Menu Close

Noted works: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Clare Wright’s Forgotten Rebels of Eureka has been justly praised - and it’s an important addition to Australian feminist history. Paul Baird/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2013) is a career-defining work of scholarship and storytelling. The significance of her historical intervention and the power and flair of Wright’s narrative voice were justly praised by the judges who in April awarded her the 2014 Stella Prize for women’s writing.

Wright’s account of the Eureka Stockade, wrote panel judge Kerryn Goldsworthy, “revisits that well-trodden territory from an entirely new perspective, unearthing images, portraits and stories of the women of 1850s Ballarat” to “reveal a flourishing female culture”. This is “revisionist history”, Goldsworthy continued, “not written in a corrective or combative way, but as something more positive and celebratory”.

Clare Wright’s Rebels of Eureka. Text Publishing

Wright’s epic work is not named here as “feminist history”, though Wright’s project – the culmination of ten years of research and writing and thematically connected to her previous work on female publicans and female suffrage in Australia - and the Stella Prize itself are self-evidently feminist in origin and orientation. Indeed – apart from a minor brouhaha in the wake of Wright’s win as to whether fiction and non-fiction can be productively assessed according to the same criteria – the Prize and the prizewinner have been widely endorsed as a natural fit.

Only time will tell whether female historians – and this country is blessed with many talented ones – continue to capture the attention of the Stella Prize and the wider readership that flows from it. On this front Wright’s win is especially inspiring for those of us who consider ourselves writers, historians and feminists.

It is in that spirit that I seek to locate The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka as part of the wider field of Australian feminist history, now more than four decades old and too diverse for easy summary. I employ a purposefully loose definition of “feminist history” here: history written by women who identify as feminists and/ or histories with feminist aims and themes.

In between women’s history and gender history

In historiographical terms, “feminist history” is typically wedged between the hey-day of “women’s history” in the 1960s and 1970s and the development of “gender history”, a field whose emergence is often attributed to the publication of US historian Joan W. Scott’s influential 1986 essay Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.

It is important to note that by that stage Australian scholars were already theorising about gender history – usually in tandem with, rather than as antithetical to feminist history. This approach is characterised by its explicit political challenge to traditional history and its methods.

Feminist history demanded new forms of evidence and analysis, an exciting yet challenging task that prompted Judith Allen in 1986 to ponder whether “feminism” and “history” were doomed as mutually beneficial projects. More than 25 years later, the sort of “history” Allen had in mind as incompatible with feminist goals – purportedly objective, conclusive and with clear archival parameters and preoccupations – has been successfully countered.

Wright’s response to inevitable historical silences and ambiguities was to extend her research and analysis in every necessary and productive direction. In one memorable passage, Wright speculates – because the “record is silent” – that one possible reason so many miners may have left the Stockade on the eve of the clash with the authorities was because it was a full moon and the women in their lives were ovulating.

Having already firmly established the gold fields as a site of not only political ferment, but also a baby boom, Wright’s provocation is as plausible as any other offered in the absence of definitive historical evidence.

It is perhaps a sign of the allegedly post-feminist times that women’s and gender history are more often used these days, but it is “feminist history” that better captures the political intent of Wright’s history and her stated ambitions.

Feminists and Eureka

“Knowledge about women’s intrinsic role in the Eureka story will”, predicts Wright in her introduction, “require our cultural and educational institutions to admit, respect and regard the political legacy of Australian women”.

In taking on Eureka, the foundational moment of male suffrage in Australia, Wright’s history joins the bold myth-busting strand of feminist history that has sought to challenge and recast what Marilyn Lake influentially identified in 1986 as the “masculinist context” of Australian history and its legends.

Lake’s target in that instance was the hitherto “sex-blind” historical treatment of the formative decade of the 1890s. She argued that the most animated battle for control of nascent national culture was not between urban and rural men or the ruling and working classes but between the sexes.

Without making the comparable claim that the Eureka protests were as much about women’s direct interests as men’s – the historical evidence would never allow it – Wright’s history does more than simply show women were there. Like Lake’s reappraisal of the 1890s, Wright successfully unsettles the conflation of Australian national identity with “masculine aspirations”. Women on the goldfields, she argues, also valued and aspired to “independence, sacrifice, collectivism, unity, autonomy, dignity, dissent, resistance, self-government, [and] the pursuit of democratic rights and freedoms in the face of oppression and humiliation”.

Feminist history for all

The popular appeal of Wright’s work is also a fresh reminder that feminist history in Australia was from its inception pitched as much to the wider culture as to fellow travellers.

In key respects, Wright’s ambitious work recalls the groundbreaking scholarship of the inaugurating texts in Australian history, especially Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975), The Real Matilda (1976) by Miriam Dixson and the more recent revisionist national history Creating a Nation (1994), collectively authored by Lake and Patricia Grimshaw, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly.

These are all histories that were written to be read and discussed widely – not confined to the arcane debates of history journals or to gather dust on library shelves. It is clear from her press interviews that Wright has taken great pleasure in having her book disrupt the “dick table” – otherwise known as the book shop display of recent history best-sellers, usually on war-related themes, mostly written by men.

Without wanting to overstate the comparison with these earlier texts, Wright shares with the authors of those histories a professed desire to make women central not peripheral to the history of the nation. As they consider how the peculiar circumstances of Australian society helped or hindered women, they challenge mainstream (or “masculinist”) historical narratives. The notion of “demography as destiny” took on a special salience in Australia. After all, White Australia’s origins as a penal colony and the male-dominated frontier meant that white men outnumbered white women into the 20th century.

Spurred by Women’s liberation, Summers and Dixson wrote against the grain of a historical tradition that conflated “Australian” and “man” and largely ignored women.

Women’s options were limited – whore or moral police, according to Summers. Woman’s lot, wrote Dixson, was to be the property of men – like the swag in the iconic folksong Waltzing Matilda. In a blistering opening passage that still startles undergraduate students at first encounter, Dixson dramatically proposed that “Australian women, women in the land of mateship, the ‘Ocker’, keg-culture, come pretty close to top rating as the ‘Doormats of the Western World’”.

In 1994, Summers revised Damned Whores for republication and dropped “the colonisation of Australian women” as a subtitle. Two years later, when Ann Curthoys re-read Dixson and Summers for a special “Twenty Years On” issue of Australian Historical Studies , she was struck by their use of words such as “invasion” and “colonisation” to refer to white history rather than Aboriginal-European relationships. Aboriginal history had moved to the forefront of Australian historiography and in the 1990s the unresolved business of Aboriginal sovereignty was at the centre of political debate.

Creating a Nation, written in the wake of the Bicentenary and the Mabo decision, reflected this altered political landscape and also the convergence rather than separation of the fields of Aboriginal and feminist history. Ann McGrath was already a well-established historian of Indigenous relations.

Lake and Grimshaw would increasingly turn their attention to the nexus between race and gender in various Australian and transnational contexts. And while Summers had opened the first edition of Damned Whores with the birth of the first white Australian female, Creating a Nation begins with Warreweer, an Aboriginal woman of the Wangal clan, going into labour at Sydney Cove.

With their revision of how nations are “created” thus introduced, the historians recast the usual sign-posts of nation-building accordingly. Eureka as a gateway to male suffrage and the epitome of the “essential masculinity of politics” was dealt with in a couple of pages, and provocatively the Anzac Landing at Gallipoli in 1915 was challenged as the birth of the nation.

“Though women gave birth to the population”, wrote Marilyn Lake, “only men it seemed could give birth to the imperishable political entity of the nation”. For distinguished historian John Hirst, the treatment of Anzac was the “great test” of a national history – and on this index, the passage was deemed “not history of any sort”, but rather a “feminist wail”.

Joy Damousi would later suggest that while at the time of publication Creating a Nation represented the “zenith of the influence of feminist history in Australia”, it was Hirst’s general view – that histories of nation are axiomatically the histories of men and that gender is an optional rather than necessary category of historical analysis – that had once again assumed ascendency “in some quarters” by the late 1990s.

Damousi’s concern about the “evident ghettoisation of feminist history” in 1999 gave way in the 2000s to some competing views from within the field as to whether an explicitly feminist history was still necessary or even discernable given the increasing diversification of research interests.

In 2003, Jill Matthews suggested that feminist historians “acknowledge our successes and turn our hands to other things”. In response Susan Margarey respectfully disagreed and harnessed evidence to argue that it remained “an unmitigated triumph from any perspective”.

So where does Clare Wright’s history fit into this trajectory?

I’ve argued that The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka continues Australian feminist history’s challenge to the mainstream, yet Wright’s tight focus also differentiates The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka from the necessarily broad sweeps of those earlier works.

With the trail blazed perhaps, Wright was able to zero in on the quotidian details and dynamics of a gold rush tent city and pan out to comprehend its national and global dimensions. In that sense, her rich social history recalls more recent work by feminist historians such as Penny Russell’s finely wrought history of manners in colonial Australia, Savage or Civilised? (2010), winner of the 2011 NSW Premier’s Award for Australian History. (Wright was recently nominated for the same prize.)

Significantly, Wright herself has most explicitly aligned her project not with the feminist blockbusters above or with previous scholarship on women on the goldfields, but with Henry Reynolds’ “ground-breaking” 1999 history Why Weren’t We Told, in which he challenged what he saw as the hitherto distorted view of Australia’s “settlement” as largely peaceful.

This is an audacious comparison, but also an over-simplified one that, as Rachel Weaver points out, elides the complexity of frontier violence and settlement and the reasons for women’s absence in the received narrative of the history of Eureka.

However, as Weaver and other reviewers such as Anne Beggs-Sunter have pointed out, Wright’s introductory claims do not do proper justice to one of Wright’s greatest accomplishments: her impressive ability to draw out from Eureka the wider context and texture of women’s lives in the 19th century. With her smaller canvas, Wright was able to capture the diversity of women’s experiences and enlarge the orthodox narratives of the gold rushes and the colonial period.

Neither damned whores nor God’s police, and never doormats, the Eureka women challenge any homogenous idea of 19th-century womanhood.

Forgotten Rebels offers robust gender history. In the sometimes oppressive intimacy of the gold fields, gender dynamics and class differences were amplified and transformed, for better and for worse.

In this microcosm, at this ground level, Wright vividly describes a “world turned upside down” that is both social experiment and also recognisably of its time and place. As the tent city became a town, some women seized opportunities to start businesses and cultivate local politics and culture, to experiment with their relationships and even their gender identity.

Others endured domestic violence so commonplace the Victorian goldfields were soon infamous as the “wife-bashing capital of the world”. The chapter in which Wright attempts to make sense of this is feminist history at its most forensic: she contemplated the toxic effects of alcohol, the stifling atmosphere of living cheek-by-jowl and the need for some men to assert control physically when their authority and status was threatened.

In consulting feminist theory on what is essentially a transnational and transcultural phenomenon, Wright refused to let the wife-bashers of Eureka off the hook.

Ultimately, I predict that while Wright’s history offers one of the richest social histories of the goldfields yet, its lasting legacy will be as feminist history – in particular her recalibration of the struggle for women’s rights in Australian history. As Wright demonstrates, in the wake of Eureka, until the Electoral Law Consolidation Act of 1865 clarified that the political citizenship that emerged from the hard-won miner’s right as “male”, some women and men already had begun to advocate for women’s rights and suffrage – that is, more than 30 years before the mobilisation of women’s organisations in the 1880s.

At the recent Australian Historical Association Conference held in Brisbane, Angela Woollacott, Manning Clark Professor of History at the ANU, prefaced her new research into Caroline Chisholm’s politics by noting how Wright’s revised chronology has opened up a space to reconsider women’s activism in 19th-century Australia. Clare Wright’s important book is already influential and it is highly likely that she will continue to open up new vistas for Australian feminist history.

Noted Works is a new series on The Conversation devoted to long-form reviews of significant new books. If you’re an academic or researcher and you’d like to write on a recent work that has been a game-changer in your field, please contact the Arts + Culture editor.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,200 academics and researchers from 4,969 institutions.

Register now