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Sara Buttsworth

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About the author

Sara Buttsworth is writing a PhD in History and Women's Studies at UWA on representations of women and war.

Publication details

Volume 6, May 2000

Antipodean Iconography:
A Search for Australian Representations of Women and War

As a child I read the 'classics' of children's literature, written by women for young girls. I cried for Walter, the son of Anne of Green Gables, who died in the trenches of the Somme. I rejoiced for his sister Rilla who was able to find romance amidst a flurry of knitting, bandage rolling and delivering impassioned speeches at recruiting rallies in Canada during the Great War (Montgomery, 1921.). The stories of 'making do' with rations of essentials like sugar and butter, were appealing in the same ways as the struggles of Laura Ingles and her family in the Little House on the Prairie series, where the battle was against the environment on the 'frontier' rather than an army. Both stories depict women 'coping'. They are also stories which highlight the experiences of women during times when the courage and perseverance of men have dominated written history until very recently. In reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women I sympathised with the plight of Jo who railed against fate for having been born a girl.

I hate to think I've got to grow up and be Miss March, and wear long gowns and look as prim as a China-aster. It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners. I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and it's worse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay home and knit like a poky old woman. (Alcott, 1868.)

I don't believe that as I child I considered these texts to be war stories, dominated as they were with domestic pursuits and the agonies of waiting as opposed to the glories of the warrior. And yet, in searching my mind for stories of women in wartime that had made an impact upon me personally, Little Women and Rilla of Ingleside sprang to mind. That I did not associate either of these 'classics' directly with war, I feel, emphasises the marginality accorded women's wartime experiences. The location of these fictions outside war literature gains new significance when placed in the Australian context, where try as I might I was unable to recall similar texts from my childhood or adolescence which dealt with representations of Australian women and war. Was this a mere personal idiosyncrasy or does this absence have a broader significance? If there is a wider pattern, what has led to this iconic vacuum? In examining ways in which the soldier/warrior is constructed, and the importance of gender to this construction, it has become obvious that there has been very little space for the development of an Australian female hero.

Australian representations of women and war are scarce, and are not well known or widely recognisable. When representations are available - like those of Australian nurses - they have not attained the same status accorded the male soldier, and they can be viewed as apart from the soldier/hero tradition. It is from these gaps and separations that this article has emerged. It is important to acknowledge and identify these absences in order that they can be explored opening the possibility of redress in future work.

Although tribute can be found to Australia's pioneering women, they are rarely named, unlike Laura Ingles who made such an impact upon me as a child. An example of the lack of autonomous identity of these Australian women is Henry Lawson's "The Drover's Wife" whose character was dependent upon the occupation of her spouse. Why has Australia never developed legends like that of "Molly Pitcher", a heroine of the American War of Independence? We have no "Calamity Jane" or Annie Oakley. However, we do utilise these well-known representations to introduce Australian issues. An example of this is Herschel Hurst's 1990 report of the movement of women into combat related duties in the ADF, entitled "Annie Get Your Gun" (Hurst, 1990.). This has broader implications than those of cultural saturation from the United States. In order for American iconography to take hold there must be spaces in cultural construction arising as a result of specifically Australian circumstances. These representations are also used to introduce conditions in Australia which do not always uphold a semblance of parity of experience between the two countries, but which demonstrate localised usage of imported images. 1

Marilyn Lake has argued argument that "one of the greatest political struggles in Australian history [was] the contest between men and women at the end of the nineteenth century for the control of the national culture" which culminated in deification of the 'bushman'(Lake, 1986, p.116.) Annabel Cooper in her analysis of Lake's article takes this argument further claiming one of the resulting functions of Anzac mythology was to "centralise masculinity and marginalise femininity"(Cooper, 1993, pp.405-406.). The very word Anzac is as "pitiless as a hurled spear…It conveys something savagely masculine, ruthless, resolute, clean driven home". 2 It is also a word which still resonates at the end of the twentieth century but within which there is no room for women or 'feminine' attributes.

I would like to argue that a part of the exclusion of women from an iconography of war, and the failure to create female legends and heroes, fits into an ideology associating women with the 'feminine' pursuits of hearth and home. The undertaking of these pursuits are passive and inconsequential, in contrast to war which is separate, distant from 'home' and a quintessentially masculine endeavour. Impassioned pleas to go and 'fight with papa' are rendered ludicrous by an ideology which so firmly separates the masculine from the feminine, and the huge distances between home and the battlefronts.

The factor that has allowed the development of the American heroine is the 'internal' nature of the conflicts from which the early heroines arose. In wielding weapons and fighting alongside, and often disguised as, men these women represent a disruption of traditional gender roles. However, they are rapidly re-assimilated as their actions can be constructed as defensive of the hearth by which they are defined. War has not 'officially' taken place within Australia, and there are no Australian heroines equatable to those of the United States. Although official histories are now recognising European settlement in Australia as an invasion, and hence as an act of war, there has been no attention paid to the roles Aboriginal women, or settler women, in this conflict. Richard White makes a brief statement that Aboriginal war may be seen as an exception when examining gendered roles - "Women on both sides were often in the firing line when hostilities broke out and they fought back" but the "formal acts of aggression" remain the domain of men (White, 1988, p.407.). A further duality emerges: that between "formal" or recognised acts of aggression and "informal" acts, able therefore, to be dismissed as apart from "real" warfare. The representation of women absent from war is partially enabled by the distance between Australia and the recognised battlefields which have been so crucial to the construction of a national, masculine identity.

When thinking about women and munitions work during the Second World War, the image that springs to mind is "Rosie the Riveter" - overalled and smiling, named and ready for duty. A part of a recruitment campaign in the United States, "Rosie" seems to dominate images of women's war work. In Australia the participation of women in war industries and on the land was vitally important and yet no parallel icon appears to have been developed. Images of women in factories and in the auxiliary services of the military are available, many of them on display at the Australian War Memorial, and yet they have not attained the same kind of iconic status. 3

These women and their contributions are also obscured by the shadow cast by the Anzacs, both through the legends build up around (male) Australian soldiers and the monuments erected to honour them. For example, the memorial to women situated in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial is a flat tiled surface slightly raised at one end it is very easy to walk past - I walked past it myself and had to have it pointed out to me. This lack of immediate visibility is heightened in its relation to a nearby large monument of a (male) soldier who stands upright, towering over the grass and the grounded women's memorial. Ken Inglis, in his article "Men, Women and War Memorials" describes how he could only find one 'effigy of a nurse' on a local monument, although nurses are depicted in relief on other memorials of the Great War (Inglis, p.101). Inglis further describes the difficulty of having depictions of women accepted as a part of war memorials, and the problems of arriving at 'acceptable' depictions of femininity. He emphasises the ways in which women's contributions are obscured in public monuments. Chilla Bulbeck expands upon this analysis and makes the point that although depictions of nurses are relatively rare these are the dominant ways of portraying women on war memorials, even though women have been involved in many other pursuits in wartime. There is a need to portray women only in the extension of a mothering role, and to uphold the clear distinction between the 'life preservers' (the feminine) and 'life takers' (the masculine)(Bulbeck, 1992, p.20). The conviction that femininity and war are incompatible (Inglis, pp.106 -107) pervades the search for ways of honoring the dead and imprints the landscape of popular memory with the homefront/war divide.

The obfuscation of women's experiences in material culture is replicated in writing in Australian historiography of war. Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace, published for the Bicentennial in 1988 contains only brief references to the 'mobilisation' of women. In placing women outside the 'important' activities and ramifications of war this text reinforces the construction of their marginality as the following excerpt exemplifies:

Certainly war could broaden the range of socially acceptable activities open to women, but more importantly it reinforced the centrality of masculinity and ensured that women remained peripheral. 4

Even women's activities in pacifist movements, a culture of which women have often been described as the 'natural' guardians, are skimmed over in this volume in favour of men's trade union activities in a chapter on dissent (Gilbert & Jordens, pp.338 - 365). Women's struggles for better pay and conditions, when munitions workers and others 5 went on strike during the Second World War, are not included in this dissenting 'tradition'. Similarly the protests of such organisations as the Women's Service Guild against the 'rounding up' of young working women suspected of having VD 6 are not classed as being a part of the dissenting tradition. Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace reinforces assumptions of a peripheral femininity, even while making it evident to the reader. Jeffrey Grey's A Military History of Australia, published two years after Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace, opens with a disclaimer that

Some matters receive relatively little treatment: the role and impact of returning veterans upon their society or the roles of women in the armed services. This reflects significant gaps in the literature on Australia at war rather than any particular bias on my part.(Grey, 1990, p.6)

Published in 1990, this work does pre-date more thorough investigations stressing the importance of activities and experiences on the home front during World War II. However, the bias in the available secondary source material is reinforced in Grey's work. Moreover, this bias runs the risk of becoming institutionalised, when the historian does not expand further upon this point and fails to interrogate the narrative structures which enable such easy occlusions to continue. Grey also fails to recognise in his 'Select Bibliographies' histories detailing women's wartime participation, like Patsy Adam-Smith's book Australian Women at War 7 which was first published in 1984. Other histories, like Joyce Thomson's The WAAAF in Wartime Australia 8 or Eileen Tucker Reilly's We Answered the Call, (1991) dealing with women in the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS), appeared shortly after Grey's military history. These publications show that research was being conducted into women's roles in Australia's military institutions in the late 1980s and early 1990s and that the 'gaps' were not as unbridgeable at this time as Grey would have his readers believe. This may be an indication also of the primacy given certain kinds of sources over others which widens the gap further between the contributions of women and men. Anecdotal evidence and oral material dominate the three volumes cited here and their tone is often nostalgic. The ways in which these works have been constructed and situated reinforces the 'auxiliary' status of women who were in active service during the Second World War.

The 'local' and very personal tone adopted by such works also gains significance when we consider the apparent lack of a 'canon' of literature in Australia dealing with Australian women and war. Other women authors have had their experiences published, for example Anger and Love, the autobiography of West Australian Communist Justina Williams. But, just as I did not think of Little Women as a war story, neither do these autobiographical writings appear to have attained that cachet. There are other literary works which can be found, like Lesbia Harford's The Invaluable Mystery. This novel describes the survival and changing identity of a young girl whose father and brother are interned during the Great War, due to their German ancestry. However, this work was only published for the first time in 1987, and as an example appears more obscure than easily recognisable. The lack of association of this latter work with a canon of war literature could also be as a result of its romantic overtones. If classified as a 'romance' this text can be seen to exist outside bodies of 'serious' literature relating to the war, just as the domestic pursuits of my childhood heroines appeared to put them outside the wartime context of which they should very much have been a part.

None of these works have attained the status of the writings of Virginia Woolf or Vera Brittain. Indeed the discussion on Australian Voluntary Aid Detachments contained in Adam-Smiths Australian Women at War is anchored by a reference to Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth (Adam-Smith, p.200). Bruce Clunies Ross' article "Silent Heroes", (Clunies-Ross, 1997) 9 attests to the celebration of the ANZAC legend largely unaccompanied by a canonical literary tradition and appears in a volume which is titled WAR: Australia's Creative Response. Ironically this volume also opens with the phrase "A dying man has no nationality" - by Vera Brittain. Clunies Ross' article never explicitly indicates that perhaps this lack of a tradition of combatant literature in the Australian context may be the result of the 'cultural cringe' so endemic to Australian culture. However, this may account for some of the cross cultural referencing that has taken place in the description of Australia's war-time experiences even, it appears, when dealing with the key icon of Australian identity: the soldier son. When this inability to place value upon Australian cultural production is combined with the marginality accorded to women and war, Australian representations of femininity appear transient and translucent.

Clunies Ross states that "It seems that either Australia's heroic combatants were silent, or they were silenced by the legend they inspired, at least until the revival of the Anzac tradition"(Clunies-Ross, p.107.). The revival of the tradition and the aggrandisement of the legend have much to do with the visual representations of film, which began to appear in the early 1980's. Although the cinema may have compensated for the lack of an acknowledged literary tradition it has not redressed the elsewhere femininity of Australian cultural identity.

While I was impressed with Josephine March as a child, as an adolescent I swooned over Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and Peter Phelps in The Lighthorsemen. Neither of these productions allowed more than a marginal space for the activities of women who, when visible, were either prostitutes or nurses. Although the mid 1990s brought works like Paradise Road where Cate Blanchett delivered an amazing performance as a plucky Australian nurse captured by the Japanese, the 'Australianness' of her character was secondary. However, it was a break with the invisibility of women from previous narratives of war. Paradise Road also occupies shifting ground in dealing with the experiences of prisoners of war. Australian Anzac mythology has an uneasy relationship with the experiences of male prisoners of war - perhaps because they are no longer as "pitiless as a hurled spear…". 10 This makes the impact of this film even more difficult to assess, and may be a factor that prevents it having its place in the creation and upholding of a legend, unlike the earlier films mentioned.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, in Women and War (1987), describes war as "a structure of experience" and 'war stories' as a dominant means by which the Western world has been interpreted and experienced. This is no different in Australia, where histories have largely been related as those of pre-war, war and post-war, exemplifying the predominance of war as a narrative of nation. It is a narrative structure within whose confines the presence and importance of women are left unspoken, defined and constrained by the constructed frailties of their bodies, and a culture of gender dualism. War and combat dominate the history, historiography, iconography and cinematography of a nation whose geographic distance from battlegrounds has allowed, and encouraged, a distinction between battlefront and home front. Twentieth century war stories position women 'safely' in the latter, absent from 'the action'. The dominance of the war narrative, and this construction of absence, enhances the marginalisation of women from discourses of nation and politics. The validity of women's experiences - from the operation anti-aircraft batteries in the Second World War, to more recent debates over women serving alongside men on submarines - is thus undermined. The value accorded vital activities on the homefront during World War II, where women performed myriad tasks from signaling to repairing military vehicles, is both lesser than 'fighting' and aberrant, encapsulated by the war narrative. If war in twentieth century Australia has been a narrative that constructs women as absent from spheres of combat, their experiences negated by the complicit constructions of gender and geography, representations of Australian women and war can truly be said to be Antipodean - forever elsewhere.


1. As expanded upon by E Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other - Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze, Routledge, New York and London, 1997, p.33 in her discussion of John Tomlinson Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991. "Globally, people adapt American movies, television dramas, and other consumer goods to their own needs. Having MacDonalds restaurants everywhere does not mean that America dominates in a deep way of has erased the cultural specificity of a particular locale." An example of describing situations in the Australian military using an American popular cultural image is an article which appeared in an Australian women's magazine about sexual harassment in the Australian military but which is prefaced by an image from the film GI Jane (1997). See "An Officer, Not a Gentleman - Sex Wars in Our Armed Forces", Cleo, December 1998, pp.102 - 108. For further work on the implications of American culture in Australia see the edited collection, Philip Bell and Roger Bell (eds), Americanization and Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1998.

2. F.M.Cutlack, Anzac Day Sermons and Addresses, Brisbane, 1921, cited by Ken Inglis, "Men, Women, and War Memorials: Anzac Australia", in John Lack (ed), Anzac Remembered - Selected Writings of K.S. Inglis, History Department University of Melbourne, 1998, pp.97 - 119, p.107. (Article first appeared in Daedelus, 116/4, Fall 1987.) pp.134-135. This projection is still evident in the late 1990's. In 1999 a television recruiting advertisement for the Duntroon Royal Military College appears to have incorporated different facets of soldiering in the late twentieth century with a focus on technology, and the use of young women. However, the lasting impression gained is from the young male cadet at the end of the advertisement, slouch hat in place, looking boldly into the camera and stating "When you walk onto that parade ground, you're ten foot tall and bullet proof." An extension of the legend, he is an expression of this ideal masculinity which is invulnerable, and physically awe inspiring. He also reiterates the idea that in participating in and completing military training at Duntroon, he has become this way. Transformed once onto the parade ground.

3. For an example of one of these images see the cover of Wartime - Official Magazine of the Australian War Memorial, No 5, Summer 1999. A smiling woman in a khaki uniform (wedding and engagement rings visible on her hand) stands in front of a Red Cross vehicle.

4. Richard White, "War and Australian Society" in McKernon and Browne, op.cit.,pp.366 - 423, p.408. This work very clearly demonstrates the accuracy of Lake and Cooper's argument, previously discussed, and just how powerful the gender binary of Australian war mythology is.

5. For a detailed account of women's work and the ways in which they negotiated their wartime work responsibilities see Gail Reekie, "Shunted back to the kitchen? Women's responses to war work and demobilization", in J Gregory, On the Homefront, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1997, pp.75 - 90.

6. See Sara Buttsworth, "Women Colouring the War Time Landscape", in J Gregory, op.cit.,pp.56 - 70.

7. Patsy Adam-Smith, Australian Women at War, Thomas Nelson Australia, Melbourne, 1984. This book examines women's activities from the Boer War to the Second World War.

8. Joyce Thompson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, Melbourne, 1991. For an earlier discussion of the WAAF, see E.M.Robertson, WAAAF at War: Life and Work in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Airforce, Mulleya, Canterbury, 1974. Once again though secondary sources dealing with the WRANS are much more difficult to trace.

9. Bruce Clunies-Ross, "Silent Heroes", in Anna Rutherford and James Wieland (eds), WAR: Australia's Creative Response, Dangaroo Press, West Yorkshire, 1997, pp.169 - 181.

10. See Inglis, op.cit. See also Robin Gerster, Big Noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1997, for discussions on what the legend appears able and unable to assimilate.

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