Writing a Short Feminist History of Australia: Structure and Methodology

By Ryan, Lyndall | Hecate, May 31, 1991 | Go to article overview

Writing a Short Feminist History of Australia: Structure and Methodology


Ryan, Lyndall, Hecate


Feminist history began in Australia in 1970 when Ann Curthoys published her `germinal article,' "Australian Historiography and Women's liberation," in which she noted the failure of the nationalist historiographical tradition to consider the historical construction of the Australian family, to discuss the sexual division of labour, or to acknowledge the ideas and beliefs that separated women and men (Curthoys 1970, 2-8). In response to her challenge, five short feminist histories were published between 1975 and 1983, all of which either explored the construction of women's paid or their domestic labour. (Summers, Kingston, Ryan and Conlon, Dixson, McMurchy et al.) As Macintyre (1978) pointed out, they all revealed the difficulty of using source material largely written by patriarchal culture and in giving adequate recognition to women's agency.

Since then so much new work has been published that it is now possible to place Australian feminist history into perspective. The short feminist history I am currently writing relies upon this new work and does not attempt to use primary source material. If there is any originality in my book, it is in placing the more recently published work within a structural framework of colonialism and in using for feminist purposes two analytical tools - language as a way of acknowledging women's agency as well as understanding the patriarchal voice; and the sexual division of labour as a way of understanding the differences between men's and women's experiences as well as the differences between women. For I argue that this framework and these conceptual approaches can usefully address the intersection of gender, race and class in the Australian context.

Colonialism

What is colonialism and what form can be related to the Australian experience? According to the Macquarie Dictionary colonialism is "the policy of a nation seeking to extend or retain its authority over other peoples or territories." As Pierre L. van den Berghe (1967, 1-41) and Donald Denoon (1983, 1-16) remind us, colonialism is not monolithic. There are different forms of colonialism, defined according to the historical period in which the colonies were established and according to how the process took place. However there are characteristics common to all colonial experiences, including the original invasion by the colonising power, the resistance and subjugation of the indigenous peoples, and the domination of the colonial invaders' cultural practices and social and economic structures. In each case the social patterns that emerged in the colonies are determined as much by the character of the indigenous peoples as by the policies of the colonising power. Above all colonialism installs a clear cut, though shifting, sexual division of labour in the colony, and the language of colonialism establishes and expresses power differences between the powerful and the subjugated, oppressor and oppressed.

Derek Fieldhouse (1982) has set out three models of colonialism. The first model is colonialism by occupation and conquest. In this case the colonising power develops a hold on the colony by virtue of its relationship with the indigenous people. The colonisers are few in number and are almost exclusively young white men. As sexual adventurers, they engage in the first instance in sexual and economic politics with the indigenous people. A distinctive colonial society is created where the language of sexual interaction produces new terms like `Creole,' `Metis' and `mulatto.' The Spanish colonies of the Philippines and of Latin America, the Portuguese colonies of Timor and Brazil, all established in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, are examples of this model. The colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania between 1788 and 1915 and the Northern Territory from the 1880s are variations of this model.

The second model is plantation colonialism. Plantation colonies were established by British, French, Dutch and Spanish trading companies in the Caribbean and parts of the North and South American mainland in the seventeenth century in order to produce tobacco, sugar and coffee as `grocery' items for the European diet. …

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