Australian Women writers

Australian Women writers #

There were many strong colonial women who made a new life for themselves and their families in the early years of Australia. Many had to take charge of their own affairs either because their husbands were improvident, absent or had died.

Mary Reibey was left with seven children and in entire control of numerous business concerns when her husband died. She was 24, a hotel-keeper, and involved the tough school of competition with American, Chinese and Indian traders.
Elizabeth Jurd’s husband died when she was 36, leaving her with nine children, the youngest seven months. She was among other strong, self-reliant and enterprising colonial women of her time like Elizabeth McArthur or Esther Abrahams.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop #

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

About 28 Wirrayaraay people died in the massacre near Inverell in northern New South Wales. Dunlop had arrived in Sydney in February, and the Irish writer was horrified by the violence she read about in the newspapers. Moved by evidence in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre, Dunlop crafted a poem condemning settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime. It read, in part:

Now, hush thee—or the pale-faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what would then thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!

Oh, could’st thy little bosom
That mother’s torture feel,
Or could’st thou know thy father lies
Struck down by English steel

The poem closed evoking the body of:

“my slaughter’d boy …
To tell—to tell of the gloomy ridge;
and the stockmen’s human fire”.

Dunlop as the first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture.
Eliza Hamilton Dunlop Writing from the Colonial Frontier, edited by Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby, Sydney University Press.

Australia has some of the world’s best writers, including women.

Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Richardson), Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner and Nettie Palmer, colonial writers, who stood apart from the governing myths of blokes, bush and The Bulletin.

Helen Garner said of Baynton:

“she knows the landscape, with its bleak terrors and its occasional beauties. She has observed with a merciless eye the dull stupidity and squalor that poverty brings”.

Michael McGirr claims a biography of the four writers

“serves a culture that wants to believe the past was a simple place and the struggles of the present are something new”.

Louisa Lawson #

Patricia Grimshaw, The University of Melbourne wrties:

Louisa Lawson was an outstanding leader in the campaign for women’s right in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In 1887 she bought the Republican and with her son Henry edited and wrote most of the paper’s copy. In 1888 she established the Dawn, a journal devoted to women’s concerns that continued publication until 1905. In May 1889 Louisa launched the campaign for female suffrage and announced the formation of the Dawn Club where women could meet to discuss reform questions and gain experience in public speaking. After the franchise was won Lawson continued to promote law reform and the extension of women’s work opportunities. She died in 1920.

For Henry Lawson’s take on colonial women see:

The young Katherine Mansfield, struggling with her alarming attraction to women, wrote to a friend in 1909 that thinking about Wilde had led to “fits of madness” like those that drove him to “his ruin and his mental decay.”

Ada Cambridge #

Ada Cambridge emigrated to Australia in 1870 after she married her curate husband, George Cross, who was “committed to colonial service”.

An Answer

Thy love I am. Thy wife I cannot be,
To wear the yoke of servitude — to take
Strange, unknown fetters that I cannot break
On soul and flesh that should be mine, and free.
Better the woman’s old disgrace for me
Than this old sin — this deep and dire mistake;
Better for truth and honour and thy sake —
For the pure faith I give and take from thee.

I know thy love, and love thee all I can —
I fain would love thee only till I die;
But I may some day love a better man,
And thou may’st find a fitter mate than I;
Some want, some chill, may steal ‘twixt heart and heart.
And then we must be free to kiss and part.

This is a powerful anti-establishment sonnet espousing ideas not widely expressed in public in those days. It begins a tradition of questioning later echoed by Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood and many others.

Cambridge’s poems reflect:

• Indignation at social and sexual injustice.

• Longing for love and sexual expression.

• Exploration of motherhood, fear, death

• Voiced the agony of innocence to maturity.

• Challenged conventions and orthodox thinking.

• Protested against imposition of values from above.

• Questioned all hypocrisies of conventional marriage.

• Raised the possibility of divorce and re-marriage.

• Advocated for the poor and women.

• Expresses freedom for women in a male dominated society.

• Gave voice to passion and rebelliousness in a direct manner.

• Allows women to talk openly from the heart to asset her views.

The tradition of narratives of unhappy, unfaithful women: Madame Bovary (1856), The Awakening (1899), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), The Bride Stripped Bare (2003).

Henrik Ibsen’s plays, especially, A Doll’s House, emphasizes that everyone in suffers under the binding ties of patriarchy.

Strindberg (Swedish – 1874) also wrote about sex with absolute realism, dramatising the compound of love, hate, fury and desire that characterises random couplings and permanent relationships. If Ibsen caught the tensions of the night before, Strindberg revealed the acrid taste of the morning after.

The Stella Prize has shown that feminist activism in the literary sector can work. At its outset, in 2013, it drew attention to the lack of women on prize shortlists.

There is also courage in representing women who manifestly do not “keep it together” in their roles as mothers, partners, and friends, or who “let themselves go” in terms of not maintaining the forms of bodily or emotional control society expects of them. To read these works is to be gripped and compelled: they will stay with you.

Bad Art Mother #

by Edwina Preston

The figure of Veda Gray, the mother of this novel’s title, draws from many female artists across history who have produced art in the face of a social structure that makes it very difficult to do so.

Aspects of her story echo that of Australian poet Gwen Harwood, who found it impossible to get her poetry published under her own name, but remarkably easy under a male pseudonym.

In her anger, Harwood published a sonnet that said, when read acrostically: FUCK ALL EDITORS. Veda undertakes a similar protest, but with devastating personal impact.

Like Harwood, Veda writes poetry about aspects of women’s daily lives in housework and caregiving that are considered unworthy of poetry by male gatekeepers. Veda is unruly, in disarray, a “bad mother” who makes a difficult bargain with a rich couple to share care of her son. She is joined in an evocatively detailed world of restaurants and art in 1960s Melbourne by a cast of other women artists whose brilliance finds varied paths to light.

Preston uses Veda, and the narrating figure of her son Owen, to think about the choices women have to make – now as in the past – between their own creative achievement and what society expects of them as mothers and wives.

Judith Wright #

Writes about early Australia, the environment, indigenous Australians and being a woman. See:

Rosemary Dobson #

Rosemary Dobson was a painter and a poet, during one of the most contentious periods of Australia’s cultural wars; modernism and conservatism, and nativist or European traditionalism. While she accepted the invigorating and energy of the modernists, she preferred “order, discipline, spareness, and reserve”.


Gwen Harwood #

Harwood, is an Australian poet born Gwendoline Foster, in Brisbane in 1920. She claims to have had a happy childhood, strongly maternal, with close relationships with her great grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter and granddaughter - “a wild daughter of a line of independent women”.


The #MeToo movement gave us a greater appetite for women’s writing and women’s point of view. However, if we naively believe all women are better, then men, simply because they are women, we are in for a great disappointment. If women don’t recognise this, they may not be recognised by men.

Amanda Lohrey #

Julieanne Lamond of Australian National University, writes on the intellectual fearlessness, politics and the spiritual impulse of the remarkable career of Amanda Lohrey whose husband Andrew was for many years a Tasmanian Member of Parliament.

The Morality of Gentlemen courageously captures the entanglement of personal desire, ideological commitment and institutional constraint that I saw in the daily experience of politics. The intellectual fearlessness takes up a common way of doing, saying or thinking about something and baldly asks: why?

Amanda Lohrey was born in Hobart on 13 April 1947 and grew up on its working-class waterfront. She tells Charlotte Wood:

I was raised by men for the first five or six years of my life. My mother worked and the men in my family were shift workers. So often during the day I was looked after by my father – which meant he just carted me around wherever he wanted to go. The pub, the bookmaker’s club, the wharf – there was no concession.

This was a childhood in which clashing narratives about the world and how it worked were part of daily life. The 1950s was a period of intense ideological and religious conflict in Australia, with a failed referendum to ban communism in 1951 and massive division between Left and Right in the Australian Labor Party, leading to a split, with Catholic anti-communist members breaking off into the Democratic Labour Party. It was a period of McCarthyist sentiment in Australia that Lohrey witnessed first hand.

I copped it from both sides. You’d get a set of stories at home and a set of stories at school and they didn’t quite match up. You start shuffling the variables around and in the end you come up with your own story.

A Catholic education

Her contribution on Catholic childhoods focuses on sexuality with a determination to be clear and straightforward in the face of the elisions and fearful paraphrasings that sex was met with in her own education.

It begins with usual forthrightness to discuss her earliest memories of masturbation. In the face of being constantly called to account for any perceived impurity or sin, Lohrey recounts a feeling not of shame

“but of a privileged naughtiness, something which was a desirable secret from the adult world and which belonged to a whole repertoire of special pleasures”, containing “a feeling of excitement, of discovery and, above all, of independence”.

Characteristically, she uses this topic of masturbation not to think about her own experience but, rather, for what it reveals about the reasons for Catholics and other repressive institutions to so insistently police it:

“power and autonomy are the last things that such people can afford to let a child have”.

Lohrey’s account is vivid in detailing the absurdities of such acts of policing: the icy-faced Mother Imelda, unable to name the deed but nonetheless attempting to entice nine-year-old Amanda to admit to it. Amanda responded by returning her stare, unblinking.

But this account also considers the longer term impacts of this constant surveillance and being called to account: a distrust of authority, of friends, and a “defensive distrust of other women”:

Apart from my mother it is always men who give me support and encouragement, who tell me I am clever and give me books to read. My grandfather gives me A Short History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), my uncle, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. The women tell me that I am untidy, that my hair is a mess, that my body is suspect and my attitude unladylike.

These experiences suggest why Lohrey writes in such searching detail about masculine subjectivity. They also explain her umbrage at suggestions that she writes about masculine worlds she could not possibly understand. Lohrey was constantly warned about “reading [herself] out of the church” when caught reading Freud, Stekel and Marx, although the latter was a bit confounding: what was this word “bourgeois” that seemed to crop up in every second sentence but couldn’t be found in my dictionary?

At fourteen, she escaped Catholic school and enrolled at the local grammar school, “a transition unheard of at that time and one subject to excommunication”. The relief was immense:

I felt as if I’d been let out of the madhouse. There was no battleground of seething sub-texts.

At the end of A Work in Progress, Lohrey recalls being in Venice in 1983, and on a whim deciding to enter an 18th-century church and light a candle to the Virgin. She enters and “instantly recoils” at the images on its walls, feeling physical revulsion.

Nothing is there. There is nothing in the church for me and nothing in me to connect with it. It was a fantasy, a desire to recover a lost innocence, a childlike faith in irrational possibility.

Nonetheless, writes Lohrey, the “spiritual impulse remains. Desire. The need to embrace the world.”

This impulse remains an enduring interest in her fiction.This impulse remains an enduring interest in her fiction.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was well aware, and critical, of the rise of the “women’s novel”, which privileged female subjectivity and in which

“characters are defined by their feelings for themselves and others close to them, rather than as social actors who are significantly related to public events or issues”.

The Liberated Heroine: New Varieties of Defeat? is a long review-essay published in Meanjin in 1979, considering novels by Marilyn French, Erica Jong, Alison Lurie and Joan Didion, and it lays out Lohrey’s views on the emerging genre of American women’s fiction.

The essay takes its reader on an erudite consideration of the forms of agency available to women across literary history. Lohrey traces the figure of the woman attempting to escape her conditioning from George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke to Henry James’ Isabel Archer and Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood. For each of these characters, the result is “some form of defeat”.

The nature of the success available to women in fiction and in reality is a live question for Lohrey. One of the books under review is Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life (1977), a novel of sexual adventure which ends in a romantic relationship. Taking issue with Diana Trilling’s reading of this ending as a failure, Lohrey asks:

What would constitute “victory”? Running for Congress? A life alone? Is the need/desire for an intense emotional commitment necessarily unliberated? Is it not the coupling but the mode in which the relationship is conducted thereafter, on a day-to-day basis, that adds up to victory or defeat?

She is always aware of how personal desires – for fulfilment, self-knowledge, freedom – are shaped by institutions and communal connections.

She has been subject to little scholarly attention. Until The Labyrinth, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary award for fiction in 2021, none of her novels have sold in high numbers.

Lohrey writes about how women writers had struggled to establish the domestic sphere as a “legitimate” and “serious” focus of ambitious writing, every bit as important as war or bullfighting.

This is most explicit in The Morality of Gentlemen, which is clearly influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s theories of estrangement or alienation. Early in Lohrey’s career, she described this in Brechtian terms as short-circuiting emotional identifications,

“whereby you disorient the audience through a series of devices that destabilize the realist or naturalist conventions of what has come before. One thing you can do, for example, is destabilize the point of view.”

Like Wharton, Lohrey uses fiction to investigate what a particular society at a particular time can do to a person. Both writers trace how financial constraints (especially debt) structure affective experience and interpersonal relationships. In the many shifts of perspective across Lohrey’s novels an interest becomes apparent not just in society but in consciousness.

Lohrey’s novels spoke to me in the late 1990s as a young woman working out whether to devote her career to politics or to literature, showing me how imbricated the two can be. Reading them as her career progressed, they have spoken to me again and differently: about masculinity and its effects, the relationship between human and non-human worlds, and how to survive disasters both personal and broader scale.

This is an edited version of the introduction to Lohrey by Julieanne Lamond (Melbourne University Press).

Nikki Gemmel #

Nikki Gemmell is the bestselling author of 13 novels and four works of non-fiction. She and husband Andy have four children.

She writes refreshingly openly and honestly about life, especially our sexuality.

When Nikki Gemmell suffered her first heartbreak, the kind of which feels like you will never recover her Dad said, ‘Nikki, it will take you three years to get over this and then you’ll walk on and not look back’.

Like Lady Havisham, Nikki was jilted at the altar.

It took about three years to start falling in love with other people and I didn’t really look back. It took three years to feel as though I was loveable again.

The Bride Stripped Bare is a 2003 novel written by the Australian writer Nikki Gemmell, originally published anonymously. The title is borrowed from the painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even by Marcel Duchamp.

A woman disappears, leaving behind an incendiary diary chronicling a journey of sexual awakening. To all who knew her, she was the good wife: happy, devoted, content. But the diary reveals a secret self, one who’s discovered that her new marriage contains mysteries of its own.

Nikki Gemmel said that she “loved the idea of writing a book that dived under the surface of a woman’s life, a seemingly contentedly married woman, and explored her secret world-with ruthless honesty”. The act of writing the work anonymously, she has described as “liberating”.

Joanna Murray Smith #

Joanna Murray Smith is an up and coming playwright. She comments Writers are mysteries to themselves, constantly trying to solve the mystery through invented characters and scenarios.

Smith notes that we’re seeing a seismic social shift. There are certainly people – actors in particular – who have gotten away with murder (unwanted sexual harassment) for years and years and years. Because there’s a kind of charisma attached to them.

That said, she wants to see a more nuanced conversation about the issues.

“What worries me, which is controversial, is that if there isn’t enough subtlety applied to gradations of bad behaviour – if a pat on the bum is put in the same league as serious assault, there’ll be a big backlash,” she says. “Women should still hold on to some agency in terms of dealing with minor, irritating and impertinent behaviour by men.

When Catherine Deneuve came out and said,

‘It’s taken all the fun away’ … it’s controversial, but a part of me agreed … I like men flirting with me, flirt away, please do."

We are all sexual beings and any attempts to suppress this inherent need, usually ends up as perversion or hypocrisy.

Much better an open acknowledgement of our sexual demands. Mature adults openly banter about our innate attraction to each other.

Women too make advances. It is better to be honest than to pretend it doesn’t exist. Only surreptitious, clandestine, furtive or coercive approaches should arouse suspicion and condemnation.

Any open advances should be dealt with appropriately – graciously declined or gratefully accepted. No need for damaging, demeaning and humiliating allegations, unless they persist with unwelcome advances, these need to be reported, acted upon with as much force as possible.

If not, let’s just all grow up and live in the real world.