In celebration of internationalism in women’s history: Select reminiscences from Marilyn Lake’s Festschrift

In December 2016, members of the historical community came together to celebrate the career of illustrious feminist historian Marilyn Lake. The reminiscences of Marilyn’s overseas colleagues and friends reveal the internationalism that marked her career and women’s history generally.

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Marilyn at her Festschrift. Photograph courtesy of Carmel Shute.

From Marilyn: In October 1991 I found myself saying goodbye to my family in San Francisco, where we’d just celebrated my younger daughter Jess’ seventh birthday at the Hard Rock Café. I was bound for Chicago on my first sabbatical leave. I carried a number of new papers in my briefcase, having been invited to talk at the University of Chicago (where I first met Linda Kerber), and at Ann Arbor where I planned to catch up with Martha Vicinus, whom I had met in Adelaide. I went on to Rutgers (where Alice Kessler Harris hosted my talk) and then to Princeton, courtesy of a generous invitation from Liz Lunbeck. I crossed the Atlantic and stopped in London. When I presented a paper at the Institute for Historical Research, I had a pleasant surprise when Catherine Hall handed me an invitation to join a symposium at Bellagio the following year. How exciting. For me women’s history was not only an intellectual adventure, but also the source of several significant overseas friendships that have lasted ever since. Some of the feminist historians whom I have met in my travels kindly contributed the following reminiscences, evocative of earlier times and different places. 

Sally Alexander, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at Goldsmiths, University of London and founding editor of History Workshop Journal.

Marilyn’s history is truly radical: she has pressed British and European historians to think about race as well as gender in the making of national identity, reconstructed the formative role of international human rights in shaping twentieth-century liberal democracies, and laid bare the transnational processes of making ‘A White Australia’.

Her essay, for instance, about the historians who influenced the making of White Australis, (HWJ 58, Autumn 2004) is at once dramatic in imagery and precise in its attention to what we used to call ‘close reading’. In it, she describes how Charles Pearson, historian of the global political demography of race towards the end of the end of the nineteenth century, unnerved the psyche of the white imperial class with his vision of the black and yellow races multiplying in their millions, ruling independently, seizing and monopolising European trade. This gentle, scholarly, peripatetic historian was ‘the prophet of decolonisation’ whose racial thinking underpinned government thinking in Australia, where white governing men identified with white Americans in the aftermath of civil war, with the European governing classes – all those white races who lived in ‘temperate’ climates, whose superior intellects and liberal institutions made it imperative for them to govern. Attention to the political fantasies and nightmares of her subjects, as well as to the development of policy and law, distinguishes Marilyn’s thinking. A passionate feminist, she pushes her historical curiosity as far as it will go.

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Marilyn Lake and Samia Khatun, Festschrift. Photograph courtesy of Carmel Shute.

Marilyn and I met through Catherine Hall, historian of gender and empire, in London. Marilyn invited me to give a plenary lecture to the annual conference of the Australian Historical Association in the early 1990s. I spoke about sexual knowledge among mothers and daughters in London between the two world wars – about subjectivity as well as the emotional economy of the family and moral authority of sexology and feminist research. When I looked up, Marilyn’s smile, her mop of blonde hair, the light in her blue eyes were deeply reassuring as she deftly summarised the paper and spelled out the significance for the histories of subjectivity, in which of course, she was very skilled!

She’s a brilliant friend. Stimulating, ‘sharply intelligent’ – as she described Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist, advocate of South Sea Island and aboriginal human rights about whom she wrote a biography, given to me on one of her London visits. (Marilyn always arrives with gifts, usually also a carrier bag with some delicious garment inside for herself or one of her daughters).

We don’t meet often enough, but when we do we pick up the threads as if we left them off only last month. She’s the best conversationalist, always challenging and fun, warm and sympathetic. And she loves to talk history, over a glass of wine and good meal, in the interstices of a seminar. I’m happy to celebrate her, and would love to be there in person.

Eileen Boris, Hull Professor in Feminist Studies and History, UC Santa Barbara, California and President of the International Federation of Research in Women’s History.

It’s easy to talk intersectionality, but in her beautifully crafted and impressively researched books, Marilyn Lake has paved the way to writing history that accounts for race and whiteness, gender and femininity, settler colonialism and indigeneity, class and large social structures—without neglecting culture either.

Whether viewing Australia through the lens of women’s history, explicating the travels of British and US feminist texts, or giving us a transnational understanding of white men’s nations, Marilyn has transformed how we think. I’ll never think of the minimum wage the same way after your recent reconsideration!

We couldn’t ask for a better colleague or sister in the struggle. We honour you and hope we can entice you to still visit our meetings!

Ellen Boucher, Assistant Professor in History, Amherst College, Massachusetts.

I first met Marilyn in 2007, when I came to Melbourne on a short-term fellowship that she and some colleagues at La Trobe had created for postgraduates applying for ARC grants. I was already a huge fan of her work, having discovered The Limits of Hope when I was just beginning to conceptualise my dissertation research on British child migrants.

Its impact on my thinking had been profound. Marilyn’s study offered a wonderful model of how to write about a political topic – in this case, the role of soldier settlement in the Victorian government’s post-World War I reconstruction efforts – in a way that foregrounded the real-life impact of these policies on the men, women, and children who experienced them firsthand.

The Limits of Hope taught me much that continues to influence my work to this day: that seemingly dry governmental files can vividly bring to life the struggles of individuals and their families, that policy planning can be a surprisingly helpful lens for uncovering the ideological underpinnings of an era, and that a focused historical case study can speak volumes to the gendered and economic inequalities that remain within our world today.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-08-44-pmI was also lucky to arrive in Melbourne just as Drawing the Global Colour Line was heading to press, and so benefited from many conversations with Marilyn about the importance of transnational history, a field in which she was quickly becoming a leading voice. That book has since become a staple on my British empire syllabus, since it is unparalleled in its ability to bring to life the shifting currents of power and intellectual influence that crisscrossed the Anglophone world at the dawn of the twentieth century. The amount of ground that it covers – both geographically and conceptually – is breathtaking, and my students have consistently ranked it among their favourites from the semester, calling it provocative, eye-opening, and eminently readable.

I’ve always thought that it is such a testament to Marilyn’s extraordinary intellect that her work has transformed so many fields, from gender and whiteness studies, to immigration and transnational history, to the history of Indigenous activism. Yet it is also a testament to her generosity of spirit that she has dedicated countless hours to mentoring and supporting the rising generation of historians. She has certainly been a role model for me, showing me that it is possible to reach the heights of one’s profession while also remaining a committed mother, teacher, and feminist. I never did get that ARC grant back in 2007, but I have benefited from years of lively conversation, unfailing encouragement, and wonderful friendship from Marilyn, for all of which I feel very fortunate indeed!

Antoinette Burton, Professor in History and Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

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Joy Damousi, who organised the Festschrift. Photograph courtesy of Carmel Shute.

What I most admire about Marilyn’s career-long work is the pattern we see of critical engagement with the question of women and gender and with the protocols of traditional history writing itself. She has always been invested in tracking gender as a field of power, the nation as a constructed object, and politics as a contingent though decisive force in the making and unmaking of historical interpretation.

Whether it’s Faith Bandler or the white and Chinese men who make up the story of “the global color line,” Lake has exhibited a keen eye for subjects above and below the threshold of History, aiming to restore “minor” figures to our vision and to reorient “major” players in new interpretive contexts.

In step with many feminist historians of her cohort, she was a champion of aboriginal histories as right and proper Australian histories. And as a “women’s historian” from the start, she has taken a genuinely intersectional approach to gender, race and class in ways that not all her peers, male or female, necessarily did.

Lake’s work has been published in nearly every possible genre imaginable – monograph, biography, edited collection, jointly written work, book chapter, refereed journal article, encyclopedia entry – and in venues too numerous to count. She has also been an inveterate public intellectual, doing op-eds and radio shows and film and television bits and public talks. As anyone who has been in her company will know, Marilyn is a most articulate and entertaining interlocutor: serious and passionate and dedicated to the production of new historical knowledge in many contexts and dimensions.

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Stephen Garton and Kate Darien-Smith, Festschrift. Photograph courtesy of Carmel Shute.

What is perhaps most impressive about Marilyn is that she has been incredibly productive and influential as a scholar, yet she has never shirked institutional work. Whether as (twice) president of the Australian Historical Association or as an Associate Dean at La Trobe, she has brought her intellectual agenda to the table in various organisational venues and thereby done what we are all charged to do: make the academy a place that is run by ideas that emanate from engaged and enterprising faculty.

I cannot think of a more hard-working, intellectually lively or dedicated historian than Marilyn, whether in Australia or beyond. On a personal note, I am most grateful that she took me so seriously when I was a young scholar. She encouraged and debated and outright fought with me, challenging me and keeping me sharp intellectually at every turn. By the sounds of it, the projects she has planned for her “retirement” will keep her at the center of the dynamic transnational histories and historiographies she has helped to bring into being across the course of her whole career. I can’t wait to see what she does next, and I send all warmest wishes and love at this celebratory moment.

Nancy Cott, Jonathan Trumbull Professor in History and Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director,of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Massachusetts.

Ever since I met Marilyn at a wonderful conference in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1993 – when it was easy to see that she was a vital intellectual who liked to have fun, as well as to engage seriously in feminist scholarship – I have looked forward to her visits to the United States so that I can keep up with her ever-widening and deepening range of interests and writings.  Brava to Marilyn, who crosses oceans regularly with seeming ease, and whose originality and productivity in writing history have made her name well-known on at least three continents.

Catherine Hall, Chair Emerita of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, University College, London.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-28-pmI first met Marilyn in 1992 when we established a connection that bloomed into a friendship that has been with us ever since. The occasion was a symposium in the amazing Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio focused on the then new topic of gender, nation and national identities. The organising group came from the United Kingdom but we made efforts to identify feminist scholars who were taking up these issues in other parts of the world and invited Marilyn and Ann Curthoys to bring Australian perspectives. It was a memorable occasion – from which much work flowed. Creating a Nation was one of the most exciting projects coming out of that shared political moment – that need to re-write national histories from a raced and feminist perspective.

Since then I have met with Marilyn over the years – in Melbourne, in London, in Berlin, in Oslo and elsewhere and have kept in touch with her work and her writing. We have had many memorable walks – in Melbourne’s botanical gardens, round Viking exhibitions, in the grounds of Potsdam – always talking about work, life and politics, sharing joys, sorrows and intellectual excitement.

As one of the editors of Cambridge University Press’s ‘Critical Perspectives on Empire’ series I was proud to be able to publish her outstanding book, the fruit of her collaboration with Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line. That book – an exemplary transnational history – explored the construction of white solidarity and white privilege as a response to the threats posed by migrant labour and anti-colonialism to the established order of the early twentieth century. Marilyn was able to draw on her body of research and writing – on gendered national identities, white masculinity, Australian feminism and Aboriginal activism – and take it in new and demanding directions.

Her current work on the international history of Australian democracy promises to be an important intervention, not least in the entangled histories of the United States and Australia. Marilyn has also done an enormous amount to develop feminist scholarship internationally and support critical intellectual work. I am delighted to be able to add my voice to this celebration of her and only wish I could have been there to share it.

Barbara Hobson, Professor Emeritus, University of Stockholm, Sweden.

I am pleased and honored to write this for Marilyn Lake’s Festschrift, who has traveled with me in my journey as a scholar in gender studies, a colleague in research projects and as a friend.

Dating to 1994, she came to Stockholm to attend an international conference bringing gender scholars from around the globe together—Marilyn had come from the continent furthest away. The title of the conference, Crossing Borders, International Dialogues on Gender, Citizenship and Social politics, signified not only the geographical spread but the crossing of disciplinary boundaries and new frontiers in gender research.

The conference was celebrating the launching of a new journal, Social Politics, International Studies of Gender, State and Society, founded by myself, Ann Orloff and Sonya Michel—still going strong with OUP after 20 years. Marilyn Lake became a player, serving as a board member for seventeen years, but also as editor of the agenda-setting thematic issue, Citizenship: Intersections in Gender, Race and Ethnicity, one of the most cited in our journal. As this thematic issue highlights, Marilyn has been on the forefront of crossing borders, anticipating the flowering of research in intersectionalities and revealing how these intersections are bound up with histories of nationhood, colonialism and citizenship.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-14-03-pmHer direct influence on the paths that I have taken is apparent in the project where I was PI and the edited collection that followed, Recognition Struggles and Social Movements: Contested Identities, Agency and Power (published by Cambridge University press, 2002). The genesis of this project emerged from dialogues at the Crossing Borders conference and Marilyn’s work in particular, on feminist politics and national/racial identity. She became part of the core team of renowned scholars in gender – to name a few: Myra Marx Ferree; Fiona Williams; Susan Gal; Daine Sainsbury. We met for four years, thanks to the generosity of the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary foundation, which allowed us to spend days together thrashing out the complexities in the tensions within the inter-relationships in recognition and redistribution, our conversations spilling over into dinners at outdoor restaurants, where we would be sipping wine in the twilight of the land of the midnight sun. We became friends as colleagues do who are involved in research where there is passion and intellectual synergy.

Marilyn’s contribution, “Women, black, indigenous, recognition struggles in dialogue,” took up the key dimension in the book: that recognition struggles are not only between elites and marginalised groups, but also between groups themselves engaged in recognition struggles. Through her historical lens, we see how white feminists in their own narrative of oppression appropriated the frame of being colonised: for white women, “the colonizers were men; the territory colonialized women’s bodies.” In asking, will the real colonisers stand up, Marilyn not only reveals the ire of Aboriginal women activists, but also their awareness of the larger issue, that who speaks on behalf of women reflects differences in power.

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Anne Rees and Alice Maxwell, Festschrift. Photograph courtesy of Carmel Shute.

Hence recognition means more than white women acknowledging that aboriginal women have a different history and agenda than white women, but that white women have to own up to their role in the oppression of Aboriginal people. Reflecting her engagement in the feminist project, Marilyn speaks to the crisis in identity around race and ethnicity in the feminist politics of recognition: she affirms that feminists need Aboriginal women to teach them about the centrality of race and identity, but also to affirm the legitimacy of the feminist project.

Marilyn has made important contributions to feminist research that resonate beyond the borders of Australia and is salient for current debates in gender research: that nation building is a gendered and racialised endeavor and that intersections in the multiplicity of gendered identities need to be understood in terms of complex inequalities.

In celebrating her, we all recognise the crucial role that she has played in the project of revisioning gender.

Linda Kerber, May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of History Emerita, University of Iowa, Iowa.

When I think of Marilyn, we are all twenty-five years younger, and we are walking on the street in Hyde Park with Leora Auslander, heading for an Italian restaurant. It is a beautiful fall day (in my memory – maybe it wasn’t!), and Marilyn is at the University of Chicago to offer an early version of “A Desire for a Yank” to our Gender Studies Reading Group. I am stunned by Marilyn’s combination of brilliance, historical depth and laugh-out-loud wit. This Americanist feminist is feeling suddenly cosmopolitan, engaged as I am with Marilyn and with Leora (a historian of France).

A few years later, I am back in Iowa, and I invite Marilyn to a seminar I’m conducting at the College of Law. I don’t quite remember what you are presenting; I do remember that it was something of a move to make a historian a guest of the law school, and she does not disappoint, giving me (a courtesy colleague there) fresh credibility. Over the years we continue to read and savour each other’s work; we stay in the same conversation. We continue to meet serendipitously – when she presents papers at the AHA and the OAH, when she spends a year as Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard, and, quite wonderfully, when Dick and I turn up in Melbourne and we all go to the beach together, and to museums, and just wander around.

Marilyn’s mind works fast; she has no fear. In the 1980s, when everyone was calling for a feminist history of men and women, and wringing their hands about how hard/impossible it will be to accomplish that, Marilyn has already has embarked on Creating a Nation, and publishes it in 1994, while everyone else is still dithering.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-13-17-pmEveryone calls for authentically transnational histories but almost no one writes them. Marilyn is ahead with Connected Worlds in 2006; followed virtually instantly with the deeply researched Drawing the Global Colour Line (2008, with Henry Reynolds) – books which crack open the naive assumption that it is possible to write the history of one nation at a time. And now, when most of us would still be catching our breaths, she has embraced the largest, most wide ranging subject yet – the international history of Australian democracy!

As I pause to write these words, I realise that my good resolutions about turning up in Melbourne again have not been fulfilled. And I resolve, once again, to try, once again, to settle myself and Marilyn on opposite sides of a café table, on one side of the Pacific or the other, so that I can, once again, absorb a fresh infusion of your determination, your belief in the importance of historical perspective and of what we can learn from the hard lessons of the past, and of the solidarity of our international feminist community, now challenged as never before in our lifetimes. I end with gratitude for the good fortune that brought us into each other’s orbit a quarter-century ago.


screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-02-06-pmMarilyn Lake was a member of the La Trobe history department from 1989 before moving to the University of Melbourne in 2013, where she convened the ‘Australia in the World’ series of public lectures, seminars and symposia. She has held Visiting Professorial Fellowships at Stockholm University, Australian National University, University of Sydney, University of Western Australia and University of Maryland. Between 2001 and 2002 Marilyn held the Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University, and between 2010 and 2014 she was President of the Australian Historical Association. She retired from the University of Melbourne in 2016.

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