From puritanical wowser to passionate reformer: The re-making of Australia’s first-wave feminists

VIDA blog’s Australian Women Writers Challenge book reviews continue with Marian Lorrison’s analysis of another Australian women’s history classic.

Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2001), ISBN 0-86840-780-1 (paperback).

PassionsI have long been a fan of Susan Magarey and imagine that most feminist historians have at some time consulted her oeuvre on issues of gender, feminism and sexuality. Magarey’s academic achievements are impressive. A professor at the University of Adelaide, she was the founder of both the university’s Research Centre for Women’s Studies and the journal Australian Feminist Studies, with a long list of scholarly publications under her belt. At the heart of Magarey’s academic and literary endeavours is her determination to restore women to the historical canon, and her efforts amount to a significant body of work.

It was thus with a keen sense of anticipation that I set out to review Passions of the First Wave Feminists (2001), revisiting a classic feminist text to remind readers of its ongoing relevance and value for contemporary scholarship. Magarey’s Passions is mandatory reading for anyone researching first-wave feminism in Australia. It is a well-written and creative history that extends understanding of the crisis in gender relations occurring from the 1880s onwards, as well as the entrenched gender inequities which persist today. It is an essential complement to classic suffrage works – Audrey Oldfield springs to mind – and some excellent biographies of the movement’s many protagonists.

‘Passion’ is not a word usually linked with feminists of the so-called ‘first wave,’ who have received more than a little bad press since they began to agitate for the franchise in the 1880s. The story of suffrage in Australia has been overwhelmingly portrayed as an isolated middle-class phenomenon. This is perhaps inevitable given the scholarly focus on the movement’s leaders, who were for the most part affluent women with time and money enough to pursue political causes. Ian Turner’s inflammatory 1969 claim that Australian women were handed the vote on a plate is also no doubt a reflection of the idea that suffrage in Australia was unexciting and uneventful, with an all-male legislature magnanimously bestowing citizenship upon the women of an enlightened and fledgling nation.

Vida Goldstein (c. 1900). Image via National Library of Australia.
Vida Goldstein (c. 1900). Image via National Library of Australia.

Magarey’s Passions sets out to overturn this perception, depicting antipodean suffrage campaigners as passionate and inspired. Presenting a rich social history and placing pioneering feminists into their wider social context, Magarey argues convincingly that suffrage was not just about the vote. Proponents wanted new models of marriage and gender relations to grant women equality and end their main grievances: the state of marriage (particularly the sexual double standard), women’s labour market disadvantage, and their lack of political voice. Magarey wants us to see first-wave feminists as ‘Utopian visionaries’ rather than puritanical wowsers (3). This is a re-envisioning based on how suffragists challenged social convention and aimed to create a new society where women and men were on an equal footing, defined by shared humanity rather than biological sex.

From the outset, Magarey asserts her decision to eschew the term gender in favour of sex (10). Given scholarly trends, this was a brave move. Yet Passions is nothing if not deeply gendered, and relations between women and men provide the context for its main subject matter. One of the things I love about this book is how the women whose lives Magarey explores are never presented in isolation; instead, their interpersonal relationships and their engagement with events in the wider society drive the story. This too is a conscious decision on Magarey’s part. As she contends in her introduction, while the story of votes for women underscores her chronology, it is only by considering other activities related to this struggle that we can understand how women gradually began to see themselves as individuals rather than merely ‘daughters, sisters, wives, mothers’ (5).

Magarey has long argued for the vital importance of blending cultural studies with history to enrich our understanding of the past. To this end, Passions explores what feminists were ‘reading, writing and publishing’ (4), making the book highly enjoyable as well as informative. Along with her focus on the widespread political changes which expanded women’s employment opportunities and offered them viable alternatives to marriage, Magarey’s interpretation of these sources helps to create a sense of a society in flux and to reveal its intellectual and cultural preoccupations.

Louisa Lawson (c. 1880s), photographer unknown. Image via State Library of New South Wales.
Louisa Lawson (c. 1880s), photographer unknown. Image via State Library of New South Wales.

Magarey argues repeatedly that a discourse on health underlay the women’s movement (3). Women objected to being positioned as ‘compulsorily heterosexual breeders’ (6) and saw the consequences of male sexual incontinence as a threat to health, both for individual women and society in general, at the same time as an accelerating nationalism promoted white racial superiority. While I agree with Magarey’s suggestion that this ‘discourse’ was integral to late colonial and early post-federation society, I found it a clumsy and unappealing term. At times I felt Magarey used it to elevate puritanical and racist motivations for suffrage campaigners. I was also unconvinced by her contention that feminist pioneers were sexually passionate, since we learn little to substantiate such an assertion. Given that the sex lives of individual women are historically difficult to trace, together with the anti-sex stance of such campaigners as Vida Goldstein and Rose Scott, it is difficult to see them as anything but proponents of celibacy.

Magarey writes beautifully, weaving together key events with the stories of suffrage campaigners in ways that make you feel as if you know them. The sense of their disappointment is palpable at the failure of enfranchisement to achieve equality for women. I closed the book with a feeling of sadness at the historical neglect and misrepresentation of such remarkable pioneers as Maybanke Anderson, Henrietta Dugdale and Louisa Lawson, but also with a sense of appreciation and gratitude that scholars like Susan Magarey continue to remind us of their contribution to Australia’s past.


Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 9.44.53 amMarian Lorrison is a Ph.D. student at Macquarie University. Her thesis examines the rise of the New Woman in Australia between 1880 and 1914, and traces the effects of increasing emancipation on twelve ordinary women. It considers how a growing sense of autonomy for women transferred to sexual and gender relations. Marian’s interests lie in histories of sexuality, gender and feminism and writing the stories of ordinary women.

Follow Marian on Twitter @MarianLorrison.

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