Towards a feminist history of domestic violence in Australia

Over the next sixteen days, VIDA blog is participating in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign, “an international campaign originating from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute sponsored by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991.”

As part of this campaign, VIDA blog will embark upon a series of blog posts by authors from Australia and abroad which investigate gender violence from a variety of historical and contemporary perspectives. Our contribution to this campaign seeks to highlight the historical legacies of gendered violence, and how this continues to impact understandings of, legislation towards, and activism against all forms of violence – from family and intimate partner violence to systemic and institutionalised violence – today.

For our first blog post in the 16 days series, Zora Simic shares some notes from the first year of a project examining domestic violence in Australia over the past two hundred years.

To raise awareness about domestic violence, Ambassador Naela Chohan of Pakistan, Lady Cosgrove (Governess-General of Australia), and Rosie Batty held an exhibition of Naela Chohan's work in Canberra, Australia in 2016. Image courtesy of Naela Chohan, via Wikimedia Commons.
A 2016 art exhibition to raise awareness about domestic violence held in Canberra, Australia. Image courtesy of Naela Chohan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Domestic violence has been described as a ‘national disgrace’ and as ‘the greatest social epidemic of our time’ by Prime Minister Turnbull. This problem though is far from new.

With this in mind, earlier this year Ann Curthoys, Catherine Kevin and myself took our first steps towards a collaborative history of domestic violence in Australia since 1788. We formulated some simple but important questions as our guides:

  • How has domestic violence been defined and understood?
  • What explanations can be found for why domestic violence has occurred?
  • What have been the consequences (personal, social and cultural) of domestic violence?
  • What have been the responses to domestic violence, and what impact have those responses had?

To answer these questions, our archive extends beyond the ‘official’ record of law and government to include private and personal accounts, media coverage, creative representations, popular advice literature on sex, marriage and parenting, and political campaigns.

In other words, ours is a feminist history of domestic violence. It will be not only a political and legal history of domestic violence, but a social and cultural history as well.

A project of this anticipated scale is also as much a work of synthesis as it is of original primary research. We build on the trailblazing methodologies of feminist historians such as Kay Saunders and Judith Allen and more recent scholarship across a wide range of areas including history, law and public policy. We are indebted to ever-evolving feminist analyses of gendered violence that we are obliged to trace and critique as well as deploy.

Stamp Out Domestic Violence badge, donated by Peter Stanley. Image via Museum of Australian Democracy.

The three of us also hope to provide a ‘useful past’ for those working in the field, many of whom are feminists. We aim to do this by exposing the historical depth of the issue and the ongoing structural and cultural conditions that have enabled it to continue, indeed be normalised, despite a range of significant political and legal attempts to prevent domestic and family violence.

To embark on such a history at this time is a feminist intervention. Recently there has been unprecedented public awareness about the prevalence of domestic violence in Australia, particularly against women, thanks to the activism of those involved in the Counting Dead Women Project and of women such as Rosie Batty, named 2015 Australian of the Year for her campaign against family violence.

The Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, the first of its kind, also concluded earlier this year. Thirteen months of submissions and hearings from over two hundred witnesses resulted in a seven-volume report and 227 recommendations. The Commission has been praised for recognising the diverse victims of family violence and their needs. Its extensive recommendations can be summarised as a ‘complete transformation of Victoria’s family violence services’.

Children playing in yard of Elsie Women’s Refuge, Glebe, 1974. Image via National Library Australia.

At the same time, governments at all levels continue to defund or redirect funding from vital services. To name one high-profile example, Elsie Women’s Refuge, the first refuge in Australia and feminist-run since 1974, is now administered by religious organisation St Vincent De Paul as part of the NSW Government’s Going Home Staying Home program, an initiative that has been criticised for not sufficiently recognising the diverse and complex experiences and requirements of domestic violence victims. Against this backdrop, the need for a comprehensive history of domestic violence in this country should hopefully be self-evident.

In pondering how our history can speak to the present, several public debates have stood out this year, for quite different reasons. Firstly, in August Radio National’s Life Matters program ran a confronting episode on male victims and female perpetrators of domestic violence that temporarily gave us pause: were we wrong not to include men on the receiving end of gendered violence in our history? As participants in and callers to the program shared, finding services for male victims of domestic violence is near impossible, nor do existing services properly cater to them. Meanwhile, research into ‘intimate partner violence’ has increasingly broadened to address violence occurring within LGBTQI communities and violence against men by women.

However, while more research into all of these areas (and also violence by adults against children) would clearly be useful, our intention to historicise what is overwhelmingly the most common form of domestic violence – women as victims of their male partners – stands. As the Royal Commission into Family Violence (which does include male victims in its scope) reiterates from existing data, domestic violence ‘disproportionately affects women and children, and the majority of perpetrators are men’. Furthermore, men are more likely to be victims of the violence of other men in their family than of women, and women are far more likely to be violent against men in self defence than to instigate violence without provocation.

The contemporary campaign that argues one in three victims of domestic violence is male has been exposed as a myth with the potential to negatively impact services. The One in Three Campaign then is perhaps better understood as an example of backlash to feminism and its framing of domestic violence than as a necessary corrective to existing evidence of domestic violence.

Historically, the types of women seen as potential victims of domestic violence were also narrow. While statistics about domestic violence are a recent development, as is the category ‘domestic violence’ itself, the history of terms such as ‘wife-beating’ tells a longer story about both the increasing visibility of violence against women and its (mis)representation as a peculiarly working-class problem or habit.

Heading from Weekly Times (Melbourne), 2 January 1875, 7. Image via Trove.

From the 1860s on, the colonial press – with a distinct mix of moral approbation and lurid detail – regularly reported on ‘wife-beating’. ‘Wife-beating’ endured as a common term for violence against women well into the twentieth century, later joined or replaced by ‘battered wife’ to refer to both a category of person and a syndrome. These terms remind us that domestic violence has been historically gendered female, and normalised, pathologised and sensationalised accordingly.

And while these terms demonstrate that the history of domestic violence is intimately linked with the history of marriage, when feminists began to address domestic violence from the mid-1970s they were understandably concerned that a focus on male victims could reverse efforts to make public and politicise what had previously been a ‘behind-closed-doors’ approach to the issue.

In the same Life Matters episode, fifty-five year-old Rose, both a victim and perpetrator of domestic violence, was highly critical of what she sees as a reductive feminist approach to gendered violence, premised on a female victim and with little room for comprehending female violence or broader cultural dynamics beyond the patriarchy. She distinguished between feminists who came to the sector from first-hand experience and white feminists eager to be a talking head on Q&A. Without discounting Rosie Batty’s experience or impact, Rose also made the point that an Aboriginal or Maori woman – each more likely to experience domestic violence than a white woman – would never be a ‘poster girl for domestic violence’.

Rose’s bracing critique invites a more complicated understanding of the multiple feminisms at work in the history of domestic violence. Historian Jo Aitken has persuasively argued that for first-wave feminists in Australia – with the notable exception of Louisa Lawson – violence against women was not a major preoccupation as it was optimistically anticipated that the progress of women would banish wife-beating to the past.

Likewise, while it cannot be disputed that addressing domestic violence became a key issue for women’s movements of the 1970s, there was also a general neglect of the experiences and opinions of Aboriginal and migrant women, including within the feminist refuge movement. The failure of white feminists to properly comprehend violence against Aboriginal women as a feature of the ongoing effects of colonialism and of racism and sexism was at the heart of negative critiques of Women’s Liberation from Pat O’Shane (1976), Jackie Huggins (1987) and others.

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-5-02-02-pmIn 1990, Huggins took feminist anthropologist Diane Bell to task for an article she published a year earlier in an international feminist journal in which she argued that intra-rape in Indigenous communities was ‘everybody’s business’. The Bell-Huggins debate, as it came to be known, became a paradigmatic example of white feminism exercising its power to speak on behalf of Indigenous women rather than properly listen to or acknowledge their own self-representation – as Aileen Moreton-Robinson noted so powerfully in her book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (2000).

Another public debate that caught our attention this year has echoes of the Bell-Huggins controversy. In this case it was an Aboriginal man – Warren Mundine, writing in October in The Australian, the newspaper of choice for the increasingly one-sided and limp ‘culture wars’ – making the case that he must talk about endemic violence in Aboriginal communities because nobody else will. He argued, ‘Indigenous people, progressives, feminists and the media don’t want to talk about indigenous abuse’, including and especially disproportionately high rates of domestic or family violence.

Yet while the historical amnesia on display in Mundine’s polemic is depressing evidence of an enduring failure of self-appointed authorities to acknowledge the activism, authority and experiences of Aboriginal women, quick and powerful responses from Amy McQuire and Celeste Liddle, overflowing with pertinent examples, are encouraging evidence of a slowly increasing public space for Aboriginal women’s voices and for more complex understandings of domestic and family violence. This includes supporting Aboriginal women to be ‘even greater agents of change in their own communities’ – as Larissa Behrendt argued in her introduction to a new series The Guardian launched earlier this week to honour Indigenous women working on the frontline of domestic violence services across Australia.

This year, as we slowly began the long haul of bringing this history to fruition, we have become mindful of many things. Firstly, the massive responsibilities we carry, particularly to past and present victims of domestic violence in all their diversity. Secondly, the benefits of a historical approach to contemporary problems. It is a history that cannot be quarantined from the ongoing fact of domestic violence – more documented than any other time in Australia’s history, though data and definitional problems remain – or from the also ongoing histories of feminism and settler colonialism.


Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia provides 24/7 telephone and online crisis counseling for anyone – women and men – in Australia who has experienced or is at risk of sexual assault or domestic violence. You can make a tax-deductible donation to support their services by clicking here.


screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-4-45-54-pmZora Simic is a Lecturer in History and Convener of Women’s and Gender Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. She has published widely on past and present feminist activism and debates, the history of sexuality and post-war migration to Australia.

Follow Zora on Twitter @ZoraSimic.


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