Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer

The Drovers Wife Stamp

Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (1896) is clearly the seminal short story of Australian Lit. against which all other accounts of life in the Bush must be measured. Frank Moorhouse’s The Drover’s Wife (2017) is a collection of essays on ways The Drover’s Wife has influenced and been reflected in Australian writing and painting. I won’t review the book here, not least because I’ve only just started reading it (and thank you B.i.L who gave it to me for my birthday) but what I do wish to explore are two essays within it which go to the heart of my thesis – that there is an Independent Woman in Australian Literature who is a counterpoint to the myth of the Lone Hand/Bushman/larrikin soldier which most Australians see as the only true symbol of Australianness.

Louisa Lawson, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889)

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) was of course Henry Lawson’s mother. But she was also a story teller, a writer, a poet, a suffragist, a newspaper publisher, and for many years, a drover’s wife. By 1889 when this essay was commissioned by the Boston Woman’s Journal she had been publishing and writing in her newspaper Dawn and its predecessor for more than a year.

… for hasty purposes, my colonial sisters may be roughly sorted into three heaps – city women, country women and bush-women, and it is of the last I will write; for it is of their grim, lonely, patient lives I know, their honest, hard-worked, silent, almost masculine lives.

Bush-women she says may be all day in the saddle alongside the men, then doing “what little had to be done in the house on her return… It would not anyhow be much more than making a ‘damper’ in a tin dish and putting it in the ashes.”

For by bush-women I mean … the wives of boundary-riders, shepherds, ‘cockatoo’ settlers in the far ‘back country’; women who share almost on equal terms with men the rough life and the isolation which belong to civilization’s utmost fringe.

The bush-woman is thin, wiry, flat-chested and sunburned. She could be nothing else, living as she does.

… she will tramp five miles with a heavy child on her hip, do a day’s washing, and tramp back again at night. She works harder than a man. You may see her with her sons putting up a fence, or with the shearers, whistling and working as well as any.

There is one thing the bush-woman hates – it is discipline. The word sounds to her like ‘jail’.

In those remote and isolated spots, man is king and force is ruler. There is no law, no public opinion to interfere. The wife is at the man’s mercy. She must bear what ills he chooses to put upon her and her helplessness in his hands only seems to educe the beast in him.

Louisa concludes that all of the bush-woman’s hopes reside in her daughters – “now wherever a dozen children can be got together there is a school.” The girls surpass the boys, besides, the men always “have the drink washing away their prospects.” These girls, “quick, capable and active … will give us a race of splendid women, fit to obtain what their mothers never dreamed of – women’s rights.”

Louisa’s vision is remarkably similar, no doubt because of its inherent truth, to that of Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), another woman who spent her early married years imprisoned on an isolated back-block.

Kay Schaffer, Henry Lawson, The Drover’s Wife and the Critics (1993)

I went straight to Kay Schaffer’s essay because countering her arguments had been an important motivator for my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (2011). Basically, Schaffer argues that “Women have been considered to be absent in the bush and the nationalistic bush tradition” and that the Bush stands in for the feminine, abused and conquered by men.

Yes, the tradition excludes them, but women are only “absent in the Bush” because Schaffer, and Marilyn Lake, and Gail Reekie and Anne Summers don’t look for them. I argued in my dissertation and I think I have demonstrated over a number of years on this blog that there is a considerable body of work supporting both the Independent Woman and Pioneer Women as ‘myths’ in their own right, most recently of course our own MST’s Elizabeth Macarthur.

Schaffer manages to dispute The Drover’s Wife, in which Henry Lawson essentially restates his mother’s thesis as a short story, by claiming that the wife is a surrogate man – “That is, she becomes part of man’s battle against the land as a masculine subject”.

So Schaffer claims that there is no myth of independent women in the bush because those women who are portrayed as independent are just standing in for men:

In most of [Lawson’s] stories the characters who struggle against the hostile and alien bush are men, but this is not necessarily the case. The position of ‘native son’ could, in exceptional circumstances, be filled by a woman. That is, the bushwoman can stand in place of her husband, lover, or brother and take on masculine attributes of strength, fortitude, courage and the like in her battle with the environment (as long as she also maintains her disguise of femininity). She could also be called and have the status of a pioneering hero. This is the position of the drover’s wife.

For a few pages she discusses The Drover’s Wife and its ongoing iconic status, variously interpreted. But still she comes back to –

She stands in place of her absent husband. The drover’s wife is a woman. But heroic status is conferred upon her through her assumption of masculine identity.

Schaffer can only support her thesis of men vs the Bush by claiming that independent bush-women are token men. Tell that to Louisa Lawson and Barbara Baynton, child bearing and child rearing on their own in the Bush while still working the properties of their absent husbands.

Kay Schaffer is an Emerita Professor in Gender Studies and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts, University of Adelaide.


In January, 2019 I’ll hold an AWW Gen II week – I don’t expect the tremendous response we got to Gen 1 week this year, but I guess I’ll have some time off work, and I think it would be worthwhile to discuss women writers who came of age in the period 1890-1918 and the background against which they were writing, ie. the Bulletin and the Legend of the Nineties. More anon.


Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017

Australia Post – celebrating the sesquicentenary of Lawson’s birth (here)
WAD Holloway, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)
Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)
Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds (review)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate (review)
Barbara Baynton, Human Toll (review)

27 thoughts on “Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer

  1. I will try to join in again next year Bill. Keep reminding us every now and then, please.

    But what an astonishingly backhanded way of looking at women’s roles in the bush. I’m gobsmacked that she, a seemingly independent woman herself, doesn’t see that these women had to do, achieve, and confront as women. I can just see the THEORY of her argument but, my, you have to twist the facts a lot to make them fit the theory and even then they keep slipping from my grasp into their own theory about women’s independence!! Haha!


  2. I’m really glad you mentioned this, Bill. I read Schaffer years ago & found her impenetrable – another unfortunate case of an academic in the ivory tower.

    I’ll be up for Gen II next year – Rosa Praed’s penultimate novel (Sister Sorrow, 1916) was apparently one of her best & I still haven’t read it (woops!).


  3. Well, I’m with you Bill – the women were there, and historians haven’t looked. Wouldn’t it be terrific to get Claire Wright and Kay Schaffer on a panel together, to battle it out?!


  4. I have not read Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife….yet.
    But I throughly enjoy Leah Prucell’s play The Drover’s Wife.
    It won Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2017!
    I must read the original short story…. 🙂


  5. Fascinating. I’ll try to participate to AWW Gen II week but you have to help me with the book titles.

    I wonder if there’s the equivalent of the Australian bush woman in Canada…


    • Thanks Emma, I’ll see what I can find that you can access.

      The origin of the bush men of Australian legend, is the American noble frontiersman. In the US and particularly after the Civil War, he morphed into the Cowboy. Canada would have the same starting point, but where they took it from there, except the famous Mounties, I don’t know. My project has been to demonstrate that all along there were women in Australia who were not happy with these male-centred traditions and who had written – and practiced – alternative, independent lives. I don’t believe that is as true of the US but hopefully it is of Canada

      Liked by 1 person

    • Emma: the good news is you’ve already reviewed one of the most important Gen 2 works – My Brilliant Career. The book I would most like you to read next is MF’s “follow up” (not published until 1946), My Career Goes Bung – which purports to be a memoir by the author of (the fictional autobiography) My Brilliant Career.

      Another well known book from this period is The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel (Ethel) Richardson, but I have a dim memory of you already rejecting this one
      But there’s also Australia Felix, the first part of Richardson’s famous trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, a fictionalised account of the life of her father in Australia and England

      Or you could choose a book at random from the Australian Women Writers Challenge site –


      • I might go for the Miles Franklin and I already have The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.
        I need to check out how long they are because I read slowly in English in general, in Australian in particular and these books are not available in French.

        Liked by 1 person

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