by Bill Holloway

Over the course of this year I wish to show that the Independent Woman is an important archetype arising from the writing of Australia’s first generation feminists.

The image we have of ourselves as Australians, well, the image promoted to this day by politicians and the media – of laconic blokes at home in the bush – first arose out of a deliberate programme by the Sydney Bulletin in the 1890s to prioritise a certain type of writing, typefied by the short stories of Henry Lawson and the ballads of Adam Lindsay Gordon and AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson.

Lawson’s protagonists were workers, battlers; where Gordon’s and Paterson’s were more often horsemen, on the fringes of the squattocracy. A few years later Joseph Furphy wrote the life he knew, as a bullocky in western NSW, Such is Life, published by the Bulletin’s book division. All the men, in the telling of these writers, lived by their ability to carve a living from the Bush. Women were absent, or at best, at home, minding the children and home paddocks while their men were away, on the road with their mates.

The nation is here assumed to be a cultural construction or imagined fraternal community which has retained its masculinist integrity through the exclusion of female lived experience.’

Gail Reekie, 1992

And so was born the myth – in the sense of archetype – of the ‘Lone Hand’, a man at home in the Bush, living by luck and hard work and ‘mateship’, conflated during WWI with the myth of the Brave Anzac, the anti-authoritarian Australian soldier, propagated by war correspondents CEW Bean and Keith Murdoch.

The Bulletin of those years was virulently pro-Sydney and anti-woman. It was easy for them to characterise the previous, first, generation of Australian writers, most of them women and enormously popular, as the Melbourne-based writers of romances. After WWI, and to the extent that Australian Literature was considered at all by the universities, the dominance of Bulletin-influenced academics, most notably Colin Roderick, led to writers like Catherine Helen Spence, Catherine Martin, Ada Cambridge, Tasma, Mary Gaunt, and Rosa Praed falling into neglect, their works out of print, and remaining so for the best part of a century.

Even today, only a few books, all by men, are readily available from our early years – For the Term of His Natural Life (by Marcus Clarke who at least has the recommendation that he was part of the Melbourne set actively disliked by the Bulletin), Robbery Under Arms, and the English/Australian romance The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn.

The response of women writers, in the period between the Wars, to the dominance of the Lone Hand myth took three paths –

They adopted, and at the same time, subverted it, putting strong, independent women characters into Bush settings, eg. Miles Franklin, Barbara Baynton, Eve Langley. Franklin and Langley were great admirers of Gordon, Lawson, and Paterson, but were determined that their women should have the same freedom to work in the Bush as men.

They attempted to replace or overwrite it with a Pioneer myth (see for instance, Judith Godden, 1979), of men and women working side by side to ‘open up’ the country. Miles Franklin, post-All that Swagger (1936), credited herself and Steele Rudd (On Our Selection etc.) with being the founders of that myth, which still sustains farming families to this day.

And they began working on an urban and often social realist literature, more representative of the lives of most Australians, clustered in cities along the coast.

After WWII and our white picket fence 1950s, with the coming of Women’s Lib and the much greater participation of women in academic life, second generation feminists began arguing with the dominance of the male perspective in Australian history and literature, and began the task of repopulating our history with the women who should always have been there.

Likewise, the realization that the first fifty years of women’s writing was missing from the history of Aust Lit, culminated in the 1980s with Dale Spender’s Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers (1988), and the beginnings of republication (by Pandora, and then Penguin).

The origins of the Lone Hand myth were documented first by Vance Palmer in The Legend of the Nineties (1954) and then, with much greater detail, by Russell Ward; leading Reekie to write, that ‘Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend has since its publication in 1958 constituted an almost irresistible magnetic pole of historical debate about the nature of Australia’s difference.’

Historian, Marilyn Lake wrote that, for men, the “Legend” represented rebellion against the constraints of urbanization and domesticity, going on to argue that the Bulletin, and by extension, its readers, were misogynist:

To the militants of the emergent men’s press, ‘home influence’ was emasculating. The Sydney Bulletin liked to believe that in ‘virile cultures’ where ‘home-life [had] not become so all absorbing: “men live and struggle and fight out in the open most of the time. When they go to their homes they go to beat their wives…” {3 Nov. 1888} According to the Bulletin, home life trammelled a man’s spirit and sapped his masculinity. And it robbed him of his independence.

Lake, 1986

Feminist Kay Schaffer, around the same time, went further, asserting that the Bush “functioned as a metaphor for woman, a feminine ‘other’ to the masculine subject of the nationalist discourse… something to be assaulted, possessed, tamed and dominated by Man.” (Reekie, 1992). It’s an interesting point to make, but I think Schaffer overstates her case; see for instance my essay from 2018, Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer.

Recovering lost and forgotten Australian women writers is one of the principal projects of this website, but what I want to do over the course of 2024 is to go a bit further, to establish that there exists a body of work, fiction and biography, by and about Australian women, which, if it were read cohesively, which it largely is not, would give a solid foundation to an alternative myth of Australianness – the Independent Woman who rejects marriage as tying her to unlimited childbearing and servitude, and seeks fulfillment instead through employment.

The foundations of this archetype are in the New Woman movement of the 1890s and in preceding thought and writing, which some scholars date from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), but which has even more distant antecedents in for instance Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). While there are (limited) examples of the Independent Woman in British and US writing (my favourite is Nancy Drewe), she seems not to have had the same force that she has had in Australian writing right through to the 1950s – and beyond: for instance McLeod’s Daughters (2001-2009) and Mary Bryant (mini-series, 2005).

The making of Australian myths comes in waves. First was the Lone Hand, reinforced by the ‘Brave Anzac’, and not really threatened by the rival Pioneer myth which tended to leave men to deal with the real work while women saw to the children, the kitchen, the chooks and the garden;

Then, from the 1970s women protested their absence from historical accounts, but failed to recognise that first wave feminists had proposed an alternative to the dominant male myth;

Also from the 1970s we congratulated ourselves on our ‘multiculturalism’, but this has been very little reflected in our literature, and now seems to be fading from our (Anglo) self-image;

Finally, in the last couple of decades, Indigenous writers have imposed themselves on white consciousness with some amazing literature, reinforcing the arguments of their predecessors – Charles Perkins, Gary Foley, Marcia Langton and many others – culminating, for me at least, with the publication in 2021 of Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony.

So, ironically, just as I bring the Independent Woman to your notice, I must also acknowledge what she does not, that she, and her brother, the Lone Hand, are white settlers imposing themselves on a land and people who have been here for tens of millenia before them.

Over the remainder of 2024 my posts each month (on the second or third Wednesday), and those of our guest correspondents, will be of women or groups of women whose lives and or works support the myth of the Independent Woman..


Foley, G 1999, Reflections on History, The Koori History Website
Godden, J 1979, A New Look at Pioneer Women’, Hecate, Vol.5, No.2
Lake, M 1986, ‘The Politics of Respectability’, Whitlock, G & Carter, D (ed.s) 1992, Images of Australia, UQP, Brisbane
Reekie, G, 1992, ‘Contesting Australia’, Whitlock, G & Carter, D (ed.s) 1992, Images of Australia, UQP, Brisbane
Schaffer, K 1988, Women and the Bush, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Spender, D 1988, Writing a New World, Penguin, Melbourne
Ward, R 1958, The Australian Legend, OUP, Melbourne