Feminist echoes

Penny Russell, The University of Sydney

Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of New South Wales Press, 2001 (249 pp). ISBN 0-86840-780-1 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Joan Scott has explored the history of feminism via the metaphor of a ‘fantasy echo’, which she explains as the ‘imagined repetitions or repetitions of imagined resemblances’ (2000: 284) underlying categories of identity. A common identity among women, Scott argues, does not exist until it is evoked in language, and ‘secured by fantasies that enable them to transcend history and difference’. Certainly to consider the women’s movement in Australia at the turn of the last century is to be reminded that the past is indeed a foreign country. The fantasies of present collectivity and future good that inspired those misleadingly termed ‘first-wave’ feminists are not those projected by Australian feminists today. Blissfully ignorant of the catastrophes that lay in wait in the twentieth century, they faced the future with courage and confidence. Their feminist visions were utopian, high-minded and idealistic, and were founded upon faith. They believed in moral principle; they believed in the possibility, if not the present reality, of unflawed religion; they believed in the promises of social reform; and they believed in the innate qualities of the feminine which, once harnessed by the women’s vote to the genuine needs of society, would see morality, religion and society transformed and made virtuous. Perhaps virtue was the key to their social vision: not sexual virtue alone, but the virtue of social relationships founded in shared habits of duty, care and healthy respect. Through such relationships they hoped to transform themselves, and women in general. From disenfranchised sex slaves, silenced in debate on social organisation and reform, and forced by economic dependence into brutal marriages or prostitution, they would become active, independent, free, and politically astute citizens.

Such aspirations ring hollow at the turn of another century, one we must inevitably face with anxiety, if not deep foreboding. The ideals of citizenship, empire, and progress those women lived and breathed, and which were inseparable from their feminism, seem in the twentieth century also inseparable from total war, technologies of mass destruction and environmental degradation. In place of optimism, modern consumer capitalism promised gratification, and set itself to glorify individual desire, displacing virtue and idealism with manufactured greed in our understanding of an ‘aspirational’ society. At the same time, the politics of race, class, and sexuality have shown up the limited horizons and narrow social visions characterising a white, middle-class feminist movement. Among feminists at the end of the 20th century there has been little agreement about female character, its present form or its future progress. Feminism now includes a multitude of voices, and promotes a plurality of desires and critiques, across a spectrum of social, political, and cultural institutions; in the workplace, in the media, in the fabric of family life, in language, and in the politics of a postcolonial world. If it is to confront disadvantage wherever it occurs—as it should—feminism must recognise that disadvantage falls unequally, so that even if gender is always at stake, a collective response ‘as women’ is rarely practical or sufficient.

Across the chasm riven by accelerating modernity, the historical imagination falters, and it is hard to identify a common cause. From the perspective of the present, ‘first-wave’ feminists can appear hopelessly idealistic and naive, offensively narrow in outlook, and drably puritanical in their moral vision. Little wonder that they have, as Susan Magarey observes, received a ‘bad press’. Certainly the image of fusty, dowdy and joyless respectability that has come to be associated with them has proved difficult to oust from popular mythology. Feminism today can achieve neither the optimism nor the moral certainties of the past, and perhaps resists the attempt. Conversely, we must acknowledge that if those earlier feminists could see how their own ambitions have been transformed and reinterpreted, they would wring their hands in despair.

In her new book, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, Magarey seeks to rescue these women from the undoubted condescensions of posterity. In remembering the women’s movement, she argues, we may recognise that even if they failed, they made ‘a track to the water’s edge’ and envisaged a ‘Land of Freedom’ beyond the river which they hoped later generations might reach, even if they themselves could not. The image is based on a parable by Olive Schreiner, which expresses a sense of the terrible costs of women’s struggle and its importance to the future of humanity. Schreiner’s image is a powerful one, a fantasised collectivity encompassing past and future generations, uniting women across time in a quest for freedom for themselves and for humanity. Stirred by the pain and optimism of the generation of feminists captured in Schreiner’s imagery, Magarey hopes in her closing line that ‘Their passions can inspire us still’.

Their feminist visions were utopian, high-minded and idealistic, and founded upon faith.

But while we may thrill to the echo of Schreiner’s fantasy, the project of feminist history leads us towards a less settled relationship to the past. As Scott urges, we should not be seeking to reinforce an imagined sameness, but rather to understand difference. Magarey endeavours to do both, and the ambiguity of her project is reflected in the deliberate ambivalence in her invocation of ‘passion’. On the one hand, she uses it to indicate the intensity of conviction with which women battled for reform: to understand the passions that stirred them to action. On the other hand, she wishes also to evoke ‘the centrality of the specifically sexual in the changes they sought to make’ (p. 11)—and which she believes that too great a focus on their ‘respectability’ has served to obscure. In so doing, she is sometimes in danger of making these women ‘modern’ before their time.

Her book is structured to convey the momentum of a period of radical political uprising, and the complexity of the issues the women faced. Two early chapters describe the ‘Woman Movement’: its context, its contemporary shock value, and its politicisation as revealed through feminist organisations and feminist periodicals of the 1890s. Three further chapters discuss what Magarey identifies as the key issues confronting the movement: sex, work, and citizenship. She suggests that certain women had moderate success in confronting masculine ‘sovereignty’ in the marriage bed, by choosing instead contraception, intellectual companionship, or same-sex relationships. But she presents the fields of work and citizenship as of more tangled and dubious success. While paid labour promised to free women from the tyranny of dependence in individual relationships, developments in the workplace and industrial relations created ‘new separations’ limiting women’s participation, redefining but reinforcing their dependent status (p. 140). White women’s inclusion within the racially and ethnically exclusive citizenship of the new nation carried the ‘seeds of its own demise’, since they were thus harnessed to a nationalist agenda that valued their reproductive capacity as their most crucial contribution to nation building—and would see many of the apparent equalities of citizenship swept aside in the maternalist policies of the early twentieth century (p. 155).

Throughout her book, Magarey seeks ‘passion’ and inspiration in feminist endeavours to free female sexuality from the demands of compulsory maternity. Her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, her direct and often humorous authorial voice is engaging and insightful, and the individual stories that carry the book are full of complex significance. But her understanding of feminist ‘passions’ is curiously partial. Her endeavour to rescue feminists from a stereotyped image of maternalist ‘wowsers’ means she avoids discussing in any detail moments when they explicitly invoked a maternal ideology and exploited their ‘respectable’ identities in a bid to inhabit the moral high ground. Magarey argues that feminists were inspired by the vision of a purified ‘sex love’ that would replace the degradations of the marriage bed. But she is hampered in her desire to read this as sexual ‘passion’ by the women’s own persistent silences, which echo through her account. Like it or not, the feminist discourse on sexuality at the turn of the last century was filtered through those two powerful gods of respectability and an idealised maternalism. Without serious discussion of those two recurring ‘passions of the first-wave feminists’, Magarey’s effort to understand these women on their own terms seems incomplete.

Magarey seeks to rescue these women from the undoubted condescensions of posterity.

Her discomfort with respectability also leads her to an oversimplification of earlier historical interpretations of the women’s movement. It was not only the ‘heady arrogance’ of the early days of second-wave feminism, she says, that saw earlier feminists ridiculed as ‘fearsomely respectable, crushingly earnest, socially puritanical, politically limited, and sexually repressed’ (pp 1–2). The same stereotype was perpetuated by more sophisticated feminist historians of the 1980s and 1990s. But this assertion is supported only by some surprising misrepresentations of other historical work. In ‘The politics of respectability’, Marilyn Lake (1986) argued that 1890s women, ‘presented in the men’s press as spoilers of men’s pleasures’, in fact embraced such aspects of ‘respectability’ as temperance and family responsibility as an effective strategy to ameliorate the dangers and discomforts of their own state of domestic dependence. Magarey does not engage with the detail of this argument, but instead, succumbing to the temptations of partial quotation, airily aligns Lake with the masculinist press she critiqued, as though Lake, too, saw feminists only as ‘spoilers of men’s pleasures’ (p.1). In response to a complex argument by Patricia Grimshaw (1994: 181–2) about the way 1890s feminists employed a maternalist ideology, not to compel all women towards motherhood, but as a legitimation of their political claims in many arenas, Magarey asserts that Grimshaw, too, gave feminists a ‘bad press’, by showing them campaigning ‘only as mothers’.

Magarey’s book—despite the various claims to novelty that adorn the cover and the introduction—is essentially a work of synthesis, and as such, despite its partialities, provides a valuable addition to the literature on the early women’s movement in Australia. It is unfortunate that she has perpetrated her own act of historical condescension by undervaluing existing feminist historiography in her efforts to establish the originality of her arguments. But in the end what disappointed me about this book was that Magarey seemed determined to enlist an earlier generation of feminists to her own imagined collectivities. Our sense today of what we might want—let alone hope for—for the world or for ourselves is a different dream, stitched from the fabric of lives which, with all their envisioning of feminist utopias, those earlier feminists could never have imagined. When we seek to understand their passions through the lens of our own, we continually encounter the shock of dissimilarity in those we like to count as foremothers. That shock should lead us, not to stereotyped condemnation, nor to the denial of difference, but to a more thoughtful appraisal, and a less settled acceptance, of our own fantasies.


Scott, Joan W. (2000) ‘Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity,’ Critical Inquiry, 27(2).

Lake, M. (1986) ‘The politics of respectability: identifying the masculinist context’, Historical Studies, 22(86).

Grimshaw, P. et.al. (1994) Creating a Nation, 1788–1900 McPhee Gribble: Ringwood.

Penny Russell is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, where she teaches and writes on cultural and feminist history in Australia.