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Marjorie Theobald, Knowing Women: Origins of Women’s Education in Nineteenth-Century Australia, Melbourne (Cambridge University press), 1996, pp. ix & 294, rrp $35.95.

Reviewed By Richard Davis, History Department, University of Tasmania

Marjorie Theobald’s Knowing Women repays careful reading, containing as it does illuminating discussion of feminist and post-modernist theory while at the same time providing a readable and insightful history of women in 19th century education from the shifting perspectives of teachers, students, parents and administrators. Sometimes Theobald transcends her brief in analysing general educational developments of as much relevance to males as females. The book will also serve as a compendium of Australian educational historiography in the 1990s.

The structure of the book develops logically from the “woman at the piano”, representing the “accomplishments of the domesticated female”, physically and intellectually dissociated from 19th century male scientific and public intelligence. Theobald traces the arrival in Australia of the ladies’ academy, catering for such accomplishments, but at the same time enabling vigorous married and single women to find an outlet into the male-dominated workforce as educational entrepreneurs: the hidden history of women’s work. From these interesting, if informally educated, women Theobald turns to the first Australian women graduates. Theobald finds outright misogyny sometimes less significant than administrative checks and balances in retarding the admission of women to Australian universities. She does not support the criticism of other feminists that early female graduates meekly allowed male heads to be placed on their shoulders. Theobald demonstrates the courage required to face the bitter opposition of the medical and legal professions. She also questions Sara Delamont’s notion of double conformity, where academic women emulate male intellectualism while remaining women. Might not University education, despite its faults, produce new and resilient ways of being a woman? After discussing the tribulations of select Heads of Womens’ Colleges when finding intellectual space for females, Theobald concludes that the early university women bore their double burden with distinction, but were restricted to the cracks and crevices of university life.

In an illuminating chapter on the new state secondary schools for girls, Theobald analyses with biographical examples the thesis that the 1870s witnessed a clear movement amongst middle class women for equality with men. The reality was not so simple. Some private Ladies Colleges adapted to the growth of office work for women. The new secondaries could not free themselves entirely from the gendered curriculum which balanced academic subjects with needlework and cookery. The still middle-class girls secondary schools had to compete with more traditional Superior Public Schools.

Shifting her focus to the lady teacher before 1900, Theobald demonstrates that these women became vital as the protector of morals in coeducational schools which the states found cheapest to maintain. The primary system developed as a women’s preserve, except when it came to promotion. In country areas fully trained married women degenerated into lowly paid sewing mistresses, supporting their husbands as head teachers. By the end of the 19th century married women were dismissed from the service, as much to exclude them from the professionalising white collar market as from the result of economic depression. Women reacted against differential salaries and treatment by forming the Victorian Lady Teachers Association in 1885. Tongue in cheek, Theobald salutes the peculiar talent of the educational state for managing gender by reconstituting relationships in the deceptive guise of rationality and objectivity.

In her discussion of the culture of women teachers, Theobald comes to grips with postmodernist theory. She detects an imbalance between feminism and postmodernism which dissolves women’s identity into a flux of consciousness. She endeavours to rescue a purged ethnographic narrative history from such criticism, believing that theory and historical narrative may inform each otherĂ­. Wisely she refuses to place the theories of others like a grid over the lives of her biographical subjects. In the study of unhappy teachers, Elizabeth Connor and Eliza Fletcher, Theobald demonstrates the close interaction between private disaster and public disgrace.

Moving to the study of girls’ education after the secular acts of the 1870s, Theobald returns to her critique of the double conformity thesis. She argues that, despite the not so hidden agenda of dampening down female sexuality, especially of working-class girls, this was often unsuccessful. Education, she implies, might lead to Denise Riley’s belief in women’s potentially inexhaustive flexibility. A similar conclusion is reached in the final chapter dealing with the attempted indoctrination of outcast children, in which Aborigines, wrenched from their families, are included. Efforts to desexualise such children and turn them into docile servants frequently miscarried; a culture of their own was sometimes maintained in defiance of authority.

In her short conclusion, Theobald, arguing that the gift of literacy, regardless of the hidden agendas of patriarchal educational systems, provides the potential for knowing women to become truculent, enigmatic and elusive. Is she endorsing the much-derided 19th century liberal view that mass schooling was a benign project of the state to educate the people in their own interests and for the common good? Theobald is hard to pin down. She cites many theories critically, without offering any definite replacement. She plays with postmodernism, and is generous in her citations of Foucault, despite the absence of his name from her index. Is she holding something back? Referring to the miseries of the teacher Elizabeth Connor, Theobald admits that the historian does not need the imprimatur of any theory to confess to anger and concern at what happened to Elizabeth Connor, before attempting to relate her life to the post-modernist deconstruction of the category woman. Elsewhere (p. 178), Theobald sees historians shifting uneasily in their seats when history becomes simply another fiction to be deconstructed; and she appears to sympathise with Marian Aveling’s insistence that the historical/material reality is out there somewhere and that maybe it makes things happen.

The chapter on the everyday world of women who taught, which combines case studies with theoretical analysis, concludes by accepting that the instability of the category woman lay at the heart of the conflicting subjectivities and existential nightmare of Elizabeth Connor (p. 191). Does this really add to the patent fact that Elizabeth was the victim of a male-dominated bureaucracy which inadequately recognised her commitments as a wife, mother and widow? The naive liberal would endeavour to secure organisations which adequately recognise all human needs.

In places, Theobald seems to accept that the bureaucracies reviewed were equally oppressive towards men, but in others implies that males were relatively happy under the patriarchal system. Does postmodern analysis help to create a just society? If, as seems likely, the volume appears in subsequent editions, will an altered intellectual climate eliminate some of this theory?

As a feminist, Theobald appears to lean towards the Women’s Electoral Lobby or even the DIY wing of the women’s movement. While demonstrating injustices against women, she eschews the absolute victimhood of what Beatrice Faust has lampooned as wimp feminism. The study is more than an excellent textbook likely to stimulate student essays on education, feminism and postmodernism. It is an exceptional work of general interest to readers fascinated by the long struggle of women towards intellectual and occupational equality.