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Subscriber: null; date: 18 October 2018

Australian Women’s Writing in Mid-Century Modernity

Summary and Keywords

Women seem barely visible in the lively Australian literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Popular wisdom has it that after the war women were sent home and imprisoned in domesticity, but this was not entirely true. Significant numbers earned a living, and gained popular success, writing historical fiction, children’s stories, feature journalism, and radio and television scripts, but the growing separation of literary from popular writing meant that their work lacked serious critical attention, and still does. Others did not achieve publication for years, while those who did were rarely recognized as significant artists. As a writing generation, these women, in particular the novelists, were eclipsed from view, both at the time and in subsequent histories. One reason for this is that they tended to be detached from prevailing debates about national identity and from traditional Left-Right oppositions. Their sense of the social responsibility of writers led them to explore topics and ideas that were outside the postwar political mainstream, such as conservation, peace, civil liberties, and Indigenous rights. Four case studies offer some illustration of the range of literary activities undertaken by these women writers, and allow a consideration of the ways in which they engaged with their social and cultural milieux: Kylie Tennant (1912–1988), Nancy Cato (1917–2000), Judith Wright (1915–2000), and Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993).

Keywords: women writers, social justice, conservation, Aboriginal rights, postwar modernity

The generation of Australian women writers born between 1910 and 1930 encountered a vibrant cultural scene in the years following World War II, but one that was thoroughly male-dominated. A vital stream of modernist painting, led by Sidney Nolan, and an explosion of iconoclastic energy in theater, ballet, and music energized the culture. New poets and novelists, including major writers such as Judith Wright and Patrick White, emerged and began to win international recognition. Debates ran hot between advocates of modernist kinds of fiction and the dominant tradition of social realism. It was a high point for local publishing enterprises, and also the moment when Meanjin, Quadrant, and Overland first appeared, literary magazines that still dominate the field today.

Yet apart from Wright, women are not highly visible in this lively literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Popular wisdom has it that after the war women were sent home and imprisoned in domesticity, but this was not entirely true. Significant numbers were earning a living from writing, usually from home, alongside childcare and housework. From the late 1940s onward, Kylie Tennant, Ruth Park, Nancy Cato, and others gained popular success writing historical fiction, children’s stories, feature journalism, and radio and television scripts. However, the growing separation of literary from popular writing—at a time when Australian literature began to be taught in schools and universities and there was a concerted attempt to construct a canon—meant that their work lacked serious critical attention, and still does.

Other women of this generation did not achieve publication for years. The publishing of what is now called literary fiction was an uncertain business. Thea Astley’s modernist novels met early success, but she is the only fiction writer of this generation of women to have experienced an uninterrupted publishing career. Elizabeth Harrower and Charmian Clift both stopped writing serious fiction after having produced brilliant work in their twenties and thirties, while Elizabeth Jolley, Jessica Anderson, Olga Masters, and Amy Witting did not find their publishers and readers until they were in their fifties and later.

Poetry was a rather different scene, then as now an area of high literary prestige and negligible commercial value. Judith Wright’s lyrical poetry gained proper recognition from the first. Other talented poets who had made a strong early start, like Dorothy Hewett and Rosemary Dobson, published little in the 1950s, but returned in full voice in the 1960s, when they were joined by the brilliant Gwen Harwood. In 1964, Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal, became the first Aboriginal woman to have a book of poetry published, and successfully challenged the assumption that poetry and politics cannot mix.

As a writing generation, these women, in particular the novelists, were eclipsed from view, both at the time and in subsequent histories. For example, when Nancy Keesing, a member of this cohort, edited a collection of critical essays on Australian novelists in 1975, there was not a single woman among the fourteen novelists represented there; of the three “leading novelists” she regretted omitting because there were no suitable critical essays available, two were women, Thea Astley and Elizabeth Harrower.1 This was no simple continuation of 19th-century failures to acknowledge women’s writing. By the 1930s, women—Katharine Susannah Prichard, Eleanor Dark, M. Barnard Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack, and, of course, Christina Stead—constituted the mainstream of Australian fiction. Yet after the war it proved exceptionally difficult for women writers to establish themselves as full participants in the world of serious literature, and this remained the case until the impact of second-wave feminism was fully felt in the 1980s. Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making their Mark demonstrates how this happened, and how nine of these writers ultimately overcame these difficulties.2

In the 1950s and 1960s, outside the purview of critics and academics intent on constructing a canon of Australian Literature, the changing literary environment allowed many women to earn their living by writing, and to reach wide audiences. In this they were assisted by changes in the postwar publishing industry, including some access to United States publishing houses; the advent of paperback publication for fiction; increased government funding for publishing subsidies, writing fellowships, writers’ festivals, and successful opposition to literary censorship.3 These changes required a greater professionalization of literary production in Australia, and this was reflected in the formation of the Australian Society of Authors in 1963, and its success, after a long struggle, to gain public lending rights for authors in the 1980s. Women were prominent in this organization from the start, most notably poet Jill Hellyer as its first secretary, Nancy Keesing as a long-time committee member, and Barbara Jefferis (novelist, columnist and scriptwriter), who became its first woman president in 1973.4

How did the professional experiences of Australian women writers compare with those of their peers in other places? Despite the prominence of a few female intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir in France and Iris Murdoch in Britain, women writers on the whole were poorly represented in the literatures of Europe and North America in the postwar decades. Indeed, Sylvia Plath’s brief and tragic life has become an icon of the constraints within which creative women lived. Women artists across the Western world shared a contradictory position. On the one hand, they were women caught up in the massive changes that took place in everyday life brought about by the spread of postwar consumerism and media culture. On the other, they were intellectuals who shared with others concerns about communism versus capitalism, nationalism versus internationalism, artistic modernism versus realism, and the political responsibilities of artists in a post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima world. If “mid-century modernity” is understood in terms of both everyday life and the war of ideas, women writers of the time were positioned on the fulcrum of these two forces.

This generation of Australian women writers engaged with the social and political worlds they inhabited in many ways. Their portrayals of suburban life, of marriage, motherhood, and sexual passions and restrictions were often underplayed, or else satirized, in a cultural context that tended to define female creativity in purely domestic terms. Yet they did not altogether scorn those few pockets of cultural life addressed to women as housewives and mothers within everyday modernity. For instance, Kylie Tennant agreed to contribute a column for the Woman’s Mirror in 1961, fully aware of “the irony that they want a ‘name’ made by opposing all the things they stand for.”5 Although few women wielded power as editors and publishers, many of this generation were active in the broader literary world, taking leading roles in writers’ organizations, producing reviews and public lectures, and acting as talent scouts for publishers or as prize judges. Judith Wright regarded these as the “housewife jobs” in literature, but they were nevertheless part of her own professional life as she undertook public lectures and produced stories for children, and for educational radio and television programs.

At the same time, the fierce debates that raged among postwar writers and critics about Australian literature—nationalism or internationalism? realism or modernism? pro- or anti-communist?—did not attract many women participants.6 In most cases, women’s sense of their social and political responsibility as writers led them to direct their energies to such causes as land rights, conservation, and peace, without joining political parties. Rosemary Dobson declined James McAuley’s urgent invitation to join his anti-communist Quadrant’s editorial board, giving as her reason, “one must write as an individual”; and Judith Wright’s credo early in her career—“refusal to impose oneself on events, refusal to be imposed upon”—protected the creative stillness her poetry needed, although she was to abandon this stance on becoming an activist for environmental conservation and Aboriginal rights.7

Women writers made good use of this degree of detachment from prevailing debates about national identity and from traditional Left-Right loyalties in order to explore topics and ideas that were outside the mainstream. Tennant and Park wrote novels about the urban poor at a time when male intellectuals like Vance Palmer and Russel Ward were constructing an “Australian legend” based in late 19th-century rural life, and when commentators and satirists of postwar suburban modernity were attacking its materialism. Communist reviewers criticized Tennant and Park for romanticizing the working class, while others decried their portrayal of a way of life that was believed to belong in the past. Dorothy Hewett’s novel about women factory workers on strike, Bobbin Up (1959), was considered by both her communist colleagues and liberal reviewers to be vulgarly concerned with sexuality. Jessica Anderson’s first novel, An Ordinary Lunacy (1963), a “drama of sexual obsession” set in a middle-class milieu, was dismissed as merely “nice, a standard bourgeois tale.”8 Both sexuality and class as fictional material were fraught topics, bound to irritate reviewers’ prejudices.

In the emerging field of fiction for children in recognizably Australian settings, women led the way at mid-century. Their work is particularly interesting for the way they used bush and rural settings to show children learning independence and strength of character from their adventures, and in the process developing attachment and respect for the environment and its plants and creatures. It is striking that writers like Patricia Wrightson and Nan Chauncy raise questions about conservation of the natural environment that were about to become highly political. Indeed, in depicting human relationships to the land, these novelists employ something approaching the strong Indigenous sense of “country”: of belonging to, and responsibility for, a particular environment.9 In a different context, Oodgeroo/Kath Walker wrote stories from her own childhood and stories drawn from traditional Aboriginal lore that read the landscape mythically, publishing them in a book for children, Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972).10

Both Wrightson and Chauncy also turned their attention to Aboriginal presence, and to the meanings that Aboriginal culture—and the violent history of colonial race relations—gives to the land. The subject of frontier violence, which had been absent from most popular historical fiction in the first half of the century, began to be taken up by women novelists like Nancy Cato and Thea Astley. White Australia was about to be required to acknowledge its black history. Among the poets, Judith Wright made a lifelong journey through this minefield.

Four case studies can offer some illustration of the range of literary activities undertaken by these women writers of the postwar years, and allow a consideration, albeit brief, of the ways in which they engaged critically with their social and cultural milieux: Kylie Tennant (1912–1988), Nancy Cato (1917–2000), Judith Wright (1915–2000), and Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993).

Kylie Tennant

Tennant had been established as an important new novelist in the dominant social realist tradition of the period when her prize-winning first novel, Tiburon, was serialized and published in book form by the Bulletin in 1935. Over the next decade, five more novels followed, all based on her hands-on research methods, which involved traveling the country with itinerant unemployed workers, living in a city slum boarding house, and, on one occasion, spending a week in Parramatta jail. Like many of her contemporaries who had experienced the Depression years, she was driven by the desire to change the climate of opinion by revealing the suffering caused by rampant capitalism. The Battlers (1941) made her a household name and brought her international recognition as an Australian John Steinbeck.11

After the war circumstances contrived to remove Kylie Tennant from the pantheon of leading Australian novelists—though not from the public eye. Wanting to continue as a financially self-supporting wife to her schoolteacher husband, Lewis Rodd, during the years she was caring for her two young children (a daughter born in 1946 and a son in 1951), Tennant produced numerous stories and plays for children and several non-fiction books (including a popular history, Australia, Her Story). As well, she worked on her long novel about prostitution, later published as The Joyful Condemned (1953). In the 1960s, under more pressure to earn when her husband was suffering from depression, she wrote book reviews and a women’s magazine column, finding that journalism was more lucrative than novel writing.12 At the same time, she held an advisory and editorial position with Macmillan publishers. In addition to this massive workload, she also delivered lectures for the Commonwealth Literary Fund and served on its board. This last, most prestigious appointment she gained despite the earlier scandal when in 1952 a conservative Member of Parliament objected that one-third of the recipients of the board’s funding were communists. Tennant, who had briefly joined and left the party in 1935, threatened to sue him and handed back her grant. She wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Anyone taking the trouble to glance through my books would realise that not only am I no Communist but that I am extremely unpopular with them.”13

And that was part of the problem for Kylie Tennant’s reputation as a serious writer in the postwar years: her work pleased neither the proponents of social(ist) realism nor the advocates of the new modernism practiced by Patrick White. While her early novels had attracted the admiration of leading Australian communist writers like Katharine Susannah Prichard, she lost her credentials as a “proletarian writer” when Ride On Stranger was published, with its satirical portraits of left-wing and other fringe groups.14 Communist Party member Dorothy Hewett, referring to The Joyful Condemned with its “highly-coloured reportage on the delinquent . . . , with Kylie roaming the streets disguised as a blonde-wigged prostitute,” castigated Tennant for leaving behind the “romantic realism” that she shared with Steinbeck and allowing herself to be sidetracked by “the grotesque and the bizarre, the rejects of society.”15 Such non-heroic subjects were strictly forbidden by party-line socialist realism.

The Joyful Condemned was not only disapproved of by Tennant’s communist contemporaries. It was also criticized by her friend Dorothy Green, in a long article in Meanjin assessing all her fiction to date, which dismissed the latest novel as too crowded with incidents and dull or caricatured characters. She expressed the wish that Tennant would “take the trouble” to write a novel that explored character in such depth that he [sic] could become “a symbol for all men.”16 Green believed that Tennant’s flaws as a novelist could be explained by an unresolved conflict between the journalist and the artist. This conflict was something that Tennant herself believed to be inevitable, and in these postwar years she presented herself as a hardworking professional who wrote for money, not as a creative writer.17 She described herself as a political journalist rather than a novelist. Her passion for social justice drove her to write whatever was necessary to “shove public opinion along,” and when she began to write, she said, only the documentary novel could perform this kind of investigative journalism.18 When that kind of novel was superseded by film and television and new journalism, she turned her hand to other means of exploring social justice issues: stories for children, popular history, political biography (of the former leader of the Australian Labor Party, H. V. Evatt), literary reviews and—perhaps surprisingly—women’s magazine journalism.

Tennant recorded in her diary on January 17, 1961: “On Sunday I was offered 15 pounds a week to write a column for The Woman’s Mirror—can I?—Irony that they want a ‘name’ made by opposing all the things they stand for.” She had made her name as a social critic, and as a professional career woman. Neither role was particularly visible or valued in the women’s magazines of the era, which relentlessly pushed the view that a woman’s place was in the home, even though they also offered glimpses at the wider world of culture and politics. Social justice and environmental issues were given an occasional airing, and the first faint stirrings of female discontent could be heard as women began to return to the workforce after their postwar banishment to the home. Tennant took on this job for six months. According to the self-description in her introductory column, she was “interested in nearly everything from food to metaphysics but is unable to count. Her life is normally a state of mild desperation.” Refusing to present herself as a model domestic manager, she ignored domesticity and fashion in favor of social and literary issues, and matters affecting women’s work and status, her stories always leavened by her characteristic humor.19

Tennant’s early novels like Tiburon and The Battlers are still her most-read books; yet during the postwar years she turned her hand to many other literary tasks, making major contributions to public debate about Australian writing, and pursuing questions of social justice that extended from class oppression to Indigenous rights, environmentalism, and the peace movement. She was a “public intellectual” before that phrase came into common usage, concerned not—like most later writer-intellectuals—with nationhood, how it is defined, and who has the right to define it, but with social justice.20

Nancy Cato

Unlike Tennant, who spent most of her working life in Sydney, Nancy Cato grew up and raised her family in Adelaide, and in mid-life moved to live on the coast north of Brisbane. She did not have a public profile as a woman of letters to the extent that Tennant did, but like a number of her contemporaries, she contributed to the literary scene in many ways—poetry, short stories, publishing, reviewing, participation in writers’ associations and also the early years of the Adelaide Writers’ Week, the first of its kind in Australia, beginning in 1960.

Cato started out as a cadet journalist on the Adelaide News (where she refused to be relegated to the women’s pages21), with time off to attend classes in English and languages at the university. She also completed a two-year course at the School of Arts, which stood her in good stead later when she was employed part-time as an art critic at the News in the 1950s. This was after her marriage to Eldred Norman, a racing-car driver and inventor, and the birth of their three children in the early 1940s. In interviews, she spoke often about the struggle to find time to write when the family was growing up, but she managed to produce poetry, short stories, reviews, and even novels, the first of which was published in 1958.

She is best known as the author of historical novels of a fairly romantic cast. Of her twelve novels, three are set in early colonial Tasmania: North-West by South (1965), Queen Trucanini (1976), and A Distant Island (1988). Aboriginal Australians feature in several others, while Brown Sugar (1974) is a novel about the coercive recruitment (known as “blackbirding”) of South Sea Islanders as a labor force for the Queensland sugar industry. She also wrote a biography of her husband’s unorthodox missionary grandfather: Mister Maloga: Daniel Matthews and his River Murray Mission to the Aborigines (1976).

Nancy Cato became internationally famous in her fifties as the author of All the Rivers Run, the story of a woman artist who becomes a paddle-steamer captain on the Murray River during the early decades of the 20th century. The story was originally published as a trilogy over the years 1958 to 1962, and it met with mixed success. But in 1978, Cato published a revised version in a single volume that became a bestseller and was subsequently made into a successful television series. The romantic elements of the trilogy, which had earlier been denigrated as “a woman’s book” rather than serious historical fiction, came to be seen as strengths when a canny London publisher marketed the single volume internationally as a neo-feminist historical saga for the 1970s: a story incorporating both masculine adventure and feminine self-discovery. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Several of Cato’s literary women friends wrote to congratulate her on “your break through into the world of big book production” (Mary Durack) and “world acceptance” for a writer “of your calibre” (Nancy Keesing). This publication, All the Rivers Run, is still widely read: the most recent republication was in 2007, when it was advertised as: “Beautifully set, brilliantly realised, this acclaimed novel from the golden age of epic storytelling is now repackaged as a Hodder Great Read.”22

As a young woman, Nancy Cato was associated with the Jindyworobak group of poets in Adelaide, who were known for their respect for environmental values and their claim of Aboriginal culture as part of the inheritance of settler Australian writers. Although she averred, “I was never a Jindyworobak,” she did edit one of their annual anthologies, and undoubtedly this group influenced her passionate lifelong interest in both the natural environment and Indigenous culture.23 There are traces of Jindyworobak interpretations of the Dreaming in All the Rivers Run (1958), which incorporates a local Indigenous story about how the river was formed by an old woman traveling over the land, dragging her digging stick. Unlike many of her contemporaries, however, Cato was also interested in the history of invasion and colonization and encounters between Indigenous and settler Australians.24 A preface to her Mister Maloga biography by historian Russel Ward welcomed it as “an authentic history which will be valued highly by everyone who cares for the welfare of Aboriginal people.” He stated forthrightly that at mid-century, “almost nothing has been published about Aboriginal history. The long and sickening story of how our ancestors expropriated and almost completely destroyed the Aboriginal people was felt to be too hideous to contemplate.” Since the 1967 referendum (to make Aboriginal affairs the responsibility of the federal government, which gave Aboriginal people full voting rights for the first time), the situation had changed rapidly, he added, with the appearance of books like C. D. Rowley’s The Destruction of Aboriginal Society; and Cato’s book deserved an honored place among these.25

Her later interest in ecology and her work as an environmental activist is prefigured in Cato’s poetry, principally nature lyrics, short and intense, which from the beginning of her writing career marked her attentiveness to the natural world and her curiosity about how human beings live in it. During the 1970s, living on the beautiful Queensland coast, which was under constant danger from mining projects and property developers, she joined local environmental activists working to protect and extend the system of national parks. She published The Noosa Story, an eco-history and an indictment of “unplanned development” in the area where she lived. She had already begun to develop an ecological perspective in All the Rivers Run. Its great theme is the River Murray, and the novel encompasses its immense length, over twelve hundred miles, from mountain springs to the sea, and its colorful history from 1890 until the great flood of 1956. During much of that period, the Murray was intensively used to transport goods and people, as well as for irrigation, as it is still. The river was subjected to massive reshaping, in the early 20th century, when the construction of a series of weirs and locks attempted to transform it into a more reliable medium for transport, and a more reliable source of water for agricultural and industrial uses. All the Rivers Run offers a vision of the Murray as a region, defined by the river itself, with its towns, industries, and peoples, its ecology and mythology. Cato’s emphasis on the material interventions of settler culture into the environment, and their cost, tends toward a critique of the “progress” and “science” that were so much a part of postwar economic and cultural development in Australia.

Her 1989 novel, The Heart of the Continent, brings together within the adventure story genre a conservation theme, the destruction of fragile desert lands by overstocking, and a postcolonial theme about crimes against Aboriginal people. At the end, the heroine flies her plane over the old family property and sees it now covered in sand, “that empty haunted place where the bones of the white usurpers and of the dispossessed tribes lay crumbling together under the shifting sand.”26

Judith Wright

When Cato became involved in the conservation movement in Queensland, she was introduced to the “new science of ecology” and attended a workshop on the subject. There she met the famous poet Judith Wright, in her role as president of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, and reported Wright’s dramatic summary of the situation:

Through the web of interdependence of life, man has burned, bashed and beaten his ignorant way. As the last forests fall and poisons spread everywhere . . . we do not in the least know what we are doing. We need to change ourselves. Unless we change there is no hope.27

This was Wright the poet in campaigning mode, in her career as an activist: a powerfully eloquent public speaker and a tireless, persuasive lobbyist for environmental conservation and for Aboriginal rights. Her three volumes of occasional speeches and essays give some indication of the range of her concerns and her knowledge about them.28

Judith Wright had been one of the few women writers in this postwar generation to meet instant recognition when she began to publish during the war. By the early 1970s, she was at the height of her fame. Her Collected Poems 1942–1970 had been published, to international acclaim, and her essays, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), were widely reviewed, reflecting a growing commitment to teaching Australian literature in the universities. Judith Wright was now an important name in the emerging canon of postwar literature. She was one of the few Australian poets to achieve international recognition, winning the Britannica-Australia Literary Award in 1964, and the Poetry Society of Great Britain annual award in 1967. Also in 1967, she was the only Australian invited to the World Poetry Conference in Montreal. An outbreak of publicity stories in the press greeted these honors. She was now a household name, as well as a literary one, and would remain so for the rest of her long life.

Becoming a writer had been a matter of finding a direction in life that would take her beyond her early success and sustain her spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. This, “my survival as a poet and as a person,” she believed, had been the gift of Jack McKinney, her husband and father of her only child, Meredith.29 Her primary political conviction, which she shared with her much older husband, a veteran of the Great War, was that the developed world had gone wildly wrong, and that only the most profound changes in human consciousness could begin to right things again. As her biographer Veronica Brady comments, feeding into her poems is a post-Hiroshima consciousness that the human mind has released “energies which can destroy the world as they have contributed to making it.”30 Her life was changed forever by Jack McKinney’s death in 1966, and her energies would thereafter be more and more committed to political work for conservation and Aboriginal rights.

Her involvement in the ongoing struggle for Aboriginal rights began when she met Kath Walker (later known by her language name, Oodgeroo) when she recommended the publication of the Aboriginal activist’s first book of poetry, We Are Going (1964). Wright admired Oodgeroo’s poetry: it rang out and commanded attention.” “This stuff was alive”—it had ideas, fire, and urgency, she wrote.31 The two women met and formed a long and fond friendship, which prompted Wright to further and deeper reflections on her own inheritance as a white Australian, “one of the conquerors.” Her poem addressed to Kath Walker, “The Two Dreamtimes,” claims some shared grief “for a lost country, . . . poisoned now and crumbling,” but also recognizes the political reality of their difference:

  • The knife’s between us. I turn it around
  • the handle to your side,
  • the weapon made from your country’s bones.
  • I have no right to take it.32

She actively supported Oodgeroo’s project to set up an education center, Moongalba, on her traditional lands at Minjerriba (Stradbroke Island), where young Australians of all backgrounds could experience something of Indigenous cultural heritage. She also championed the work of an emerging generation of Black Australian writers like Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, and Roberta Sykes.33

Wright had become involved in the conservation movement when she co-founded the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in 1962 with her friend, the wildflower artist Kathleen McArthur, and others. The environmental movement in Australia in the 1960s was still small, although there was a growing awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution (American Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was much discussed). During this decade, the Australian Conservation Foundation was formed and campaigns launched to save the Great Barrier Reef and other areas in Queensland, to conserve the Little Desert in Victoria, to stop sand mining on the New South Wales coast around Myall Lakes, and to preserve Lake Pedder from the depredations of hydro-electric development.34 Wright’s work for the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland brought her increasingly into contact with environmental campaigns on the national level. One of the campaigns in which she was prominent as an activist was to stop the Concorde supersonic aircraft from establishing a route across the Australian continent that would damage the ozone layer and subject people in the remote inland—mainly Aboriginal people—to sonic boom. This marked the beginning of a shift in her focus from environmental issues to the rights of Indigenous people.35

During the 1970s, Wright held a series of public appointments, alongside her activism. The progressive federal government of Gough Whitlam (1972–1975) appointed her to the new Council for the Arts and to the Inquiry into the National Estate (1974), and in 1976 she moved south to live outside of Canberra, to be nearer the action, and nearer to her daughter Meredith. With H. C. “Nugget” Coombs she initiated the Aboriginal Treaty Committee (1979–1984) and explained the need for a formal treaty in her book, We Call for a Treaty (1985). Though the committee was disbanded and no such treaty has yet been signed in Australia, she and her colleagues lived to witness the historic Mabo decision of the High Court (1992), which for the first time recognized that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have rights to the land that pre-exist white occupation; it led to the passing of the Native Title Act (1993). During these years Wright worked on a new and difficult project of her own, rewriting the story of white pioneers based in her own family’s history, which she had first told in The Generations of Men (1959), this time with a focus on the deleterious effects of white invasion on both the land and its original inhabitants.

Despite this often depressing work, she began a new collection of poems, Phantom Dwelling (1985), which struck out in fresh and experimental directions. Wright had long ago given up on the “creative stillness” that she required as a younger poet (“refusal to impose oneself on events, refusal to be imposed upon”). She found that such commitments fostered creativity rather than inhibiting it, when they were to causes that she passionately believed in, and whose directions were determined by informed analysis (on environmental issues) and listening to those on whose behalf she advocated (Aboriginal rights). As her biographer argued, Wright’s poetry and activism sprang from the same source, and renewed one another; she saw poetry as the source of a larger kind of life.36

Judith Wright contributed in myriad ways to literary culture in postwar Australia, all the while asserting her independence from literary and academic circles. Her contribution to the reshaping of national culture more broadly continues to reverberate in the current Indigenous rights and ecology movements, and in ongoing reconsiderations of the history of settler Australia. Her name crops up regularly as younger writers and artists discover a woman whose work they can admire for its outspoken commitments and powerful imagery, a recent example being musician Katie Noonan’s compilation, With Love and Fury, of Wright’s poems set to music by ten contemporary composers.37

Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Oodgeroo Noonuccal is, like Judith Wright, still a cultural presence more than twenty years after her death. As Kath Walker, she led the way in opening up the field of contemporary Indigenous Australian literature, the first Aboriginal woman to publish a book, We Are Going, in 1964. “Appearing in the public sphere at a precise historical juncture, Oodgeroo’s poetry created a national platform for her activism.”38 She was a leader of the national campaign to change the Australian Constitution so as to make Aboriginal affairs the responsibility of the federal government—the landmark 1967 referendum.39 Having played a major role in struggles for civil rights in the 1960s, she then set up a unique project of cultural reclamation at Moongalba camp on her ancestral land at Minjerriba (Stradbroke Island), near Brisbane.

In 1988, she protested against the celebration of the bicentenary of white invasion by handing back the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire membership she had been awarded, and changed her name to Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal tribe. For her, there was no question of conflict between poetry and politics: writing, public speaking, educating, and campaigning were always inseparable. As her biographer writes, she “was blessed with literary and artistic talent but she was also an arresting speaker, an inspired teacher and a visionary.”40

Her first book, We Are Going, is marked by an elegiac tone, as the title poem illustrates:

  • The bora ring is gone.
  • The corroboree is gone.
  • And we are going.”

Here the imagery of absence evokes the despoliation of the land as part of Aboriginal culture itself, like the bora ring and the corroboree. As Brigid Rooney points out in her nuanced discussion, this and other poems in the book echo the “last of the tribe” trope, which had long been popular in white settler writing, including Judith Wright’s early poems, and which sentimentalized and whitewashed the bloody history of invasion and settlement. But this is not an unreflective echo, Rooney argues. Rather, it can be read as “a strategic imitation or performance of the coloniser’s discourse, not simple repetition”—a performance with a political point.41 This poetry made an important impact on multiple audiences, influencing the way Aboriginal people saw themselves and opening up new forms of self-expression for them to appropriate for their own purposes, as well as influencing how they were seen by whites.

Exceptional in so many ways as a pioneering Indigenous leader, Kath Walker/Oodgeroo also had an exceptional career as a writer in relation to her white female contemporaries. Her first book went through seven editions in seven months, selling ten thousand copies, and the second, The Dawn Is at Hand, two years later, sold seven thousand—almost unprecedented figures for a book of poetry. Her work was sometimes judged to be propaganda rather than poetry, but in an era when protest poetry was coming into its own, such judgments were confined to a small minority of university critics. The Dawn Is at Hand was awarded the Fellowship of Australian Writers prize and the Dame Mary Gilmore Medal.

Oodgeroo’s political work involved her in more contact with international organizations and audiences than perhaps any of her non-Aboriginal contemporaries, even Judith Wright. During the 1970s, she traveled widely to writers’ festivals in Malaysia, Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea, and visited universities in the United States and the South Pacific; in the 1980s, her visit to China as part of an Australian cultural delegation resulted in her fourth and final volume of poems, Kath Walker in China (1988), and she also traveled to Russia to attend the International Forum for a Nuclear-Free World.

For Oodgeroo more than for any of her non-Indigenous sisters, interaction with formal political parties was part of her life. At different times in her career, she stood for election (unsuccessfully) for the Labor Party and Australian Democrats. Her contact with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) when she was a young married woman in the 1940s no doubt contributed to her further education, which had been cut short at the age of thirteen (as was the case for many children of poor families in the Depression years, white as well as black). At the time, the CPA was the only political party to oppose the White Australia policy and advocate for Aboriginal rights. Although Kath and her husband did not become members, the party would have offered them a community of comrades. After the couple separated and Kath was effectively sole parent for her two sons, she had to work as a domestic, despite having acquired training in secretarial skills after her time in the Women’s Army Service during the war. At this time, she joined the Realist Writers group in Brisbane, which nurtured her first attempts to write short stories and poems in the 1950s.

Her formative and most effective political experience was with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigine and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), at both state and national levels. This began as a cross-cultural body, where she met and befriended people like Kathie Cochrane, her biographer. Cochrane was one of the minority of white members of FCAATSI who understood exactly why it became necessary for Aboriginal members to claim autonomy after the success of the 1967 referendum. She quotes from Oodgeroo’s speech on this matter:

Black Australians must strengthen themselves into a solid, determined fighting unit and dictate the terms for their own advancement. They must define what is best for their own advancement and then they can determine where white Australians can be of assistance. Unless they take this line, black Australians will always be cast in a beggar’s role, with a second-class status.42

In a different vein, the poet whose indebtedness to Aboriginal oral culture is everywhere evident recited her “Aboriginal Charter of Rights” at the 1962 FCAATSI meeting in Brisbane, where she was elected Queensland secretary. It begins:

  • We want hope, not racialism,
  • Brotherhood, not ostracism,
  • Black advance, not white ascendance:
  • Make us equals, not dependants.

Toward the end, this hard-hitting list of demands comes to a climax:

  • Make us neighbours, not fringe-dwellers;
  • Make us mates, not poor relations,
  • Citizens, not serfs on stations.43

These were the kind of lines that older Aboriginal people, who could neither read nor write (like Oodgeroo’s own mother), could and did memorize and recite at public meetings. Her poems, she said, would be a book they could call their own.44

The Advent of Second-Wave Feminism

These mid-century women writers and their generational cohort were independent thinkers, critical of the entrenched inequalities of race and class relations, and of postwar economic development and environmental degradation. Such commitments brought with them a degree of detachment from formal political parties and from questions of national identity posed by the dominant discourses of settler Australia. Their understandings of cultural politics were of a new kind; they anticipated and participated in the social and cultural movements for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and environmental conservation that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet for them, gender relations, unlike class and race, were not seen as open to political challenge and change. Their political formation had demanded both a strong sense of social responsibility and a degree of self-abnegation. Their task was not to complain about their lot as women, but to avoid the constraints of gender as best they could. They did not envisage changing the public culture in their own interests as women. They were, as a group, initially wary of the women’s liberation movement initiated by their daughters’ generation. They regarded its emphasis on personal experience and sexual and reproductive freedom as divisive and self-indulgent. Though they might have sympathized with the new feminists’ refusal of “male defined” political loyalties, they were wary of any tendency to dictate the terms on which women should now assert themselves. Poet and playwright Dorothy Hewett, formerly a member of the Communist Party of Australia and all too familiar with pressures to toe a party line, resented being told that she “wasn’t carrying the flag at the right angle” by younger women.45 Yet she was one of the few of her generation to state publicly her belief in sexual liberation for women as well as men. Others were nervous about the implications of calls for female solidarity and anxious to affirm their heterosexuality, like Nancy Cato: “the really strident feminism I’m against because there seems to be—it’s not exactly a lesbian element—but there’s a feeling almost of hatred of men and heterosexual relationships.”46

The feminist cultural separatism that spawned many women’s writing and publishing enterprises and women’s studies programs was met with suspicion by older women for whom accepting the label “woman” writer was tantamount to accepting cultural invisibility. As novelist Thea Astley famously expressed it: “I grew up believing that women weren’t really people, and didn’t matter in the scheme of things,” so as a young writer she felt she had been “spiritually neutered by society.” Her solution was to write from a male point of view in order to be listened to, and she found herself for the first time, in her fifties, trying to create a female narrator and envying the way a younger woman like Helen Garner could write about “the mundanities of a woman’s day and make it alive and intelligent and believable.”47

It was not until the 1980s, when second-wave feminism succeeded in creating female-defined cultural spaces that were not confined to the domestic, that these older writers entered on their own terms. A sign of this acceptance was the presence of so many of them in feminist anthologies. The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1986) featured work by Wright, Cato, Hewett, Rosemary Dobson, Gwen Harwood, and Kath Walker (as well as several younger Aboriginal women she had encouraged). Novelists like Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, and others contributed stories to feminist collections like Stories of her Life (1979), The Redress Press Anthology of Australian Women’s Short Stories (1985), and The Babe Is Wise: Contemporary Stories by Australian Women (1987). As Judith Rodriguez wrote in her editor’s introduction to the anthology Mrs Noah and the Minoan Queen (1983), for women poets in the 1980s, “inspiration, publication and readership are all fuelled by 1970s feminism, whether they lent it their voices or not. A world where feminist presses and magazines exist is a different world for writers to be born into.”48

Further Reading

Brady, Veronica. South of My Days: A biography of Judith Wright. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1998.Find this resource:

    Carter, David. “Publishing, Patronage and Cultural Politics: Institutional Changes in the Field of Australian Literature since 1950.” In The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Edited by Peter Pierce, 360–390. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

      Cochrane, Kathie. Oodgeroo. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994.Find this resource:

        Grant, Jane. Kylie Tennant: A Life. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2006.Find this resource:

          Guiffre, Giulia. A Writing Life: Interviews with Australian Women Writers. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990.Find this resource:

            McLaren, John. Writing in Hope and Fear: Literature as Politics in Postwar Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

              Rooney, Brigid. Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                Sheridan, Susan. Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making their Mark. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                  Sheridan, Susan. “‘Opposing All the Things They Stand For’: Women Writers and the Women’s Magazines.” In Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia. Edited by Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon, 195–204. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                    Sheridan, Susan. “Reading All the Rivers Run, Nancy Cato’s Eco-Historical Epic.” Australian Humanities Review 55 (2013): 119–132.Find this resource:


                      (1.) Nancy Keesing, ed., Australian Postwar Novelists: Selected Critical Essays (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1975).

                      (2.) Susan Sheridan, Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making their Mark (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011).

                      (3.) See David Carter, “Publishing, Patronage and Cultural Politics: Institutional Changes in the Field of Australian Literature since 1950,” in The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, ed. Peter Pierce (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Nicole Moore, The Censor’s Library (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2012), 360–390.

                      (4.) Susan Sheridan, “Women’s Leadership in Writers’ Associations,” in Diversity in Leadership: Australian Women, Past and Present, eds. Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein, and Mary Tomsic (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2014), 269–280.

                      (5.) Susan Sheridan, “‘Opposing All the Things They Stand For’: Women Writers and the Women’s Magazines,” in Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia, eds. Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2012), 195–204.

                      (6.) See for example, Susan McKernan [Lever], A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years after the War (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989); John McLaren, Writing in Hope and Fear: Literature as Politics in Postwar Australia (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

                      (7.) Sheridan, Nine Lives, 18.

                      (8.) Susan Sheridan, “Sex and the City: New Novels by Women and Middlebrow Culture at Mid-Century,” Australian Literary Studies 27.3–4 (2012): 1–12.

                      (9.) Susan Sheridan and Emma Maguire, “Relationships to the Bush in Nan Chauncy’s Early Novels for Children,” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 14.23 (2014).

                      (10.) Kathie Cochrane, Oodgeroo (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994), 93.

                      (11.) Jane Grant, Kylie Tennant: A Life (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2006), 62–63.

                      (12.) Tennant, The Missing Heir, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1986, 153.

                      (13.) Grant, Kylie Tennant, 75.

                      (14.) Grant, Kylie Tennant, 55.

                      (15.) Hewett, “How Beautiful Upon the Mountains,” Westerly 3 (1960): 4–7.

                      (16.) Dorothy Green, “The Novels of Kylie Tennant,” Meanjin 12.4 (1953): 395–403.

                      (17.) Sheridan, “Opposing All the Things They Stand For,” 202–203.

                      (18.) Giulia Guiffre, “Kylie Tennant,” in A Writing Life: Interviews with Australian Women Writers (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990), 226–227.

                      (19.) Sheridan, “Opposing All the Things They Stand For,” 197–199. ‘Kylie Tennant Says,’ Australian Women’s Mirror, February 22, 1961, 11.

                      (20.) This is the key definition of her subject used in Brigid Rooney’s important book, Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009), xxi.

                      (21.) See, by way of comparison, Tennant’s negative view of women’s magazines. In her novel, Marigold, based on her own youth, Cato has her heroine declare to her surprised editor: “I will not write any more rubbish for or about women. I am sick to death of women, and their pages, and their fashions, and their clubs and committees and associations” (Marigold [London: Coronet Books, 1993], 173–174).

                      (22.) Susan Sheridan, “Reading All the Rivers Run, Nancy Cato’s Eco-Historical Epic,” Australian Humanities Review 55 (2013): 119–132.

                      (23.) Guiffre, “Nancy Cato,” in A Writing Life, 162.

                      (24.) Susan Sheridan, “White Women Writing in the Contact Zone: Catherine Martin and Nancy Cato,” Australian Feminist Studies 27.73 (2012): 249–257.

                      (25.) Nancy Cato, Mister Maloga: Daniel Matthews and His River Murray Mission to the Aborigines (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press 1976), xiii–ix.

                      (26.) Nancy Cato, The Heart of the Continent (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 478.

                      (27.) Nancy Cato, “Uphill Battle on Ecology,” Canberra Times, October 21, 1971, 2.

                      (28.) Judith Wright, Because I Was Invited (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1975), Born of the Conquerors (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991), Going on Talking (Springwood, Australia: Butterfly Books, 1992).

                      (29.) Quoted by Patricia Clarke, “In Love with a Man and a Mind: Judith Wright’s Relationship with Jack McKinney,” NLA News xi.6 (March 2001): 4.

                      (30.) Veronica Brady, South of My Days: A biography of Judith Wright (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1998), 136.

                      (31.) Judith Wright, “The Poetry: An Appreciation,” in Kathie Cochrane, Oodgeroo (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994), 163, 166.

                      (32.) Quoted in Cochrane, Oodgeroo, 206–209.

                      (33.) Rooney, Literary Activists, 19.

                      (34.) Drew Hutton and Libby Connors, A History of the Australian Environment Movement (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 89–120.

                      (35.) Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney, eds., With Love and Fury: Selected Letters of Judith Wright (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2006), 232–233.

                      (36.) Brady, South of My Days, 246.

                      (37.) Jane Cornwell, “The Wright Moment,” Weekend Australian Review (March 26–27, 2016): 6–7.

                      (38.) Rooney, Literary Activists, 61. It is worth noting that 1964 was the year before Aboriginal people in Queensland won the right to vote.

                      (39.) Anne Brewster, “Kath Walker,” Australian Writers 1950–1975, ed. Selina Samuels, Dictionary of Literary Biography v. 289, Detroit, Gale, 2004.

                      (40.) Cochrane, Oodgeroo, Preface.

                      (41.) Rooney, Literary Activists, 63–64.

                      (42.) Quoted in Cochrane, Oodgeroo, 81.

                      (43.) Cochrane, Oodgeroo, 64–65.

                      (44.) Brewster, “Kath Walker.”

                      (45.) Dorothy Hewett, “Coming to Terms with the Ghosts,” in A Woman’s Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets, ed. Jenny Digby (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996), 218–240, 222.

                      (46.) Quoted in Giuffre, A Writing Life, 161.

                      (47.) Quoted in Jennifer Ellison, Rooms of Their Own (Ringwood: Penguin, 1986), 56.

                      (48.) Judith Rodriguez, ed., Mrs Noah and the Minoan Queen: Poems by Jennifer Strauss, Fay Zwicky, Antigone Kefala, Judith Rodriguez, J. S. Harry, Jennifer Rankin. South Carlton: Sisters Publishing, 1983, xii.