. Jobs to do inside and outside the house. So we really came back to reading [including her correspondence school work] at night by the light from a kerosene lamp or on Sunday when we were only permitted to feed the animals etcetera. No real work was done on Sunday [my emphasis].

The phrase ‘real work’ can be interpreted to show why she remembered the city rather than the country as a satisfying place for a young woman. Her use of this phrase reveals a rural life of relentless physical labour, isolation and yet another layer of subordination. For two years in early adolescence Eloise, as a farm daughter, worked for her father’s interests and the government’s interests in a capacity later filled by grown men:

During daylight hours we were always flat out on the farm. The government was calling for more food production and it was impossible to get help until the Italian POW’s [sic] were made available. Therefore, we often had to yard and handle sheep, mend fences, move flocks, turn windmills on/off, feed animals and open gates. We were often out late finishing at night.

These memories suggest that Eloise experienced subservience and isolation as virtually unrelieved aspects of her farm life, although she recalls her role as one of subservience to government rather than parental demands. In her recollections of similar subordinations in the city her sense of the oppression appears to have been ameliorated by the opportunities for feminine public freedom and feminine collectivity associated with set school tasks. Certainly Eloise recognised her farm work as a contribution to wartime Australia. She also understood her general importance to the farm. However, she could not imagine this service offering long-term satisfaction after having experienced urban training for modern citizenship service with its potential for individual and collective ‘feminist’ voice.

Eloise’s life as a daughter had also included a parentally approved potential for choice between traditional and modern femininity. A final year of boarding-school education was designed to be preparation for getting ‘a [paid, public, middle-class] job’ and Eloise remembers how at that time ‘war was just ending and there were plenty of jobs available’. In mid-adolescence she made her choice: ‘I left school at fifteen years. Went to Perth and took a job in an accountant’s office’. The emphasis on her awareness of urban jobs suggests that before leaving school Eloise had already identified with modern youthful citizenship which, in her experience, included satisfying public autonomy and collectivity for girls and women.

Eloise’s story reveals how her earlier city school-associated experiences of public autonomy and collectivity led her to a feminist collective activism; this satisfied some of the needs of the community of girls with which she identified. Her war work on the farm seemed to her to emphasise the isolation and subordination of rural girls and women who served Australia in a more traditional way. Consequently, when Eloise found she had some freedom, she used that freedom to regain re-entry to the place where she believed she had previously experienced the pleasures of social approval and some feminist collective activism. Early satisfying experiences shape our ongoing notion of what a particular part of the life course should ideally be like. From any position of authority we seek to (re-)create this ideal. For the women who had been girls in World War II, the maternal guidance of a daughter from childhood into young womanhood in the fifties and sixties was an opportunity to re-create their notion of approved youthful femininity. The experience of education and other sources of public regulation would do the rest for this post-war generation. Future second wave feminists were thus, at one remove, also shaped into notions of feminist public collective activism by the experiences of their mothers, well before Second Wave Feminism became a movement known for its collective activism.

* * *

As E P Thompson has shown us in The Making of the English Working Class, social movements result from the growth of communities sharing certain values and interpretations. However, the values of the individual subjects forming those communities are not shaped by the intention of a single interest, no matter how powerful that interest may appear to be. The subject is shaped by the distorted combination of dominant interests under the pressure of events. The projects of various forces are further mediated by the subject’s lived experience. Feminism is a social force with social interests. Occupying the social category of women, feminists are also part of the life experience of femininity for many other women; as mothers, as daughters, as friends, as co-workers, as citizens. But whether we feminists are older or younger, activists or theorists, we should recognise that the immediately apparent changes in feminism do not give us a complete picture of change. Moreover, the patriarchal forces most apparently changing feminist practice are not the only forces. We should look more widely and more deeply for possible influences affecting the basic notions of feminist collective activism. In doing this we might also recognise that we ourselves are contributors to this dynamic. Yes, our effect is mediated by other social pressures. Nevertheless, we can take some responsibility for how we make that contribution.


1. This article’s argument is based on Joan Scott’s notions of experience and of gender as nodes for the exploration of historical change. The title is meant to reflect the article’s indebtedness to her groundbreaking essays, ‘The Evidence of Experience’ in Hesse Biber, Gilmartin and Lydenberg, Feminist Approaches to Theory and Methodology and ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, Chapter Two, in Scott, Gender and the Politics of History.

2. See for example Harris, ‘Not Waving or Drowning’, Outskirts, vol 8, May, 2001.

3. For the way I use ‘group’ here, see Young’s article, ‘Gender as Seriality’ in Young, Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy and Policy. She argues that a socially-recognised collectivity comes together progressively to form a self-conscious group with common goals when historical pressures push together those from the collectivity who identify with a particular role and feel they are being denied the opportunity to fulfil their role.

4. The fear of the ‘failure’ of feminism among older feminists because there is no ‘succeeding generation’ is not, of course restricted to the discussions generated by this conference or even only to second wave or Australian feminists. See for example, Jane Long’s ‘A Certain Kind of Modern Feminism’ in Outskirts, Vol 8, May, 2001.

5. Again, these were not new perceptions. See Long op cit.

6. Bail, DIY Feminism, p16.

7. Bail’s popular influence was also strengthened by her representation in the blurb of DIY Feminism as ‘a frequent commentator on youth and pop culture’.

8. For a review of contemporary youthful feminisms significant to Australia, see Harris, op cit, pp 2-3.

9. Bail, op cit, p 4.

10. Weedon, Feminism, Theory and the Politics of Difference, pp 1-4. With specific reference to Australia, Larbalestier, ‘Identity and Difference’ in Caine, Australian Feminism: A Companion, p 150; Oldfield, “Suffrage’ in Caine op cit, pp 497-498.

11. See, among many other sources, Larbalestier, ibid; Oldfield, ibid; Lake, Getting Equal, pp 19-45 and pp 227 ff.

12. Even Bail seems to understand this in a truncated and fuzzy way. Again to draw on Bail’s ideas, after suggesting that feminine collectivism is ‘old fashioned’, she highlights the losses in those social services affecting women and suggests that ‘young women have to take on the responsibility of maintaining these kinds of services to ensure that they continue in the face of budget cuts and a more hostile political climate’. Bail, op cit, p 14.

13. Jane Long addressed some problems associated with this kind of thinking in her 2001 exploration of the issue of division between older and contemporary feminism: Long, Jane, op cit, pp 3-4.

14. ‘Subjects are constituted discursively and experience is a linguistic event (it doesn’t happen outside established meanings), but neither is it confined to a fixed order of meaning. Since discourse is, by definition shared, experience is collective as well as individual’. Scott, ‘The Evidence of Experience’, p 93.

15. Scott, op cit, p 96.

16. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class.

17. Weedon, op cit, pp 1-4; Pateman, The Sexual Contract, ‘Contracting In’; Gatens, Feminism and Philosophy, p 8.

18. Faludi, Backlash, Chapter Three.

19. For class see Curthoys, ‘Doing It For Themselves’ in Saunders and Evans, Gender Relations in Australia: Domination and Negotiation p 426; Lake, Getting Equal, p 219, p 232-233. For association with youthful femininity as a characteristic of second wave feminism see, for example, Lake, Getting Equal, pp 6-9.

20. Kaplan, The Meagre Harvest, pp 6-8.

21. Johnson, The Modern Girl, pp 66-67, pp 74-78.

22. Following Scott, I draw on Foucauldian notions of the modern subject as shaped into self-surveillance through practices in which they are gently and constantly corrected into performing in a certain way. Finally, this performance seems ‘natural’ to them: Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, p 42 and Note 35. For evidence of how reading was a tool for shaping girls in British societies see Kate Flint, The Woman Reader, 1837-1914, Chapter Five: Advice Manuals, Chapter Six: Reading at School, especially pp 118-121. For reading as a tool in twentieth century Australia, see Webb unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, ‘Australian Girl Readers: Femininities and Feminism in the Second World War (1939-1945)’.

23. In their reviews of memory theory, Kotre in White Gloves and Draaisma in Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older, both argue that long-lived memories are influenced by novel experiences and by repeated experiences. Kotre, pp 87-106; Draaisma, p 196 and throughout Chapter Five.

24. Weedon, Feminism, Theory and the Politics of Difference, pp 5 ff; Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, pp 75.

25. Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, pp 75

26. Raissiguier, ‘The Construction of Marginal Identities’: in Hesse-Biber, Gilmartin, Lydenberg, Feminist Approaches to Theory and Methodology. De Lauretis, ‘Eccentric Subjects: Feminist Theory and Historical Consciousness’ in Feminist Studies, 16, No 1, Spring, 1990.

27. De Lauretis, op cit, p 135; Raissiguier, op cit, p 143.

28. De Lauretis, op cit, p 136; Raissiguier, op cit; p 145.

29. De Lauretis, op cit, p 136; Raissiguier, op cit, pp 140-141.

30. Matthews, ‘Education for Femininity’ in Labour History, 1983, (45), pp 32-33.

31. Gatens, Feminism and Philosophy, p 17 and throughout.

32. Gatens, op cit, pp 5-8, pp 14-17.

33. Gatens, op cit, pp 5-8, pp 15-16.

34. For the relationship between capitalism and public regulation see Rabinow, The Foucault Reader, pp 17-18. For how, in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘modern’ Australia had reached the point of extending the public regulation of the population in order to ensure capitalism continued to grow see Whitwell, Making the Market, p 3, pp 11-15 . For the way girls and women were a part of this ‘modernity’ see Kingston, My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary Ann; Reiger, The Disenchantment of the Home.

35. For an overview, see Theobald, Knowing Women, pp 196-199. For the interwar situation, Cunningham, McIntyre and Radford, Review of Education in Australia, 1939, p 19, p 21.

36.For the contemporary interwar recognition that elementary education was being affected and extended by notions of modernity see for example Tate, ‘Problems of Administration’ in Cole, The Education of the Adolescent in Australia, pp 14-17. For an analysis of some early effects, see Holbrook, ‘Apathetic Parents and Wilful Children? Vocational Guidance in the 1930’s’ in Theobald and Selleck, Family, School and State in Australian History.

37. Elder, Catriona, ‘“The Question of the Unmarried”: Some Meanings of Being Single in Australia in the 1920’s and 1930’s’, Australian Feminist Studies, No 18, Summer, 1993, pp 151-173.

38. For the role of girls and women at home in British societies in the interwar years see Dyhouse, Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England. For the domestic role of most Australian elementary school girls at the beginning of the second world war see Webb, op cit, Chapter 2, ‘Memories’ section, p 81.

39. Tinkler, ‘At Your Service: The Nation’s Girlhood and the Call to Service in England, 1939-50’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol 4, part 3, 1997, pp 353-354.

40. Reynolds, ‘Citizenship and Geography Education’, ANZHES Conference, 1996, p 578.

41. Darian Smith, On the Home Front, p174; Oppenheimer, All Work and No Pay, p 92, p 114.

42. For an example of the ambiguities girls were faced with in the elementary school classroom, see paragraph (b) of the Civics and Morals section of the ‘History and Civics’ syllabus in the New South Wales Department of Education Course of Instruction for 1941, p 43. For the extent to which elementary school girls were seen as intended for future domesticity, see Lushey, ‘Programmes of Study and Local Adaptation’ in Cole, The Primary School Curriculum in Australia, pp 179-180.

43. For an understanding of how a notion that is apparently fragile and nascent can also be progressively expanding in its effect see Young’s article, ‘Gender as Seriality’ in Young, Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy and Policy. As I have noted, she argues that a collectivity comes together as a group when historical pressures push together those who identify with a particular role. She goes on to argue that if the pressures change the group will disperse, but the group can return if pressures return.

44. New South Wales Department of Education 1941 Course of Instruction, p 152.

45. The New South Wales 1941 Course of Instruction expands the notion of ‘[r]eading skills’ beyond reading lessons and into the ‘contents subjects’, pp 157-159. For an example of gazette discussion see W H Ellwood, Chief Inspector of Primary Schools, ‘Notes on Revised Subject Headings: Reading Oral and Silent’, Education Gazette and Teachers’ Aid, Victorian Department of Education, 17 July, 1941, pp198-201. For an example of expert discussion see Lushey, op cit, p 150, pp 152 ff.

46. Lushey, op cit, pp 152-155.

47. New South Wales’ Course of Instruction, 1941, p 154; Ellwood, ibid.

48. New South Wales’ Course of Instruction, 1941, p 178.

49. See Webb, op cit, Chapter Two.

50. Oppenheimer, op cit, p 49.

51. Spaull, Education in the Second World War, p 58, p 61, and wartime school magazines and papers. The University of Wollongong holds the extensive pan-Australian collection dating back to some earliest copies and begun by Doris Chadwick, editor of the New South Wales departmental school magazine.

52. Spaull, op cit, p 58; Grade VII, Supplement to the Children’s Hour, South Australian Department of Education, March, 1940

53. Webb, op cit, Chapter Two.

54. McKernan, All In!, Chapters Four and Five.

55. Webb, op cit, Chapter Two.

56. Webb ibid.

57. Spaull, Education in the Second World War, pp 58-5; see also school departmental magazines such as South Australia’s The Children’s Hour, Grade VII, April, 1941, p 7-8 and June, 1942, p 60.

58. Spaull, op cit, p 58.

59. The February 1944 edition of the Grade VII school magazine for South Australia featured on its front cover a photograph captioned, ‘Her excellency the Lady Gowrie selecting toys at the Christmas Tree section of the S[chools] P[atriotic] F[und] Handicraft Rally for POW Funds. On the Right is the Lady Muriel Barclay, President of the Red Cross’; Spaull, op cit, pp 58-62; Oppenheimer, op cit, p 152 for an idea of what ‘comforts’ were.

60. Oppenheimer, op cit, p 140, p 143.

61. Darian Smith, op cit, pp 55-77, pp117-138, Chapter Five.


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