EJANZH: Davis on Dixson

Miriam Dixson, The Real Matilda: Woman and Identity in Australia 1788 to the present, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1994, x and 318 p., $17.95, and Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1994, ix and 549 p ., $19.95.

Reviewed by Richard Davis, University of Tasmania.

These parallel classics of 1970s feminism (Summers, 1975 and Dixson, 1976) have been expanded and updated. Particular interest arises from the authors’ answers to numerous critics who have accused them both of portraying w omen as victims, ignoring class distinctions and above all of presenting women’s history in a standard patriarchal framework. A re-reading of both books is a salutary exercise in assessing the validity of the original criticisms, as well as gauging the ef fectiveness of the additional chapters in defending the original theses and accounting for developments in the last twenty years.

The original books had much in common, though neither writer, published simultaneously by Penguin, appears to have discussed the other by name, even in their second editions. According to Dixson in 1976, Australian women enjoyed particularly low esteem b ecause the attitudes of the convict period were ‘imprinted’ on subsequent generations. Convict woman, ‘the slave of slaves’, internalised the contempt of both male authorities and male convicts, infecting even free female immigrants and their descendants . Irish women, particularly downtrodden in their homeland, played an important part in the process. Dixson denies that studies demonstrating improved material conditions of female convicts refute her thesis, as it is based fundamentally on psychological internalisation and projection of low esteem which may not correspond to any objective reality. Summers also bases her thesis in the convict period. The damned whore stereotype, applied to all convict women, was succeeded in the 1840s by Caroline Chisholm’s belief that women were ‘God’s police’ in preserving the sanctity of the bourgeois family. T hese linked theses both emphasised the convict legacy as fundamental to an understanding of the lowly position of Australian women in the 1970s. Summers maintains that the ‘damned whore’ alternative locked women into repressed domesticity, while Dixson p refers to emphasise a variant of Louis Hartz’s thesis of fragmentary offshoots from the Mother Country developing in new directions in the colonies. Dixson refers to the ‘God’s police’ stereotype (p. 280, 1994), while Summers briefly adapts Hartz to her own thesis (pp. 340-1, 1994). Both highlight the anti-woman ‘mateship’ of the bush legend and use the bitter realism of women writers like Barbara Baynton as a corrective.

A general criticism of both Summers and Dixson was that their initial writings were overly influenced by the ‘second-wave feminism’ of the 1970s in its assault on patriarchy, rather than being attempts to redefine the existing parameters of male-dominate d history. Thus Summers’ vivid portrayal, supported to some extent by Dixson, of women as a colonised race, subjected to invasion and conquest, cultural domination, divide and rule and the extraction of profit, has been much criticised. Beatrice Faust, for example, sees the concept as a simile, masquerading as a metaphor. But in her criticism of Dixson, Patricia Grimshaw (Historical Studies, 18, 1979) maintains that modern patterns of family formation in Australia, rather than convictism or Irish influ ence, explain the subsequently inhibiting domestic role of women. This would suggest a closer approximation to Summers’ God’s Police’ thesis.

Summers prefaces her 1994 edition with an introduction approving the changes that have since taken place in Australian life. As an adviser to both Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating she is most impressed by the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act and subsequent l egislation, thus emerging as a piecemeal reformer, rather than a revolutionary. Though she considers the old female stereotypes much weakened in the 1990s, Summers is unwilling to discard her colonisation thesis completely. She points out that violence against women appears to be increasing as a result of a backlash against the gains made by women. Her epilogue curiously takes the form of a letter to the new generation of elite women who appear amazed at the passion and near-separatist attitudes of the previous generation of feminists. The battle, says Summers, is far from over. Women’s control over their bodies, the reconciliation of work and domesticity, avoidance of sexism, harassment and violence, still cannot be taken for granted.

Dixson, like Summers, in her two extra chapters and revised conclusion, accepts that much has changed in Australia since the 1970s. In fact, new legislation has placed Australia ahead of a USA unable even to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. With Summers again, Dixson defends her original thesis vigorously against historians like Portia Robinson who maintain that convict women visibly improved their lot in Australia and established comfortable domesticity. For Dixson, the internalised and projected low esteem, rather than the material reality were all important.

Unlike Summers, Dixson attempts to maintain her thesis with reference to post-modernist theories and Foucaultian discourses. Such deconstruction in the penultimate chapter slows down the crisp argument of the earlier volume. Nevertheless, some interesti ng contentions emerge in her new chapters. Dixson warns against the new bureaucratic ‘femocrats’ becoming locked into economic rationalist policies, benefiting at best a handful of elite women and destroying the domestic and workplace gains of their less fortunate sisters.

Penguin has done well to republish these early classics of Australian feminist literature. Close re-reading indicates that some of the cavils of earlier critics are exaggerated. Summers and Dixson do recognise class differences. They do not always see women as victims, but recognise that female initiatives and bonding have taken place, though sometimes more weakly than those of men. That they have not reconstructed the parameters of male history is understandable in that they were challenging generati ons of total neglect of women in history. The essential issue, raised early by critics such as Grimshaw and Stuart Macintyre, is comparability. Were Australian women, psychologically or materially, ‘the Doormats of the Western World’ and less advantaged than women in comparable countries by the 1970s? if so, was that reduced status truly the result of the early convict system and an influx of Irish and pre-industrial English women?

To prove the first hypothesis Dixson presents a number of opinions, ranging from Australian playwrights to Norman MacKenzie, author of a study of Australian women in the 1950s. Yet such views are necessarily imprecise when detailed comparisons are made w ith other countries. Foreign observers frequently denounce conditions reproduced in their own countries, while local analysts tend to overemphasise the singularity of abuses they wish to reform. The condition of Australian women in the 1970s may well ha ve been no better and no worse than that of many other First World countries on the eve of second wave feminism. The case remains unproven.

The updated Damned Whores and God’s Police and The Real Matilda, despite all past and present criticisms, will retain their importance as stimulating and well-written in terpretations of Australian women’s history, launching the continuing debate on women’s issues in this country.