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Margaret Allen

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Volume 7, November 2000


These papers in this special issue were presented at the conference 'Gender in the Contact Zone' held at Adelaide University in July 2000. The conference was the latest in a biennial series auspiced by the Network for Research in Women's History. (see Howe, 1993, Damousi, 1997, Long, 1997, Grimshaw, 1999) The conference took as its point of departure Mary Louise Pratt's notion of the contact zone:

the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and intractable conflict. (Pratt, 1993: 6-7)

The papers presented addressed the notion of the 'contact zone' in a variety of ways. (Allen 2000) Rebekah Crow examines the BBC radio broadcasts made in around 1927 by an Australian born woman, Mary Crowle. On one level these are rather nostalgic and romanticised renderings of an idyllic childhood. But as Rebekah Crow argues these memories are also steeped in the racist ideologies of colonial Queensland. Thus a summer holiday spent on an island in Moreton Bay, includes reminiscences of pleasant times spent with Aboriginal people there. But as Crow notes these people had most likely been forcibly removed from their land at Cleveland on the mainland, where they longed to return. Aboriginal people are represented in the broadcasts as childish and are seen only as an undifferentiated group who make up part of the backdrop. Whereas the white child, Mary moves from the childish state into 'civilised' society, the Aboriginal people are located in a timeless space. They are presented as being with 'neither worries nor responsibilities'. Of course more recently the autobiographical and historical writings of Aboriginal men and women have shown that their lives at this time were full of pain and anxiety as they sought to maintain themselves against the web of racist policies and ideologies, whose shape can be seen in these 'innocent' rememberings of childhood. (Oodgeroo, 1972, Huggins and Huggins, 1994 )

Mary Crowle also remembers the South Sea Island people who worked as servants in her family home. She refers to the past history of slaving in the South Sea which saw these people being forcibly taken to work in Queensland. Rebekah Crow shows how in an interesting and self-justifying twist to contemporary racist ideologies, Mary Crowle attributes the responsibility for this slavery to the British, who are represented as being inferior to the superior and more racially evolved white Australian 'race'.

Miriam Ransom turns to the 'comfort women' used by the armed forces of Japan during the Second World War. She notes that the establishment of the 'comfort stations' or military brothels involved the discursive positioning of these women sex slaves as 'other'. But the focus of this paper is an examination of recent Australian media discussions of the former 'comfort women' as they have come forward seeking an apology and compensation. Miriam Ransom situates her study within the context of Australian understandings of 'Asia' as different and inferior, understandings crucial to the maintenance of a white Australian imaginary. She finds that the Korean 'comfort women' were represented within the Australian press as elderly, abject and powerless victims. In contrast, the Australian woman who has identified herself as a former 'comfort woman' is shown as more agentic, more respectable and able to forgive her wartime exploiters.

Glenda Mather also looks out from Australia towards the work of the South Pacific Commission in the the 1950s and the work of nutritionists, such as Sheila Malcolm in promoting what were seen as better diets for child nutrition. Mather shows that 'what is considered to be nutritionally adequate is very subjective and socially defined and it might seem that 1950s Australian perspectives on diet and nutrition had limited relevance in the Pacific context.' This project might be seen as continuous with efforts on the part of middle—class reformers within the metropolis to 'improve' the lives and habits of the lower orders. With such programs, white women experts, like Sheila Malcolm were able to make a career in the Pacific regions.

The final piece by Robin Secomb was offered to the 'Gender in the Contact Zone', but was not actually presented there as Robin was heavily involved in organising the Australian Historical Association conference also held in Adelaide in July. The subject of her paper, Laura Fowler Hope was the first women medical graduate from the University of Adelaide who made a career as a medical missionary in India from 1907-1932. Drawing upon extensive research into the letters Laura wrote home to Adelaide , Robin Secomb explores the 'contact zone' where Laura interacted with the Indian people who supported and made her mission and her career possible.

These papers exemplify the interesting and valuable work being undertaken by Australian feminist scholars seeking to revision Australian history in the light of postcolonial theorising.


Allen, Margaret (2000) 'Gender in the Contact Zone' Special Issue Australian Feminist Studies forthcoming May 2001

Damousi , Joy and Katherine Ellinghaus (eds), (1999) Citizenship, Women and Social Justice International Historical Perspectives (History Department, University of Melbourne) Parkville.

Grimshaw , Patricia and Diane Kirkby (eds (1997) Dealing with Difference: Essays in Gender Culture and History (History Department, University of Melbourne) Parkville.

Howe, Renate (ed.), (1993) 'Women and the State Australian Perspectives', Special Issue Journal of Australian Studies, no. 37

Huggins, Rita and Jackie Huggins, (1994) Auntie Rita (Aboriginal Studies Press) Canberra

Long, Jane, Jan Gothard and Helen Brash (eds), (1997) Forging Identities: Bodies, Gender and Feminist History (University of Western Australia Press) Nedlands, W.A.

Noonuccal, Oodgeroo, (1972) Stradbroke Dreamtime Pymble, N.S.W : Angus & Robertson.

Pratt Mary Louise, (1993) Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (Routledge) New York and London.

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