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Journal of Australian Studies

ISSN: 1444-3058 (Print) 1835-6419 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjau20

That critical juncture: Maternalism in anticolonial

feminist history

Nicole Moore

To cite this article: Nicole Moore (2000) That critical juncture: Maternalism in anticolonial
feminist history, Journal of Australian Studies, 24:66, 95-102, DOI: 10.1080/14443050009387615

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14443050009387615

Published online: 18 May 2009.

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'That Critical Juncture': Maternalism in
Anti-Colonial Feminist History

Nicole Moore
Recent feminist theorising and cultural analysis has been said to involve a return to
history, as Rita Felski argued in her attention to the gender of modernity. What kinds
of history might this be? What temporal structures are inhabitable in this 'return'?
Felski's question posits that challenges to 'epochal unity' and 'unilinear narrative' are
the largest ones with which feminist history should have to deal:1 but there are multiple
feminist historiographies which have reformulated the historical project via precisely
these challenges, and indeed may be seen to enact them. In Australian contexts,
where history has been a dominant mode in women's studies and where, as Meaghan
Morris has argued, 'history is the name of the space where we define what matters',
Felski's question is perhaps about a moment incited'by history rather than nostalgic
for it.2 This is not only a question about what difference feminism makes but about
how it has used that difference in re-visioning a national past. If history as an activity
no longer presumes a model of surveillance, the 'monarch-of-all-I-survey' model
identified in colonial writing by Mary Louise Pratt,3 what kind of gendered feminist
lens can be set up through which to view the injustices of the past? What is entailed
in that looking backward, or in that wish to look?
In the introduction to her book on 'being thought of as a white woman', Vron
Ware declared that this inquiry had 'forced [her] to become a historian'.4 She
examines how the different meanings of 'white woman' as a category were
produced and thus searches for its 'significant moments' as an historical task.
This reluctantly historical book begins by discussing an image of a mother and
child, from a British Conservative party election advertisement that is not designated
British and in which the mother's whiteness is not racially signified. Vare recognises
this white mother as an exclusive vision of the nuclear family, unifying white
tradition, race and nation and establishing them as subject to dominant white
masculinity.5 Feminist history and anti-racist history come together in her analysis
and their separate, significant challenges to unilinear history might also be supposed
to come together in the continually broadening body of work in feminist anti- or
(post)colonial history in Australia. The figure of the mother in this body of work is
a complex one, however. Unlike the British Conservative party, feminist inquiry
privileges maternity as a location of gendered oppression and sexual difference.
As a narrative figure in historical writing, maternity can bridge separated historical
experience of different women. It brings the experiences of indigenous or colonised
women and European or colonising women into relation. Jane Gallop's tracing of
maternalist metaphors in feminist literary criticism at the end of the 1980s pointed
to the way 'making history like mother' instituted parameters of identity for the
category of woman that not all women have access to nor desire, however.6 A
similar approach can perhaps be taken to Australian forms of feminist history that
employ the maternal as a central model of historical identity. Identifying the
operation of generative tropes of maternity (and/or its failure and/or rejection) in
Vision Splendid

white Australian feminism, as structures of temporalityas gendered biohistories,

at once tropic and material, metanarratives organising the instance doing this
kind of identification can highlight feminist historiography in a way that focuses on
epistemology, and thus historical authority.
So, against teleology but not outside history, I want to place three progressively
generated historical narratives of maternity in synchronie contrast. The three
narratives are ostensibly, or to some degree, about the same moment or event.
They are all generated as the birthing experiences of an Eora woman of the Port
Jackson area. The first narrative was generated by observing British women,
then recorded by the First Fleet chronicler and Judge-Advocate, David Collins in
an appendix to his published journals.7 The narrative was remade and retold by
the novelist Eleanor Dark in the first volume of her immensely successful historical
trilogy, The Timeless Land in 1941.8 It has been retold again in the opening
chapter of the 1994 generalist white feminist history Creating a Nation.9 The
last two narratives figure, in differing ways, as mnemonics for the restitutive
memory of white anti-colonial, nationalist history, written by white women.
Purposely, however, they are women's history. The opening chapter of Creating
a Nation is couched in its new form, 'new feminist history', as Marilyn Lake
declared in debates around its publication in 1995. In an article in The Weekend
Australian, titled 'Birth of History', Lake declared that Creating a Nation
'subverted the distinction between women's history and national history'.10 Tracing
this feminist remodelling of the 'birth' of a nation, of'that critical juncture', as an
ongoing myth of origin, positions these narratives as more than mnemonic; as,
indeed, allegorical. They are systematic metaphors which organise and enact
epistemologies and delineate certain forms of collective identity. Women's history
and (post)colonial national history come together with a view of an Eora woman
giving birth as their point of convergence. This maternal figure has been handed
down through Australian history, via white European narratives, as a real trace of
indigenous women's experience. Its variations may demonstrate, nevertheless,
what kind of work white matemalism does in that history, and give an indication of
the difference a feminist epistemology makes there.

Three History Texts and a Critique of Matemalism

Published in 1994 and lauded by a wide range of feminist and other readers,
Creating A Nation was characterised by one of its authors, Marilyn Lake, as a
'mother's book'." It begins its first chapter, titled 'Birthplaces', by recounting
the labour and birthing of a woman of the Wangal clan and Eora people, called
Warreweer, as the authors record it.12 Their account states that 'Warreweer had
befriended some of the British women and she agreed to their presence at the
birth. Their observations, mediated through Lieutenant David Collins' journal, led
to the first written record of an Aboriginal woman giving birth'.13 The birthing
practices of the Eora women are recounted in explanatory language, contrasted
with and detailed against the actions of the not merely observing, but intervening
British women, and the account is then explicitly offered as a revealing precursor
of future relations between the two sets of women. Placed and framed as they
are, the birthing moments of Warraweer thus function as directedly political textual
stratagems, imbued with meaning distinct as a moment of exchange between

Nicole Moore

British and Aboriginal culture. The writers offer the conduct and experiences of
the Eora women, as they have been recounted and mediated by white women
observers, as a kind of alternative construction of a white Australian originary
moment, mediated and read through Aboriginal mores. The account has been
moved from the margins of imperial history, from Collins' appendices, to become
the opening moments of a 'general' Australian history. Its placement, and indeed
the text which it synchronically begins, assertively literalises the birthing metaphor
with which white Australian history has organised a retrospective 'creation' of
nationhood, and the account is privileged as its simultaneous, reconciliatory, origin
and critique.
The appendices to Collins'journal are mere margins to his otherwise proudly
masculine, imperial quest narrative, about the journey of the fleet and the administration
of the colony. In these appendices, he collects what he calls 'particulars' and 'remarks
on the disposition, customs, manners etc of the Native Inhabitants'. Collins retells the
British observation of Warreweer thus:

'War-re-weer, Bennilong's sister, being taken in labour in the town, an opportunity

offered of observing them [these people] in that criticaljuncture, of which some of
our women, who were favourites with the girl, were desired to avail themselves; from
them we learned that... V4

Creating A Nation recontextualises these details, the explicitly recounted birthing

practices, by placing them at the beginning of the complexly conflictual nation-making
that it retells. It reconfigures the events as originary and more than singular but also,
at once, individual and subjectivist. Importantly, it reconfigures the relation between
British women observers and the birthing women, absenting the sign of the British
women's desire to observe; the opportunistic, imperial power of their wish to look.
In 1993, reviewing another feminist history, Debutante Nation: Feminism
Contests the 1890s, Amanda Wilson noticed the absence of race from the collection's
idea of history and called for its inclusion, not just in the margins, but as a critical
practice that could thoroughly 'rupture the dominant discourse'.15 Reviewing
Creating a Nation, Lyndall Ryan characterised it as significantly 'new', a departure
from its counterparts, which represents women as agents and carefully avoids
constructing them as a 'homogenous class under patriarchy'.16 The question of
how, or indeed whether, the inclusion of the individual and collective histories of
particular, identified indigenous women has acted to 'rupture' the dominant discourse
in Creating a Nation, however, is not immediately answerable. That is particularly
true if we allow that the dominant historiographical discourse is nationalist. Ryan
declared that 'the separation of Aboriginal women's stories from white women's
narratives not only denies an understanding of how Aboriginal and other women
interacted, but it also precludes any discussion of how and why white Australian
women saturated themselves in racist discourse in the twentieth century'. She goes
on: 'These absences expose the problems with the nationalist discourse'.17
Creating a Nation privileges maternity as an experience and practice that is
imbued with historical and political meaning, and this stance is thus explicitly in
contest with the mythic 'natural' associations of maternity as biological authority,
which would otherwise place it outside history. Nevertheless, the privileging of
maternity as a trope of historical agency institutes a shared mode of meaning making

Vision Splendid

between black and white women, at once shadowing maternity's myth as a humanist
location of universality and backgrounding the precise power relations at work in
contest between colonised women and colonising women. This historiographical
separation yet epistemological collocation is a complex strategy, determinedly anti-
racist in its use of temporal contiguity to demonstrate the coevalness, via Johannes
Fabian, of 'othered' women with their western observers.18
As a strategy, nevertheless, it perhaps downplays the distinct and even crucial role
of maternity as a mechanism of colonial relations that shores up, literalises or inscribes
racial hierarchies. Jane Haggis has recently and compellingly demonstrated the work
of the concept of maternal 'native agency', as a mode by which compliant citizenship
was enforced in the constructs of protestant missionaries on the Indian subcontinent.19
Elizabeth Povinelli has also described the way in which indigenous 'Australian' sexuality
and familial practices, as they were 'observed' and constructed by imperial chroniclers
such as Collinsas irregular, irrational and requiring interventioncame to signify
the legitimacy ofterra nullius. The process of instituting what she terms 'the content
of Aboriginal emptiness' within imperial narratives, the ability to find some form of
' social vacuity',20 was reliant on evacuating reason and convention from the make-up
of Aboriginal sexual and emotional interaction. She argues:

Drawing on eighteenth century notions of savage sexuality and passion and of social
progressivity and sovereignty, the emerging Australian [sic] government could present
itself not as appropriating an ordered land but as ordering an as-yet-unordered,
unappropriated land, a social terra nulliiis?1

The observing moment recorded by Collins is a prominent and carefully coded part
of this process. Not the signified corporeality of birthing as an othered identity
practice but the rehearsed act of observation and observing; its repetition, its modes
replay the imperial process. Its role, thus, is a determining part of its produced
meaning, which Creating a Nation must both echo and attempt to delegitimate.
There is a third narrative of this same event: which becomes, as my view moves
'around it' now, unequally refracted across the colonial 'divide'. Stuart Mclntyre
has suggested that it was the decades of the twentieth century preceding 1939 that
witnessed the birth of the writing of white Australian history. It is thus no coincidence
that is in the premier historical novels of the 1940s, Dark's canonical Timeless Land
trilogy, that a writing of the maternity of Waraweer (and of Barangaroo, Bennelong's
wife, as she is designated) is inscribed as history, and as a narrative of consciousness,
by a middle class white woman. The international acclaim with which The Timeless
Land was met in 1941 privileged subjectivity as the narrative's originality; identifying
humanist, Aboriginal inferiority as its anticolonial newness, its primitivist modemism.-
This is, notably, subjectivity across difference, but also as embodied, gendered memory.
Along with Dark's explicit indebtedness to 'dying race' and so-called 'practical'
anthropology, including A P Elkin and Daisy Bates in her list of acknowledgements,
we can discern a polemic of maternalist feminism at work in the trilogy. This is
most notable in her representation of Aboriginal women as an explicit ideation, as
Benedict Anderson would recognise it, of 'prehistory' as race and nation.
Brenton Doecke's recent laudatory re-evaluation of The Timeless Land uses a
formalist analysis to argue that it is a heterogeneous text with much political force as
a radical critique of Australian society at a crucial point in its nation-making process.

Nicole Moore

He argues that much of this force is locatable in the 'clash of perspectives and ironic
juxtapositions' and that the workings of 'critical perspective' inform Dark's
representation of Aboriginal subjectivity such that its 'idealisation' is crucially multiple
and politically directed.23 Penny Van Toom, in a similar focus on multiple points of
view, argues that as a character, Bennelong's Aboriginal viewpoint 'serves as a device
for estranging the posited Anglo-Australian reader from British ceremonial and ritual
practices'.24 Van Toorn notes that in Dark's representation 'Aboriginal society is
healthily 'natural' and 'classless' in comparison to British society and she argues for
appropriative Aboriginalist nationalism at work in Dark's novelistic as well as historical
task.23 Unlike Doeke's analysis, Van Toorn's is prepared to notice the way in which
the construction of race is necessarily inflected within certain gendered modes, as
well as classed ones, in The Timeless Land. One effect of Dark's romantic anti-
racist humanism, including women without noting social difference, is a glossing over
of forms of gendered social organisation in many Aboriginal communities. Neither
Van Toorn nor Doeke consider Dark's representation of Aboriginal women in detail,
however. Their formalist analyses are also not concerned to identify the anthropological
sources of her Aboriginalisni,26 nor what can be pointed to as the maternalist feminism
at work in these representations.
Waraweer's birthing moment doesn't actually happen in The Timeless Land. It
is textually pre-empted and its appendixed details dislocated into someone else's
illness narrative, the story of Barangaroo's 'inevitable' and mythic death which
signifies racial defeat. Barangaroo's pregnancy and maternity (also recounted in
the opening chapters of Creating a Nation), instead, are explicitly foregrounded as
a sex and race specific epistemology, an atavistic, corporeal knowledge of doom:

She said nothing, knowing that the terrors of a woman are to be nursed in her own
heart. For it is the function of man to be fearless, and what man could face a woman's
knowledge and remain undaunted? So she kept quite still, her face impassive and her
dark eyes melancholy, feeling the life of her race stir within her body, and knowing its
movements for the throes not of birth, but of death.27

Historically, white feminist acknowledgement of black motherhood can be seen, on

occasion, as a moment at which black women's perennial sufferance under the
racist, classed, Christian and welfarist stigma of 'bad mothers' is contested. But
this inclusive subjectivising, as Dark activates it here, perhaps cannot help but be
silencing ('she said nothing') and, moreover, as I have suggested, active in the imperial
model of taxonomic surveillance. Susan Sheridan identifies, in the matemalism in
white Australian feminist cultural texts from earlier this century, an ambivalence
that recognises gendered likeness and simultaneously insists on difference, on the
absolute difference of the 'othered' dying race, arguing that both of these are invoked
in the one gesture.28 This is the potent duality enabled by Barangaroo's animation
of her pregnancy here. But in Women and the Bush Kay Schaffer read Dark's
matemalism as assertively appropriative and foremostly concerned with white
legitimation,29 as do Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra in Dark Side of the Dream.
They note its ability to enact the Aboriginalist relegation of land ownership to
ahistorical mysticism, in the form of a feminised 'life-force'.30 Birthing 'death' not
life, the fictional figure of Barangaroo retains maternity as the feature of a gendered
response to colonial destruction. Oppositely, perhaps, to Creating a Nation, birthing

Vision Splendid

here cannot function as the inauguration of intercultural relations, of a modern nation,

but of the retrospective and thus prescribed doom of a conquered race. Feminist
identification in both cases seems to obscure the meaning of Aboriginal women
receiving and birthing their own children as Aboriginal and for themselves.
The forceful arguments of indigenous women in Australia, as well as the
recently more expansive histories produced by both white and indigenous
researchers, have exposed the differing ways in which white constructions of
indigenous and colonised maternity have worked to enforce colonial rule.31
Margaret Jolly's interventionary essay on these concerns in feminist work,
'Colonizing women: the maternal body and empire', from 1993, presented the
details of an explicit critique of maternalism in (post)colonial analysis.32 The
growing body of work on the role and construction of white women as such in
colonial relations has acknowledged that maternalism can operate as a feminised
figuration of paternalist domination. This has been only a partial concern for this
work nevertheless. Ware's Beyond the Pale invokes the iconic role of'the mothers
of empire' in colonial contexts but doesn't pursue an analysis ofthat role,33 as I
suggested above. She cites only Anna Davin's 1978 article 'Imperialism and
Motherhood', from a UK debate.34 Jolly's essay came from Australian and Pacific
contexts and is outside Ware's purview. Ann Laura Stoler's re-reading of Foucault
on sexuality and colonialism notes Jolly's critique as a marginal aside in a slightly
less marginal footnote list of gender analyses.35 Australian feminist histories,
such as those of Lake, Fiona Paisley and Francesca Bartlett, that trace connections
between white feminist activism and Aboriginal and indigenous issues and activity,
have maternalism offered to them as an explanation by the arguments of those
past women.36 As a model for feminist identity in anti-colonial analysis, however,
it can do with greater consideration.
White maternalism has occurred even through feminist use of motherhood in
internationalist rhetoric against war, for example, and clearly in its foregrounding
as a benevolent form of domination assumed by white women over black women
and men. Jackie Huggins named appropriative contemporary white feminist
practices maternalism in her essay addressed to white women in 1992.37 Recent
work by Victoria Haskins on the New South Wales indenture system of Aboriginal
domestic service in the 1930s and 1940s exposes the relation established between
young Aboriginal women and their upper class white women employers as explicitly
matemalist, and discursively justified as such by the whites.38 Eleanor Dark's
Aboriginalist maternalism is seamlessly locatable within the parameters of the
Sydney, 'feminist', anthropologist discursive formation that Haskins elucidates,
and also in its economic base: in the domestic labour of Aboriginal and white
working class women that afforded upper and middle class women like Dark the
time in which to write.39 Heather Goodall and Jackie Huggins have argued that
government indentured Aboriginal labour systems in this period baldly functioned
'to fill a gap in the domestic labour force as white servants became increasingly
harder to find'.40 Marilyn Lake identifies feminist matemalist protectionism as a
precursor to labour movement involvement in the struggle for Aboriginal
citizenship.41 An opposite causal logic, and a more materialist rather than discursive
analysis, may argue that it was the untenability of maternalism in the face of
Aboriginal women's calls for equality with their employers that exposed the
exploitative relations at the heart of welfarist 'protection'.

Nicole Moore

'Maternity is maternity whatever the race' declared Vida Goldstein in The

Woman's Voice in 1912, a discursive moment cited by Creating a Nation as sharp
feminist criticism of the White Australia Policy, which was of course behind exclusions
of 'Asiatics' and 'Aboriginal natives of Australia, Papua or the Islands of the Pacific'
from eligibility for the new maternity allowance.42 The question that remains at the
heart of the reverberating work of maternalism in feminism is, I think, exactly how
it is that we know what maternity may be. Sabina Lovibond has identified the
function of matemalism in feminism as 'a celebration of the life lived by the twentieth
century western, bourgeois married woman' only.43 When maternity is put to work
as a mode of knowing, especially a mode of knowing in history, what it is that it
knows is what is in question, and the conditions within which that knowledge was
and is produced. How can maternity be maternity whatever the race?

That Critical Juncture

The narrative collocation of maternity and history, as I've sketched it here, is more
than a parallelling; the collocation can be seen to be a literalisation, each of the other.
More than mnemonics, as metaphors they become each others' teleology. The risk
seems to be, as always, perhaps, a multilayered 'naturalisation of colonialism as history',
as Gyan Prakash warns,44 in which colonialism itself, as nation-making, becomes all
of history, and this time through the potent naturalism of progenerative metaphors, of
the mythically natural maternal reified as a gendered nation. This risk is not only the
misrecognition of enlightenment models for history as the truth about the past. Critiques
provided by black and indigenous Australian commentators like Mudrooroo and
indigenous and colonised historians elsewhere parallel Dipesh Chakraberty's call for
the revision of the discipline of history from non-western epistemologies.45 Feminist
history, in its desire to shift and rethink patriarchal teleologiesmasculinist narratives
has long been in the position to think about this challenge, remembering that what
is identified as race is sometimes about different knowledge systems and histories.
Perhaps the collocation is another instance of the way in which white women
speak with forked tongues. Making history Mike mother' does two things, which
are themselves contradictory: inscribes maternity as both at once outside history
and as history itself: and secondly, writes this maternity as and not as violence;
its location and its opposite, that pronatalist ethic of care. Spivak has recently re-
asked a question about matrilineal lines of slave ownership in the Americas, asking
how these can become 'History' (capital H) in any way that is not an elision of
violence. Via the scorching critiques offered of white nationhood from the
participant histories of the stolen generations, white historians can no longer treat
indigenous Australian family and community histories as 'additional', nor sideline
the model of resistive, survivor maternity within which Rita Huggins spoke when
she noted that all her children were born free, meaning not on the missions, not in
service. Geneaology as history is not available in similar ways to black and white
communities, nor has black maternity been lived or experienced in ways easily
reconcilable to white feminist anti-oedipal constructions of it as anti-patriarchal.
Brigitta Olubas and Lisa Greenwell discuss the work of white maternalism in
Carmel Bird's collection of survivor accounts from 'The Stolen Generations',
explicitly identifying 'the failures of maternity as a narrative device linking
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal stories and lives' .46

Vision Splendid

It is a challenge for this 'new feminist history', as Lake characterises it, then, to
remain aware of differing maternities, as Margaret Jolly has thought of them, differing
because of their relation to teleologies of power (imperialist capitalism), which produce
differing epistemologies.47 Anti-racist feminist history needs to continue to rethink
these epistemologies as structuring knowledges rather than alternative ones, since
they are as much about white history as black, and not alternative but definitive. A
disparity remains between the postcolonial turn towards integrated dualist models that
investigate shared meanings, and an indigenous Australian insistence that binary colonial
models are still powerful and that the vantage point of interpretative history making is
still not given over, nor shared. The degree to which maternity can be both the object
of knowledge and a way of knowing in these contexts is a difficult question.