Academic journal article Outskirts

Connections Made and Broken: Intimacy and Estrangement in Australian Feminist Historiography

Academic journal article Outskirts

Connections Made and Broken: Intimacy and Estrangement in Australian Feminist Historiography

Article excerpt

For well over a century, Australian feminist politics has concerned itself with conditions for intimacy and estrangement. I refer here to a range of significant, mutual exchanges of affect, and to moments of separation, loss of attachment and reciprocity in relationships. Shining a stark light on the most personal spaces in women's lives has been an often painful and always necessary part of the critique of unequal distributions of power that have delimited gendered subject positions. Women's sexual and maternal relationships, their relationships of care within extended families and feminised professions, their sense of connection with their bodies and its mediation by sexual partners, children and doctors, their connections with other women - their friends, lovers, mothers and feminist foremothers - all such intimacies and the hurtful, ambivalent and liberating release from them, have been central to the development of feminism's political, theoretical and historiographical aims. Indeed the stories of these relationships, both closely drawn, and highlighted in the service of demonstrating broader structural and cultural phenomena have played a crucial role in the emergence of a shared experience, politics, community and history.

In this article I consider approaches taken to questions of intimacy and estrangement in feminist history in Australia since 1975. Pioneering works, namely Damned whores and God's Police (Summers 1975); The Real Matilda (Dixson 1976); and My wife, my daughter and poor Mary Ann (Kingston 1975) demonstrated that in order to understand the nature of women's subordination, feminism needed histories that would describe the changing contexts in which oppressive forces had shaped women's relationships, as well as the variety of their oppressive effects. The trajectories of feminist engagements with theory in the 1970s generated particular historical questions that enabled accounts of intimacy and estrangement to feature in these early works. This ambitious body of scholarship laid a solid foundation on which Australian feminist historians have since built, offering vivid depictions of women and the contexts and dynamics of their relationships, but the story of the emergence of this rich body of work is complex and at times contested.

Since 1975 theoretical developments within feminist history have expanded the field in many directions, offering increasingly multi-dimensional understandings of women's lives, but in the process feminist historians have been forced to question their desire for intimacy with the academic discipline of history. They have worked beyond its borders productively, coming back to enrich it, without always feeling enriched in return. I offer here a cursory charting of the shifting thematic and theoretical preoccupations of feminist historians, both in terms of the different historical understandings that they have brought to bear on intimate gendered relationships and in terms of the intimacies and estrangements between feminist history and more dominant forces in the discipline. In these sections of the article I consider feminist historians' sense of belonging within the wider discipline - its recognition of feminist innovations and their implications for history, and feminist historians' commitment to the discipline as an appropriate and fruitful location for their work.

As part of this charting I will turn my sights on the emergence of the history of emotions, a field directly concerned with historicising expressions of intimacy and estrangement. Key figures working within this field have written of their indebtedness to historians of gender in the development of their aims and as a model for the kind of impact they hope to make on the discipline. This optimism and embrace of feminist insights has not been a consistently characteristic response from other historians but suggests feminist history has generated productive inroads into previously constrained fields. …

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