Feminism, the Public and the Private

By Joan B. Landes | Go to book overview
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8 The Inviolable Woman: Feminist Conceptions of Citizenship in Australia, 1900-1945

Marilyn Lake

The meaning of citizenship is currently attracting renewed attention around the world. At the same time that people are identifying new democratic possibilities in a revitalized citizenship, however, feminists have been pointing both to the masculinist terms in which citizenship has been conceptualized and to women's effective exclusion, in practice, from the basic citizen's right of self- government in Western democracies.1 These theoretical and practical issues are, of course, related. The assumed autonomy of the citizen, for example, rested on the understanding that someone else was responsible for domestic work and the maintenance of everyday life.2 To participate fully as active citizens in public life, women have had to emulate men's condition of freedom from private constraints and domestic responsibilities. Comparatively few have been willing and able to do so, and one result is that women everywhere are dramatically under-represented in political institutions. Both the discourse and practice of citizenship, feminist scholars have concluded, are profoundly gendered activities.

Women have in past times, nevertheless, placed great faith in the emancipatory possibilities of the status of citizen. Although there has been much work by feminists on masculine definitions of citizenship, there has been little investigation of the ways in which feminist citizens in past times have conceptualized this status. This article explores the promise of citizenship as it was identified and conceptualized by the first women citizens in the world to be granted full political rights, that is, the right to vote and stand for election to their national parliament. White Australian women were granted these entitlements in 1902, just one year after the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia as a nation-state.

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Reprinted by permission from Gender and History, 8/ 2 ( August 1996), 197-211. Copyright © Blackwell Publishers Ltd ( 1996).

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