'Every Woman a Mother': Radical Intellectuals, Sex Reform and the 'Woman Question' in Australia, 1890-1918

By Bongiorno, Frank | Hecate, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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'Every Woman a Mother': Radical Intellectuals, Sex Reform and the 'Woman Question' in Australia, 1890-1918


Bongiorno, Frank, Hecate


`Every Woman a Mother': Radical Intellectuals, Sex Reform and the `Woman Question' in Australia, 1890-1918

...every man is a boy and every woman is a mother.

Dowell O'Reilly, 25 April 1915(1)

Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law, slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression. Some of the ancient functions of prophecy are reactivated therein. Tomorrow sex will be good again.

Michel Foucault 1976(2)

The role of sexuality in Australian public discourse has been a prominent theme in the large body of historical writing that has emerged in recent years on the period around the turn of the century, the era of the `debutante nation'.(3) The foundational texts on this period, such as Vance Palmer's The Legend of the Nineties and Russel Ward's The Australian Legend, both published in the 1950s, focussed on the nation-building activities of men, whose status as sexual subjects was generally implied rather than explored.(4) Sexual relations between white men and Aboriginal women, for example, were not a prominent theme of Ward's influential study, despite his focus on the `frontier'. These interpretations have been challenged in recent years by feminist historians preoccupied with debates in the women's movement over sexuality, and the challenges that feminists posed to a `masculinist' national culture that privileged male sexual prerogatives.(5)

The purpose of this article is to explore the responses of a small number of male and female radicals to some of the ideas associated with the mainstream Australian women's movement in the period 1890-1918. It is not a comprehensive survey but, rather, a set of case studies that seeks to contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the women's movement and other versions of political radicalism, especially the intersections of feminism, socialism and the broader impulse towards sex reform. Most of the activists and intellectuals I discuss in this paper-both male and female-would have identified themselves as socialists and freethinkers, and all had contact with the labour movement. They mainly knew one another and were familiar with each other's ideas. We are consequently dealing with a kind of `circle' here, whose members regarded themselves as belonging to an unconventional, progressive and modernising cultural elite.

Sexual radicalism will emerge in this survey as a minority tradition in the history of Australian socialism,(6) which is nevertheless integral to an understanding of the history of the movement. Recent work by Joy Damousi on women socialists in Australia and by Carole Ferrier on the communist author Jean Devanny suggests that the dynamics of Australian socialism will only become comprehensible to the extent that historians are prepared to search for the voices of suppressed and marginalised individuals and groups.(7) Historians, moreover, need to give closer attention to the discourses that socialists shared with other political groups, and of the ways in which they adapted popular discourses-such as the idea of racial decline-to their own purposes.

There have been many attempts to conceptualise the differences between masculinist and feminist understandings of citizenship. Marilyn Lake has argued that it was a

commitment to the independence of mothers, their desire to end the despotic power of husbands, that brought feminists into direct conflict with liberal and labour men who wanted to secure, not just the male citizen's industrial rights, but also his conjugal rights to women's domestic and sexual services.(8)

Yet three of the radical men on whom I focus in this paper, Bernard O'Dowd, Dowell O'Reilly and Tom Taylor, would all have been regarded as progressive on the `woman question' during the heyday of the suffrage movement in Australia. O'Reilly, for example, was a friend of Rose Scott and a prominent advocate of women's suffrage, who introduced a successful motion supporting the principle into the New South Wales parliament in 1894.

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