Academic journal article Hecate

Recent Women's Studies Scholarship, 1: History; Women's History in Australia; the Decade Reviewed

Academic journal article Hecate

Recent Women's Studies Scholarship, 1: History; Women's History in Australia; the Decade Reviewed

Article excerpt

The mere act of reading women's history is a radicalizing experience"(1) Kay Daniels proclaimed in 1982. In so doing, she signalled the early path-breaking attempts to bring women into Australian history and underscored that neglect through which they had been "dominated, trivialised, made invisible". Whilst concurring with her general premises about the nature and causes of this invisibility, it must now at the end of the decade be acknowledged that subsequently both women's history and the study of gender relations across time have become thriving, dynamic and complex enterprises. Complex to such an extent, that a variety of approaches have been adopted and several distinct historiographical traditions can be identified. Furthermore, rather than remaining as a specialisation addressing an audience of committed feminist scholars, those working within these approaches have sought to challenge the dominant masculinist ideology pervading Australian history. Only when we understand the interaction between men and women, between classes and ethnic groups in their social context, can a mature appraisal of Australian social history be undertaken.

However, this whole question of the transition from "women's history" to "gender studies" is not, as Susan Magarey comments "a politically neutral act".(2) As Joan W. Scott observes:

The use of gender is meant to denote the scholarly seriousness of the work; for gender has a more neutral and objective sound than women....whereas the term women's history proclaims its politics by asserting (contrary to customary practice) that women are valid historical subjects; gender includes, but does not name women, and so seems to pose no critical threat.(3)

At the outset, it must be stressed that feminist scholars hold divergent positions on the basic question of whether they are committed to women's history as an end in itself, or whether they regard gender relations as a crucial contribution to a reconstructed social history.(4) Yet, aside from this theoretical problem, what is most discernible from the mid 1970s is the tendency towards narrow specialisation. Rather than attempting broad and comprehensive overviews, feminist scholars have increasingly committed their attention to the gender perspective involved in various professional sub-disciplines.

Scholars concerned with the broad area of "women and work" represented primarily a major and radical departure from traditional labour history in which the emergence of a strong militant trade union movement and its political wing have been traced and often eulogised by authors such as Robin Gollan, Denis Murphy, Ian Turner and Humphrey McQueen. Women's paid labour in Australia all too often did not follow male patterns. Increasingly, as the Australian colonial economy from the mid-nineteenth century was tied into the international export market, men and women's occupations became rigidly gender-typed. Yet the process went far beyond a merely conventional sex segregation in the economy. Rather than studying men and women's occupations per se, attention should be directed to the crucial differences that relied upon the patterns formed in the operation of the export economy (the production of wool, wheat, sugar, beef and minerals, and the ancillary transport and stevedoring modes), and internal production for the domestic market (service industries, and small scale manufacturing, particularly of consumer durables). Workers in the rural export-oriented sector have always been almost exclusively white males who formed into powerful, industrially-aggressive unions like the Australian Workers Union, the Australian Railways Union and the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union. There are no historical or contemporary industrial equivalents for women workers who, confined in less aggressive unions or formerly excluded from male organisations, have until recently languished unrecognised. Bradon Ellem's study, In Women's Hands. A History of Clothing Trade Unionism (1989) is a notable exception. …

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