Forgotten women rebels of Eureka

Review: Clare Wright, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka,
Text Publishing, 2013.

In the winter of 1854, a profound movement of communal disaffection mushroomed in the damp, putrid fields of Ballarat. Under Ellen Young’s matriarchal tutelage, distrust of authority and collective grievance started to generate broader political debate about the big-ticket items of poverty, land reform, health and economic management – not to mention the whole damned notion of British justice.[1]

I’d be surprised if you’ve ever read an account of the Eureka Stockade of December 1854 which attributes anything like that role to a woman; usually the many women on the Ballarat gold field are simply wives minding children, cooking and washing in harsh conditions, if they are mentioned much at all. Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is a Eureka narrative like none other. And, contrary to the emphasis of some reviews of the book, the most interesting addition to our knowledge of this iconic rebellion is not that stores sold breast pumps and baby clothes.[2]

Now that we’ve begun with Ellen Young, let’s look at her role. In the winter of 1854, Ellen published her first poem in the Geelong Advertiser, titled “Ballarat” and later transcribed as “The Digger’s Lament”. In it she penned a picture of some of the conditions which bred discontent. But, as is the usual way with history, it is Raffaello Carboni’s “version of this truth” which has been “much quoted by historians since”. Ellen sums it up with a poet’s élan: “The gold I promised still is hid; The past is all a sham”. The diggers were trapped in a cycle of back-breaking work, many with no reward, “mid crowds from many climes”. Midway through her poem, “[s]uddenly, Ellen has introduced a new element into public discourse about the diggings. A sense of grievance”:

 

They’re diggers! Who are they?…
They’re men – high tax’d, ill lodg’d, worse fed
Of strong and stalwart frame
Better was ne’er by hero led
Or earn’d a hero’s name.
[3]

Women participated in mining, and some set up shop to supplement the meagre incomes from gold. Popular history usually concentrates on the diggers’ mining licence as the source of this “sense of grievance”, but the storekeeper licence was expensive and cost the same for everyone, whether they were selling a few wares from half the family tent or had the capital to set up a well-stocked store. This, along with the mining licence, Wright argues, bred the egalitarianism the gold fields were noted for. Therefore “[w]omen became integrally entwined in the culture of complaint and the politics of dissent.”[4]

Was Ellen the first to articulate potentially inflammatory ideas? Wright implies it when she says the Geelong Advertiser echoed Ellen’s sentiments in the spring. It portrayed the diggers as “hard working, taxed, unrepresented members of the body politic” enduring “absurd, insulting regulations”. Whether or not the female poet “unplugged the dyke which held back public fury”, she did ride on the “crest of an inexorable wave of grievance”.[5]

Without further records of the thoughts of the mass of diggers, the women in their midst, or even those whom history acknowledges as the leaders, it’s not possible to be sure Ellen wielded the influence accorded her by Wright. But it is exhilarating to encounter a historian who thinks that writing women into history is not about emphasising family life, or portraying women as victims of men, separate from the big struggles for democracy and justice.

The only people – apart from priests and their live-in servants – who appear to have been exempt from the imposition of licences were the original inhabitants, the Wathaurung people. Their culture and economy had always involved extensive quarrying and trade carried out by both women and men. They often led the new white invaders to the gold. In a few poignant examples, Wright captures the way their ancient culture was being trashed virtually overnight. Trading possum skin cloaks and sharing knowledge were rapidly transformed from the bilateral transactions which formed complex kinship and social associations to “a more purely economic function”.[6]

Wright draws every bow she can to portray the non-Aboriginal women in the new tent city as politically engaged, even leading public opinion. She says of the 44-year-old poetess, older than all the male leaders of the growing discontent: “Ellen adopted the tone of civic Mother Lion… No one disputed her authority or right to become the mouthpiece for the people of Ballarat.”[7] Again and again Wright emphasises the daring, path-breaking and highly political nature of Ellen’s poems. Published by Henry Seekamp, the radical 25-year-old editor of the Ballarat Times which began printing in March of that year, they were signed Ellen F Young, the Ballarat Poetess. A significant point. This was very different from the anonymity chosen by “later Australian female writers with a critical edge and a finger on the public pulse”.[8]

In order to draw out the possible political commitment, ideas and relationships of the women, Wright emphasises, with great justification, the Europe from where most of them came:

The ideas, aspirations and language of the old world seeped into the porous new cultural and political landscape. Seen from this angle, the Victorian gold rush doesn’t represent a new dawn in Australia’s young history so much as the long dusk of Europe’s age of revolutions.[9]

She introduces us to an array of women who illustrate the point; women who “would play a vital role in the political future of their adopted homeland”, and who conceivably worked together in the political upheaval of 1854. For instance Jane Cuming, with her husband, joined “the caravan of progressive nonconformists” from Cornwall to the gold fields. On 1 July 1848, in the midst of Europe’s revolutionary year, Jane had christened her daughter Martineau after the English abolitionist poet, writer and women’s rights campaigner Harriet Martineau.[10]

There were the Chartists. Ellen Warboy, as she was in 1837, married Frederick Young in St James Church in Clerkenwell, London, a “hotbed of Chartist unrest”. Sarah Hanmer, née McCullough, married in that same church in 1844 and would play a prominent role in the Eureka rebellion. Jane Fryer was another Chartist activist who arrived in Ballarat in 1854. She had been the first English woman to marry in a registry office because the vows were more equitable than those of the church. She would go on to campaign for the eight-hour day, women’s suffrage and eventually in the anti-conscription and anti-war campaigns of World War I.

Caroline Dexter rejoined her reforming husband William in Victoria, where he had come seeking a chance for a more just world. He advocated votes for women in the Red Ribbon Rebellion in Bendigo in August 1853. She had already cut her teeth as a campaigner for women’s rights, lecturing around London as an “apostle of bloomerism”. Bloomers were named after the American Amelia Bloomer, who first designed the “billowing pants gathered at the ankle” as part of the movement for women’s dress reform. They were an international smash, Wright tells us, and Caroline would parade them in Melbourne only a month after the Eureka Stockade.[11]

There were refugees from the Irish famine and British oppression. Bridget Nolan, with her brother Michael, had fled from an English landlord in Kilkenny. Not a lot is known of her, but she was closely associated with the rebellion on that fateful day. She would throw herself over a wounded digger, crying that he was dead, thereby saving him from the savage massacre being carried out by the police and troops.

Anastasia Hayes, a “Ballarat legend”, was the one woman named by Raffaello Carboni in his seminal account of the stockade rebellion published in 1855. He established what became the customary remarks about her beauty.[12] Born Anastasia Butler in Kilkenny, she and her husband Timothy Hayes, prominent in the Young Ireland movement, fled the famine to live in England before making the treacherous journey which took them to Ballarat. Her husband was elected Chairman of the Ballarat Reform League at a monster meeting (as they were called), of 10,000 on Bakery Hill on 11 November and appears in all accounts of the Eureka rebellion.

Apart from the ubiquitous comments about her beauty, Anastasia would make her mark in history as one of the makers of the flag of rebellion which still flutters above building sites and at left wing demonstrations as a sign of radicalism. Timothy Hayes is credited with drawing up a petition for the removal of James Johnston, the Assistant Gold Commissioner at Ballarat. There was outrage among the 9,000 mostly Irish Catholics at the brutal treatment meted out to the Catholic priest’s severely disabled Armenian assistant and Johnston’s defence of the mounted trooper responsible. But Wright justifiably concludes that Anastasia – an educated Irish rebel and a teacher in the Catholic school – was most likely the initiator and drafter. Wright’s case is strengthened by the fact that Anastasia would later agitate for fair wages and decent allowances from the church. The folklore of her family to this day articulates her bitterness at being exploited by her church and the memory of her as “sharp of mind and tongue”.[13]

Some of these women have been visible, but only as shadowy wives and mothers, without a history or serious profile as public figures. But Sarah Hanmer takes her place on history’s stage for the first time in this account of Eureka. Married in that hotbed of Chartism, already a single mother of four-year-old Julia, eight years later Sarah would daringly cut six years off her age for immigration officials on arrival at Port Phillip (in spite of Julia’s twelve years). She and Julia were to become celebrated actresses, eventually at the Adelphi Theatre, which Sarah managed.

Sarah Hanmer played a delicate balancing act, using her ability to charm in order to keep high dignitaries on side. On Friday 1 December, when “a community held its collective breath”, Sarah was staging a tribute to herself at the Adelphi. It had the patronage of Resident Commissioner Robert Rede and the American Consul James Tarleton. Although it should be noted they were absent; perhaps because her regular benefit concerts made her the biggest donor to the funds of the Ballarat Reform League.[14] The American diggers held their meetings in her theatre to discuss what attitude they would take to the growing protests.[15] While the big-wigs might have been walking a line between using this influential woman, or at least not alienating her, Sarah also had to walk a fine line:

[A] woman had to be careful that by taking on the powerful, traditionally male position of manager, she did not undermine her public persona as a model of femininity: honest, charitable and chaste. It was a fine balancing act.[16]

Wright does not ignore the difficulties women faced and the gender stereotypes which constrained them, nor does she accept that these defined rebellious women’s lives. She pieces together every clue, different strands of information which can be gleaned from the historical record, to present her female characters as enthusiastic participants in the great collective struggle for democracy and a degree of justice for the diggers and their families.

When the Ballarat Reform League was formed on Saturday 11 November and a charter drawn up, in spite of the dominant view of the struggle as all-male, Wright knows that “the ten thousand who witnessed [it] were not of course all men”. Its “manifesto of democratic principles”, its aims of dignity, equity, justice were “codified into a standard template of the Chartist-inspired political rights”.[17] Women had been activists among the Chartists, some of them were on the goldfield, married and cohabiting with leaders of this movement who had brought their Chartist ideals with them. Who could imagine the women elsewhere than at that meeting; who could imagine these women did not try to make their voices known in whatever ways were open to them? We will see below how easily their voices could be silenced by historians.

But for now let’s follow Wright. She knows the women were not invisible, and so she can interpret the archival evidence to show it. She notices the evidence, does not pass it over, and draws conclusions. She draws out the meanings that can be gleaned from Ellen’s words published in the Ballarat Times the next day:

However we may lament great misdeeds in high places, justice must be awarded to the universal demand of an indignant people – the diseased limbs of the law must be lopped off or mortification will ensure the whole body.[18]

Ellen’s is an impassioned identification with the mass of rebels: “we” lament, not the diggers, the phrase a journalist simply recording events would use, “we, the people, demand”. These expressions are telling if you understand political activism and agitation. We lament, you and me, together, as a collective. Ellen instinctively uses the skill of the agitator of mass movements. And Wright understands the key points – whether intuitively, or from experience as a writer and sometime journalist I don’t know, but I do know many historians would miss such a subtlety. She spells it out so readers will be sure we get it: “Ellen highlighted the collective nature of popular disaffection on the goldfields.”[19]

Another simple but significant phrase follows, “[t]hus would I speak to our Governor”. Who ever heard of a woman speaking to the Governor, other than at polite dinner parties and balls? But Ellen, as Wright notes, “once again chose to represent the voice of the whole people in Ballarat’s only newspaper”. Ellen is writing as part of, but also as a leader of the whole people, the collective. Wright has prepared her readers for this understanding of this text which she chooses to quote at length, by emphasising the history of activism such women brought with them.

But there is more. Wright is now in full swing, an advocate for the women as pro-active, trying to push themselves into the male-dominated world of politics. She notes the fact of this dominance, but does not simply condemn it or portray the women as helpless victims, sidelined from historical events. The next couple of pages were perhaps my favourite passages if I had to choose from a book I enjoyed from cover to cover.

We don’t know whether Ellen, an impassioned woman with a good turn of phrase, understood all the meaning Wright attributes to her outpouring at this critical moment in the struggle. Wright seizes on one significant word – demand – to build her case and to show up the pretensions of men who think they should lead while women remain on the sidelines:

Not “request”. Not “humbly pray”. Demand. And it is not Kennedy, not Black, not Holyoake, Humffray or Vern [all leading men – SB] who committed their name to a declaration so inflammatory, so presumptuous, but Ellen Frances Young. No pseudonym. No anonymity. Others had publicly spoken of cleaning out but none had gone so far as lopping off. The irony of the gender inversion was not lost on Ellen herself. Is there not one man, Mr editor, to insist on the above demand? she provoked. And if refused, let us demand them of England.[20]

We can agree with Wright that this “indictment of masculine courage” was encouraged by Henry Seekamp, editor of the Times and especially by his wife, the “firebrand” Clara Du Val Seekamp. We don’t know, but Wright encourages us to believe – with her usual insightful reading of known facts – that Clara could well have been the editor by then. She indisputably was by New Year’s Day, when she wrote a searing indictment of Governor Hotham for his lie that the violence at the stockade was all down to “foreigners”:

Governor Hotham! Could you not have found some other more truthful excuse for all the illegal and even murderous excesses committed by your soldiery and butchers?… Why did you disregard our memorials and entreaties, our prayers and our cries for justice and protection against your unjust stewards here?[21]

She concluded with a defence of the stockade and the diggers’ resort to arms. This editorial provoked an avalanche of “sparkling wit”, as Wright sarcastically refers to the smug put-down of one of her male detractors. Such passion, with references to “liberty”, “oppression”, “sedition” which followed in the coming days, even led to calls for a lenient sentence for Seekamp, her husband standing trial for sedition, in order to “relieve…the gold field of Ballarat from the dangerous influence of a free press petticoat government”.[22]

Wright dismisses speculation by unnamed “scholars” that these agitational, seditious editorials were possibly written by men. I’m with her when she concludes that the “highly literate and intelligent Clara had her finger on the pulse and the pen of the newspaper that was issued from her house”.[23]

But I’m running ahead of the narrative. Wright faces the fact of resistance to women’s rights in the ranks of the Chartists and other rebels. A Canadian miner-turned-carrier, Alpheus Boynton, proudly recorded in his diary that “the talented men” took a stand to “claim their rights as men” on the night the Reform League drew up its Charter. This was a document which, as the later Chartists had pragmatically done – in the name of “realism” and the edge of a wedge – put out the call, not for universal suffrage like the first Chartists, but for manhood suffrage. And the rules excluded women from membership.

The League’s rules turned “Ellen’s people into Boynton’s men.” Wright does not waste ink bemoaning this chauvinism. Instead, she looks for the women’s response, and she has a keen eye for evidence from which we can deduce the dynamics of events even if we can’t establish the precise facts. Her deconstruction of a few passages from Carboni’s account is indicative of how she uses the available historical record.

Carboni, in “one of his typically obtuse asides” declares “Bakery reformers leagues together on its hill [No admission for the ladies at present].[24] Wright poses the question: why did Carboni not assume women would be excluded? It was after all 1854. The “qualifying phrase” which implies there was pressure to note their exclusion and which makes their exclusion an open question, is at present. “Carboni seems to imply it is not out of the question that they will be eligible in the future… Is this because certain women were requesting, maybe even demanding inclusion?”[25]

In this light, Ellen’s passionate letter which, while addressing the Governor, threw down a challenge to the men, is a strong statement in favour of Wright’s assumption that “the unbiddable women of Ballarat strenuously resisted” this “retrograde move”.[26] And Carboni may have felt some guilt. Always looking for clues, Wright checks the translation of the Latin which follows his comment. It reads “[i]t is hard: but whatever is impossible to set right, becomes lighter by endurance.”[27] Wright can’t resist having a dig herself, thereby painting us a picture of women’s lives on the Ballarat gold fields:

[Women] were, after all, writing op-eds, topping subscription lists, starting businesses, buying property, financially supporting families, working beside their husbands on the fields, owning shares in mining ventures, speaking their minds freely, making ample use of the judicial system to assert their sovereign rights, throwing off the mantle of restrictive clothing, drinking, fornicating and otherwise behaving like perfect men.[28]

The flag, the attack on the stockade and its aftermath

Who made that huge flag, with the simple design inspired by the night skies? It was first hoisted by the Canadian Henry Ross at the monster meeting of 29 November, not at Eureka, from which it would ultimately take its name, but at Bakery Hill. The Seekamps in their Ballarat Times had predicted that the “Australian flag shall triumphantly wave, a symbol of Liberty!”.

For decades, the controversy over who designed and made the Eureka flag has raged. Typically, Wright, as a result of her forensic research, listening to oral family histories, taking into account the conclusions of its conservators and drawing inferences, disputes the latest orthodoxy.

There is pretty much agreement that women stitched it, probably at night by the light of candles.[29] They were Anastasia Hayes, Anastasia Withers and Ann Duke who, heavily pregnant, would be inside the stockade on 3 December when the troops attacked. Wright wants to add Eliza Darcy, who would marry Patrick Howard the next August in the Catholic church; and what’s more, argues that Eliza’s future husband, a member of the Reform League, probably drew up the design. The incredible achievement was, according to Wright, completed in the tent hall of the Catholic church which stood at the centre of so much of the agitation that summer.[30] The jigsaw she puts together fits neatly. History will see if her version becomes the story.

That flag of freedom, a symbol of a new society and the hopes of the rebels, as they were now referred to by the papers, flew over the stockade as the forces of British law and order demonstrated with their usual brutality that this new society would only be won in struggle. Wright does not claim to present any new political interpretation of the events in the lead-up to or after the crushing of the Eureka Stockade. But she has contributed to a growing recognition that women and children were in that stockade. The blanks which represent persons unknown on lists of the dead and wounded have almost universally been assumed to be male. At least one of them was a woman who remains nameless.

Anne Keane, who had travelled from Ireland and married Martin Diamond, was in the thick of it. Her store, run with her husband, was the meeting place where the “council of war for the defence” was formed. Hours later her store was at the centre of the stockade built to defend the diggers from the imminent attack by the armed forces of the law. She would later testify to the murder of Martin, hacked and stabbed to death by a sword and a bayonet before their store was burnt to the ground. Her claim for compensation, indicative of a woman who didn’t take injustice lying down, was denied.[31]

Women swelled the numbers gathering in the stockade on Saturday 2 December, bringing food for one thing. Mary Faulds from Scotland was in labour and would give birth to her daughter Adeliza surrounded by bodies and wounded men being massacred. One woman set up as a sly grog seller. Many women sold sly grog to supplement the almost non-existent income from gold. Her tent would be a haven for fugitives by the morning. Faulds and others like her had an interest in this stand against the threat of violence from government troops because they were subject to the store keeping licences – which had been burnt along with the mining licences on 29 November. Sarah Hanmer may not have been in the stockade, but the Reform League met at her Adelphi theatre in the afternoon. The next day she would dress her American friend, James McGill, in women’s clothes and help him escape.

Once the soldiers’ onslaught began, women loaded guns, distracted soldiers while men escaped, sheltered others. They could not escape the massacre which followed. Family tents were torched indiscriminately as the troops attacked the wounded and even those not involved.[32]

The government granted many of the diggers’ demands. And the ongoing agitation by some women backs up Wright’s inference that women were agitating for their own rights. Voting rights were granted to holders of licences. In September 1856, Fanny Smith wrote to the editor of the Ballarat Times to ask whether women holding a licence might be able to stand for the legislature. Typically, Wright makes the most of this one document: “Fanny’s letter gives us many vital clues as to the political literacy and vigour of Ballarat’s women. She is versed in the relevant legislation and the critical processes.” Fanny implies that a prominent man supports women in the local court: “she is using Chairman Daly’s alleged support as a wedge”; Fanny mentions “other ladies’ ambition”: “she is letting it be known that she is not a lone voice, but simply the vocal tip of a looming iceberg of female ambition.”[33]

What’s more, a few days later another woman wrote in to claim that she was going to stand for election. “Her platform? All the crazy ideas going around”, including equal rights for women with men because, she declares, foreshadowing the mockery later suffragettes would employ: “I am sure there is many an old woman in both positions already.” The word “male” was eventually inserted into the legislation in 1865. But in the meantime there had been several men, responding to women’s agitation, who stood in elections on platforms which included women’s rights including suffrage. Wright concludes that these scattered “nuggets of evidence” … “place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters.”[34]

Historiography of women

Clare Wright’s Forgotten Rebels builds on Laurel Johnson’s path-breaking Women of Eureka, published in 1995. This was followed by Dorothy Wickham’s Women of the Diggings: Ballarat 1854 (2009). These historians broke the silence surrounding women on the gold fields, challenging the myth of the “womanless fields” established by one of the earliest histories of Ballarat.[35]

Wright wonders why the myth was not challenged until so late. There were women who, at the time of the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary, tried to have their and other women’s presence recognised. One “lady who was there” contributed a poem to the Ballarat Times. A second disputed the account by J.B. Humffray, former Reform League member and now MLA. She claimed she was shot during a funeral of another woman held on the Monday. Then in 1954, a Mr L. Moyle attended the centenary ceremony to honour his grandmother Mrs Catherine Smith, who was shot and died weeks later.[36]

It’s not as if other clues were not around. One of the illustrations in Wright’s book is a watercolour of the interior of the Adelphi Theatre from 1854. A woman who we can now assume is Sarah Hanmer is clearly portrayed overseeing the work of men. There is also a painting by S.T. Gill from 1854 of a ball which includes women – would anyone imagine a “womanless” population organised balls? It turns out they organised child care for them.[37]

Carboni acknowledges Anastasia Hayes’s presence, as do other early accounts. Her comment when she met her husband being dragged off for trial – “If I had been a man, I wouldn’t have been taken by so few as these” – entered folklore and established that Timothy, the militant leader of the Reform League, was thought to be a coward by his wife. But no one took this as a clue as to her own political support for the stand for justice. References scattered through the various accounts of that struggle did not alert historians, used to relating history as if women hardly existed, or if they did, only as wives and mothers of no consequence, that there could be more to the story.

We might expect that of traditional history. But what of Creating a Nation, the most acclaimed attempt to rewrite Australian history from the point of view of women? Marilyn Lake, one of the editors and a prominent feminist historian, raised the demand that “gender become a central category of all historical analysis”.[38] She tells us in the introduction:

We wish to challenge this [male-dominated] view of history, by asserting the agency and creativity of women in the process of national generation… Women have been major actors in the colonial and national dramas. This book explores the myriad ways in which both women and men, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, have contributed to the economic, political and cultural life of the separate colonies and then the nation.[39]

However, the book does not, in any way, challenge the established “masculinist” narrative of the gold fields rebellion. Rather, it in fact reinforces it.

Given that the drama that played out in the Eureka Stockade is seen by many if not most Australians as the birth of the struggle for democracy and for an independent nation free of British rule, you might think it would receive some serious attention in a book with such a title. Instead Marian Quartly, who wrote the chapter about this period, recycles the myth of “womanless fields”. She asserts there were 80,000 men on the gold fields of Victoria in 1854. The fact is, one in three of that 80,000 was a woman or a child. Wright was able to establish that one quarter of adults in Ballarat were female. It did not require a huge leap of imagination to wonder if that many men would possibly live with no women among them. All it would have taken is a glance at registers of births, deaths and marriages, all of which record women.

Noel Counihan, forty years before Creating a Nation, had painted a representation of the 29 November monster meetings in Ballarat in 1854. He had the imagination and insight to make the two most prominent figures, on which your eyes fall immediately, female.[40] A linocut titled “After the battle” by Mary Zuvella, also executed as part of the 1954 commemorations, clearly represents women.[41] And Richard Butler, in his novel Eureka Stockade, written over a decade before Creating a Nation, has sufficient empathy and creative imagination to refer not just to families, and to women and children attacked by the government forces, but also to attribute political opinions to the one woman who had something of a presence in the historical narrative, Anastasia Hayes. He even implies that she understood the politics of events more clearly than male leaders like Peter Lalor and her husband, Timothy.[42]

Just these few snippets indicate that there were people discussing the meaning of Eureka, many years before Creating a Nation was written, who recognised not just that women would have been in Ballarat, but that they probably had political opinions and participated in the mass gatherings, if not the rebellion. By the 1960s the idea that women had sewn the flag was taking root.

So how could it be that historians who promoted their book as “a dramatic new history, that challenges the conventional view of Australia’s past as a creation of white men of British descent” did not notice that here was a story waiting to be told? Not only were there women’s stories to tell, it also blew apart the idea that the struggle for democracy was the preserve of men of British descent. Everyone comments on the presence of “men” from around the world.

There was always a tendency in feminist history and theorising to assume that women have been by and large passive onlookers at times of social upheaval, held down by male oppressors. Once you write about “women” there is a strong pressure to emphasise what women have in common – and that is their oppression. Janey Stone, writing about feminist historiography, noted these tendencies as early as 1982. She pointed out that if women are not assumed to be capable of being independent agents of history in all classes, this will distort historians’ conclusions about women’s lives and the meaning of their involvement in historic events.[43]

This was only a tendency. But as the radicalism of the social movements declined and the left fragmented and moved to the right, as the class struggle declined and became increasingly defensive, any identification with class struggle that many women’s liberationists had felt was broken. Increasingly class struggle was dismissed as a “male” preserve. And so, as I have argued elsewhere, the project of writing women’s history increasingly meant portraying women “primarily as victims, their suffering becomes central to their history, regardless of whether they resisted, whether they lived out the stereotypes or not.”[44] As Janey Stone had argued in the 1980s, this kind of history “accepts that the role prescribed is the same as the reality”.[45]

Quartly’s chosen title for her essay is telling: “Making Male and Female Worlds”. So her assumption was that the decade of this rebellion could best be understood, not by seeing women and men living shared lives and joining in solidarity around goals of human rights, but occupying separate worlds. But she goes further, denigrating such struggles for democracy:

Recent students of political thought have discovered a historical connection between the idea of democracy (the rule of the people) and the idea of patriarchy (the rule of men over women).[46]

Noel Counihan was a member of the Communist Party of Australia. In spite of the mythology created against the CPA in recent decades, the party for all its faults had the most advanced attitudes to women’s rights of its time, especially in the 1950s.[47] Counihan evidently assumed, as the CPA’s propaganda encouraged, that if there was a struggle for justice, women would have been active in it. On the other hand, the feminist historian Quartly, ignoring this possibility and blinded by the idea that class struggle is male, mistook the stereotypes generated in masculinist historiography as fact.

Wright’s riposte to those who have contributed to the masculinist narrative should give pause to those who have written feminist history which accepted it as reality:

The material and documentary residue of [the women’s] lives is everywhere: clinging to dusty files at the Public Records Office, trapped within the yellowing pages of newspapers, transmitted by generations of descendants. It demands that we ask new questions.[48]

Precisely.

Wright has contributed to tearing down the old stereotypes. She engages with women as she finds them, searching for the clues lingering in archives, listening with an empathetic ear to family oral histories, drawing inferences which can easily be drawn if you see women as active participants in society, not just as victims of male oppression. And her lively, engaging history confirms something Socialist Alternative has argued persistently, summed up in the essays in Rebel Women in Australian Labour History.

First, “[t]he fact that historians have obscured the women merely makes their account of history ‘masculinist’, not the events themselves.”[49] Second, when the strong stand firm and fight those responsible for exploitation and oppression, they create an environment in which the oppressed can rise up as well. It’s in the high points of struggle that we find women who previously only appeared as marginalised and victimised striding onto the stage of history. After all, the majority of men remain invisible when times are “normal” and struggle is low and uninspiring.

Without the Eureka rebellion we may well never have heard of the men in this drama. And, just as we meet women in this upheaval when they were hopeful that reforms could be won, so most of the men retreat back into family life, unnoticed in history again. True, some of the men became politicians, but that just indicates that more struggles had to be fought and won.

Wright captures this ebb and flow of women’s experiences: “Women had both stirred up and been carried along by the torrent of history.” But as independent individuals working with little technology were replaced by syndicates which employed both machinery and waged labour, as cities were established, “so the initial phase of relative autonomy and liberation for women began to solidify into familiar structures of dominance and subservience.” Martha Clendinning, who had “dressed down” so as to “blend in” in the egalitarian tent city while she built up a substantial business as a storekeeper, by 1856 shut up shop to become the respectable doctor’s wife she had been all long. “The time had gone by when, even on the gold fields, a woman unaccustomed to such work could carry on her business without invidious remarks” she wrote. She worried that her husband might be “blamed from allowing me to continue”.[50]

Marxists who recognise these ups and downs of struggle and their effects are not surprised to find women playing the role Wright brings to light. We would be astonished if it were not the case. But the feminist historians Grimshaw, Lake, McGrath and Quartly, by denigrating such struggles as “male” and just another way for men to dominate women, could not pay the respect to those women that they deserve.

Conclusion

Clare Wright’s history is not Marxist, and I have quibbles. For instance, she is not hostile to Catherine Bentley, the pub owner hated to this day by many admirers of the Eureka rebellion for her and her husband’s corrupt relationship with the cops; or Lady Hotham, wife of the Governor of Victoria. She merely shows women as the strong actors they were on both sides of the class divide. That confirms our argument in any case. I recoiled against her argument that many men left the stockade that night because there was a full moon and women across the field were urging them to have sex. Skip over these and other disagreements if you read this book.

Wright’s contribution to our knowledge of women in the Eureka Stockade revolt confirms some of the most important propositions of Marxism. Marxist historians can learn ways of reading the evidence which will stand us in good stead. Therefore it should be embraced with enthusiasm.

For the Wathaurung people this was a time of turmoil as well, but with tragic, not heroic results. By 1861 their several thousands had been reduced to 255 in the Ballarat region, whether by death or removal to reserves. Their ancient culture had been irrevocably redrawn.[51] Wright does not presume to give their detailed history, though she refers us to some which exist. But it is right to acknowledge that it was their land, and that it was stolen “nolens volens”, as a chronicler of 1853 admitted. And just as aspiring land holders scoffed at their right to land rights then, so it continues to this day. Nevertheless, the struggle for democracy and for civil rights was important in laying a basis to fight for Indigenous rights. In the long run, the struggle of the Wathaurung for survival and that of the non-Aboriginal women and men at Eureka were both part of the battle to defend and extend the rights of the exploited and oppressed in this outpost of British imperialism.

In her preface, Clare Wright says of writing women into history from which they have been erased: “Women’s presence does not just add colour to the picture; it changes the very outline.”[52] This insight has led to one of the more useful books about women in Australian history yet published.

 

References

Bloodworth, Sandra and O’Lincoln, Tom (eds), 2008 [2005], Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Red Rag publications.

Butler, Richard, 1983, Eureka Stockade, Angus & Robertson.

Carboni, Raffaello, 1975 [1855], The Eureka Stockade, Melbourne University Press.

Grimshaw, Patricia, Lake, Marilyn, McGrath, Ann, and Quartly, Marian, 1994, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble Publishers.

Lake, Marilyn, 1986, “The Politics of Respectability: Identifying the Masculinist Context”, Historical Studies, 22 (86), April.

Stone, Janey, 1982, “Brazen Hussies and God’s Police: Feminist Historiography and the Great Depression”, Hecate, 8 (1).

Wright, Clare, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Text Publishing, 2013.

 



[1] Wright, p205. I’m not going to burden this review with an outline of the almost exclusively male narrative which has dominated the folklore of Eureka. It is widely taught in schools and portrayed in popular culture. I will return to the question Wright poses: why hadn’t anyone challenged this blatant denial of women’s presence sooner?

[2] Annear, Robyn, 2013, The Monthly, November; Bartlett, Alison, The Guardian, 31 October 2013.

[3] Wright, pp202-203.

[4] Wright, pp136-137.

[5] Wright, pp202-203.

[6] Wright, pp28-29, 136.

[7] Wright, p204.

[8] Wright, p204.

[9] Wright, p51.

[10] Wright, pp49, 212.

[11] Wright, pp48, 361.

[12] Carboni, 1975.

[13] Wright, pp292-295, 461.

[14] Wright, pp401-402.

[15] It was common for different national groups to meet to adopt their attitude, not that they always found unanimity.

[16] Wright, pp242-247; quote on p247.

[17] Wright, p357.

[18] Wright, p358.

[19] Wright, p358.

[20] Wright, pp357-359. Wright uses italics rather than inverted commas to denote quotations, quite a successful device when you are trying to show the impact of those quoted; so when it is appropriate I have followed her convention.

[21] Wright, p438.

[22]. Wright, pp357-359; the quote is from a journalist in the Geelong Advertiser.

[23] Wright, p359.

[24] Wright, p360; the square brackets are Carboni’s.

[25] Wright, pp359-361.

[26] Wright, pp359-360.

[27] Wright, p360. The Latin is not translated in Carboni’s book.

[28] Wright, p360. There are names attached to women doing all of these things in the book.

[29] Another story is that a printing firm made it to order. Wright outlines the argument against this thesis on pp382-383.

[30] Wright, pp379-382.

[31] Wright, pp75, 78, 391-394, 414, 444.

[32] Wright, details of Bloody Sunday pp401-424.

[33] Wright, pp450-452.

[34] Wright, pp451-453.

[35] Wright, pxi. The quote is from William Withers, History of Ballarat, 1870.

[36] Wright, pp11-12.

[37] Wright, between pp284 and 285.

[38] Lake, 1986, p116.

[39] Grimshaw et al, 1994, p1.

[40] Counihan, 1954, Meeting at Bakery Hill, oil painting in the Art Gallery of NSW.

[41] Zuvella, 1954, “After the Battle”, linocut in the Art Gallery of NSW.

[42] Butler, 1983, pp19-20, 121, 36-37.

[43] Stone, 1982. See also Stone, “Brazen hussies and god’s police: fighting back in the Great Depression”, in Bloodworth and O’Lincoln, 2008.

[44] Bloodworth and O’Lincoln, 2008, p.19.

[45] Stone, 1982, p20.

[46] Grimshaw et al, 1994, p104. No reference is given for these theorists who drew such a ludicrous conclusion.

[47] See O’Lincoln, “Against the stream: women and the left 1945-1968”, in Bloodworth and O’Lincoln, 2008.

[48] Wright, p13.

[49] Introduction to Bloodworth and O’Lincoln, 2008, p21.

[50] Wright, pp448-449.

[51] Wright, p25.

[52] Wright, pxiii.