Tag Archives: australian history

Talkin’ Up to the White Woman

As with Living on Stolen Land, I don’t want to be the white woman talking about and appropriating an Indigenous woman’s words. So if you’ve been thinking about reading this book, do it! This review is intended to prod people into doing so, and in no way is a substitute for Moreton-Robinson’s own words.

I saw Aileen Moreton-Robinson at the Broadside feminist festival last year and she was intriguing. On the panel I saw, about women of colour and how they approach feminism, she was the oldest by perhaps a decade or more, and she seemed to get quite impatient by what some of the panellists were saying – and how they were saying it; she told them (in a poor paraphrase) that feminism is a white woman’s thing and they, not being white, needed to think differently – and maybe white feminism wasn’t actually what they needed. That’s a very poor paraphrase, actually, but I think it gets some of the sense of what she said – and for me, as a white feminist in the audience, it was eye-opening and kind of stunning. I am in a weird halfway place I think between second and third wave feminism; I don’t think I think that all women are sisters and experience oppression in the same way, but I’ve definitely had to work on fully manifesting intersectionality in the way that I think and act. The panellists too were intrigued by how Moreton-Robinson spoke; at one point someone (only half-jokingly) suggested the panel should be the rest of them asking Moreton-Robinson questions.

The other thing that really stuck in my mind was the fact that this book was published in 2000, and Moreton-Robinson had never before been asked to speak at a conference in Australia about it. Never. Nineteen years of a book that was the first Indigenous Australian interrogation of feminism… and conferences have ignored it, and her. That’s a disgrace. There is, at least, a 20th anniversary edition out this year, and Moreton-Robinson seems to have been on some programmes (ABC Radio, The Drum), so that’s a bit of an improvement?

So, the book. It took me quite a long time to read, partly because this year I have been struggling to read new stuff – which I think is the case for many people – and partly because it’s been a while since I read any theory; it’s not every chapter, but several deal with anthropological theory and feminist theory so I knew I needed to read it slowly to actually absorb what was being said. Rushing through would have been a disservice to the book, and I wouldn’t have really appreciated everything being discussed.

Throughout the book Moreton-Robinson talks about “the subject position middle-class white woman” which I found challenging, in some ways – because as she points out, women like that/women like me are indeed accustomed to being the default. And even when I am aware that I am those things, constantly having it pointed out (like Indigenous women, like African-American women, like… etc usually experience) is a novel experience. And an important one. And is one of the core points of the entire book: feminism – especially as it was in the late 1990s, in some corners I think it may have changed a bit in the last two decades – has been developed by white women with themselves at the centre, and while we’re busy interrogating various positions of power etc we forget to think about how, even in our gender oppression we massively benefit from (and help to support) racial oppression.

Moreton-Robinson begins my talking about how Indigenous women have presented themselves in their life-writings, pointing out the differences in those experiences compared to middle-class white women. She then tackles a massive job in looking at how various feminists have theorised ‘difference’ and ‘race’ over time and in different places – mostly white feminists, since they have been the most significant for Australian ways of thinking. And along with a whole bunch of interesting things here the main take-away for me is that white feminists haven’t considered that they are white; that they (we) have race/colour/ethnic position. And then the third chapter was perhaps the most gut-punch, from a historical point of view: she gives an overview of how white feminist anthropologists have talked about “Indigenous women” and all the ways that has been part of the colonising process, which chapter 4 also continues to interrogate.

All of the preceding stuff is incredibly important and could have stood by itself. What Moreton-Robinson then does in chapter 5 is present interviews with white feminist academics (ask me how hard it’s been to remember to put ‘white’ at the start of each nominal group… hello privilege), about how those academics think about race and present it in their courses and interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds. And this was illuminating and also for me challenging: who do I interact with and why, how do I present an anti-racist stance in my teaching and also live it in the world, and so on.

Finally, the last chapter presents a history of how Indigenous women (up to 2000, which I think is important to remember, since more will have been done and said since then) have challenged white women and their intentions and words. Which was its own version of challenging mostly because of how white women have responded to being challenged (often, badly).

This book won’t be for everyone; I know that reading theory isn’t going to be appealing for many. But the ideas and challenges that Moreton-Robinson present are vital for us middle-class white women to hear and acknowledge. If you ever get a chance to hear her, please do so. If you think you can cope with some theory, please get hold of this book and read it.

Living on Stolen Land

This book was sent to me to review by Magabala Books. It comes out in July – so very timely – and will be $22.99.

I am an Anglo Australian. My most recent migrant ancestor is maybe 4 or 5 generations back. I am a history teacher. And I live on stolen land. I benefit every day from the fact that indirectly each of my ancestors (and directly, in a couple of cases) contributed to the displacement of Indigenous Australians.

Ambelin Kwaymullina has produced what the media release calls a “prose-style manifesto”, and what I would describe as a free-verse lesson about the past and the present and the future. She’s also responsible for that gorgeous cover and the internal images that help make this a lovely object as well as a powerful text.

Kwaymullina covers so much stuff that I want everyone to experience that I’m tempted to re-hash everything she says… which would be, as she herself points out, a white woman re-interpreting an Indigenous woman and that’s exactly the sort of thing that really needs not to exist. (I’m also currently reading Aileen Moreton Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, so… yeh.) So let me say that she makes it very clear – in case there was any doubt in the reader’s mind – about the original ownership of this land we call Australia; about the ongoing problems of the way we settlers talk about the land and its original inhabitants; and also points ways forwards as to how all of the people now living here might actually make it work. For everyone. As the blurb says, this is a “beautifully articulated declaration… a must-read for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.”

There are two bits that particularly got to me. Firstly, as a history teacher, Kwaymullina’s discussion of time is breath-taking (pp12-14): her description of linear time, where “Things that happened / a hundred years ago / are further away / than things that happened yesterday” – and is “weaponised against Indigenous peoples” and gives “the illusion of progress / regardless of whether / anything has changed”. And it’s that last bit that took my breath away. Then she speaks of Indigenous systems where “time is not linear” – cycles, instead, and “as susceptible / to action and interaction / as any other life”. And then she points out that cyclical time is a gift and a responsibility because “The change has not been lost / for justice / for change” and I nearly cried. I have never thought of time like that and never realised that it was even possible that life could work like that.

Secondly, Kwaymullina has a very pointed section about “Behaviours” from Settlers, and the four different ways we might act. Those who speak well and do nothing, the Saviours, the ‘discoverers’ (appropriating Indigenous stuff for their own life… and the change-makers. And this section made me really think about the ways that I act, and have acted, and intend to act.

Look. This book is 64 pages of free verse that will gently and pointedly make you think about yourself and and your ways of thinking and your understanding of history and the possibilities of the future. I will read this book again and again, I will read it to my students, I will share it with other people, I will tell other people to read it. Every household should have a copy of this and I don’t use the word ‘should’ lightly.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Unknown.jpegWell I’m only about six years behind on this.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that I don’t much care for Australian history. Except for the women’s suffrage bit. There are lots of reasons for this and some of them are the same ones everyone else trots out and some of them are idiosyncratic (I really like my history to be properly old, and I like the textual/ architectural etc remains, which is problematic for Indigenous history).

Anyway. I loved You Daughters of Freedom and back when we were still able to congregate with others (ah, the good old days), I went to hear Clare Wright speak about it. I took my copy of Daughters to get signed… and then while I was there I thought I should get this, and also get it signed (which meant lining up a second time which she thought was very funny). This is partly because I was feeling a bit giddy-fan-girl, and partly because she described it as her ‘democracy trilogy’ – the third to be about the Yirrkala bark petitions, I believe, which I will absolutely be buying and reading. I also figured that while I’m fairly indifferent towards the whole Eureka myth and the way it figures in Australian history, I could trust that Wright wouldn’t give me a rah-rah-tattoo-the-Southern-Cross-on-your-chest story.

Wright does a marvellous job of peopling the gold rush fields of Ballarat with real people – men and women and children, from many different places around the world. This is the real key to her work. She points out just how masculine the story has been, and the take-away myths that have grown up around it; and then she debunks those myths by not only pointing out that women were there, but by pointing up how significant the contribution of women was.

Women as publicans. Women holding gold licences. Women running shops. Women running the newspaper, and writing copy for it. Women running a theatre. Women holding together their families. Women being expected by the government to make the place more civilised. The lack of Chinese women being used as an excuse to be racist shits. Women giving birth (including in the middle of the storming of the Stockade!) and women dying. Women as reasons for men to try and make more money, to look after the families – and to stop the woman from being the one supporting the family. Lady Hotham being appealed to, to intervene with her husband, the ruler of the colony. They were there. And important. And ultimately shoved back into old gender roles, for the most part, when the gold fields got more mechanised and Ballarat organised itself as more of a regular town and when the franchise got extended to more men, but no women.

One of the things I liked about Daughters is that it recognised that Indigenous women were excluded from the achievements of 1902 (although Ruby Hamad has words to say about how this is discussed and to what extent, in White Tears Brown Scars). The Wathaurung people appear occasionally in this story: reminders that they had been finding gold in the area for centuries, and that some of them engaged in commerce and relationships with Europeans, and so on; but overall not that much. It seems that Wright had to do immense digging (heh) in the archives to find the information about the white women that she uses in the book; that there would be far less archival information about Indigenous people and their interactions with each other or Europeans doesn’t surprise me at all. Sadly. Could Wright have done better? Maybe. Would it have made the project even bigger? Absolutely. Was it the point of the book? No. If someone hasn’t tried to do a really in-depth look at the Indigenous experience of the Victorian goldfields, that should absolutely happen.

I have a much greater appreciation for what life was like on the goldfields (pretty shit), the political situation with both Hotham back in Melbourne and the local authorities (also pretty shit, for a variety of reasons), and some of what led the miners to actually create what we know as “the Eureka Stockade” (pretty haphazard, not really intended to be a Great Last Stand Bastion), and of course the place of women in all of this. The entire situation really does deserve a place in discussions about the development of Australia as a democracy, as a social liberal experiment, and in how Australia developed its identity (exclusion of the Chinese, other variations on racism, how people spoke of themselves in relation to Britain, etc etc). Which is something I never thought I would say.

(My enthusiasm has one caveat. There’s this weird bit where she talks about women’s menstrual cycles synchronising, and something something hormones affecting a situation, and… it’s just odd. It doesn’t fit with the rest of her style, and the synchronising almost certainly isn’t true, and… yeh. I was a bit thrown.)

Even if you think you don’t like Australian history – if you like history, and the reclaiming of forgotten groups, this is definitely one to read.

Dark Emu

Unknown.jpegEvery non-indigenous Australian should read this book.

I would hope that an indigenous Australian read this book would experience a lot of punching the air and YEAH! and “that’s what grandma/uncle/cousin always said!” moments. I fear, though, that instead there would be a lot of anger (‘why weren’t we told?’), bewilderment (ditto), dismay (ditto, and ‘where is it now?’) and sheer sadness for what’s been lost – physically, and as knowledge – and for what’s been taken away.

People like me – not indigenous, benefiting from ancestors who colonised this land, taking it away from the original owners – should be humbled to learn what was here for tens of thousands of years, which we then screwed up, and denied knowledge of.

Dark Emu is Bruce Pascoe’s exploration of the evidence that Aboriganal Australians had far more agricultural experience, knowledge, and activity than tends to be acknowledged in the standard Australian story. The general line is that when the British arrived, they found nomadic inhabitants who followed game and picked fruit from trees. More recently, you might hear people talk about Aboriginals using fire to move game or set up places where game would come for easy hunting. Pascoe shows that the agricultural acitivites of Aboriginal Australians went far, far beyond that.

As as historian, I really liked the way Pascoe built the evidence for his argument here. One of the things that’s often said about it being hard for writing pre-British invasion history is that the original folk left so few records, and because modern white historians privilege writing. Pascoe does multiple things to that. Firstly, he discusses the archaeological record, which is there if you accept what you’re looking at. Secondly, he shows that there is writing to be used: it’s the journals and letters of white explorers, who simultaneously recorded what they saw indigenous Australians doing and denigrated them. And thirdly, he makes some excellent points about how modern writers categorise societies and civilisation. My favourite bit is in talking about the use of pottery. Just because ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilisations used pottery doens’t make pottery a marker of civilisation… it makes pottery a marker of those civilisations, of a particular way of doing society. And Pascoe quotes Bill Gammage in drawing a distinction between farming, and being a farmer: “one is an activity, the other a lifestyle” (14). Brilliant.

I also want to mention how much I appreciated and enjoyed Pascoe’s style. This is not a dry historical account, with the author attempting or pretending to absent himself from the discussion. Instead, Pascoe is very much present – commenting on where sections have been updated with further information from various sources, pointing out how Australian farmers could benefit from the knowledge of how Australian Aboriginals did things, occasionally making snarky comments about the explorers’ notes. It’s a very honest history, since no author is truly objective and aloof from their topic.

Before the British arrived, indigenous Australians had extensive methods to cultivate food, both on land and as aquaculture; they had various means of preserving and saving food for later; and they lived in houses of various construction types. That most Australians today don’t know this is because things were destroyed by squatters or ignored by archaeologists, historians, and others. This book is an incredibly important addition to the way Australia today should view its past, and consider its future.

The Conscription Conflict and the Great War

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Monash University, at no cost. This review initially appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal, AgoraUnknown.jpeg

The year I got back to teaching Year 9 history I happened to visit Canberra. I wasn’t that keen on the Australian War Memorial – not being a huge fan of military history – but my co-traveller wanted to, so we did. Knowing that I would be teaching something about the conscription debate as part of our history unit, I looked out for what the AWM might say about it. I found it in the 1916 room on the First World War: a single display, showing some postcards from the Yes and No campaigns, accompanied by very little explanation about the situation. When we got to the book shop, I asked whether they had any books on conscription or, failing that, any books on the home front with information about the debate. No, they didn’t.

It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of books on the conscription debate; there hasn’t been a “book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, developments and sources in 1935” (p6). This is amazing and, frankly, depressing, since it “was a defining feature of wartime Australia” (p2) and “unique… quite without precedent – not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world” (p3). The aims of The Conscription Debate are manifold: to offer new interpretations; to compare the Australian experience with other English-speaking countries at the time; and – most provocatively – to “intervene in current debates about how to understand the war by contributing to a more accurate and rounded picture of how it was experienced” (pp6-7). The authors do meet these aims – not always in a great deal of detail, given the length of the book, but sufficiently to give an overview of the issues.

Chapters 1 and 2 (Douglas Newton and Robin Archer) make up Part 1 and set out the philosophical and political context of the conscription. These were the two chapters I found most difficult to follow. I think they would be best read with at least some understanding of nineteenth-century British and Australian political philosophy, especially of what it meant to be ‘liberal’ at that time, as well as an understanding of the ins and outs of contemporary British politics more generally. This is not my area of expertise, so I found myself floundering through the discussion of Liberal Imperialists and New Liberals and Little Englanders. Nonetheless, these chapters are important to the overall picture this volume is putting forward: that the traditions of liberalism, and the existence of the labour movement, are fundamental to understanding the conscription debate.

Part 2 consists of Chapters 3 (on the Antis); Chapter 4 (on the Yes campaign at the University of Melbourne); and Chapter 5 (an examination of the poll results in both 1916 and 1917). In Chapter 3 Frank Bongiorno gives a clear, if brief, overview of some of the incentives for voting no: tyranny vs freedom, women as mothers, and (embarrassingly) ‘keeping Australia white and free’. He speaks not just of the well-known names like Daniel Mannix but also those who have largely slipped off the historical radar. In Chapter 4 Joy Damousi looks at a group of Melbourne University academics such as Alexander Leeper and Jessie Webb who actively campaigned for conscription, pointing out that the yes campaign has rarely been analysed “as a set of arguments or as a movement in its own right” (p93). Such arguments included the suggestion that voting no would significantly contribute to a German victory and Australia becoming a German colony, and that it was democracy that was at stake in this war – so citizens must “show themselves worthy of these freedoms” (p101). Intriguingly, many of these academics went on to be involved in the League of Nations Union. In Chapter 5, Murray Goot undertakes a detailed examination of election results to try and understand voting patterns amongst Labor voters and not, in metro and regional areas, among women, British and German migrants, and between Catholics and Protestants. This chapter is not for those afraid of percentages, but for those interested in the history of Australian voting it is deeply fascinating.

John Connor (Chapter 6) and Ross McKibbin (Chapter 7), in Part 3, match Part 1 in a sense: they put the Australian conscription debate into international context by comparing experiences in other English-speaking countries. Connor gives a chronological overview of English-speaking countries, all of which instituted conscription in some form, while McKibbin provides a more detailed comparison of Britain and Australia. These two chapters highlight the remarkable nature of Australia’s experience at the time, since nowhere else put the question to its citizens in the same way. It also suggests that this issue of conscription and how citizens respond is one that warrants further research.

Finally, Sean Scalmer in Part 4 gives an overview of how the conscription debate – and especially the Antis – have been remembered in Australian history: from being a labour-movement legend to its eclipse thanks to conscription in World War 2 and, more recently, how it fits in with “the broader revival of Anzac commemoration and enthusiasm” (p206). Deeply interesting, this chapter too suggests that there is a lot of room for further research.

One issue I had with the book overall was the use of the word ‘referendum’. My understanding was that non-binding polls like this, which were not asking to change the constitution, were properly called plebiscites. Most of the authors in this book call it a referendum… except Frank Bongiorno in Chapter 3. I would have appreciated some discussion of the terminology, and an explanation for the words used (also consistency).

This is, to coin a phrase, the book on conscription we had to have – because it’s essentially the first. It’s not the book on conscription I wished for; that imaginary book has a lot more about the individuals (I adore Vida Goldstein) and groups that were campaigning both for and against the issue. But The Conscription Conflict does an admirable job of reminding us why 1916 and 1917 were important years for Australia outside of the fighting going on in Europe; it sets out areas that need further research; and hopefully, it will serve to inspire someone (or many someones) to dig deeper into this fascinating period in Australian history.