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Eleanor Venables

Further information

About the author

Eleanor Venables was born in Southern Rhodesia and lived in various countries in Southern Africa until she immigrated to Australia in 1982. She started tertiary study at Curtin University in 1993 and graduated with a BA (Social Sciences) in 1995, then in 1997 achieved first class Honours with a dissertation titled "When 'Back Home' isn't England: making visible the memories, lives and experiences of some white women in Rhodesia". She was awarded a Research Studentship by Murdoch in 1998 and commenced a PhD in January of that year.

Publication details

Volume 5, November 1999

Women Working With Women: Determining my position in the field

When I set out to research my doctoral thesis in January 1998, there was no question in my mind but to follow feminist interpretive social research methodology. Clear guidelines for feminist ethnography are described in Feminist Methods in Social Research by Shulamit Reinharz:

Feminist ethnography is consistent with three goals …

  • To document the lives and activities of women;
  • to understand the experience of women from their own point of view; and
  • to conceptualize women's behaviour as an expression of social context (51).

Add to this my profound belief that the transparency demanded by feminist research "making visible why we do what we do—and how we do this" (Klein in Reinharz 1992:74) helps me avoid what Donna Haraway calls "the God Trick of seeing everything from nowhere" (in Waldby 1995:17). In other words, I am fully involved in the research — which becomes as much about me as about the women with whom I am working.

The title of my PhD thesis is (at the moment) The Migrant and Mimesis: Identity, Subjectivity and Positionality in Women's Experience. The thesis explores the experience of identity of privileged migrant white women from what was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe into Western Australia. This is my own background and my own experience is part of the research. Thus, when I refer to "we" during this paper, I am including myself with the women who have elected to participate in the project. The names I use are not the real names of the women. Only two of the women in the project are unperturbed about me using their real names, the others prefer pseudonyms. I believe the meaning behind the desire to remain anonymous is significant, but at this stage of my research I am unwilling to pursue it further.

This paper explores some of the advantages and disadvantages of using feminist interpretive social research to write the thesis. The explanation of my role and the experience of fieldwork that appears throughout the thesis is part of the thesis and is, as I have already mentioned, part of the transparency demanded by feminist social research. A note regarding the use of theory in researching and writing the thesis: I use the theories that fit my research. However, I do not trim my research to fit a particular theory. I consider this approach to the use of theory harmonious with feminist ethnography and research practice while retaining the rigour demanded by traditional methods. Working with the women, through informal interviews, and using my journal to clarify my thoughts and feelings on the research, I acknowledge and validate my own contribution. Thus, the autobiographical content of this paper is a given.

The term field that I use in the title of this paper can be defined in several ways. In Pierre Bourdieu's concept of social relations, the field is likened to the arena of war. In her brilliant paper, "Appropriating Bourdieu: Feminist Theory and Pierre Bourdieu's Sociology of Culture", Toril Moi compares this field to a site of struggle and says "any agent in the field may be assumed to seek maximum power and dominance within it. The aim is to rule the field, to become the instance which has the power to confer or withdraw legitimacy from other participants" (1991:1021). The field in which I am working is, in comparison, more an area of connection and intersection between the women with whom I am working and myself. It has been pointed out that a feminist ethnographer does more than study the field, rather, the boundary between her life and field disappears — if it had ever been there in the first place. Shulamit Reinharz comments that "many feminist researchers … take the position that closeness with women is necessary to understand them" (1991:67).

The selection of the women for the study has been informal and I have been motivated by their interest and enthusiasm in joining the research. Six of the eight participants are from Rhodesia, Zimbabwe and one is from Zambia. One is an Australian woman who has agreed to participate and who has allowed me an insight into how she, as an Australian woman, views women like me and my fellow immigrants. The ages of the women vary from around forty to over seventy years old. Three of the women I knew when we all lived in Rhodesia. Another I met only recently when she expressed interest in my work. There are other connections between the women. Two are sisters and most of us have met and know each other socially since living in Western Australia.

One of the main themes in my thesis is to discover how we cope with the lack of markers of cultural identity in our physical appearance. What is it that sets us apart, makes us "other" in Australian society, a society that is overtly very similar to that of "white" Africa. — through the shared colonial history. How do elusive cultural differences shape personal identities within a different society? Of course, we are often recognised as different when we speak, but even this can be an unreliable marker. Not every Australian has an ear for accents, and many white Rhodesian women have English or indefinable accents, so perhaps there are more covert, or even esoteric signals of difference. The Bourdieuian concept of habitus and embodied knowledge and the Bakhtian concept of heteroglossia are proving rewarding — and I suspect will frame much of my thesis. The notion of semantics and the body as posited by Horst Ruthrof in his book of the same name is also valuable and needs careful evaluation. Whatever it is, I am looking at different forms of discrimination and multiculturalism, based on, among other things, accent and not on racial markers or overt cultural practices.

I have found during my research that there are a number of discriminations, some are subtle — and some not so subtle. Some Australians, once they place me as coming from Rhodesia, they follow this (extraordinary) line of reasoning, "you come from Southern Africa therefore you are a racist. You have knowingly exploited the black people of Africa. You, personally, are responsible for the full colonial horror, apartheid, and taking away Australian jobs!" All these assumptions without knowing anything about me, about my history, or why I left Africa to come to Australia. I will relate an anecdote from my own experience. The first place I worked in Perth, one of my colleagues refused to talk to me for the first few months, simply because I came to Australia from South Africa! As a recent immigrant and very fragile in my new home, I can't begin to tell you how hurtful this was. I had no recourse to explaining myself, my history, my excuses for being a white Rhodesian — which I felt I had to have in the face of this discrimination — because when I approached her she would turn her back and there was the implied "you deserve to be humiliated"! in her attitude. On the other hand, there are those who romanticise the white African experience and, especially after the movie Out of Africa was released, the Karen Blixen version of life in Africa was accorded to me by a few people! Of course, Wilbur Smith also has a lot to answer for! In retrospect, it sounds quite funny — and now that I do have a shared history with many Australians, I can look back and laugh about it. I ask, therefore, does the shared history of a community automatically exclude the unknown history of the "other"?

Ruth Behar, in her essay "Writing in My Father's Name: A Diary of Translated Woman's First Year" wryly laments her involvement in the research process, 'Foolish, foolish the anthropologist' she says, "who mixes up the field with her life" (1995:77). Where I differ from her is that the field I am researching is my life! Once again, this emphasises for me that as a feminist ethnographer I do more than study the field, I live the field. Of course there are drawbacks to this. My researcher persona seldom takes a holiday. Conversations I have, books I read, events I participate in or observe, becomes intrinsic to what? My life? My thesis? Whatever it is, it is stored away — sometimes in memory, sometimes in writing, sometimes on tape or in pictures, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, but is there to be drawn on when I need it! Does not a feminist ethnographer have to work like this? And is it really a problem?

These are my real problems: The cold feet and butterflies in the tummy I feel before an interview. In my journal on 16 May this year (1999), I write (again) how apprehensive I am of interviewing, that I am doing it 'properly'. I write, I still haven't plucked up enough courage to phone Jane. I really must, but feel quite intimidated and then just to put this in the context of how I can sidetrack and avoid things, the next sentence reads The liquidamber is turning at last. Soon it will be bare and skeletal again! About a month later I write, I still have to interview Lucy. I don't know what to do about Jane. A few days later, my main chore is to write in here as often as possible and to interview Lucy and phone Jane …. I wonder many other women researchers get stuck in this place? Susan Mitchell comments a number of times in Icons, Saints and Divas how nervous she was before approaching someone for an interview, about the stress prior to an interview and often afterwards as well.

The skill of careful listening to hear the meaning of what I am being told may not be a problem but being sensitive to nuances that may need to be followed up and examined is something I sometimes handle clumsily. In my journal on 31 March I find Remember to listen more than talk. Don't cut them off. Follow up leads … . Looking through my journal I notice that often I write how difficult it is to not be objective! I ask myself, is this because it is easier to judge than to participate? Sometimes I think how much easier it is to fall back into the patriarchal, traditional anthropologist "eye of God" role and remove myself from the proceedings … talk and write about the women from a distance — not work closely with the women!

Then, of course, there is the problem of trying not to push my own words into the mouths of my women, especially when they minimise or even disregard their own experience and maximise that of husband and / or children. There is difficulty in coaxing women to talk about themselves, their own experiences. Early in April this year I wrote in my journal, I asked Morag if she would be in it and she sounded quite interested but then downgraded herself and said she didn't want to bore me. Nearly all the women do it. As if they are not important enough or don't have interesting things to say, or have never experienced anything anyone else will find interesting! I read in Shulamit Reinharzs' book that "almost all discussions of women deal only with what they are in relation to men in terms of real, ideal or value criteria" (Simmel in Reinharz 1992:52). It seems that at least some of my women would fit this assumption, but at least one other is adamant this project is about her and not her husband. In my journal I write Lou's husband tells me I can use the journals he has kept on previous visits to Zimbabwe, Lou objects, she says to him, "This is about me, not you!" She is very clear that it is her life, her experience, that we are talking about. Another tells me that her husband left her after they had been here four and a half years and her youngest child (of nine children) was two and a half. She said, "I had a wonderful time being married to him and an even better time afterwards!" This is the same woman who often excuses herself for "boring" me! Maureen, who arrived here in the early eighties, said to me "My husband … the only way my husband could cope was to get on, I mean, he had to learn a whole new system of law. The only way we could cope was, he could do his job and I could cope with everything else, look after the children, and work in the home … I was also having to look after a very frail and aging mother-in-law …".

Coming to terms with the very different way of life in Australia, seems to have encouraged the women in this research to draw on inner strengths that they may not have realised otherwise. For some of the women, the accent is on coping — as with Maureen. For others, the freedom afforded by living in this egalitarian (by comparison) society has allowed us enormous opportunities for development. Therefore, in conclusion, I have to say there is no clearly defined place to end this paper, or indeed this research. The situation today is not the same as it was last year or even last month. Each day we live in this society we become more attuned to it, and it to us. As adult emigrants, we will always have our memories of Africa that don’t fit in the Australian context or relate to local understanding. We have our own history, which we can share — but only by the telling, and we have learned to tell it only when we are asked. The minutiae of the lives of women in general, and these women in particular, continues to fascinate me. Whatever value women give (or fail to give) their own experiences (and their activities) these things are important — not only historically but as an expression of social context and as a statement of validity for all women.


Behar, Ruth (1995) "Writing in My Father's Name: A Diary of Translated Woman's First Year" in Behar, Ruth and Gordon, Deborah A (eds) Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp 65- 82

Bhabha, Homi K (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge

Mitchell, Susan (1997) Icons, Saints and Divas: Intimate Conversations with Women Who Changed the World. Sydney: HarperCollins.

Moi, Toril (1991) "Appropriating Bourdieu: Feminist Theory and Pierre Bourdieu's Sociology of Culture" in New Literary History, 1991, 22: pp 1017-1049.

Olesen, Virginia (1994) "Feminisms and Models of Qualitative Research" in Denzin, Norman K & Lincoln, Yvonna S (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage,158-74

Reinharz, Shulamit (with the assistance of Lynn Davidman) (1992). Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford U P.

Waldby, Catherine (1995) "Feminism and Method" in Caine, Barbara & Pringle, Rosemary (eds) Transitions: New Australian Feminisms. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin. pp 15-28.

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