26 November, 2006

First Wave Feminists

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.


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.

Feminist echoes
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.

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