Academic journal article Hecate

"The Best Career Is Matrimony": First-Wave Journalism and the "Australian Girl."

Academic journal article Hecate

"The Best Career Is Matrimony": First-Wave Journalism and the "Australian Girl."

Article excerpt

The identity and supposedly inherent characteristics of the "Australian girl" had been the subject of much interest and speculation well before first-wave feminism impacted on Australian life. As soon as the local white girl, rather than the transplanted British girl, became the norm, writers began to treat her as a national "type" worthy of analysis and examination. At first she received particular attention from a succession of visiting overseas writers and journalists - to my knowledge all white and nearly all male - including such notables as Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain. Perhaps the most memorable and certainly the most notorious construction of the Australian girl which emerged from these early sketches by these instant authorities in all things Australian is Peter Cunningham's "currency lass", whom he describes as toothless, "possessing much simplicity of character", and not appearing to "class chastity as the very first of virtues".(1) But with the start of a new century and the achievement of nationhood even more attention was focused upon the Australian girl, who was widely touted by the mainstream Australian press of the time as a symbol of the promise and potential of the new nation. Journalist George Taylor announced:

Just as America ten years ago was ripe for the creation of the American girl, so Australia today awaits the realisation of the Australian girl. As we have grown into nationality, it is about time Australia got its 'girl'.

For Taylor, however, the Australian girl's destiny is a foregone conclusion:

When the Australian 'girl' does arrive - when she steps on the threshold of our nationality, and holds aloft the wreath for her conqueror, from what I know of the Australian 'boy' she will find no lack of enthusiastic champions.(2)

But perhaps not all journalists were so eager to pair off Australian girls and boys. The dawn of the twentieth century was also an era of considerable achievements for women, especially with the establishment of women's suffrage in Federal Parliament as well as in most Australian states (Victoria was the last to acquire female suffrage in 1908). It is salutary then, to re-examine the construction of the Australian girl as she was presented in the first two decades of this century by contemporary journalists, both feminist and otherwise, and to look at any distinctive differences that emerge. Could the Australian girl also be emblematic of the newly enfranchised woman?

In the post-Federation period, there was certainly an enormous degree of interest shown in the Australian girl by journalists, novelists, poets and painters.(3) For some, she was defined principally in terms of her looks. In an article entitled "The Australian Girl" in the Lone Hand in February, 1912, for instance, D.H. Souter, one of the Lone Hand's resident male journalists, describes the girl as

a menace to public safety. The soft light in her eyes, the ruddy lusciousness of her lips, the audacious contour of her chin, and the appealing whiteness of the nape of her neck speak volumes for the firm hold which the majority of men keep on their emotions.(4)

The same magazine, launched as an up-market literary monthly by the Bulletin in 1907, reveals the masculinist ethos of its parent magazine by taking up the challenge of the Chicago Tribune to produce an Australian girl as beautiful as the Tribune's selected beauty of America. While it hoped thereby to establish the "Australienne" as the "most beautiful type in the world", it automatically equated good looks with excellent marriage prospects - no other "career" for a beautiful Australian girl was envisaged. "The best career for the Australian girl is matrimony", it was asserted.(5)

Other attempts to define the Australian girl embrace equally predictable and hackneyed ideas. Some journalists applied a palimpsest approach, transferring previously sacrosanct male virtues onto the female of the species. …

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