The Independent Woman in Australian Literature

Table of Contents

Chapter 1        The development of the Lone Hand myth and the feminist response

Chapter 2        Australian women’s fiction in the nineteenth century and the women of ‘first wave’ feminism

Chapter 3        Miles Franklin

Chapter 4        Women’s writing up to the 1950s

Chapter 5        Women of the Outback

Chapter 6        Men writing about women; developments since the 1960s

Bibliography


Chapter 1

Whitlock & Carter in their important collection of essays, Images of Australia write:

Women have been systematically excluded from myths of national identity in Australia. Where do women figure in the parade of bushmen, Anzacs, lifesavers, “ordinary blokes”, even poets and painters?’ (1992, p.143).

This exclusion of women (and migrants and Aborigines) from the national narrative has long been resented, and has led feminists to claim that women are not represented in our national literature except as wives and helpmates and further, that the traditional Australian story is men versus the Bush, where the Bush represents the feminine, raped and abused by men.

In fact, Australia has a long history of women’s writing and representations of women which has largely been excluded from the canon, probably due to the overrepresentation of male returned servicemen in education departments and universities after the First and Second World Wars.

When John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia 1996-2007, said of the 2006 Beaconsfield mine rescue that “It has been a triumph of Australian mateship”[1] he was making, at one level, an unexceptional restatement of the ongoing themes of mates helping mates and of cheerfulness in adversity that are often taken to characterize Australian narratives, and which is the thesis of Russell Ward’s seminal The Australian Legend. But, at a deeper level, was the unstated assumption that “mates” are men, and not just any men but white, Anglo, heterosexual men, that Todd Russell and Brant Webb were just the latest in a long line of suntanned, laconic, resourceful bushmen and Anzacs.

Gail Reekie writes that ‘Russell Ward’s Australian Legend has since its publication in 1958 constituted an almost irresistible magnetic pole of historical debate about the nature of Australia’s difference.’ (1992, p.145) And it is true that debate about our national character still revolves around the independent, knockabout male at the centre of the work of Bulletin writers, A.B. Paterson, Henry Lawson, Tom Collins, and Steele Rudd at the turn of the twentieth century, and identified and described by Ward half a century ago. This character has since been constantly reinforced, for instance by novels as recent as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) and, of course, by statements like the (former) prime minister’s, quoted above, and by the fact that the ‘legend’ is still lived by miners, long distance truck drivers, soldiers, rural and outback workers and so on, occupations which our largely suburban populace see as exciting but impractical for ‘ordinary’ people to pursue.

Ward argues, validly I think, that the ‘Australian Legend’ is derived from the older myth of the ‘noble frontiersman’ popularized by nineteenth century authors like RM Ballantyne and ES Ellis. I’m a baby boomer, a child of the fifties, and these writers, and many like them, are certainly on my shelves (and on my father’s shelves) although I imagine their place in the minds of people younger than me has long since been taken by tv shows and movies. But the persistence of the ‘Legend’ derives from its ongoing relevance – hence the hordes of gray nomads who can’t wait to ‘discover’ the outback; from its confluence with the Anzac legend, the myth of the brave, larrikin soldier; and from its utility to politicians who use it as code for racism, sexism and militarism.

The importance of The Australian Legend to our Independent Woman is firstly, that it has set the terms for all debate on the writing of the 1890s in particular, and for debate about national character in general; and secondly, because women throughout this period were forced to attempt to define a place for themselves in and around the territory dominated by the independent bushman/noble frontiersman, however defined.

Marilyn Lake believes that, for men, the “Legend” represented rebellion against the constraints of urbanization and domesticity:

Ward identified the pastoral workers as Australia’s cultural heroes. The stockman and the shearer are represented as the supreme embodiments of the ‘national character’. (1986, p.157)

But the “Legend” is the product of largely urban, male writers and consumers:

Most importantly, the idealisation of the Lone Hand represented a rejection of the idealisation of Domestic Man which was integral to the cult of domesticity, imported to Australia in the cultural baggage of English immigrants [in the second half of the nineteenth century]. (ibid, p.157)

Lake goes on to argue that the Bulletin, and by extension, its readers, were misogynist:

To the militants of the emergent men’s press, ‘home influence’ was emasculating. The Sydney Bulletin liked to believe that in ‘virile cultures’ where ‘home-life [had] not become so all absorbing: ‘men live and struggle and fight out in the open most of the time. When they go to their homes they go to beat their wives…’{3 Nov. 1888} According to the Bulletin, home life trammelled a man’s spirit and sapped his masculinity. And it robbed him of his independence. (ibid, p.158)

However, she believes, that ‘by the 1920s misogynists were in retreat …Masculinity was defined in terms of responsible breadwinning.’ (ibid, p.164)

In fact, over time there is a constant tension between the breadwinner and the hero, with first one then the other forging ahead. In particular, the needs of war require the glorification of the hero. Gail Reekie points out that ‘[World War I] historian CEW Bean … actively elevated the Anzac soldier into a distinctively Australian hero of legendary proportions’ (1992, p.147) and it seems that with each subsequent war our hero must first be raised up then re-domesticated for the peace.

In the 1970s John Hirst amongst others, including feminists like Judith Godden, recognized that the myth of the independent bushman had been ameliorated by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth, where men tame a hostile environment to carve productive farmland out of unwelcoming bush; a myth which incidentally validates their right to be seen as the creators, and therefore the valid owners, of this land. Although it is sometimes argued that women are absent here also, Jemima Mowbray shows that during the Centenary and Sesqui-centenary celebrations of the 1930s[2] women actively asserted their place in the opening up of the Australian bush to settlement. While Mowbray agrees with Godden that ‘the middle-class virtue of domesticity is the primary virtue celebrated within the Pioneer Woman myth’ (2006, p.4 of 20) she also emphasizes that popular representations of pioneer women show that they, as much as the men, were forced to overcome the loneliness and hardships of pioneering.

Further developments in theorizing about Australian myth making are summarized by Gail Reekie:

Studies by Benedict Anderson and Richard White in particular have considerably facilitated our rethinking of the nation: Anderson by positing nations as imagined political communities, and White by demonstrating the ways in which Australia has been invented and re-invented by the intelligentsia to meet the needs of powerful social groups. (1992, p.147)

White’s Inventing Australia (1981, p.35) shows that how we see ourselves derives, in part at least, from how others see us, and so early, and persisting, images of Australianness derive from the British view of us as a distant, terrible, penal colony. ‘[F]rom the 1830s until the 1890s, the image of Australia as a land of opportunity for all-comers remained the popular one, encouraged by colonial employers seeking labour’. Right up to the 1960s, Australians remained paid-up members of the ‘English Race’ with all the Kiplingesque values of common sense, manliness and ‘white man’s burden’ that this implied.

But, Reekie argues:

White’s invention theory and Anderson’s imagination thesis are of only limited utility … in explaining the inherent contradiction between the nation and the feminine. Certainly, as White acknowledges, women were rarely if ever present as actual inventors of Australia, and as a result images of the nation were incapable of incorporating the female experience. Women were excluded from cultural production, hence invented Australias were inevitably masculine.’ [my underline] (1992, p.147)

Reekie, who with Miriam Dixon, Marilyn Lake and Kay Schaffer is among those feminists most strongly arguing that Australian myth making excludes women, further asserts that, ‘The nation is here assumed to be a cultural construction or imagined fraternal community which has retained its masculinist integrity through the exclusion of female lived experience.’ (ibid, p.147)

So, for these feminists, the Australian narrative does not portray women; is not told by women; and gives no value to their lived experience; the ‘other half’ of the Australian Legend is not Woman but the Bush, which:

… according to Schaffer, functioned as a metaphor for woman, a feminine “other” to the masculine subject of the nationalist discourse… something to be assaulted, possessed, tamed and dominated by Man.… The feminine is not simply absent … but is present as that against which the male national character defines himself.’ (ibid, p.153)

In Schaffer’s own words: ‘

Women have been considered to be absent in the bush and the nationalistic bush tradition. Yet they are constantly represented through the metaphors of landscape. (1988, p.xii)

Mowbray, although she does not directly address these arguments, nevertheless shows them to be, if not completely untrue, then at least unacceptable to ordinary women. Women in the 1930s demanded to be included in celebrations of pioneering; the Australasian Women’s Pioneer Society was formed in 1929 and established memorials to pioneer women throughout the country; and, Mowbray writes:

Building upon popular representations of the stoic pioneer woman by writers like [Henry] Lawson, and Edward Sorenson, and artists like [Frederick] McCubbin, Australian women writers throughout the 1920s and ‘30s established a solid literary genre of Pioneer fiction with strong female protagonists. (2006, p.7 of 20)

The examples she lists include Miles Franklin, All That Swagger (1936), Mary Fullerton, The Australian Bush (1928), and Bark House Days (1921), and Katherine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers (1911).

But Kay Schaffer, as we have seen above, argues strongly that the Australian nationalistic tradition has no place for women, or at least that women can only be seen in those places where men choose not to be, ‘Woman exists in the space of the other, what man is not;’ (1988, p.10) and that the first of those places is in the kitchen: ‘[Miriam] Dixon concluded that Australian women’s only acceptable domain is that of the family – one from which men are curiously absent. (ibid, p.7)

To an extent, this is true; even where women have asserted their place in the pioneering tradition, this place has been mainly domestic, or at least confined to the home paddock, the chooks and the milking. Only in the past couple of decades have farmers’ wives insisted on the appellation ‘farmer’.

But, while women are clearly only secondary characters in the Lone Hand tradition, and the relationship between the Lone Hand and the Bush is frequently adversarial, I do not agree with the suggestion that the Bush takes the place of the Feminine, nor, and more importantly, with the complete failure of these feminist critics to acknowledge that throughout Australia’s history there have been women contributing to an alternative tradition of strength and independence.

What I intend to show is that there exists a body of Australian writing which, if it were read, and read cohesively which it largely is not, would make up a body of work constituting a new tradition, the Independent Woman. And in that body of work we can include the lives of independent women, or rather, not their lives but the narratives or texts which today contain their lives.

Further, I don’t believe that for stories to contribute to a tradition, we need to distinguish between narratives derived from life, ‘biography’, and narratives derived from imagination, ‘fiction’. For example, the mini-series Mary Bryant, based on the life of the convict, and the mini-series Jessica, based on the Bryce Courtenay novel, both, equally, present historical views of women acting with strength and independence which feed, albeit unacknowledged at present, into a view of Australian women at variance with the standard models of married domesticity. So, what I will demonstrate in the following chapters are some of those narratives depicting independent women which would form the basis of a new tradition if only it could get past the gatekeepers and into popular usage and understanding.

The notion of ‘historical’ narratives is of course contested. Brian Matthews writes in Louisa, a biography of Louisa Lawson in which the author experiments with ways of combining ‘fact’ and speculation (although, in the end, he is fairly scrupulous in maintaining their separation):

Story is what comes naturally, and story is the enemy of the record, the bane of documentation, the subverter of historical truth in favour of the truth of fiction. Biography is an unnatural act. (1987, p.7)

On the other hand Inga Clendinnen, who is both a respected historian and a fine writer, argues that ‘facts’ carry a moral value which fiction does not:

The largest difference between History and Fiction is the moral relationships each establishes between writer and subjects, and writer and reader. (1996, p.1 of 1)

But I will take my cue from Cassandra Pybus’ response to Clendinnen’s essay:

In the interplay of the elements of history, myth and narrative there is plenty of scope for intellectual play, and for the exercise of imagination which are mostly associated with the modes of fiction writing, without the historian necessarily slipping into the realm of fiction. (1996, p.1 of 1)

These writers are of course discussing the validity of ‘padding out’ facts with imagined details to create readable historical stories, but I think that even completely imagined stories, ie. fiction, carry truths about times and places and the ways people interact.

In the related problem of the selective use of facts leading to an almost complete absence of women in historical accounts of white settlement, historians in academia in the nineteen seventies and eighties began what Gary Foley (1999, p.1 of 1), in a paper on aboriginal exclusion, calls ‘a significant reassessment of the role of women in Australian history’, although, as he says, ‘the gains made by feminism merely serve to highlight yet again the great disparity when it comes to indigenous history.’

The retrospective feminizing of the Australian narrative in the years since has created the problem of what women might be included in popular histories alongside Governor Arthur Phillip and Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and so on; and has lead to increasing prominence in current (white) settlement mythology for Elizabeth Macarthur and Catherine Chisholm, probably the two most notable women amongst the early (pre-gold rush) settlers.

Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was the wife of John Macarthur, a lieutenant in the Marines and the founder of the merino sheep industry in Australia. The Macarthurs arrived in New South Wales with the Second Fleet in 1790 and Elizabeth’s letters to her family are important records of that voyage. After her husband’s participation in the rebellion against Governor Bligh and his subsequent enforced departure in 1809, Elizabeth was for eight years solely responsible for the management of their grazing property near Paramatta. Her contribution to our Independent Woman is that she was arguably the first Australian woman, however briefly, to be in a position of responsibility. (Her main rival for that honour would probably be the ex-convict, Mary Reibey (1777-1855) who succeeded to her husband’s extensive business interests on his death in 1811).

Catherine Chisholm (1808-1877) on the other hand, has an importance in colonial history which is almost entirely independent of her marital status. Her husband, Archibald, was a captain in the army in India, and Catherine’s first major project was the establishment of the Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers in Madras, in 1832. The Chisholms first came to New South Wales on leave in 1838 and Catherine remained, with their three sons, when Capt Chisholm returned to India in 1840.

Mrs Chisholm was soon a familiar figure on the wharves in Sydney, meeting every immigrant ship, finding positions for immigrant women and sheltering many of them in her home. In 1841 she established the Female Immigrants’ Home housing up to 96 women and was soon overwhelmingly successful in assisting immigrants to find work in rural NSW, making many trips herself and establishing employment agencies in a dozen centres.

In 1845 Capt Chisholm retired from the army and returned to assist Catherine with her work. The following year they moved to London where Catherine lobbied parliament for family emigration and, in 1849, established the Family Colonization Loan Society, which funded shiploads of intending settlers. In 1851 Capt Chisholm left for Australia to act for the Society there while Catherine continued her work in Britain for another three years, before joining him in Melbourne in 1854, by which time they had assisted over 3000 emigrants.

Catherine Chisholm began a tradition of tireless work for the needy in Australia, carried on by women like Mary McKillop and Catherine Spence, but which, at least until recently, rarely received the recognition afforded to (male) business, political and military leaders.


[1] The Australian, 10 May 2006, reporting John Howard press conference the previous day when Todd Russell and Brant Webb were rescued after being trapped for 14 days a kilometre underground by a rockfall in the Beaconsfield (Tas.) gold mine

[2] Centenary of white settlement Victoria 1934, South Australia 1936 and sesqi-centenary NSW 1938


Chapter 2

It is unarguable, as we have seen in the previous chapter, that the dominant paradigm for Australianness since the 1890s has been the development in both literature and political discourse of the myth of the Lone Hand/Independent Bushman, and its incorporation of the Anzac legend. What I do argue with is the feminists’ contention, in Reekies’ words, that ‘[w]omen were excluded from cultural production’ (1992, p.147), although it is true that their ‘cultural production’ was often disregarded.

In this chapter, covering the period before World War I, I will show that women were extremely active both as writers and as activists in the lead up to Federation and the gaining of the Vote, and how their work, or perhaps rather how our recognition of their work, provides a solid foundation for the Independent Woman.

If women’s writing may be characterized as being about relationships and especially about women’s relationships, then, at least before the revolutions of the 1960s – which might be said to include universal access to tertiary education, safe abortions, female contraception and the general acceptance of premarital promiscuity and de facto marriages – the principal relationship to be considered was that between an unmarried woman and a potential husband. And it is in the choosing of husbands, rather than of careers, that the Independent Woman is initially manifested, most famously of course, in literature, in Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.

Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell’s story of an unmarried mother who shows real independence in the raising of her son, is immensely brave and largely unmatched until the 20th century, although Jill Roe (2008, p.35) says that while still a schoolgirl, (ie. in the early 1890’s) Miles Franklin had access to George Moore’s Esther Waters, ‘the harrowing tale of the lifelong struggle by London-born domestic servant Esther Waters to support her illegitimate son’  which Miles took the precaution of reading ‘under the bed in the spare room’, to be out of sight of her strict mother.

Nevertheless, it is often difficult to know which of their predecessors the writers I consider here were even aware of. Some of their heroines were great readers. Stella (An Australian Girl) reads religious and scientific philosophy; Sybylla (My Brilliant Career) reads serialized novels (in the newspapers) and biographies; and her alter ego in My Career Goes Bung also reads Shakespeare and Milton; and Steve (The Pea Pickers) mentions during the course of the text more than 100 writers. But the principal reading for all three, and by extension, for their authors, seems to be poetry, Wordsworth and Byron and the Australians Kendall, Gordon and Lawson.

Tracking influences between women writers is also made difficult by the failure of critics to treat them seriously. As Anne Summers puts it:

I am arguing that there has existed throughout Australian history a systematic omission of women from what have been judged the highest achievements in any field [of Artistic expression]… Female art forms have simply been adjudged to occupy a distinct universe, one which is apart from and inferior to the male, which is unselfconsciously upheld as the universal model. (1975, p.35)

Yet, the most popular Australian writers in the nineteenth century were women, their novels, particularly Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, Tasma[1] (1889) and An Australian Girl, Catherine Martin (1890) remain eminently readable. Even so, they were out of print for eighty years and still do not appear to be available in any series of popular classics, while For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke (1874), Robbery Under Arms, Rolf Boldrewood (1888) and, to a lesser extent, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, Henry Kingsley (1859), books by and about men, are probably still the best-known, and most frequently republished, early Australian works.

One who has begun the task of placing women properly in the historical canon is Dale Spender, who in Writing a New World – Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers (1988) documents the many, often ‘unknown’, letter writers and novelists who provided much of the foundation of Australian literature.  She begins:

Not even I suspected that my search for women’s literary history would reveal so many Australian women writers, and so many of note … approximately 200 women are listed here as contributors to the cultural heritage of the country during the 200 years of white settlement (1988, p.xi)

The neglect of women’s contributions arose, she continues, because:

their concerns, their views and values are not those of men. It was men who early took charge of the Australian world of letters; it was they who became the gatekeepers in universities and publishing houses and on literary pages; it was (and is) mainly men who have controlled the entry of contributions to the cultural heritage. And they have elected to praise, preserve and transmit to the next generation, the achievements of men. (ibid, p.xvi)

In the 1980s Spender undertook the task of republishing many once-popular novels by women which had been out of print for 80 or 90 years, enabling us to re-evaluate women’s depiction of themselves at the turn of the century.

We are also able to re-evaluate Anne Summers’ main thesis which is that right from first settlement, representations of women could be divided into the two opposite stereotypes, “damned whores” and “god’s police”, of which she says:

Each is a sex-role stereotype which exaggerates the characteristics of the basic dualistic notion that women are either good or evil: this judgement is based on whether or not women conform to the wife/mother roles prescribed for the bourgeois family. (1975, p.21)

This is certainly true of the women in Robbery Under Arms, for instance and in this first period of Australian writing, from first settlement up to the First World War, male writers, at least, were largely content to depict women in these subsidiary relationships to men, although this is not always true of Henry Lawson, due perhaps to the influence of his famous feminist mother, Louisa. Women writers were less content with second place and so, while novels like Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill might be seen as conventional romances, others, for example An Australian Girl and The Bond of Wedlock, Rosa Praed (1887), question the value of marriage to women, and begin to develop a view of women whose independence is at odds with Summers’ stereotypes.

In An Australian Girl Stella is tricked into a marriage she does not want and at least contemplates running off with the man she really loves; while Ariana, the heroine of The Bond of Wedlock, the eleventh of Praed’s 40 or so novels, marries and divorces one husband, marries another to move up the social ladder, catches him cheating and so enters an agreement with him to be married in name only.

Summers compares Praed with one of her contemporaries, Ada Cambridge:

Cambridge became a perspicacious observer of the manners of Melbourne [post gold rush] middle-class society and applied a gentle wit and a mild irony to its pretensions and hypocrisies. Rosa Campbell-Praed discarded any pretensions to critical accolades and created superb if implausible heroines… A revealing feature of her writings was her proclivity for having her female characters dispense with weak, cowardly or uninteresting men and take up, legally or otherwise, with more exciting characters. (1975, p.39)

So, by the 1880s women in Australia were already writing (and therefore reading and thinking) about ways to break out of the conventional domestic stereotypes; about how to circumvent men’s expectations of their behaviour. Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) dealt with similar themes. Her ‘utopian’ novel Handfasted – A Romance (not published until 1984) was submitted to the Sydney Mail in about 1880 for a competition, but was rejected as ‘calculated to loosen the marriage tie … too socialistic and therefore dangerous’ (Goodwin 1986, p.21).

It is also revealing to compare two contemporaneous short stories, Henry Lawson’s Water Them Geraniums and Barbara Baynton’s Squeaker’s Mate, which both have a more traditional bush setting. Lawson looks at the cost, to the woman, of adhering to the stereotype, of being a good wife; and Baynton at the cost of non-conformance, at the cost of independence [discussed here].

Spender details a number of other, largely neglected, women novelists from the 1890s whom I have not yet mentioned, perhaps typified by Mary Gaunt (1861-1942) and her “feisty, feminist fiction”. Gaunt wrote six novels of which the most well known is Kirkham’s Find (1897) which ‘celebrates the advantages of the unmarried state for women and criticizes their poor educational and work opportunities.’ (Wilde, Hooton & Andrews 1994, p.310)

So we can see that far from working in a vacuum, budding author Miles Franklin, a teenager during the 1890s, was growing up in a literary tradition, fostered by the widespread serialization of novels in newspapers, of independent thought for Australians in general as the colonies approached Federation, and for women in particular.

Franklin was also growing up during the first blossoming of feminism in Australia, and around the world, as women agitated to be given the vote. According to Spender: ‘There was … quite a dynasty of women, all unmarried, all practical philanthropists and reformers, all deeply interested in the cause of women’ (1988, p.273), a “dynasty”, beginning with Catherine Spence and into which Franklin was introduced when she went up to Sydney on the success of My Brilliant Career and was invited to stay with another member of Spender’s dynasty, Rose Scott.

Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910) was a teacher, a novelist and a spinster, well-known for her work with orphaned and destitute children and for her literary and political writing in magazines and newspapers in her home state of South Australia. She was an active proponent of women’s rights and of the Thomas Hare system of Proportional representation. In 1891 she became a vice-president of the Women’s Suffrage League of South Australia and after South Australian women were enfranchised in 1894 she supported campaigns in Victoria and New South Wales. In 1893 Spence made a series of addresses at the Chicago World Fair and went on to lecture and preach across the United States. In 1895 she formed the Effective Voting League of South Australia and in 1897 she ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat at the Federal Convention, making her Australia’s first female political candidate.

In her fiction she was opposed to the already prevailing tendency, in Australia, towards bush romances, to the romanticizing of:

… the ‘deadbeat’ – the remittance man, the gaunt shepherd with his starving flocks and herds, the free selector on an arid patch, the drink shanty where the rouseabouts and shearers knock down their cheques … (Spence 1910, quoted in Kramer 1981, p.45)

which too often foisted a false impression on the outside world, ‘and on ourselves’. Spence instead wrote novels of the real lives of women and acute descriptions of South Australian society. Her first, Clara Morrison, was praised by Frederick Sinnet in The Fiction Fields of Australia (1856) as ‘decidedly the best Australian novel that we have met with’. She wrote six more novels dealing with issues facing women, though they were not all published. Her autobiography was completed after her death by her companion, Jeanne Young.

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920), although a wife and mother (famously of Henry Lawson), and so not one of Spender’s ‘dynasty’, was nevertheless both independent and an important ‘first-wave’ feminist in New South Wales. Brian Matthews (1987, p.55) describes Louisa as tall, with striking looks, and tirelessly hard-working. Used from a young age by her mother as an unpaid skivvy and child-minder, she rushed into marriage at 18, to an itinerant, 34 year old gold miner, Peter Larsen. With 5 children under 10 before she was 30, she struggled to survive on their small bush block at Eurunderee, near Mudgee (the source of many of Henry Lawson’s stories), running a small general store and post office, farming with the help of Henry, Peter being mostly away, and still finding time to write poetry and to lead a successful local campaign for Eurunderee to get a school; before finally giving up and moving to Sydney in 1886, where she supported herself by sewing and washing and taking in boarders.

Louisa was a great story teller and it is probable that Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife was based not so much on Henry’s memories of his mother at Eurunderee as on his recollection of Louisa’s stories. In 1887 she purchased an ailing newspaper, the Republican, which had its own small printing press, and in 1888 she started Dawn, a monthly newspaper for women. Later the same year the absent Peter died leaving her some money, enabling her to enlarge her press, and within a year she was employing 10 women, including printers, which caused her some problems with the (male only) printers’ union. Through Dawn Louisa launched a campaign for female suffrage in 1889, and in 1891 she was elected to the council of the newly formed Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. Until the vote was won in 1902 she frequently spoke at large assemblies, and the facilities at Dawn were volunteered for meetings and the printing of pamphlets. Louisa, no doubt reflecting on her own experience, was fierce about the difficulties faced by women forced by economics into unhappy marriages: ‘“Half of Australia’s women’s lives are unhappy,” proclaims the first editorial.’ (Matthews 1987, p.170) In 1900 she was hit by a tram and the effects of the injury lingered, until, in 1905, Dawn, which had been an important voice educating and campaigning for women’s rights, was closed down and Louisa retired to a nursing home.

Rose Scott (1847-1925) came up to Sydney from the country in 1879 when her father died leaving her £500 a year, and the care of her invalid mother. A year later her sister died and she adopted her young nephew, Harry. By the age of 35 she was beautiful, single, and a Sydney celebrity, with a regular Friday night ‘salon’ at her Woollhara home ‘where gathered politicians, judges, philanthropists, writers and poets’ (Allen 1988, p.547).

Greatly influenced by JS Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1861), Scott was another founding member in 1891 of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales, where she was on the committee with Louisa Lawson. Scott and Lawson were occasional correspondents and Louisa always commenced her letters “Dear Miss Scott”, though whether out of politeness or in acknowledgement of their class difference Mathews cannot be sure.

Rose Scott and Harry were probably the models for Mrs Crasterton and her son Derek in Franklin’s unpublished The End of My Career (these and a number of other unfavourable portraits, particularly of a thinly disguised Banjo Paterson, were the main reason Franklin was unable to find a publisher) after Scott wrote to Miles Franklin in early 1902 admiring her book and inviting her to stay, which Franklin did on a number of occasions. The two became friends, though in 1902 Scott was 55 and Franklin just 22. Scott continued to campaign for women’s causes – particularly for working women and female prisoners – after the vote was gained (in NSW and Federally) in 1902 and was on many committees.

Alice Henry (1857-1943) was born and educated in Melbourne. Unable to get into university, she turned to journalism and through the 1880’s and 1890’s wrote mainly for the Argus and the Australian. She was a Fabian socialist and a prominent member of the women’s movement, where she was close friends with Catherine Spence and Vida Goldstein.

In 1905 Henry left Melbourne, initially for England and then the US where ‘American interest in Australian progressivism ensured her a ready audience’ (Kirkby 1983, p.264). She was invited to Chicago to work with prominent reformer Margaret Dreier Robins at the National Women’s Trade Union League of America and stayed there for the next 20 years.

For a number of years up to 1915, Miles Franklin was Henry’s co-editor at the League’s newsletter. It is difficult to say to what extent Henry is portrayed in Franklin’s On Dearborn Street, which is set in the Chicago of 1914-15, but Aunt Pattie, Edna McGuire and Sybyl Penelo in that book are in similar relation to each other as Mrs Robins, Alice Henry and Miles Franklin were in life, that is, McGuire and Penelo work together, with McGuire as the senior partner, and Aunt Pattie is the rich patroness and reformer. I don’t have a description of Alice Henry but Franklin writes lovingly of Edna McGuire:

She began in a hesitant little voice which seemed on the verge of tears, and hesitant little blushes came and went with her breath entrancingly. Sybyl looked at her with the abandon of a mother with a precocious child. It was palpable that she was very proud of her business partner. (1981, p.15)

And this is an account of a business meeting! As usual, you can’t be sure which parts of Franklin’s descriptions are true to life and which are a result of her sense of humour.

Henry retained a keen interest in Australian literature, writing an article on Henry Handel Richardson for Bookman in 1929, joining the press, arts and letters committee of the National Council of Women of Victoria on her return to Australia in 1933, and compiling a bibliography of Australian women writers in 1937. Despite their sometimes difficult working relationship, she stayed friends with Miles Franklin and they remained correspondents throughout her life.

Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) was born in Portland, in south-west Victoria, to a Polish-Jewish-Irish father and a Scots mother, the oldest of four sisters and one brother. They soon moved to Melbourne where her father was prominent in the Unitarian church and in social welfare work.

Vida and her sisters were all well educated, at home with a governess, and for two or three years up to matriculation, at PLC. The young Vida was well off, good looking and enjoyed an active social life, receiving, and rejecting, many proposals of marriage. Her mother was an active suffragist and Vida joined her in 1890, collecting signatures for the Woman Suffrage Petition. 30,000 signatures were collected but Victoria was the last state to grant suffrage, in 1908.

By 1899, on the death of her friend and mentor, Annette Bear-Crawford, Vida Goldstein was clearly the leader of the radical women’s movement in Victoria. Until 1908, her first priority was the suffrage. In 1902 she made a speaking tour of America and in 1903 she stood, unsuccessfully, as an independent for the Senate , the first female candidate for the national parliament, and the first of her many attempts to enter State or Federal parliament. During World War I Goldstein, like many of the feminists, was a committed and active pacifist, and she continued to work for women’s rights and welfare reforms throughout her life.

These were the leaders of the suffragists, and therefore of first wave feminism, in Australia, independent women all, eschewing marriage (or in Louisa Lawson’s case, walking away from a marriage entered into in haste and desperation) to pursue careers devoted to their fellows, not just the suffrage, but in charities for abandoned mothers and children and in agitating for the improvement of conditions for poor working women.

Two other women, who in later life were important friends to Miles Franklin, were also active in the women’s movement in Victoria and, particularly, in Vida Goldstein’s Women’s Political Association – Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) and Mabel Singleton (1877-19xx) [discussed here].


[1] Serialized in the Australasian in 1888


Chapter 3

So far we have discussed the dominance of the Lone Hand/Independent Bushman myth and the response of (second wave) feminists to that dominance. I then expanded on Spender’s “dynasty of women” to demonstrate the foundations of the new paradigm which I am proposing, the Independent Woman. In this chapter I show that the proposed paradigm has its embodiment in another of Spender’s dynasty, Miles Franklin.

Franklin’s My Career Goes Bung [discussed here] …

My Brilliant Career may be compared in some ways with the stories by Steele Rudd, later published as On Our Selection (1899), which began appearing in the Bulletin in 1895. Both are unashameably Australian and unaffected in their use of colloquial language; both deal with the problems of struggling selectors; and in both cases the writers are clearly of the people about whom they write. But one difference is telling, Franklin writes as a woman, and argues persuasively throughout for the emancipation of women from the compulsion to be married, to be lackeys to their husbands, to be martyrs to endless childbearing.

Like Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd knew the women were doing it hard:

I often wonder how the women stood it the first few years, and I can remember how Mother, when she was alone, used to sit on a log where the lane is now and cry for hours.’ (1899, p.5)

But the men don’t suggest a remedy, or that things might be different, and Franklin does:

No I would never marry. I would procure some occupation in which I could tread my life out, independent of the degradation of marriage (1901, p.83)

is Sybylla’s response on receiving her first proposal (from the jackeroo, Hawden). And although the melodrama of the plot of My Brilliant Career depends on Sybylla alternately accepting and rejecting the young squatter, Harold Beecham’s proposals, in the end she says no: ‘He offered me everything – but control.’ (ibid, p.249)

In all of Sybylla’s conditional acceptings and passionate rejectings of Harold’s suit, there are times when you cannot help but feel that she must be speaking for the author, not just:

 If you think I think you as great a catch as you think yourself, just because you have a little money, you are a trifle mistaken, Mr Beecham (ibid, p.161),

but, with a certain bewilderment, from the heart:

… I loved him – big, manly, loveable, handsome Harold – from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot he was good in my sight, but lacking in that power over me which would make me desirous of being the mother of his children. (ibid, p.161)

I think that as we study Franklin’s life and her works, until she is no longer of a ‘marriageable’ age, we can see that men, for her, are always “lacking in that power”.

So, how much of Franklin is in Sybylla, to what extent are the novels ‘autobiographical’? As with many novels the location is more or less realistic, “Possum Gully” can be said to represent Longford, then there is her father’s decline from grazier to poor farmer, her mother’s status as a ‘Boosier’, and Sybylla’s appearance, 5’1”, long hair, tomboyish, ‘ugly’, also, interestingly, there is her relationship with her ‘beautiful’ and favoured sister which I think Franklin continues to deal with over the course of a number of novels, but in the end these are just settings and props around which she has constructed her improbable, and completely fictitious , plot. Novelists do deal with things which they know and which interest, or bother, them – otherwise they wouldn’t interest us – but to attempt to read a novel as fact rather than as a parable, as a newspaper report rather than as story with which we can identify or not as we choose, is to entirely miss the point – that we use stories to convey ideas, that the ‘facts’ are incidental.

And the idea which is central to Franklin’s early writing, and central too to this essay, is the idea of the Independent Woman, even Sybylla’s mother ‘wished she had been trained to do something so that she could be independent and not be dragged in the backwash of man’s mismanagement’ (1946, p.8). Although just a “little bush girl”, Franklin both embodies and tirelessly advocates independence for women, firstly for the women of the Australian bush, then for working women everywhere; independence from degrading marriages, and equality of opportunity – politically, economically and socially – with men.

As an ‘independent woman’ Franklin’s own career was, if not ‘brilliant’, then at least remarkable. After a brief period in Sydney basking in the success of My Brilliant Career she struck out as an author, but as I have said, her next two ms were not accepted for publication. Nothing daunted she took positions in Sydney and Melbourne (where she was put in touch with Vida Goldstein) as a trainee nurse and housemaid – to gather material for her next book, she said, but more likely because she was desperate to earn an income, her parent’s farm having failed. The resulting book, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) was at least published. Then in 1906 she sailed for America, arriving in San Francisco six days after the great earthquake.

She had introductions from Goldstein to the American women’s movement, and appears to have spent some time working in relief camps outside San Francisco, and then a few months working her way across the country as a maid in up-market hotels, before ending up in Chicago in late 1906 where she met up with Alice Henry with whom she was to work for the next nine years in the National Women’s Trade Union League, as secretary to National President, Margaret Robins, as assistant editor to Henry on the union journal Life and Labor, and representing the Chicago branch of the stenographers and typists union. Franklin travelled with Robins around the country and often spoke at meetings. But she was also often ill, particularly following news of the death of her sister in 1907, and was forced to rest, though still finding time to write.

She worked at first on revising The End of My Career, which was rejected again, then on The Net of Circumstance (1915) for Mills & Boon (not then the publisher of formula romances that it is today) using the strange pseudonym ‘Mr & Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau’, a play on Austral Talbingo, two plays, and another novel, On Dearborn Street, another anti-romance written this time from the perspective of the failed suitor.

With the outbreak of war in Europe she became restless, and at the end of 1915 left Chicago for London. There she became involved in anti-conscription rallies and volunteer work for soldiers’ wives and babies, barely supporting herself with freelance journalism. In July 1917 she signed up for six months in Macedonia as a kitchen orderly with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, an offshoot of the suffrage movement, funded by donations and run by women doctors. Her field hospital, at Ostrovo, was attached to the Serbian Army, but by 1917 was well behind the front line. Franklin worked hard as usual and was soon the matron’s offsider in charge of stores. Early in 1918 she returned to London, ill with both influenza and malaria and was forced to recuperate for several months, although still writing articles and plays and attempting to have On Dearborn Street published.

Finding work as a secretary, she was able to carry on with her writing and maintain her connections with the women’s movement in London, except for a brief visit home in 1923, until 1927 when she returned to NSW for 3 years to care for her mother. But she was back in London again, living with Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton, in 1931 and 32 before finally returning home to Sydney where she remained until her death in 1954.

During the London years she began writing as Brent of Bin Bin, a secret which was maintained until after her death, as well as publishing under her own name, and in both guises began to achieve some success, but at the cost of giving up her idiosyncratic independent heroines and concentrating on epic sagas in the back blocks of NSW based on the histories of her mother’s and father’s pioneering families.

Marjorie Barnard, who came to know her quite well when she was back in Sydney, describes Franklin thus:

She was spirited and provocative in conversation but her audacity smacked of the 1890’s. All her daring had an antique air. She was, and remained, an enfant terrible. She might have shocked people by her forthrightness fifty years ago. She obviously thought it would shock them still and felt a little snubbed when it did not. (1967, p.3)

Stella Franklin the reformer and agitator, was indeed independent, and hard working and effective; Miles Franklin the author was initially successful because My Brilliant Career was a young woman’s cry from the heart, but it was a voice she was unable, and eventually too old, to maintain. Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin the woman was unmarried and self supporting and so to that extent was ‘independent’, but for me there is a tinge of sadness attached to this independence, Franklin was both unworldly about sex, and probably afraid of commitment. All her life she flirted outrageously with men, her letters to friends often mention men who have proposed to her, for men found her lively and attractive. Norman Lindsay, who met her in the offices of the Bulletin in 1902 had to be prevented, he says, by A.G Stephens, the editor, from taking matters further (Lindsay 1965, p.144). In My Career Goes Bung she boasts of visiting Goring Hardy, Australia’s “one great literary man”, in his flat, at around the same time, and alternately inviting his attentions and rebuffing him. In Cockatoos Ignez, in the same situation is kissed. She is immensely upset by this and flies to her cousin Milly Poole in the bush to be assured she won’t get pregnant; and this fear probably explains also Sybylla’s exaggerated response to Harry, when he kisses her and she strikes him across the face with a whip.

When Franklin leaves for America in 1906 her cousin Edwin Bridle believes that she is his fiancée; in Chicago she goes about with both (the married) Bill Lloyd and his playboy younger brother Demarest Lloyd (portrayed respectively as Cavarley and Bobby Hoyne in On Dearborn Street) who both – separately -offer to marry her.

In On Dearborn Street, which like My Career Goes Bung was rejected by publishers for being too “sexual”, in response to one of these offers (and probably referring to her engagement to Bridle) she writes:

One man nearly as good as you was once engaged to me, yet I’m free! Thank God! They say any fool can get married but it takes a devilish clever woman to remain an old maid, so that is the distinction I covet.(1981, p.120)

Catherine Martin, in An Australian Girl, has Stella say much the same:

[Ted:] “Now, Stella, look me in the face and tell me, do you intend to be an old maid?”

“Oh, one doesn’t intend it; but sometimes circumstances are more merciful than one’s intentions.” (1890, p.14)

When Franklin became famous she was just 21, she was 27 when she sailed for America, leaving behind Edwin Bridle, and well into her 30s when she rejected Demarest Lloyd. By the end of the war she was nearly 40, and so, whether she intended it or not, an “old maid” is what she became. But let Miles/Sybylla have the last word:

The two greatest women in Australia are unmarried, and it would be a good plan for a few more to support them, to remain free to ventilate the state of marriage and motherhood and to reform its conditions. (1946, p.179)


Chapter 4

In the period between the Wars, and on to the fifties, Australia’s principal novelists were nearly all women. Not just Miles Franklin who, under her own name and as Brent of Bin Bin, had quite a number of pioneering sagas published, most notably All That Swagger (1936), but Henry Handel Richardson who, for many years was regarded as Australia’s finest novelist, Eleanor Dark, Kylie Tennant, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Majorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. In passing, Christina Stead was not at this time considered Australian, nor Patrick White. The principal men were probably Xavier Herbert, Vance Palmer and Frank Dalby Davidson. Eve Langley, who also belongs to this period, was not so well known but in his memoir Flaws in the Glass Patrick White writes that, while serving in Egypt during WWII, “I read [Eve Langley’s] The Pea Pickers and was filled with longing for Australia” (1981, p.106)

Eve Langley’s unusual heroine, Steve, stands alongside Miles Franklin and her Sybyllas as the quintessential Independent Woman, but a number of other authors from this period, particularly Tennant, also contribute in large and small ways. I deal with them here chronologically, at least in part to demonstrate the increasing sexuality of the paradigm over the period.

Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946) came to prominence with the publication of her goldrush era trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930) though it is an earlier work The Getting of Wisdom (1910) which concerns us here. The main protagonist, Laura Rambotham, is a schoolgirl based around the author’s own time as a boarder at PLC in Melbourne in the 1880’s. Laura, not especially popular with her schoolmates, experiments with the nature of truth in story telling and eventually relates a story which allows her listeners to impute to her a degree of sexual experience which, of course, she did not have:

For more than a month, Laura fed like a honeybee on the fruits of success. … What had been lacking was now hers, the admiration and applause of her circle. (1910, p.154)

She is soon caught out and broods long and hard before concluding that only written stories may be untruthful and they indeed may be lauded for their invention: ‘the more vigorously you lied, the louder would be your hearers’ applause.’ (ibid, p.196) For a long time Laura is ostracised, but the hardwon “wisdom” she gains during her time at school is not just in the different uses of truth and fiction, but also in the middle ground to be trod between insouciance and toadyism as she remakes relationships with her fellows. And so, having experienced both isolation and subservience, she is at least, and at last, set on the path to independence.

Eventually Laura is befriended by the much older Evelyn who chooses Laura for her roommate. Later, Richardson writes (in Letters) that her friendship with ‘Evelyn’ was much closer than she was able to put in The Getting of Wisdom. Indeed, there is some speculation that Richardson’s marriage to the older J.G. Robertson was a cover for her ongoing, at-a-distance relationship with ‘Evelyn’ (Richardson lived in London and ‘Evelyn’ in Melbourne). If so, Richardson may have found her own independence in a convenient marriage.

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) was a founding member of the Communist Party in Australia (CPA) and her work is informed by her explicit commitment to Socialist Realism. She moved to Western Australia after her marriage in 1919 and that is the setting for two of her most important works Working Bullocks (1926) and Coonardoo (1929). Her heroines are not ‘independent women’; what Prichard is concerned with is realities, and one reality for the lower classes in general and women in particular was that they had very little independence; that from a starting point of poverty and poor education it is very difficult to see a way out.

Working Bullocks is set in the tall Jarrah and Karri forests and timber getting communities of WA’s south west. The point of the title, and the thesis of the novel, is that working people spend their lives in harness, in an inevitable cycle of labour, mating and breeding.

Coonardoo, which is set on a station up north, is often regarded by feminists as a breakthrough novel featuring as it does an aboriginal woman for the first time. But any close reading will show that Coonardoo is not the heroine but a victim, that the centre of the novel is Hugh Watt, her childhood friend, who becomes the station owner, who uses and discards her as a lover, forcing her to become a wanderer, an exile from her own country.

Interestingly, it appears that the people Prichard researched for Coonardoo are of the same people [the Martu] as author Doris Pilkington’s family in Rabbit Proof Fence (1996) and that the two stories are contemporaneous (Brewster 2002, page 1 of 1). While Prichard’s novel focuses on the personal, Pilkington, writing much later, is quite explicit about the societal and official pressures which lead to the ‘kidnapping’ of the three young aboriginal girls, Molly (Pilkington’s mother), Gracie and Daisy, and their epic return journey to their home at Jigalong.

Eve Langley (1904-1974) wrote two novels covering the painful search of her heroine, ‘Steve’, for love and independence in rural Victoria in the 1920s, and five further novels which remain unpublished [in fact, she wrote 12 in all, here]

The Pea Pickers (1942) commences in June (1924?) with two sisters 18 and19 years old, who live with their mother Mia in an old cottage in Dandenong (then a country town 30 km southeast of Melbourne), looking for work in Gippsland (eastern Victoria)

They take men’s names – ‘Now that we’re going to Gippsland, we said, we must put off our feminine names for ever.’ – and wear men’s clothes not as a disguise, which was illegal at the time, but consciously, to participate in the life of the bushman, in the myth which, after Ward, we call the Australian Legend, and which they knew from their mother’s stories and from the writings of Lawson, in particular. Later in the novel she writes:

Some day, I shall write fully our life together, with its tragedy and comedy. But better than that, I shall write of Australia and bring lovers to her so that they shall fill the land with visionaries. (1942, p.250)

[further discussed here]…

Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was, like Prichard, another foundation member of the CPA, although not for long, and was soon at loggerheads with them over her depiction of the communist apparatchik Charteris in Ride on Stranger (1943). Nevertheless she remained committed to the depiction of the plight of working people in general and working women in particular in the years of and following the Great Depression, and is the first of a number of women writers to touch on the terrible toll illegal backyard abortions took on poor women unable to afford a doctor.

Ride on Stranger has a cast of independent women, Shannon, Beryl, Lucy Rossingale, Aunt Edith, all childless, mostly unmarried, and all, except sometimes for Shannon, financially self-supporting [further discussed here]…

The other Tennant novel I wish to consider is The Honey Flow (1956) the story of a young woman, Mallee, who takes on her stepfather’s beehives and his old truck, and so takes on also the very male world of itinerant apiarists moving and tending their hives in the NSW southern highlands. According to Jean Bedford:

At perhaps its most coherent level The Honey Flow is a rite-of-passage novel in which the protagonist, through many trials and setbacks, comes to a realization of her needs, capabilities and true worth. (1991, Introduction)

In many ways this is the novel Miles Franklin might have written if she’d stayed in Australia. The setting is Franklin country; Tennant, like Franklin, writes with a breezy style and doesn’t look too far beneath the surface; but unlike Franklin, Tennant, while sharing Franklin’s moral view, is able to look sex in the face and not be frightened. The main male protagonist is Blaze, a womanizer, and the bossiest of the men with whom Mallee camps. Eventually he makes it clear he wants to sleep with her: “Would you ever just act human? Would you come over to my tent some night and say, “Well, you bastard, you win. Move over”?” So that night she does, “It would be nice to give Blaze a pleasant surprise. Well, I thought, what does it matter?” But without entering the tent she can hear that he is in bed with another woman. Mallee laughs and walks away. ‘Dear old Blaze! How I like that man! A heel if there ever was one.’ (1956, p.326-329)

Women’s writing of the 1940s and 50s becomes increasingly concerned with the (related!) problems of sex and abortion, setting the scene for modern, post-sexual revolution fiction. Caddie (1953), published anonymously but written by Catherine Edmonds (1900-1960), who was for a time housekeeper to Cusack and James while they were writing Come in Spinner, is the lightly fictionalized autobiography of a young woman, deserted by her husband with two children to support during the depression. Caddie spends much time fighting off unwanted attentions. In one scene her landlord enters her bedroom, ‘“Get out of here!” I shouted. He only laughed, “You women make too much of these things. What’s it for, anyway?’” (1953, p.132). Her girlfriend, Josie, has a miscarriage induced by an old woman with “a piece of wire” leading Caddie to muse:

I shuddered to think of all the unfortunate girls who must have lost their lives rather than face the cruel criticism and unjust treatment that would be their lot if they had an illegitimate child. Not only their reputation that suffers, but their chance of earning a decent living. (ibid, p.87)

As a single mother, Caddie struggles to find carers for her young children while she is working and for a time puts them in church-run homes where she is permitted to visit them for just one hour each week. Caddie is one of only a few novels to deal with the single mother problem, though Miles Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931) provides a different take, with the protagonist’s younger ‘brother’ turning out to be actually her nephew, her older sister’s illegitimate child.

The final novel to be considered here, Come In Spinner (1951) by Dymphna Cusack and Florence James, is set in Sydney at the end of the Second World War and tells the stories of three women, Claire, Guinea, and Deb, who are co-workers in the beauty salon of an exclusive Sydney hotel. Guinea is independent in the modern sense of choosing who she sleeps with, but only Deb’s friend Dr Dallas McIntyre is truly independent in the sense I have been delineating in this essay, actively opposing marriage in favour of pursuing her profession [further discussed here]…


Chapter 5

Up to this point, the women we have looked at, whose stories make up the Independent Woman, have been more or less of the cities and the hinterland. But, just as the Lone Hand is, in its purest form, imagined as one man at home in the Outback, so it is there we must also look for women who contribute to our paradigm. And, indeed, in the inland, in the desert, there have been many women, as hardworking, as stoic in the face of adversity as the men who so greatly outnumbered them. A few of them are well known: Jeannie Gunn and her ‘perfect’ husband of one year then dead in We of the Never Never (1908); Sara Henderson and her abusive, philandering, flying playboy husband until she’s dragged into independence (and fame) by her daughters and her book From Strength to Strength (1993). And then there are the women, the few, who made their way, and made their names, on their own.

Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) was a freelance journalist and single mother (her son, Robert’s, father was rumoured to be her boss at Smith’s Weekly, R.C Packer, Kerry Packer’s grandfather).

It’s surprising how much of our national identity is encapsulated by book titles: The Lucky Country, of course, We of the Never Never, The Timeless Land; and another such is Hill’s The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) the story of the journey she undertook around northern and central Australia in 1930-32 and the people she met. Her son, who would have been 6 or 7 years old, did not accompany her and is not mentioned. She says:

I went to the Australian wilderness to study the blacks. I found the whites in that vast and lonely country so much more interesting, so much more ‘the story’, and the natives so palpably a lifetime’s study … that I touched upon them only in passing … (1937, p.191)

Nevertheless she writes sympathetically and at some length on the Aborigines whom she, as was the accepted wisdom at the time, regards as a dying race: ‘At the coming of civilization the aboriginal tribes dwindle like chaff before the wind.’ (ibid, p.35)

Hill travels by plane, ship and train, hitches lifts with station owners, mail trucks and coastal cargo boats from Shark Bay, WA through the North West to Darwin and on to the Gulf then, restarting at Perth, across the Nullarbor and back up to the Territory via Maree, Birdsville and Oodnadatta, a week by camel to Hermansburg and, finally, on to Alice Springs. At many of these places she is the sole white woman, mixing happily with men of the bush who may not have seen another white woman for months or years, but who are invariably ‘… at the apparition of a white woman … the very soul of gallantry and helpfulness.’ (ibid, p.47) The few women she does meet are notable: at Jigalong, Maudie and Nellie, the heroines celebrated in Rabbit Proof Fence; Mrs Jackie Forbes, an immigrant from England who had married an aboriginal stockman 18 years earlier, living happily, raising two sons,  in blacks camps, even after the death of her husband, where ‘she spends all her days reading hair-raising thrillers, blissfully unconscious that she is the most hair-raising thriller of the lot’ (ibid, p.274); Minnie Berrington, a ‘London typist’, working her own opal claim at Coober Pedy; and, at Ooldea, Daisy Bates, with whom she subsequently collaborates in the writing of The Passing of the Aborigines (1938).

Robyn Davidson (1950- ) in the journey by camel which is the subject of Tracks (1980), almost half a century after Ernestine Hill, in some ways, unconsciously I think, mirrors Hill, starting at Alice Springs and finishing at Shark Bay, and seeking solitude in the desert where Hill sought communities and ‘colour’, but, like Hill, she has an intense interest in and regard for the Aboriginal people. Davidson came to Alice Springs entirely without experience but determined to trek by camel from Alice Springs to the west coast, 2,000 kms of almost entirely uninhabited desert. She doesn’t explore her motives, and only very briefly and in passing mentions that her father was an explorer in Africa, but embraces poverty and, eventually, loneliness:

For many outback people, the effect of almost total isolation coupled with that all-encompassing battle with the earth is so great that, when the prizes are won, they feel the need to build a psychological fortress around the knowledge and possessions they have broken their backs to obtain. That fiercely independent individualism was something akin to what I was feeling now. (1980, p.178)

For two years she struggles to learn how to handle camels and to put together a string of her own, before finally making what are to her a number of great sacrifices; accepting sponsorship from National Geographic, which entails cooperating with a photographer who is often insensitive, but who becomes her lover; and carrying a radio which ironically fails the only time she attempts to use it to call for help. And so she makes her journey, often solitary for days and weeks at a time, up and down through the endless sand hills, avoiding tourists where she can, walking naked in the sun, “blood running down her legs”, struggling to control her camels, but succeeding.

Nikki Gemmell in her novel Alice Springs (1999)[1] provides a similar take on women and the desert. Snip, her fiercely independent heroine is, like Davidson, also trying to find herself in the Centre; through interacting with Aboriginals in their own communities. Snip’s friend tells her “that the one way a woman can proclaim her independence and strength is to do something that will make her parents weep” (1999, p.45). She goes whoring in Alice and Sydney to get at her father; but recognises, finally, that her father’s isolation is a weakness, before finding her own path, a path that combines both love and independence.

And then there is the legend, the old fashioned gentlewoman living alone in a tent, in the desert, with the Aborigines.

Daisy May Bates (1859-1951) was of the minor Irish (protestant) gentry. Her mother died early (in 1862) and Daisy was mainly brought up by relatives, in particular her Grandmother Hunt, and it was on her grandmother’s property in rural Roscrea where she was mostly in the care of her illiterate and superstitious (and Catholic) nanny that she mixed freely with the rural poor who, in the years after the Great Famine[2] were still living lives not only of intense physical poverty but also of great spiritual richness, that, years later, she said enabled her to emphasize with and share the lives of Australian Aboriginals.

She eventually, somehow, received a good education, not staying long at any school but guided by her father in her reading, particularly Dickens, and later touring Europe with the family of Sir Francis Outram, learning grammar, languages and manners with their governess. In 1883 her father died, leaving her a small inheritance, and she, like a great many of her countrymen, chose to emigrate, in her case to Australia, to another friend of her father’s, Bishop Stanton in Townsville, Queensland.

Daisy’s memoirs and letters indicate that in Australia, as in Ireland, she lived for extended periods with friends and relatives, rather like a poor but genteel maiden in a Jane Austen story. However, Susanna De Vries’ recent biography suggests that in 1882 Daisy may actually have been employed as a governess in Dublin and been forced to leave in disgrace following a sexual scandal and the suicide of a male member of the household.

In any case, some time in her first year in Australia she took a position as governess on a station near Charters Towers, where she may or may not have married Edward Henry Murrant (the famous Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant). She may also, the following year, have married Ernest Baglehole a well-born seaman whom she had met on the voyage out, and further, by her own account was also in the same year to have married Phillip Gibbs, who inconveniently died. In any case she subsequently – and probably bigamously – married Jack Bates, a drover, in 1885 and by him, a year later, had a son, Arnold. And that was the end of intimacy, ‘“I had rather a hard time of it with the baby,” she is reported as saying, “and Jack, the best of men, never came near me after that.”’ (Salter 1971, p.52)

She and Bates persevered for a number of years, thinking, or hoping, that he would use her money to establish a cattle property suitable to her station, but Bates, an archetypal ‘lone hand’, was, perhaps not surprisingly, happier to be away droving. Daisy would sometimes go with him, travelling throughout the backblocks of eastern Australia and learning the bush skills that stood her in such good stead in later life. But, by 1894 she had had enough. She placed Arnold in a Catholic boarding school and set sail for London.

In London, near destitute due to the property crash and bank failures of 1892, Daisy was doubly lucky to be taken up by the philanthropist W.T. Stead, for he not only found her a place in a home for penurious gentlewomen, but gave her a job on his journal Review of Reviews and so introduced her to journalism which was to provide much of her income for the rest of her life. She stayed at the Review for two years, starting off by dusting the library and learning to type and ending as assistant to the (lady) editor of Borderland, a journal of spiritualism. Although the circles she moved in included both spiritualism and women’s emancipation she was impressed by neither.

In 1897 she took another library position in Norfolk where she mixed with the county set and, apparently accepted as a widow, and with introductions from one of her innumerable upper class cousins, she attended weekend house parties, “hunting and shooting” during the day and dancing at night. At least two men she stayed with, Richard Attwater of Ratfin Hall and Carrick O’Bryen Hoare, were sufficiently taken with her to propose marriage, but in 1899 her bank offered to refund her a shilling in the pound (ie. one twentieth of her nominal deposits), Jack wrote to say he and Arnold were in Western Australia looking for a property in the newly opened up North West and Daisy sailed for Perth. Two years later, the property finally purchased, Daisy named it Glen Carrick, in remembrance no doubt of all she had given up.

Although she later claimed to be a correspondent for The Times, the more likely story is that she contacted The Times and offered to write them an account of clashes in WA between settlers and aborigines, which she finally did in 1904. Daisy was certainly interested enough to obtain an introduction to a scientist in London knowledgeable about WA and, through him, an introduction to the elderly Catholic priest and champion of the Aborigines, Dean Martelli who was returning to Perth on the same ship as she.

In Perth she moved in the upper levels of society, she gave lectures at, and was accepted into the Karrakatta Club, was invited by club members, Perth’s principal matrons, into their homes, attended Government House, and was persuaded by the Premier, John Forrest, of the necessity of recording the languages and customs of the aborigines before they died out.

Meanwhile, Jack’s mentor, Sam McKay of Roy Hill Station in the Pilbara, had found Jack 180,000 acres of leasehold, good cattle country which he would help finance. Daisy sailed north to Cossack (present day Karratha) to meet Jack and made with him a remarkable journey inland by buggy through rugged country to the new ‘Glen Carrick’, then back across the plains to the coast at Carnarvon (a round trip of at least 1,000 kms), writing up her observations for the Journal of Agriculture, including detailed accounts of the local Aborigines.

Her next journey was even more remarkable. Martelli had introduce her to Bishop Gibney who was famous for his struggles on behalf of the Aborigines, and she persuaded Gibney to take him with her to a Trappist mission at Beagle Bay near Broome, 8,000 acres which was meant to be a model farm for the local Aborigine community. Daisy stayed 3 months, helping the Bishop bring the farm up to scratch for renewal of the lease, and her writings of their progress were taken up not only by Australian but by London newspapers.

With no stock and no house on Glen Carrick, Bates took a position as manger on a station, Roebuck Plains, near Broome where Daisy joined him and was able to indulge her new – and lifelong – enthusiasm, documenting and, more importantly, being accepted by, the Aborigines, and becoming an honorary correspondent of the Anthropological Institutions of England and Australia. After a season at Roebuck Plains, the Bates decided to take advantage of high cattle prices in the south by buying and droving 770 head of cattle, to Perth, resting en route at Glen Carrick and leaving enough cattle there to form the basis of their own herd. Later, in an article in the Australasian entitled “3,000 Miles[3] in a Side Saddle”, Daisy wrote “It is sufficient to say that I saw myself after a long day’s ride through the dusty curly wattle scrub, covered with dust and mud, coat and habit hanging in ribbons, face begrimed with dirt, added to by vexatious tears caused by the vagaries of a mob of the most malignant beings in creation …” (ibid, p.127). The West Australian described it as “one of the most arduous trips that any lady has undertaken and … what must be a record in the endurance of the “weaker” sex.” Unfortunately, the 200 head intended for Glen Carrick were lost, and the Bates effectively separated, more or less for good.

For the next couple of years Daisy worked as a journalist, travelling throughout Western Australia. Importantly, in 1904 she wrote to The Times (London) defending pastoralists against charges of exploiting the blacks, cementing her acceptance by officialdom as an authority on all things Aboriginal and in May that year she was appointed by the Registrar General to record the customs and dialects of the aboriginal population before, as was expected, they died out. For a year, she worked from an office compiling reports collected by officials throughout Western Australia, then, taking advantage of the remnants of a number of local tribes being encamped at Cannington, a swampy area a few miles south of Perth, she was, reluctantly, permitted to camp with them, which she did, in a tent ‘fourteen feet in diameter’, for the next six years. During this period, she wrote and rewrote her grammars, corresponded indefatigably with anthropologists interstate and overseas, and published popular articles in the local papers, all the while struggling with the government for ongoing support. In 1910, almost ready to publish her formal study, she was persuaded to join a major expedition by Oxford and Cambridge Universities, under the leadership of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (later Australia’s first professor of Anthropology at Sydney University) and, inevitably, her ‘amateur’ work was subsumed into his and the opportunity for publication was lost.

In 1912, at the end of the expedition, she applied for the position of Protector of the Aborigines for the Northern Territory, for which she was unsuccessful ‘as the risks involved would be too great for a woman’. Instead, and somewhat inconsistently, she was offered the, unpaid, position of honorary protector for the district of Eucla in South Australia. In November she put her property up for sale and moved to a station near Eucla, initially staying with friends, then camping once more, on the edge of the town, venturing out into the desert for days at a time with Aboriginal companions, on horseback and by camel-drawn buggy, exploring and hunting wild dogs. Already well known throughout the country due to her both own and other journalists’ reports of her activities, she now became famous, and then a ‘legend’. That is, the ‘idea’ of Daisy Bates developed a life of its own.

In 1914 she travelled by camel buggy for two weeks just to reach the outskirts of South Australian settlement in order to attend the Congress of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Adelaide and Melbourne and expecting to be appointed Protector for the whole of the Nullarbor, from Ceduna in the east to Balladonia in the west, but the outbreak of the War intervened, and she returned to Yalata, then, at the end of the War and after a brief period as matron of a returned servicemen’s home in Adelaide, she moved to Ooldea, a fettlers’ camp and water stop for steam trains on the newly completed Trans Australia railway, where she was to stay for the next 16 years, all her money gone, an object of curiosity to passengers, with no hope of official support, but still, determinedly, writing up her observations.

Ernestine Hill, who sought Daisy Bates out in 1932, wrote:

Living unafraid in the great loneliness, chanting in those corroborees it is death for a woman to see, she had become a legend, to her own kind… To the natives, she is an age-old, sexless being who knows his secrets and guesses his thoughts – Dhoogoor of the dream-time. (Hill 1937, p.252)

Following Hill’s visit, and her widely syndicated articles, Daisy began, slowly, to benefit from her renown, she was asked to Canberra to advise the government (her suggestion of a huge reservation for the remaining blacks with a white administrator from Britain, “an Anglican and a gentleman”, was not taken up), she was awarded a CBE, and some of her papers were sold to state and national libraries. Although she refused all requests to collaborate with ‘real’ anthropologists, in 1934 Hill persuaded Daisy to work with her on a series of articles which, were eventually published as The Passing of the Aborigines.

For four years Daisy worked to prepare her papers, 94 folios in all, for the national library, for the pittance of £2 a week, living in a tent north of Adelaide, and then, 80 years old, half blind with sandy blight, and with the nominal title of Consultant for Native Affairs, she returned to camp life near Ooldea. In 1945 she was admitted to Port Augusta hospital suffering from malnutrition. She struggled for a few more years in Adelaide and Streaky Bay to obtain funding for further publications but in 1948 she was admitted to a convalescent home, and on 18th April 1951 aged 91 or 92 she died.

Miles Franklin and her Sybyllas and Eve Langley’s Steve represent the ‘pure’ form of the Independent Woman, but Daisy Bates with her love affairs, her unsatisfactory marriage, her tremendous feats of horsewomanship and endurance in the Bush and, above all, her fierce resolve to forge her own path, represents not only the ‘real’ Independent Woman but surely also one of the finest examples of the Australian Legend, man or woman.

The stories in this chapter highlight one (another!) glaring feature of the Lone Hand/Independent Bushman myth, the absence of the Aborigine. The great Bulletin writers of the 1890s – Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd, Banjo Paterson, Tom Collins – imagine an Outback almost entirely devoid of its original inhabitants. But this is not so true of the Independent Woman. It has always been an important part of women’s writing that they have been at the forefront of understanding the Bush in the context of its original inhabitants. Miles Franklin in All That Swagger acknowledges how the runs taken up by her squatter grandparents led to rapid decreases in local aboriginal populations; Eleanor Dark’s great opus, The Timeless Land persuades us to imagine first settlement from the Aboriginal point of view; the eponymous heroine of K.S. Prichard’s Coonardoo is just one of thousands of black women taken up and discarded by ‘lone’ white men engaged in taming the outback; and Ernestine Hill certainly does not spare white sensibilities when she recounts an eyewitness’s account of aboriginal slavery in the north-west pearling industry in the 1880s:

From hundreds of miles inland the blacks were brought, men who had never seen the sea and now were to live and die in it. A dark sentence of history tells that when they refused to come voluntarily they were lassoed from horse-back, and dragged. …There was a form of agreement to be signed in Cossack, but one nigger was as black as another. With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants. Few of them lived longer than two years. (1937, p.40)


[1] First published as Cleave

[2] The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-52

[3] 4,800 kms


Chapter 6

Having firmly grounded the Independent Woman in the work and writing of Australian women up to the sexual revolutions of the 1960s I wish to look briefly at some examples of men’s writing which might contribute to the paradigm and then, finally, at some different takes on how the paradigm might be applied to writing since the 60s.

Of the books by men, a few stand out, Frank Dalby Davidson’s Man-Shy (1931); Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story (1948); Thomas Keneally’s A Dutiful Daughter (1971); David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future (1979); and also the little known The Cousin from Fiji (1945) by Norman Lindsay.

In setting The Cousin from Fiji is the earliest of these books, based as it is on the author’s boyhood near Ballarat in the 1890’s. Drusilla Modjeska (1981, p.16) describes Norman Lindsay as leader of Sydney’s bohemian writers in the 1920’s, a group based around the magazine Vision, edited by his son Jack, writers whose ‘lifestyle left very little room for women. Those women who did make it in these groups could do so only by the judicious use of their sexual favours …’ As might be expected, Norman’s earlier Redheap (1930), also based around his boyhood, is a vainglorious romp around his claimed sexual exploits with servant girls and the vicar’s daughter, and was consequently banned for 28 years from sale in Australia. But, surprisingly, The Cousin is a remarkably sympathetic treatment of an independent and spirited young woman’s struggles with her strait-laced family. Young men of Norman’s (and Miles Franklin’s) generation generally struggled to understand a generation of young women emboldened by the growing clamour of Votes for Women. Lindsay writes (1945, p.78):

… his air of making a gentlemanly concession to the inferior mentality of girls, was a defensive mannerism adopted by the male in the nineties, when girls everywhere were making a restless assault on the preserves of his superiority.

Man-Shy was for many years very popular, ostensibly a quintessential Australian novel of men versus the bush though it is interesting to compare the lightly sketched stockmen, typical lone bushmen, with the portrayal of the central character, a wild red cow:

She was the leader of the herd, for, in spite of romantic tale-tellers, it is the females among the wild horse and cattle bands who provide the leaders, the males being occupied with duels among themselves and with the propagation of the species. (Davidson 1931, p.151)

At least in an allegorical sense she fits our paradigm of a lone female striking out for freedom against the odds.

White’s The Aunt’s Story, according to Belvoir St Theatre notes for a September 2009 performance:

… traces the uncompromisingly independent career of Theodora Goodman from the familiar certainties of Australian pastoral life to the whirling madhouse of Europe before the Second World War, ending in the United States, across the borders of sanity.

The stay-at-home maiden aunt, bulwark of family life, has been a familiar figure in life and in fiction, perhaps more so in earlier times than now (though my children have a couple). But then White moves her away from home, stretches the paradigm, imagining her in ever more difficult and unusual circumstances.

Keneally describes A Dutiful Daughter as:

… a fairly eccentric early novel of my mine, but it had a definite purpose. I was trying to create an allegory of adolescence, and it’s about a young girl who reaches puberty and immediately, her parents are turned into cattle. … and she has the tending of this herd of parents (2002, p.1 of 1)

Barbara has to deal with not just her father’s sexual urges (for heifers) but her brother’s sexual urges (for her). This is Keneally’s first attempt at addressing the Joan of Arc myth, of a young woman asserting her moral strength and independence in the face of tremendous difficulties, and which, of course, he addresses more directly in Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974).

Before I go on to the definitely post-sexual revolution A Woman of the Future I want to deal with the earlier, lightweight but, at the time, popular and amusing work by journalist Sue Rhodes, Now You’ll Think I’m Awful (1967). If Come in Spinner marks the beginning of the transition to the sexually independent woman then, perhaps Rhodes’ work marks the next intermediate step. Her tips for single girls include:

 The Australian man is not worried about what condition you are in when he gets you into bed, and he won’t be the least perturbed if you pass out in a drunken stupor on the couch. It makes things so much easier for him. (1967, p.8)

The problem is, he’ll then go down the pub and tell all his mates, or as one girl put it, “[one of his mates] admitted that he’d heard on good and personal authority from you-know-who that I was quite the quickest and the best bash in town.” (ibid, p.17)

From Miles Franklin’s mild flaunting of her mother’s nineteenth century moral code by walking out unchaperoned, we have progressed to: ‘The young girl who wishes to be regarded as relatively virtuous is careful not to show any pleasure in petting… it would be unladylike to appear to enjoy it’ (ibid, p.21), but Rhodes’ take on independence still curiously reflects Franklin (and Kylie Tennant):

The Australian girl is far too independent for her own good. Independent to the point of being slightly butch. No man is going to bother to open car doors if she leaps from the vehicle before he has the chance to do it for her … and no man, let’s face it, will cuddle and coo to a girl who’s just licked him hollow at tennis. (ibid, p.23)

In the end, I think that Rhodes is clearly more interested in getting laid than in independence, but she at least raises a subject which at the time was still largely taboo.

A Woman of the Future [discussed here]…

From our perspective, the woman of David Ireland’s future turns out to be not so independent after all, or at least not in any way Miles Franklin would have understood, but just a compilation of all the author’s wet dreams. As Julie Burchill points out in Sex and Sensibility (1992, p.37), seventies women, the women of second-wave feminism, were easily persuaded:

Stripped of the phoney rhetoric about being a powerful tool of social insurrection (there’s no limit to what ugly hippies who want to get laid will say to a girl …) sex stood cheerfully akimbo, sportif and ready for action.

Or,as Justine Ettler (1995, p.262) puts it:

It was the seventies. We were the sex generation. Where the sixties talked about love, the seventies talked about sex…Even when we get careers all we do is complain that we don’t get enough sex or that we don’t like the sex we get or we gloat about how great we feel about getting laid. We’re obsessed with sex. We never say no, we can’t ever get enough.

If second-wave feminism was only equivocally successful at freeing women from men’s demands, then equally problematic is that aspect of third wave feminism, woman-as-sexual predator, typified by Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me (1995) and, more particularly, Rock n Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996). Eat Me, as has often been noted, is a Sydney version of Sex and the City[1] which it narrowly predates. Four thirty-something women each seek sexual satisfaction in a novel of ‘women’s erotic fiction’ being written by one of them which, while being both sexy and fun, the author uses as a vehicle to discuss seriously issues of third-wave feminism and the problematic boundary between erotic fiction and pornography. The women maintain their independence with a commitment phobia as great as that of the young men they sleep with, but while they are at least recognizable as the heirs of Deb and Guinea of Come in Spinner in the same city half a century earlier, their incomes, their careers and above all their freedom from the constant spectre of backyard abortions are way beyond the dreams of 1940’s women, let alone of course the women of 50 years before that, in the novels of Ada Cambridge, say, where ordinary 1990s’ lifestyles, incomes and freedom of movement, were possible only to the daughters and wives of the seriously wealthy.

Rock n Roll Babes from Outer Space is mostly just an extended joke about sex, drugs, rock n roll lyrics and science fiction movies. The central characters, Baby Baby, Doll and Lati, are the daughters of earthlings abducted and impregnated by aliens and brought up on the conventional (in the 1950’s sense) planet Nufonia from which they escape in a stolen space ship and flee to an Earth they know only from broadcasts of American sitcoms. Landing in Sydney they abduct and perform sexual experiments on Jake, full-time slacker and wannabe rock n roller from Newtown (and former lover of two of the women in Eat Me), who introduces them to his housemates and to the pub rock scene. The girls gather a retinue of sex slaves, form a pop band, go on tour, discover groupies, hold a final sold-out concert at the SCG and fly off into outer space. And its point is? Girls can be ‘lads’ too.

While Jaivin’s women are sexual predators, sex and independence make Justine, the central character of Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (1995), a victim, forced into self-harm by abuse and self-loathing. It is easy to say that the choices she makes are the direct result of a family history of abusive relationships, but I think Ettler is also saying that Justine’s predicament is the result of her choosing, of women in the nineties choosing, sex over everything else, of mistaking sex for love, of failing to see that sex is above all a power relationship; that women have independence and are giving it away.

The thing is … the thing about all this pain we go through, all this love that just hurts all the time, the thing about all this pain is that it’s really exquisite. It’s exquisite pain. That’s what makes us keep going back for more. (1995, p.134)

In the end, Jaivin’s and Ettler’s depictions of women’s behaviour in the 1990s are not so different from Ireland’s view of the future 20 years earlier, but the conclusions drawn by each writer are markedly different.

There has also been a stream of Australian fiction over the last thirty or so years which carries forward the Independent Woman paradigm less questioningly and that is in film and particularly in television. McLeod’s Daughters (Nine Network, 2001-2009), a much loved tv series for a decade, was based on the premise that two women inherit a large outback station and run it successfully with only female employees. Although the realities of producing such a show over the course of eight seasons, with constant cast turnover, meant that most of the leading women were eventually married off, the fact remains that the property was always run by single women who, whatever their current love-interest, consistently rejected the assistance of men; and that this formulation was enduringly popular.

Strong, independent women have also been a feature of a number of other Australian shows, That is, they have had leading roles, over a number of seasons, and they have maintained strong and interesting characters independently of the inevitable love interest. Some I am aware of are Charlene (Kylie Minogue), the rebellious teenager and mechanic in early episodes of Neighbours (1986-1988), Constable Maggie Doyle, played by Lisa McCune, in Blue Heelers (1994-2000) and Georgie Parker’s character, Terri Sullivan, in All Saints (1998-2005).

Two mini-series also stand out, Jessica (2004) and The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005). Jessica was based on the Bryce Courtenay novel of the same name and features a young, unwed mother’s fight to hang on to and raise her son in early twentieth century rural NSW; while Mary Bryant is a convict-era drama, based on “real life”. It is to some extent outside our paradigm in that Mary has strong relations with both Bryant, the man she marries, and Lt Clarke, her “protector”, but Mary is shown repeatedly to be the initiator of action, to which the two men must react.

The on-going success of the Independent Woman in popular culture bodes well for her survival and propagation, and I hope this is just the first of many critical analyses which will lead to her being more consciously portrayed and reinvented in Australian stories.


[1] US television series, HBO 1998-2004


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