Review of Passions of the First Wave Feminists, by Susan Magarey

Eras Journal – Aitken, J: Review of “Passions of the First Wave Feminists”, Susan Magarey

Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists
University of New South Wales Press,Sydney, 2001
Isbn 0 86840 780 1

First wave feminists have been misrepresented as ‘fearsomely respectable, crushingly earnest, socially puritanical, politically limited and sexually repressed’ (p.2) writes Susan Magarey. In this lively and engaging book, Magarey thoroughly refutes such misconceptions. The book covers in some detail the lives, campaigns and writings of feminist leaders between 1880 and World War I. It encompasses much of the diversity of the Woman Movement, but also draws attention to the common concerns – sex, work and citizenship – which united these activists. Magarey draws upon diverse sources including etiquette manuals, New Woman fiction, feminist newspapers and the reactions of ‘male-stream’ newspapers and commentators. Small black and white portraits of feminist leaders and reproductions of newspaper advertisements and cartoons complement the text. Passions is the first book to focus exclusively on Australian first wave feminism as a movement and it makes a much needed addition to the numerous published biographies of feminists and studies of particular aspects or campaigns of the movement.

The main contention of Passions is that, contrary to the prudish image of early feminists developed by 1970s historians, a preoccupation with sex and sexual relations was at the heart of the Woman Movement in Australia. According to Magarey, this preoccupation, and the very subjectivity of feminists who organised as women for women, arose in response to the dominant discourse on health in this period. She argues that this discourse on health positioned women and men primarily as members of a sex, rather than a social class or religious group, and sought to harness them as breeders for the modern industrial white nation. First wave feminists resisted the definition of women as ‘the sex’ and sought to be recognised as ‘human beings’ and citizens, even as they argued for reforms and organised on the basis of sexual difference. Magarey argues that feminists did not deny the importance of sexual passion, but fought for conditions which would allow women pleasure without the degradation of enforced maternity and dependence. They sought new relations between men and women: an end to the double sexual standard, the right to economic independence for women and the elevation of marriage to ‘a higher plane’. She reads the fertility transition in Australia, which coincided with first wave feminism, as evidence of widespread discontent among women with the reproductive imperatives of the discourse on health, and a common desire to reform marriage and sexual relations.

Magarey suggests that during the 1880s women achieved a measure of independence from marriage, and the preconditions for the reform of marriage, with their expansion into new fields of paid work. However, she charts the loss of this independence as male unionists and capitalists reached an accommodation based upon an expression of Australian nationalism as literally a working man’s paradise. Women were excluded from certain forms of paid work and re-classified as dependents in the achievement of the ‘breadwinner’s wage’. Most crucially, according to Magarey, the aims of first wave feminists were ultimately defeated by the rise of a particularly racist form of nationalism, which repositioned women as primarily breeders for the newly federated ‘white’ nation. Under White Australia, women were now offered a role in the nation as ‘maternal citizens’ rather than equal citizens. This, according to Magarey, was not what feminists had sought. She concludes that ‘Maternal citizenship was for suffrage-era feminists a constricted and limited version of the citizenship for which they had struggled’ (p. 173).

Passions succeeds admirably in its task of redeeming first wave feminists from charges of puritanism and sexual repression. This era of feminism emerges as a dynamic and radical movement led by women who sought a revolution in sexual relations. Magarey perhaps sets up a straw man to attack, by discussing the 1970s detractors of early feminists without acknowledging the many revisions of this harsh assessment in the 1980s and 90s, both in Australia and overseas. However, for those of us who came of age in post-1970s feminism it is good to be reminded of the strength of those wowser accusations. This book goes on to present a compelling account of the difficulties facing early Australian feminists and the radical nature of their challenge to gender relations.

Magarey’s stress on the discourses of health as a determining and limiting factor on the campaigns of feminists is an interesting and original angle on the movement. Its strength is that it offers a way of viewing feminism as intimately connected with other debates in Australia at this time, and as part of a wider discontent with marriage and sexual relations among women. However, Magarey’s argument also seems to be flawed by a contradictory reluctance to acknowledge the connections between first wave feminism and the racist eugenic nationalism that she credits with the downfall of the movement. Perhaps an unfortunate consequence of writing a book that explicitly seeks to redeem first wave feminism is an overly uncritical appraisal of these women and their movement. At several points in the book Magarey writes as though the racism of White Australia, the eugenics movement and Australian nationalism was something quite outside of feminism and merely imposed upon the movement when the federal suffrage was granted. There is actually much evidence that first wave feminists actively supported the White Australia policy. They also often professed a belief in eugenics, evolutionary theories and the ‘progress’ of humanity – all concepts laden with racism. Magarey acknowledges all of these influences on feminist thought in Australia, but treats the racism as a separate matter of ‘eugenicist baggage’ (p. 80). This is an unsupportable position. As Elizabeth Spelman demonstrates in Inessential Woman, and the histories of black feminists have also made clear, racism and the privileges of class were not ‘baggage’ but were in fact integral to the entire project of feminism.

By treating racism and nationalism as concepts easily separated from the central concerns of feminists, Magarey has limited and distorted her analysis of the Woman Movement. Sexual relations were crucial to first wave feminists, but how are we to understand their preoccupations with white slavery, the Little Wives of India or the ‘quality’ of the next generation, without considering the racism inherent in their feminism? By the end of the book, first wave feminists emerge as strangely silent and passive in the face of a rampant, racist nationalism with which they have little connection. Women’s suffrage clearly did not deliver the transformations feminists had expected. However, by acknowledging the racism inherent in the Woman Movement, a story might emerge in which feminists have a more active voice in the discourses of the early twentieth century, even if they say things that we in the early twenty first century do not find admirable.

Jo Aitken

Department of History, School of Historical Studies, Monash University