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Zora Simic

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About the author

Zora Simic is currently nearing completion of her as yet untitled thesis on feminism and other discourses of freedom in Australia 1919 -1969 in the History Department of the University of Sydney, where she teaches Modern European History. Her main research interests are feminist theory, autobiography, identity and women's writing.

Publication details

Volume 5, November 1999

Notes in Search of a Location for Between The Waves of Feminism

In 1999, Marilyn Lake published Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism. This book represents more than just a significant contribution to Australian feminist scholarship - it also includes the first extensive consideration of the missing waves of feminist activity, the period between the first and second wave of feminism in the early 1900s and 1970s respectively. Lake, of course, is not the first historian to consider feminist activity in this period, but she is the first to devote a significant work of scholarship to furthering understanding and knowledge of this oft-forgotten era of feminist activity. Prior to this, Lake was also one of the first scholars to address the related problem of the waves model of the history of feminism and it was that critique, in an essay on the most prominent feminist of that era Jessie Street, that inspired me to pursue research into feminist thought and activity in the years between 1919-1969. Since then, my work has grown in different, yet related, directions, but the idea of the 'missing wave' continues to cast its spell. In this paper, I seek to outline the ways I am attempting to understand 'Feminism and Other Discourses of Freedom in Australia between 1919 - 1969' (my working thesis title) and like my own research process, I will begin with a critique of the validity and drawbacks of the waves model of feminist history. This critique, and the brief methodological discussions that follow, are not without internal contradictions and therefore highlight the problematic nature of many of the key questions resting at the heart of my thesis - questions such as why address the waves model at all, how to define discourse, what is cultural space and the most vexed of all, what is feminism?

A study of Australian feminist thought over the course of much of the twentieth century includes an awareness of complex feminist debates that continue to inform feminist theory and practice today, even while the contemporary context also absorbs associated debates about subjectivity, identity and various post modern theories. At the same time, the need to be historically specific means I must identify significant characteristics peculiar to the period under investigation. The period 1919 - 1969 spans the years between the securing of the vote and the conscription campaigns of the First World War, in which women's groups were especially active, and Women's Liberation in the 1970s. The period therefore falls between the two waves of the popular model of the history of feminism. On this basis, the period could be studied in terms of or in critical response to the waves model, rather than as an historical period in its own right. I want to argue that the 1919 - 1969 period can be defined as an exploratory era in which the gains of the first wave were utilised to create a cultural space in which women's rights could be campaigned for on the basis of citizenship. However, feminism was only one of several emancipatory discourses available to women seeking to campaign for the political, cultural and personal freedom of women. For example, the various discourses (suggesting the influence and applicability of popular understandings of Communist and feminist expression) evident in the autobiographies of writers Jean Devanny and Dorothy Hewett, both former members of the Communist Party of Australia who had sought, through both their political activity and writing, a type of emancipation that offered both political and personal freedoms.

I also want to argue for both the shortcomings and the usefulness of the waves model of feminist history. Initially, I sought to situate my thesis as a challenge to the waves model, but as the thesis has progressed, the waves model, as an historical model to critique and interrogate, has proved to be an easy target; so easy in fact that it would be plausible to dismiss it immediately and therefore surrender its possible usefulness. At the same time, too much of an emphasis on a critique of the waves model could distract from what a successful critique of the waves model most desperately needs - solid research on the between the waves era.

When academics such as Gisela Kaplan assert that between "1901 and 1968 there was no single noteworthy reform on women's issues taken in Australia" (Kaplan 1994: 45), it is easy to see why the waves model of feminist history continues to have currency, albeit a significantly diminished currency in the light of books such as Lake's Getting Equal and Carol Bacchi's Same Difference. Clearly, the obvious achievements and major cultural, social and political shifts of the suffragist and women's liberation periods offer easily identifiable feminist sign posts and fit comfortably into a progressive, dynamic model of feminist activity. In contrast, the 1919 - 1969 period is full of explorations, setbacks, lengthy and often futile campaigns and no obvious stand out achievements to rival the securing of the vote or equal pay. With research, however, it is also possible to see that sweeping statements such as Kaplan's ignore several crucial functions of women's activism in the between the waves period. Feminists and other women activists in this period established the space, framework, networks, tools and discourse for campaigns such as equal pay that came to fruition in the women's liberation period. It is possible, for example, to establish connections between 1970s women's groups such as the Women's Electoral Lobby, with their strong focus on electoral processes and political engagement, and mid twentieth century women's groups such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters and the United Associations. What separates them are definitions and meanings for feminism and feminist activity and the cultural, social and political space available for such feminist activity.

The central drawbacks of the waves model are easy to identify. Increasingly, feminist scholarship has sought to dismiss it on the basis of what it privileges and what it leaves out. In the Australian context, Marilyn Lake has attacked the waves model as an American import with a distorting effect on Australian feminist scholarship (Lake 1990: 20). This critique appears in an essay by Lake on the most prominent between the waves feminist Jessie Street. Lake is one of the few historians to deal extensively with the era I am focusing on. So while critiques of the waves model are plentiful, the scholarship that seeks to destabilise the waves model is less abundant. Furthermore, what work has been done tends to be rather narrow in focus. World War II, for example, is a familiar signpost for between the waves feminist scholarship, with its ideal sites of feminist interrogation and exploration - primarily women's work and women's sexuality.

Barbara Caine, another historian who has worked on the history of feminisms beyond the sign posts offered by the waves model, most recently in English Feminism 1780 - 1980, goes further in her critique of the waves model. Caine chooses to situate the waves model within a feminist tradition - or the lack thereof. For Caine, within the history of the development of feminism, there has been a sense of each successive era feeling as though they are starting from scratch or alternatively, feeling the need to disassociate themselves from their foremothers. Judith Allen identifies this tendency as the central paradoxical desire of waves categorisation - the desire to both affirm a historic link and to distinguish sharply between earlier and later feminisms (Allen 1994: 14). The waves model, therefore, serves to create a feminist history and to reinforce the separation of generations consistent with feminist history itself. The waves model is incorporated into a dynamic history of various feminisms; a history of debates, ruptures, definitions and redefinitions and a lack of legitimating myths.

The issue of cultural space is crucial to this last point - Caine's expansive history demonstrates how women's unequal access to the public sphere has hindered the development of a strong feminist tradition. For the 1919 - 1969 period this problem is especially pronounced - now that women had the vote how did they find the a discourse that allowed for access to the public sphere? How did they create a cultural space? I argue that in Australia, political women from various segments of the political spectrum, utilised and explored a series of potential emancipatory discourses, not all of them easily identifiable as 'feminist' (Caine 1997: Introduction). In my thesis, I argue for the interelation of cultural space and the public sphere, while simultaneously insisting on distinct functions for both. The cultural production of many activist women - from magazines to plays to radio broadcasts - was a way of creating and legitimating a specific female cultural space within the public sphere. This involved engagement with dominant cultural discourses, primarily liberalism and often paradoxically to this, maternalism, and the simultaneous creation of new specifically female discourses, not necessarily feminist, but in many instances focussed on female freedom, liberation and/ or emancipation. Hence the insistence in my working title on Feminism and Other discourses of freedom. In this way, I hope to acknowledge the often slippery path that is involved in defining 'feminism', itself a multiple, transhistorical and historically specific term.

Still, by choosing to write 'between the waves' feminism I face the related dilemma of working within a tradition of feminist historiography that I seek to challenge. Is my choice of period just as artificial as the American import Lake so vigorously attacks? The two focus points of the wave model - the securing of the vote and women's liberation - have proved to be both useful and distracting for my purposes. The securing of the vote was instrumental in defining the character of feminism in the 1919 - 1969 era. Citizenship provided a crucial basis of justification for various appeals and in many ways, the language of citizenship defined feminist discourse in this era. My thesis will also naturally end with the explosion of women's liberation and a significant proportion of my thesis will be devoted to making connections and locating ruptures between the 1919 - 1969 period and with what came after. In this way, my thesis is very much part of the waves model of feminist history.

The challenge is to argue for characteristics that define the 1919 - 1969 period distinctly. To do this, I concentrate on various feminist discourses and have extended this criteria to also include other discourses of female freedom and liberation that may or may not be explicitly feminist as the term was then understood. With this focus, the sign posts of winning the vote for women and women's liberation offer useful starting and concluding points for a study of shifting and varied discourses, most broadly from the language of citizenship to the language of freedom and every variation and mixture in between. At the most basic level, 'discourse'' and 'language'can be read as interchangeable in this critique, but I do want to insist on the fuller cultural context suggested by 'disourse', as it is commonly used in its postmodern sense.

A further challenge, that relates to feminist historical practice in general, is to resist the lure of what Judith Allen has identified as 'presentism'. 'Presentism' involves the tendency to read and write feminist history according to contemporary feminist debate and discourse. A consideration of the activism of left wing women embodies the dilemmas of 'presentism'. While various left wing campaigns may have been more explicitly 'feminist' according to my contemporary understanding than those of their middle class sisters, remarkably few women from the left were willing to identify as 'feminist' due to the class connotations of the term. Contemporary feminism would clearly claim women such as Jean Devanny, with her strong focus on birth control and sexuality, as 'feminist', but it was important, if I wanted to include these women in my thesis, to historicise the changing meanings and definitions of feminism.

'Presentism', in regard to definitions of feminism, is evident, for example, in the recollections of female comrades of Devanny's. In reminiscences, women from the left recall that Devanny was a spirited feminist and there is little ambivalence about the term. Devanny had claimed emphatically in her autobiography Point of Departure that "Without becoming a feminist, the whole warp and weft of my political aspirations was deeply and ineluctably charged with concern for my own sex" (Devanny 1986: 66). This distinction was lost on her female comrades, writing or reminiscing in a period post women's liberation, when definitions of feminism had shifted considerably and not without the strong influence of women from the left. For comrade Jess Grant, looking back in the 1980s, Devanny was clearly "an active feminist in the party" (Stevens 1987: 185). Fellow party member and writer Kay Brown, in feminist journal Hecate in 1987, labelled her former role model as "so feminist" (Brown 1987: 135). These are typical examples of retrospective application of the label 'feminism' and identifying them hardly makes for a complex thesis. My consideration of women from the left has to extend beyond merely recognising the class dimensions of feminist identification - I must, instead, look for alternative discourses of female emancipation, such as, in the case of Devanny, communism and a writing career. In the end, it could be argued that it is the sum total and expression of these various discourses that produced the discourse of Women's Liberation.

Juliet Mitchell is helpful in identifying the importance of a consideration of left wing women to feminist history. She points to the need to be aware of two traditions - that of confessed 'feminists', of women fighting for women as 'women' as a social political category and secondly, those women who were actively demonstrating as oppressed 'people'. To Mitchell, "at the moment of women's liberation, at the moment of feminism, the two strands come together"(Rowland 1984: 70-71).

In the context of women's activism in Australia over the course of the twentieth century, this connection predates women's liberation. Shared goals and concerns - for instance, equal pay and child care - resulted in occasional exchanges, struggles and shared campaigns. Active women from all segments of the campaigning spectrum, for example, came together for the 1943 Australian Women's Charter Conference. While there was dissent amongst women's groups by the time of the second conference in 1946, largely around issues of political alignment, representation and leadership, the Women's Charter Conference continued at state and national level, buoyed by state and national organising committees that lasted into the 1960s. Increasingly, membership of the Charter committee executives came to reflect the political interests of Charter founder Jessie Street, with representatives from many communist affiliated women's auxiliaries and the Union of Australian Women. International Women's Day, commonly associated with left wing women, became a crucial focus of activity for the group. Such cross pollination prevents the exclusion of women from the left, whatever their 'feminist' identification, from a history of mid twentieth century feminist ideas.

'Presentism' also involves the tendency to identify good and bad feminisms (Allen 1994). The period from 1919 to 1969 offers ample opportunity to pass judgement. Groups such as the National Council of Women and the Feminist Club were avowed patriotic organisations, eager to maintain the status quo. Socialist women in unions, auxiliaries, women's committees and housewives associations used a discourse focussed on the family and traditional gender roles, albeit with some space for female employment. Again, avoiding the pitfalls of 'presentism' requires an historical conceptualisation of the shifting meanings and available cultural, social and political space of feminism. This analysis of cultural space is crucial to an understanding of feminist discourse. At the same time, avoiding the negative possibilities of 'presentism' should not exclude a consideration of continuities in feminist debate, theory and practice. A focus on shifts and continuities in feminist discourses allows for both an historically specific and historically dynamic analysis of mid twentieth century feminism in Australia.

Defining feminist discourse is, for my purposes, the process of identifying both the language of feminism and the subject's positionality in terms of class, race and the political process. Limited cultural space could necessitate the use of various discourses with wider cultural and social currency. Women's groups could therefore simultaneously engage with key feminist debates concerning essentialism and equality, and wider social and political questions by positioning themselves as citizens, mothers and/ or wives. Discourse and cultural space are therefore two parts of a dynamic reciprocal process by which each determines, to a significant extent, the other. In terms of this exchange, the 1919 - 1969 period offers an ideal historical framework. With the vote secured, the task of women's groups was now to develop a viable cultural space for feminist activity.

A strong focus on feminist discourse also allows for the inclusion of counter feminist discourses. Women from the left can be incorporated into a focus on the language they were using, often for the same campaigns, but without reference to feminism. Therefore, discourses of female freedom, rather than feminism, form the central focus of my thesis. Feminism is offered as one of a possible range of discourses related to female emancipation and the fight for women's rights. The history of feminist ideas in this period can therefore be linked to a longer tradition of various feminisms that extend into the contemporary period. Feminist thought also extended beyond political activity. A chapter on the writers Jean Devanny and Dorothy Hewett, both former members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), explores the complex negotiations of class, sexuality, creativity and female emancipation from the 1930s into the 1960s. Both women were trying to find a way to live that balanced love, family, political activity and artistic expression. These are dilemmas that have continued to inform contemporary feminist debate, but within their own historical context; the dilemmas are characterised by a cultural and social specificity.

Indeed, in many ways, Devanny and Hewett have little in common with each other in terms of reconciling their various desires and responsibilities. While both women were notorious in the CPA for their sexual exploits and creativity, their autobiographies offer a study in contrasts. Both autobiographies draw attention to the hypocrisy of working class morality, the problems of attempting to introduce women's issues into the Party, the lack of female role models, the sexual politics and the restrictions resulting from rigid leadership in the Stalinist period. Both authors also situate themselves exceptionally within these complex negotiations between class, sex and power. But in the end, Hewett's class position enables her to leave the Party and pursue her writing without distraction and the rigidity of the prevailing Party ethos of social realism. Devanny, in contrast, dies before the final edit of her autobiography is completed, bitter and estranged from the Party after a series of expulsions relating to both her writing and her sexuality. For Devanny, Communism was crucial to her identity and life experience. She wrote her autobiography, in the 1950s, from within this experience. Hewett, in contrast, wrote Wild Card post communism, post modernism and most significantly, post women's liberation. Wild Card was written as a Great Romantic narrative, with Communism offered as a religious and idealistic experience, peopled with colourful characters and exciting encounters, that has since passed, along with other passions of youth. Devanny fights for women's rights within the class context: feminism is fraught in terms of class politics. For Hewett, the conflict between communism and feminism was one she was able to negotiate, both at the time and in the process of recollection. She recognised that "Feminism and the equality of women were not causes dear to the heart of working class men, nor were they particularly popular in the male dominated hierarchy of the Communist Party" (Hewett 1991: 175). So she worked around it, becoming active in the then recently formed Union of Australian Women by editing the first edition of the journal OUR WOMEN. Devanny, embroiled in a lengthy relationship with a Party leader, J.B. Miles, and a frequently censored author, found herself in a significantly more problematic position. Together, Devanny and Hewett illustrate the multiplicity of discourses of female emancipation within an ostensibly similar political experience and the influence of contemporary feminist debate in recording these experiences.

'Presentism' also involves the need to seek clues in the past as to the failures of the present or alternatively to read the successes of contemporary feminism in terms of the failure of pre Women's Lib feminism. With histories of the 1960s, this tendency is especially pronounced. It would be very easy to study my main group from this decade - the Union of Australian Women - in terms of their failure to appeal to a younger generation of feminists rather than in terms of their own history and discourse. The challenge is not to let this failure overwhelm my analysis. Failure to replenish the membership base is a strong theme and should be read in terms of larger social and cultural changes rather than simply in terms of the vicissitudes of feminist debate.

There was a fundamental paradigm shift from the use of a selection of culturally adaptable discourses in the 1919 - 1969 period to the liberationist discourse, embodied in the notion of the personal as political, in the 1970s. Women's liberation sought to change the cultural space for women; therefore a radical shift in discourse was needed. In contrast, politically active women in the 1919 - 1969 period sought, for the most part, to use available discourses to access an already predetermined cultural space. This was a space in which the gains of the first wave feminists - primarily the securing of the vote - were not easily built upon. Feminists and other political women had to find a way to work within that space. Mostly, they chose to do this in a way that did not destabilise too many pre existing conceptions about the role of women. When women such as Devanny and Hewett sought to move beyond this pragmatic use of discourse by attempting to reinvent the cultural space to accommodate their quest for a wider variety of freedoms - political, creative, sexual - they were an isolated minority. This is not to say that essentialist ideas about women could not be utilised for feminist ends - clearly the gains of this period testify to the success of using feminine stereotypes for political ends. In terms of major paradigm shifts, however, a significant radicalisation of discourse was necessary to create new cultural spaces for women - hence the lure of the waves model in feminist historiography. The 1919 - 1969 period fits into a consideration of these paradigm shifts because it reminds us that in order for major cultural change to occur, exploratory periods typified by small adjustments and minor gains, are often necessary.


Judith A. Allen, Rose Scott: Vision and Revision in Feminism, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994

Carol Lee Bacchi, Same Difference: Feminism and Sexual Difference, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1990

Kay Brown, "Kay Brown Remembers Jean Devanny", Hecate, Vol xiii, no.1, 1987

Barbara Caine, English Feminism 1780-1980, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997

Jean Devanny, Point of Departure: The Autobiography of Jean Devanny, ed. Carole Ferrier, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1986

Dorothy Hewett, Wild Card: An Autobiography 1923-1958, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1991

Gisela Kaplan, "Women in Europe and Australia: Feminisms in Parallel" in Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought, eds. Norma Grieve, Alisa Burns, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994

Marilyn Lake, "Jessie Street and 'feminist chauvism'", Jessie Street: Documents and Essays, ed. Heather Radi, Women's Redress Press Inc, Sydney, 1990

Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1999

Robyn Rowland, Women Who Do and Women Who Don't Join the Women's Movement, Routledge, Kegan and Paul, Melbourne, 1984

Joyce Stevens, Taking the Revolution Home: Work Among Women in the Communist Party of Australia 1920 - 1945, Sybylla Press, Melbourne, 1987

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