Academic journal article Hecate

Palmer's Present: Gender and the National Community in 1934

Academic journal article Hecate

Palmer's Present: Gender and the National Community in 1934

Article excerpt

'Young women of 1934 are usually bored by the mention of the women's movement', Nettie Palmer wrote in March 1934. (1) 'Looking back, they see the women who did the pioneering', she continued 'as rather dowdy, dusty, struggling creatures'. (2) Palmer herself believed, however, that there was no doubt as to the 'authenticity [my emphasis] of women's past grievances', as she stated in her brief review of J. O'Malley's Women in Subjection. By the 1970's for young women looking back, there was merely a blank--by then the struggles of both radical and conservative women had been obliterated from the history books and school texts. Radical Australian women were hidden from mainstream history. The only way through to the past for many women of that generation was via literature; novels by Henry Handel Richardson and Katharine Susannah Prichard were still available. Julia Kristeva asks of the French that they pursue a critique of their national tradition without selling off its assets, (3) similarly we, in looking now at earlier feminist struggles of women in the 1930s, in examining our feminist foremothers, need to be wary of too ready a dismissal.

In 1934 Nettie Palmer, with Frances Fraser, edited the Centenary Gift Book (4) for the centenary of Victoria, an important text in inter-war feminisms. It was the first book to mark the state celebrations in the 1930s in Australia--South Australia did so in 1936; for New South Wales' sesqui-centenary Flora Eldershaw edited The Peaceful Army. In Queensland a biographical register of prominent women was published in 1939--for no apparent reason except that a need was perceived. Almost a genre, there were precedents in Melba's Gift Book and Society of Women Writers' publications. (5) These books, these attempts by women to include women in the narratives of the nation/state, have been used by feminist scholars--and in the process severely rebuked--in addressing the questions of gender, race and nation.

In examining Palmer's contribution to the Centenary Gift Book, in the context of her life story and of the individual processes by which a non-Indigenous woman in Australia can come to terms with the implications of colonisation; the ways in which gendered individuals begin to reconcile themselves with the environment, the past, the original owners and the present; and Australia's foreign relations, a more nuanced reading of the Centenary Gift Book is possible. Much of Palmer's writing sought to bring about a wider recognition of Australia's colonial status, of the effects of British cultural imperialism, and the need to find ways to move beyond it. Her concept of nation drew on the idea of it as transitional--and as Kristeva elaborates--art and literature were the signs of national recognition. Palmer was steeped in European literature and philosophy, and nation was equated with culture rather than military or sporting prowess. Palmer had written extensively for the women's press; this was her first major involvement with mainstream feminists as a professional writer.

It is now accepted that modern colonial regimes are invariably gendered and raced. (6) White settler colonies seek to be like the old British world and yet different from it; the imperial centre seeks to dominate and appropriate. Immigrants, especially the first generation, narrate stories that legitimate and valorise their experiences--and justify the dispossession of Indigenous owners of the land. Two main strategies used by the 'modern' women of the 1930s were, first, to both distance themselves from and yet reinforce the images of the whitewoman 'pioneer' (in contrast with the imperial centre, domestically, physically and so on), and second, to use the image of pioneer in the context of women 'pioneering new fields' in the paid workforce and public sphere. They thus could retain something of the expectancy of labour and social experimentation in Australia.

The white settler nationalisms between the wars have been characterised as nostalgic--national belonging was no longer based on universalist choice and citizenship (as in the case of America) but on the myth of belonging to a particular culture. …

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