AHA Conference 10th July 2013

The morning started with the Keynote address by Matt Matsuda from Rutgers University. His paper was titled  ‘New Pacific Histories: Ocean, Motion, Emotion: Mobilities and mobilizations in History’. What a beautifully crafted, lyrical performance this was!  He started by challenging the idea of the Pacific as a blue extensity, instead reversing it by thinking instead of it as an archipelagic series of trading villages- an assemblage of smaller elements.  He spoke of ‘trans-locality’- not as places connected, but as connections and links that generate places.  He then told six stories from across the Pacific, listing the objects that he was going to talk about like little nuggets of treasure that could be counted off: a canoe, a cousin of the starfish, an oil tanker, loss and displacement, a woman who cared for children  and a promise.  His stories took us from the earliest Pacific migrations right through to asylum seekers and climate change.  Wonderful.

The first concurrent session I attended today was ‘Children and War’.  This was certainly the focus of the session, but a second theme that was common to all three presentations was that of text and the representation of war.  Frances Clarke from the University of Sydney is working on Children and the Military in Civil War America, exploring the paradox that highly sentimentalized images of child soldiers existed side-by-side with the reality of boys (many more than historians have acknowledged to date)  aged between 10-17 being pitched right into the centre of battle. They acted  as powder-monkeys,  stretcher bearers and drummer-boys.  The latter were  in particular danger because their opponents sought  to  silence them because their drumming was keeping the rhythm of the advance.  She took us through paintings, poems and stories that depicted these boys as innocent, uncorrupted “Young America” and yet the whole point  of this creative endeavour was death.  She then turned to Thayer’s A Youth’s History of the Rebellion, a very graphic book written for children in order to educate them about war.

Bronwyn Lowe from the University of Melbourne also turned to books written for children- in particular the wartime books of Mary Grant Bruce.   The Billabong books, with their main character Norah Linton, were much loved by young girls in the first half of the twentieth century. (I must admit that I tried only one and it left me cold.  I much preferred Ethel Turner).  During WWI she published From Billabong to London  (1915) where Norah and her brothers left Australia to travel to England where her brothers could be involved in the war with the British army. In  Jim and Wally (1916) the boys were sent to Ireland to recuperate from mustard gas poisoning.  The ever-enterprising Norah, “doing her bit” discovered a German signaller on the boat during the journey to England and a whole German submarine in the later book!  Mary Grant Bruce wrote a wartime book during WWII as well Karalta,(1941)  although it was not part of the Billabong series.  This time the main character was Jan, who was sent from England out to Australia where- you guessed it- she discovered and captured a German spy.  Mary Grant Bruce saw war as an individual effort; that every little bit counts and that everyone has a part to play and this was certainly reflected in these books.

Rosalie Triolo from Monash University turned to the School Papers of the WWI era,  the compact, cheap,  supplementary reader that was mandated for use in Victorian schools.  By 1918 the whole School Paper was devoted to war, and it was intended that the children would take home the values (if not the physical School Paper itself) and spread them in the family as well.  Stories in the School Paper were positive about Germany and the German people, and in August 1914, just as war was declared, there was a long segment on “The Land of the Germans”.  The last overtly positive mention of Germany was in 1917, but nonetheless at no time did the School Paper condemn the German citizen either in Germany or in Australia.  Instead, it praised the Empire troops.  The real enemy were shirkers, strikers and anti-conscriptionists, and the School Paper printed articles supporting the ‘yes’ vote.  Trioli suggested that Frank Tate and Charles Long, the heads of the Education Department were strong supporters of German educational ideas and that possibly this affected the School Paper’s coverage which differed starkly from the Norman Lindsay-esque imagery that was also promulgated at the time.

The second concurrent session  I attended looked at ‘Material culture in the transition from diggers to settlers’.  As might be expected, this session relied heavily on visual images, so my description probably won’t do it justice.  Lorinda Cramer from Deakin University gave a  beautifully presented paper titled ‘Dressing the Part: clothing and gentility in gold rush Victoria’. She distinguished between the flashy, extravagant clothing worn by servants and bought for women by newly-enriched diggers, and the more understated, often home-made dresses sewed by middle-class, genteel women.  She used illustrations to good effect, and illuminated her presentation with vignettes drawn from women’s letters and diaries about their clothes.

Also from Deakin University, Michelle Summerton’s paper was titled ‘Portable Ideals: the Domestic Material Culture of Victoria’s Gold Rush Emigrants’- a particularly apt paper for the conference theme of mobility.  Her analysis started off with the shipboard journey, with cabins for first class passengers fitted out (at the passenger’s expense) with ingenious folding and miniature furniture so that the rhythms of sociable middleclass life- the visiting, the reading, the piano playing- could be continued during the journey.  On arrival at the goldfields, tents (especially those occupied by wives and children) could be furnished with fabrics, a piece of carpet, and folding and demountable furniture.  Indeed, even whole houses could be portable and prefabricated, as in Corio Villa down at Geelong and the rather more humble portable iron houses such as those found in South Melbourne.

Finally, Linda Young (Deakin University again!) picked up on the flashy/genteel dichotomy in the first paper by looking at ‘Subversive jewellery’- big golden blobs of jewellery that were bestowed on women like Lola Montez and female publicans as part of the shower of generosity following a lucky strike.  It was intended to be ostentatious, conspicuous and dissonant, often with golden miniatures of gold-seeking tools  like buckets, picks and cradles attached to a brooch.  So far, she has not found similar jewellery in the Californian gold fields.

For the third concurrent session, I must confess to flitting between two different sessions.  I wanted to hear Lucy Davies (from La Trobe) give her paper ‘Negotiating Australian boundaries of rule: Papua New Guinean mobility’.  She commenced by pointing out that the mobility of Papua/New Guinea women (in particular) had always been heavily controlled by the Australian government, which allowed them only to enter Australia as domestic servants, the wives of white men, and later nurses.  She discussed the period 1960-1975 when the Australian government was conflicted between its desire to continue to control the mobility of PNGian women as it had done in the past, and yet at the same time wanting to appear progressive under the increasing scrutiny of the world which was becoming uncomfortable at Australia’s delay in granting independence.  She gave examples of several women who were admitted in different guises- as wives of PNG men (rather than just white men); as representatives of the Trade Board; as women’s activists raising funds for PNG women, and the recipients of scholarships.  By the 1970s women were also arriving as artists, but often accompanied by white guardians.

Then, off I scurried as unobtrusively as possible into the next room to hear fellow La Trobe student Carina Donaldson in the panel ‘The Politics of Maternal and Child Welfare’.  I caught the preceding speaker, Helen Proctor from the University of Sydney speaking about the ‘good educational parent’.  She pointed out the relationship between schooling and motherhood: that schools taught mothering behaviours (I assume through Domestic Science and Health); that women’s lives continue to be shaped by the ever-increasing length of schooling of their children;  the potential for politicizing of mothers through school organisations, and by encouraging mothers to prepare their children for schooling  i.e. to be “something more than mere parents”.  In this regard, she focussed on Zoe Benjamin’s 1950 book The School Child and His Parents which was an advice manual for preparing a child for school.  The book, based on lecturers given by Benjamin in the 1940s spoke of the importance of the father’s involvement (with no acknowledgement of the possibility of absent or damaged fathers from the recent war) but were aimed at the mother.

Carina’s presentation was titled ‘Legislating on adoption: Social mobility in the early twentieth century’. She examined the design and parliamentary progress of the 1928 Adoption of Children Act which provided for the permanent extinguishment of the rights of parents and their transfer to adoptive parents.  Legal adoption was seen as progressive and a form of upward mobility, at a time of concerns about fertility and the effects of poverty and squalor on the development of poor children.  The legislation was championed by middle class women, not only as a form of social mobility for the child, but also as a means of women’s professional mobility.  Women lobbied hard for adoption cases to be heard before a woman judge in court, but this was rebuffed in the final form of the legislation.  When the act was finally proclaimed on 1 June 1929 there was no separate adoption court, although straightforward cases could be heard in Petty Sessions where some women might adjudicate.  The legislation was tightened in 1933 and again in 1960s to increase the secrecy of the transaction, and from the 1960s on, female social workers were involved.

The final Keynote address was delivered by Francisca de Haan, from Central European University, titled ‘Twenty Women Travelling to Korea in 1951’.  She examined the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) which was founded in 1945, emerging out of European feminist anti-fascist networks.  It was a progressive and procommunist organisation, with its representatives drawn from first, second and third world countries, often at the highest level of their governments.   The WIDF had observer status at the United Nations, and used the mobilization of world public opinion to further its aims of peace, anti-colonialism and solidarity with third world women.  In 1951, the Korean war had turned the Cold War ‘hot’ and  two North Korea delegates approached the WIDF and asked them to conduct an investigation into US conduct in North Korea.  Twenty women were in the investigating committee, and they split into four groups to collect data.  Their report, called “We Accuse”  was publicized by the members of the investigating team at the UN level and delegates also wrote their own individual pamphlets for distribution within their own government circles.  This prompted an angry response from the United States in particular.  Individual commission members were imprisoned, fired from their government positions and stigmatized.  Most importantly, the WIDF lost its consultative status at the United Nations in 1954 at the instigation of the United States, and was only readmitted in 1967.  It is still largely overlooked today.

Again- to the speakers who made these presentations-  if I have misunderstood or misrepresented any of the presentations I have described here, please contact me at the email address in the conference book.  You can find out who I am on the ‘About’ page of this blog!

The full program of abstracts can be found by clicking the link below.


4 responses to “AHA Conference 10th July 2013

  1. Thanks for taking time to write these wonderful posts from the AHA Conference. I love your informative comments too. As I am unable to attend, your willingness to share is very much appreciated.

  2. It is so good you have blogged all this. The sessions you have attended are different to the ones I’ve attended so your blog is enriching my experience of the conference.

  3. Pingback: 2013 Australian Historical Association Conference – The Program | Stumbling Through the Past

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