The Real Matilda: Miriam Dixson Writes Women into Australian National Identity

 

The publication of in 1976 of The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia, 1788 to the Present, by Miriam Dixson, posed a major challenge to the received version of Australian national identity. Previous characterizations of Australian national character by such authors as Russel Ward were thoroughly male-dominant; Dixson goes so far as to call them misogynist. As in the history books, so it was in society, she says: “I propose 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’.” Here are a few more points and quotes from the introductory chapters.

 

         On gender expectations in Australia: “There’s no doubt that Australian men and women are supposed to differ from each other in a quite weird way. The ‘ideal’ Australian male ‘should’ be insensitive and blockish, while his ‘ideal’ female counterpart should be so colourless that she seems mentally backward. . . . by adopting such rigid sex-role differences, Australian men and women deny one another too many of the human qualities which the sexes share. And so we short-change each other pathetically, stunting possibilities for fellowship and the kind of sexual joy that can only go with a rich sense of shared humanity.”

 

         Not exactly the Dating Game: “Men often say that Australian women can be paralytically boring to be with—though I must admit I often find our men that way too.”

 

         What’s history got to do with it? “A past, a history, unusually steeped in misogyny, has bequeathed Australians some especially narrow styles of man-woman relations, with nuances specific to Australia.”

 

So Dixson delves back in order to find the origins of the gender situation in Australia. Following are some notes from chapters that unfold her argument.

 

1.      Theories and Beginnings

 

Dixson writes, “Central to my conceptual scaffolding are aspects of Louis Hartz’s theory.” Hartz published The Founding of New Societies in 1964. This work explains the character of settler societies such as Australia in terms of selection and circumstance. Certain people came out from home to the colonies, representing certain social classes as they existed at home at the time, and that selection, in that circumstance, set the character of the colonized land. Australia thus became “a bit of working class Western Europe, a freak fragment . . . Australia lacked an aristocracy and even a middle class of much solidity or national pride.”

 

Hartz lays great importance on the “moment of birth” and the “formative decades” of a new society. What was the result of this formative time for Australian women, then? “Much that was admirable came out of our formative decades,” Dixson writes, “but much that helps explain Australian woman’s not-quite-western low status also came out of them: violence, brutality, widespread prostitution and a concomitant generalized contempt for women; male addiction to the company of males and heavy drinking; and a reverence for muscle-over-mind, which masked envy and manifested hostility towards the intellect.” Not a pretty picture.

 

Quite a bit of this was wrapped in the ideal of mateship, which the author asserts “is an informal male-bonding institution involving powerful subliminated homosexuality. Some women get past this by behaving as “matey women,” but this is not an answer, for “there is some gut sense in which a woman is not wanted. Back off, don’t crowd me, love. You aren’t really necessary.”

 

It’s not just aversion, it’s antipathy. Dixson observes, “The aura of antipathy that engulfs a woman in an R.S.L. club, or an all-male pub . . . hurts, it actually hurts.”

 

2.      Women Among the Casual Poor

 

The main point of the chapter is that men are degraded in Australia, and so they brutalize women as a function of the status ladder.

 

3.  Our Founding Mothers the Convicts

 

In general, Dixson begins, “convictism had a stunting impact on the moral economy.” Within that generally bad situation, “The women’s response fits that of a group which, as we said earlier, seems to have functioned as a kind of universal outcast group” on which others “wreaked an unknowing psychic and physical revenge.” At this point it sounds like the author is about to descend into the sort of victim history so typical of the 1970s, but not so—and the direction instead taken is controversial. Dixson observes that convict women responded to their situation of victimhood by aggression toward others and demeanment of themselves: “Defined as outcast, the women became outcast, and their consequent ugliness put them further beyond the reach of kindness, further beyond the pale.” She also discusses prostitution candidly. A reader would like to hear stories of plucky maids who rose above oppression, but Dixson gives us none. The convict women became a degrading influence on Australian society in the formative years of its character.

 

3.  The Irish

 

The work gets more controversial yet in this chapter, which asserts that much of the culture of misogyny was of Irish immigrant origin. Again, it was a matter of the oppressed as oppressor, as “the Irish male, like the black, became a ‘victim’ of English colonial arrogance and he passed on to his woman the humiliation and blighted self-image which imperialism enforced on the colonized Irish male. The humble, quasi-Western status of Irish women, Irish rigid sex-role stereotyping and Irish fear of sexuality have done a good deal to shape the curiously low standing and impoverished self-identity of Australian women.”

 

Putting it even more plainly: “Well before New South Wales was established, the English had perfected the art of diminishing the moral worth of the Irish, and we suggested that Irish males tried to counter this partly by diminishing Irish women.”

 

4.  Models for Female Identity Formation in a Frontier Land

 

Some of the posture here is familiar—critiquing the frontier as a male place, a bad place for women. “Depending then on social status, physical health, personal aspirations of the woman concerned, and her relations with her husband or father, a women could experience the ‘frontier’, pioneering, as a kind of outrage.”

 

Unlike in other settler societies, on the Australian frontier, “from early days elite women seem to have lacked a sense of commitment to community.” They were not good models, were not, as one American writer said of Western women, “gentle tamers.” Instead they responded to social expectations, mainly male expectations, by retreating into hyper-domesticity and super-respectability: “Pattern-setting men tended to quieten their own feelings of inadequacy and illegitimacy by trying to be more bourgeois than the bourgeois. . . . They thus required an exaggerated version of the ‘Victorian’ ideal for ‘their’ women: childlike, pale and indeterminate, passive, submissive, mindless, genteel and ‘nice’ to a greater extent than that required of their more self-assured equivalents in England.”

 

The result: “By the 1880s, when the women’s movement began to emerge in Australia, Australian women had settled into a standing uniquely low in Western-type communities, and from this flowed a curiously impoverished self-concept.”

 

 

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