All the Women Were White? Some Thoughts on Analysing Race, Class and Gender in Australian History

Article excerpt

In the conclusion to her 1986 article entitled "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," Joan Scott claims that:

This new history will leave open possibilities for thinking about current feminist political strategies and the (utopian) future; for it suggests that gender must be redefined end reconstructed in conjunction with a vision of political and social inequality that includes not only sex but class and race. (1986, 1075)

Yet Scott's own review, acutely aware of how categories of gender must inform historical understanding, adds considerations of class and gender merely as an afterthought. Gender itself is therefore portrayed as an undifferentiated homogeneous category. This ethnocenticism, a form of cultural colour-blindness, has characterised much feminist history.

One of the central problems of analysing the relationship between race, class and gender is located within the theoretical paradigms employed. Feminist theories are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the determinations of race and ethnicity, and this is later reflected in their adaptation by historians. Scott believes that feminist historians have "come down to a choice between three theoretical positions."(1) The first, an entirely feminist enterprise that is not derivative from other theories seeks to understand the nature and origins of patriarchy. The second attempts to reconcile feminist agendas with a Marxist framework. The third is informed by French post-structuralist and Anglo-American object relations theories and seeks to explain the reproduction of the subject's gendered identity.

This is not to assert that all feminist historians can be identified solely with one or other of these three theoretical positions. What is relevant here for any discussion of how race, class and gender intersect is the inadequacy of the three most commonly employed theories to account for differences on the basis of ethnicity. Class issues have been more coherently addressed. It has been left to Black feminists, particularly those in the United States, to re-formulate feminist theory and discourse to account for and include women of colour. Deborah King identifies an almost complete theoretical invisibility of Black women (1988, 42-3). This is surprising for, as she demonstrates, by the turn of the century, educated Black women like Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell wrote extensively about the intersection of racism and sexism. (See also Beale 1979; Simons 1979). Bell Hooks further elaborates in Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism:

No other group in America has had their identity socialized out of existence as Black women. We are rarely recognized as a group separate and distinct from Black men or, as a part of a larger group `women' in this culture...When Black people are talked about the focus tends to be on Black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women. (1981, 7)

As the title of Gloria Hull et al.'s (1982) edited collection proclaims, "all the women are white, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave." Within Australian historiography other processes are apparent: some are tangential to those identified by Hooks, Angela Davis and Hull et al., others reveal the ethnocentric myopia identified by King. One initial problem was the simple inclusion of Aborigines on the historical agenda. The year 1970 marked the commencement of some historians' attempts to answer what W.E. Stammer calls the "Great Australian Silence." C.D. Rowley published his monumental trilogy, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, The Remote Aborigines and Outcasts in White Australia, These were concerned largely with Aboriginal policy and practice. The publication of Racism: The Australian Experience edited by Frank Stevens a year later added ideological and social components absent from Rowley's administrative assessment. That year also Henry Reynolds published his book of documents entitled Aborigines and Settlers. …