A Feminist between the Wars ­ Blog ­ Susan Steggall

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A Feminist between the Wars

A Feminist Between the Wars

In Eilean Giblin: a feminist between the wars (Monash University Press, 2013), Patricia Clarke sets up an interesting scenario in paralleling Giblin’s life with that of many women who have gone missing in action in the twentieth century. Women whose quiet achievements did not grab the headlines but who contributed much that was vital to the fabric of Australian society. The invisibility Clarke found 'in researching Eilean Giblin’s life was eerily echoed in the invisibility of much of the essential but often barely noted initiatives of the women’s movement in this seemingly fallow period between first and second wave feminism'.(p.xxi)

As Clarke begins to set Eilean in context, the reader is required to digest many names of places, family members and acquaintances as well as detailed digressions into historical background. It takes a while to get to ‘know’ Eilean and even then, as the Governor-General Quentin Bryce, AC CVO, said in her speech at the launch of the book at the National Library of Australia in July 2013, it is quite difficult to warm to her. Self contained and showing little emotion, stoicism and a ‘stiff upper lip’ were the order of the day. Apart from her wartime diaries, much of Eilean Giblin’s life and activities are seen through the writings of others in contrast to her husband, Lyndhurst Giblin, a prominent figure who appears frequently in person in the public record. Yet their private life remains curiously invisible. Eilean kept Lyndhurst’s letters to her but either lost or burnt her correspondence to him.

More than the story of Eilean Giblin’s life, the book covers a range of social histories, in keeping with Giblin’s highly developed social conscience: the suffragette movement and women’s worldviews at the beginning of the twentieth century in London with all the attendant protests and upheavals; citizenship movements in Tasmania and Victoria, and Australia in wartime. Sometimes there is a sense of too much detail, for example in the section about the houses Giblin lived in, particularly the rented properties in Canberra. On the other hand, in the case of a first biography, perhaps the biographer does have a responsibility to include all details and not experiment with the material.

Clarke is clearly at home when describing Eilean’s achievements in chairing the committee for the VWCM (Victorian Women’s Citizenship Movement) and her time as acting chair of the committee overseeing the construction of University Women’s College in Melbourne. Eilean was characteristically modest about her abilities but proved more than able. Yet she was never appropriately recognised for her work. After Eilean’s death in 1955, there was only one public tribute: that of artist Evelyne Syme’s short obituary in the University Gazette, Melbourne University.

Soon after Eilean Giblin arrived in Canberra in 1940 she established a pottery studio. Clarke makes much of Eilean’s passion for pottery as a great achievement; and it was. Her pottery workshop was not only personally satisfying but also added a creative dimension to a city lacking most of the intellectual and cultural diversity of larger centres. Eilean’s dogged dedication to finding suitable clay was extraordinary although I am not sure general readers need to know quite so much about clay (perhaps an article for a specialist magazine?) except for an interest in the localities and as a feature of Giblin’s personality.

Making pots provided a refuge from news of disastrous battles overseas and, after Japan entered the war, the threat of invasion. Working on her pots was a ‘solace’, Eilean wrote in her diary: ‘At least I can make pots, and people must have mugs and jugs, vases and plates. Most people are working directly or indirectly to destroy, and I am trying to create.’

Eilean had decided to keep a diary because she believed it would be an important record of the country at war at a vital time in the Canberra’s history. She began writing entries around the time of the first all-night bombing alert in London (26-27 August 1940), when World War II was still distant to most Australians. I disagree with Clarke’s view that

her day-to-day recording of the progress of the war does not have the impact now that it would have had for contemporary readers. Now when the outcome of the German advance through Greece and Crete…the outcome of the battles of the Middle East – the capture then fall of Benghazi, the siege of Tobruk – are recorded in histories of the Second World War, the surprise, dismay and horror she felt have lost their effect (pp 141,142).

As a biographer brings her own experiences to writing the story of a life so too does the person reading it. Manly people, especially women and men of the generation born during and just after World War II, have memories handed down through their families and photographs of uncles and perhaps fathers who did not return or who returned badly wounded. My mother’s brother, a pilot officer, died over the Bay of Benghazi; another uncle was among the Rats of Tobruk. It was in response to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 that my father enlisted as a pharmacist in the 2/5 AGH and was sent to New Guinea. He never talked much about it when I was growing up; I wish I could talk to him now. Like Eilean Giblin, he left us no record of his own feelings. To my mind, these times of war seen through a woman’s eyes are invaluable. Perhaps Clarke should publish Eilean’s diaries, especially as the centenary of World War I approaches, to remind us of the devastating effects that war, however distant, had on the community ‘back home’.

Clarke returns to the diaries near the end of the book, to discuss Giblin’s lack of success in having them published. Eilean believed others would want to read her diary because of the uniqueness of that record yet her ‘restrained personality’ did not allow her to imbue her writing with sufficient empathy to engage a publisher. Eilean wrote intelligently about the paradoxes of wartime life, juxtaposing the ordinary routines of life with cities bombed, ships blown up and countries falling to invasion but her syntax was often awkward. The manuscript ‘fell between the cracks’ as Clarke puts it. The early years dealt only with Europe, England and the Middle East with little about Australia; later in the war restrictions meant ‘too little paper to indulge in speculative publishing’.

After her husband’s death in 1951 Eilean Giblin collected letters from people with whom he had corresponded and deposited them in the National Library of Australia. Clarke writes that ‘[a]part from collecting letters, there is no record of Eilean Giblin’s reaction to her husband’s death’. Clarke interprets this as an important element in the distinction between the surface appearance of a companionable marriage between two people who had common interests and shared liberal socialist ideas, and a quite different relationship. Both parties had separate aspects to their lives, very public for Lyndhurst, quite private for Eilean, which meant they were often apart, especially from late 1946. Although Clarke feels there was an element of ‘necessity’ in this separation, she also thinks there was more to it. Like an iceberg, there was much below the surface. According to Richard Holmes, biography often has difficulty in dealing with the day-to-day realities and enigmas that are central to a life, or even a long friendship.[1] Lives do not follow a smooth trajectory, however much the biographer might will it. The Giblins and their marriage were no exception.

At the end of her essay, ‘Olive Cotton at Spring Forest’ (ABR, July-August, No.353, 2013), Helen Ennis admits she never really came to understand her subject, photographer Olive Cotton, although not for lack of searching. This raises one of the fundamental problems in writing biography: whether we can ever truly ‘know’ another human being; understand fully what motivates them. Cotton’s photographic activities were curtailed due to personal circumstances: marriage; motherhood; physical and social isolation in the country, and a materially difficult domestic life, but this does not fully satisfy Ennis.

Although admitting that marriage is a complicated dynamic Ennis continued to probe into Cotton’s marriage. With children and grandchildren still alive, or even more distant family members in Giblin’s case, does the biographer have the right to pry into the privacy of a married couple? Brenda Niall flags the dangerous terrain biographers enter when writing about someone’s life in the title of her 2005 Seymour Lecture, Walking on Ashes.[2]

The one criticism I have of the book occurs at the very beginning. While Dale Spender’s Foreword is informative and well written it suffers from over punctuation. Hyphens abound and on occasions entire paragraphs are in parentheses, as if women and their achievements need to be presented as asides, just as they have been for centuries. Women should never downplay their achievements but speak with what Catherine Helen Spence in her autobiography called ‘earnestness’: the conviction that what you say is worth saying; that any woman who feels she has something to say must stand up and say it – without gloves.

In writing the life of Eilean Giblin Patricia Clarke brings to the public record, a sympathetic understanding of women’s lives in the era between the first wave of suffrage activism at the beginning of the twentieth century and the transformative second wave of feminism later in that century. Clarke quotes American librarian Sarah Pritchard (at Smith College, 1992): ‘We cannot reduce any woman’s life to a single story’ to emphasise the complex nature of a woman like Eilean Giblin, who as Clarke shows, was typical of ‘many talented and activist women between the wars’. They could vote and be elected to parliament, but faced many obstacles when seeking meaningful employment: ‘A few achieved fame, some were honoured, but most like Eilean Giblin worked with little recognition for small, incremental but essential feminist advances.’

In spite of her frustration with the gaps and absences in the record of Eilean Giblin’s life, Patricia Clarke has done a thorough job of bringing Giblin out of the shadows, as a particular kind of woman in a particular place and time.


[1] Richard Holmes, ‘Invention marrying truth’, John Batchelor ed, The Art of Biography, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, p.19.

[2] Brenda Niall, Walking upon Ashes: the Footsteps of a Modern Biographer, Inaugural Seymour Lecture in Biography (2005), Humanities Research Centre, ANU, 2006.

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