'As the Past Coils like a Spring': Bridging the History of Australian Women Writers with Contemporary Australian Women Writers' Stories

Article excerpt

The Australian writer Eleanor Dark referred to time as the dissolving barrier. In her novel The Little Company she says that time is circular: 'The past will coil up behind you like a spring, it will reach over your head to link up with the future where you will find it awaiting you.' (1)

This article draws on interview excerpts with contemporary women writers to examine how the stories of past Australian women writers can be linked with the lives of women writing in Australia at the present time. By making connections between past and present stories, we can see ways forward for the future. Bourdieu's notion of habitus helps in exploring how these connections can be used to build bridges across time, illuminating the contemporary context, highlighting the relevance of feminist history in the current climate and enhancing our understanding of future possibilities and directions.

Judith Allen observes that it is not enough to dismiss the generations of women before second-wave feminism as 'failing' to analyse the situation of their sex in feminist terms or as backward, thoroughly conditioned or suffering from 'false consciousness'. (2) Rather, a detailed grasp is required of the 'options, constraints and gratifications' available to women writers in past and present eras. In analysing the patterns of constraints and options in the past and identifying the ways in which these patterns have changed for women writing in the present, it may be possible to gain insight into future directions. By examining the shaping forces in the identities of Australia's women writers, one gains an understanding of the social paradigms, discursive knowledges and ideological configurations that are internalised and constitute women's experiences as coherent subjects. In this approach the body is understood 'as a surface of social inscription and as the locus of lived experience'. (3)

As Connie Burns and Marygai McNamara in Eclipsed: Two Centuries of Australian Women's Fiction (1988) argue, the lives of many past women writers in Australia have been hidden or eclipsed. The struggle of the dominant discourse, that of the white male hegemony, to present itself as a unified, superior purveyor of Australian literature, has by necessity undermined and to a large extent ignored many of the voices that would show the cracks in this unified front. Feminist historians and writers have set about recovering 'herstories' of past women writers through various publications including Kay Ferres's The Time To Write: Australian Women Writers 1890-1930 (1993), Drusilla Modjeska's Exiles At Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945 (1981), Susan Sheridan's Along the Faultlines (1995), Marianne Dever's Wallflowers and Witches (1994), and Carole Ferrier's Gender and the Politics of Fiction (1985) and As Good as a Yarn with You (1992); (4) it is now possible to draw on past stories of women and connect them with contemporary and potentially future stories.

Ferrier's Gender, Politics and Fiction, for example, includes essays on Katherine Susannah Prichard and her political commitment to communism, Jean Devanny and Prichard's desire to write proletarian texts, the representation of Miles Franklin as a 'wild colonial' girl, the critical role of Nettie Palmer and a survey of Australian women novelists of the 1970s. As Ferrier states, the essays analyse how women express in fiction their understanding of their social situation and the relationship of women 'to debates about class, nationalism, feminism, race, "literature", and culture'. (5)

Contemporary feminist writing, such as Nancy J. Hirschmann and Christine Di Stefano's Revisioning the Political : Feminist Reconstructions of Traditional Concepts in Western Political Theory (1996) (6) and Moya Lloyd's Beyond Identity Politics: Feminism, Power and Politics (2005), (7) demonstrates how the feminist idea of the personal as political has enabled the characteristics, practices and experiences of women's 'private' worlds to take on social significance--collapsing the borders and breaking the silences that separated women from communicating with each other and challenging the rules, legislations and debates forged in public spaces. …