The Independent Woman in Australian Literature


In my reviews of Australian books, especially those with women authors, I refer quite often to my thesis that, just as Russell Ward identified the ‘Lone Hand’/independent bushman as the basis for depictions of maleness, and by extension Australianness, early Australian women writers had been developing a parallel, though largely unacknowledged paradigm, the Independent Woman.

I undertook my M.Litt at CQU a decade or so ago – it took a while and I should thank again my supervisor John Fitzsimmons for his patience and my tutor Ayesha Hall for her persistence – and, because I do refer to it, I have decided to put up a cut down version of my dissertation as a ‘page’.

I say ‘cut down’, but it’s still 16,000 words, plus links to books that I’ve already reviewed. Read it at your own peril!



The starting point for discussions of Australianness has long been Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) with its account of the myth of the Lone Hand, from which women are almost entirely absent. Even in the subsequent Pioneer myth, women have only a subsidiary role.

This absence of women has often been decried, but any reading of the large body of literature by and about Australian women, particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, clearly demonstrates that a case can be made for a parallel myth, the Independent Woman, who makes her way without, and often despite, men.

In the first chapter I discuss the development of the Lone Hand myth, its importance to how we see ourselves as Australians, and, particularly, how women have responded to their exclusion from this myth. The remaining chapters are basically chronological, showing how the fiction of each period, and biographies of the women of those periods, can be read in such a way as to contribute to the development of the counter-myth, the Independent Woman.

So, Chapter 2 covers the blossoming of women’s fiction in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the principal women of ‘first wave’ Feminism in Australia. Chapter 3 is devoted to Miles Franklin, her partly autobiographical heroines, and her connections to first wave Feminism. Chapter 4 covers women’s writing between the Wars and up to the 1950’s, and, in particular, the development of Eve Langley’s heroine, Steve, in direct response to her reading of the bush stories and poetry of Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Chapter 5 is of a similar period to Chapter 4 but is centred on women whose independence carries them into Lone Hand territory and into the deserts of Central Australia. Finally, Chapter 6 discusses some developments in depictions of the Independent Woman since the sexual revolutions of the 1960s.


21 February 2011

W.A.D. Holloway

The Independent Woman in Australian Literature page (here)

18 thoughts on “The Independent Woman in Australian Literature

  1. Ok, phew, I’m done, but I’ll pay it the compliment of re-reading it as well because there’s so much to engage with…
    I have just finished the Summers book, so all that she says about OzLit and her Whore/Police binary is fresh in my mind. As I read her chapter on Lit, I kept thinking, ‘yes, but -‘ and sometimes I thought she hadn’t read enough of OzLit to make the claims she did. (She was a young woman, after all, there’s a limit to how many books a young woman has had time to read, not to mention the difficulty of actually getting her hands on books long out of print). While I’m not dismissing her concerns, not at all, I think you address her negativity about representations by and about women very well.
    There’s a genre of commercial fiction which might be worth exploring if you have patience with romance (which I don’t): I forget its name but the books are easy to find in bookshops, they all feature a lone woman wearing a bush hat and jeans and from what I remember of the publicity I got, they all featured independent women discovering love.


    • No one has ever commented before – except one of the assessors put some comments in the margin and I’m not sure I have that copy any more. In fact I might not have a (physical) copy at all, I think I gave the last one to psych daughter for the Aust Lit parts of her degree (I lost Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties at the same time. Bloody kids!). Mum claims to have read it right through but I can’t persuade her to say anything about it beyond “it was interesting, William”. So thanks for engaging with it, let alone for thinking about reading it twice!
      At the time of Damned Whores Mk I (1975?) none of the nineties women had been republished, so I guess Summers had that excuse.
      And No, I’m not going to try and fit women in Akubras looking for husbands into my thesis (i even ban them from my very loose audio book selection policy), though I keep planning to include Kerry Greenwood and Phryne Fisher.


      • I haven’t read any either, and I don’t plan to start. I just googled Di Morrissey who has lots of audio books I have avoided up till now, she is described as ‘an environmentalist and an activist’ but I’m still not tempted.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. *chuckle* So rural romance doesn’t float your boat unless it’s 100 years old, eh?
    Though…correct me if I’m wrong… was there a distinction between what we call commercial a.k.a. genre fiction now, and literature a.k.a. literary fiction back in the early 19th century?
    BTW I think we’ve mislaid our Legends of the Nineties as well. My last recollection of it has something to do with the studies of The Offspring as well…


  3. Anyhow, after all that, thanks for posting this. I won’t be reading it as fast as Lisa – this week’s homework is rereading the second part of Northanger Abbey for Saturday’s JA meeting – but I look forward to reading it next week. Will come back then.


    • Thanks for joining in. And thankyou for reminding me! I certainly have Exiles at Home but I’m afraid it’s probably a decade since I last looked at it. [5 minutes later] I’ve gone and pulled it off the shelf, it’s full of underlines so was obviously heavily used during my M.Litt. First thing I see is that I’ll have to add it to my post ‘Miles Franklin Central’, and I’ve been planning to review A House is Built this year so I’ll use the chapter on Barnard and Eldershaw for background.


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