Contesting Australian History: A Festschrift for Marilyn Lake


Strictly speaking, a  ‘festschrift‘ is a book of essays written by colleagues and students that is presented to an honorable person, generally an academic, during their lifetime. Well in this case, the collection of essays may come later in the form of a special edition of History Australia, because the main event here was a two-day celebration of Marilyn Lake’s career and writing at the beautiful 1888 building at the University of Melbourne. What a line-up! Even though I’ve only read a few of Lake’s works, and she wouldn’t recognize me at all, I couldn’t resist hearing such eminent historians responding to the wide range of issues upon which Marilyn Lake has written, held over two days in my own home town!

Marilyn Lake is an Australian historian whose work has spanned the homefront response to WWI (both at the time and recently), feminism and gender, and the White Australia Policy. Her book Drawing the Global Colour Line, co-written with Henry Reynolds, is a major contribution to transnational history internationally and here in Australia. She is a fearless public intellectual, most notably after the Age published an abridged version of the public lecture ‘The Myth of ANZAC’ that she delivered in 2009.  In the bitter and highly personalized response to her book, one angry male writer asked her “What have you ever done for Australia?” Well, this festschrift was a resounding answer – even if he wasn’t there to hear it.

Different speakers took various approaches to the festschrift task.  Some spoke about Marilyn herself and their own relationship with her.  Others engaged with her main academic interests and publications. Some spoke about their own research, and Marilyn’s influence on their own work. Others paid tribute to her as public historian, course convenor, research partner and supervisor.

The first session ‘Reflections’ began with Graeme Davison who, reflecting perhaps his own  integration of family and academic history in Lost Relations (review here), started proceedings by speaking about Marilyn’s childhood in Tasmania. He described her undergraduate progress and early publication of A Divided Society, about Tasmania during WWI, written as her Masters thesis – an auspicious start! Pat Grimshaw followed, reminiscing about the influence of the Women and Labour conferences of 1978 and 1980 that they both attended and noting Marilyn Lake’s shift in attention, over time,  to ‘gender’ as a frame of analysis, rather than ‘women’ alone.  Stuart Macintyre spoke about the transformation and truncation of academic history as a career and as a profession since the 198os.

The second session looked at Histories of Feminism and featured five women historians who had worked with Marilyn at various stages. Susan Magarey called her presentation ‘The Kettering Incident’, referencing the recent television series, but playing on Marilyn’s birthplace in Kettering, Tasmania.  She spoke about the 1975 National Research Project to locate archives about women which was reflected in Lake and Farley’s edited collection Double Time: Women in Victoria -150 years.   Desley Deacon turned her attention to conditions for women’s employment in the public service the early 1960s, rather than the more deeply researched mid-late 1960s.  As one of the relatively few ‘young’ speakers on this first day, Alice Maxwell spoke of her experience with Marilyn as her academic supervisor. Judy Smart spoke of starting her PhD at the same time as Marilyn, and the issue of periodization in women’s history.  Marion Quartley spoke about the experience of co-writing Creating a Nation, and Marilyn’s influence in re-directing the team of writers to consider the political action of gender on Australian history, rather than writing it as ‘a history of women’ as had been originally intended.

The session after lunch focussed on the Women’s Studies stream at La Trobe University, for which Marilyn was appointed Foundational Director in 1988.  Over time, Lake expanded the focus to Gender Studies. As  Brigid O’Brien explained, it was an interdisciplinary stream which fostered a strong feminist community which rippled out into the courses taught at La Trobe, the professions, NGOs and local politics.  Historians Liz Conor and Catriona Elder spoke about the implications of the Women’s Studies Course on their later work, and Ruth Ford noted that Lake’s identification of sex/class/race predated Joan Scott’s influential article making the same point. These frames of analysis , along with agency, desire and transnationalism, can be traced through Lake’s work and have underpinned the research of other historians.

The final session on Thursday dealt with Marilyn’s work on ANZAC and the impact of war, which was present, as Stephen Garton pointed out, right from her first publication, A Divided Nation and reached its widest exposure in the furore that followed What’s Wrong With ANZAC?  Lake’s work was, he said, a long term conversation with radical nationalism, which has strangled Australia’s national potential.  Charlotte McDonald, from New Zealand, recalled Marilyn as one of the keynote speakers at the ‘New Zealand: A War-Like History?’ conference held in New Zealand in 1988, while Christina Twomey reflected on the whole body of Lake’s work, noting that the publicity material for The Limits of Hope, at the time, downplayed the returned-soldier aspect.  Mark McKenna traced through the context of Lake’s edited collection What’s Wrong With ANZAC, noting that her book and interventions shifted the debate by directing attention to the huge sums of money being spent on the commemoration.

The focus on Friday was more on international history and Australia’s place in the world.  The opening session by Joy Damousi noted the internationalist approach of three women: Cecelia John (who started the Australian branch of the Save the Children Fund), Jessie Webb and her involvement in the League of Nations and Esme Odgers, a member of the Communist Party whose work on fostering Spanish children during the Spanish Civil War drew supporters in Australia across the political spectrum. David Lowe spoke of Lake’s research within the context of academic work on colonization/decolonization, the legacies of empire, memory and ‘Britishness’ and ‘whiteness’.  Kate Laing, another of Marilyn’s post graduate students spoke about her research on the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom which, following Lake’s work,  looks at international history from an Australian and gendered perspective. Roland Burke gave a quirky presentation (complete with his fascinating slides) that picked up on one of the questions that Marilyn had posed to him  years ago with her pin-point accuracy. In this presentation, years later, he was able to attempt to answer her about  state feminism and human rights: a good illustration of the way that a razor-sharp question can prompt our thinking and continue to niggle our research.

After morning tea the papers focussed on US history from an Australian standpoint- an appropriate perspective as  Marilyn Lake held the Visiting Professorship in Australian Studies at Harvard University in 2001/2002.Clare Corbould spoke about her own research looking at the identification of African-Americans with the Australian indigenous people’s political struggle both prior to and following WWII, and the change in tone during the war when reporting the enthusiastic response of Australians to African-American soldiers.  Warwick Anderson distanced himself from being conceptualized as a historian of the US, trying instead to displace the American perspective and promote a South East Asian one instead in his book Colonial Pathologies which looked at the American colonization of the Phillipines between 1898 and the 1930s. Ian Tyrell spoke about Victor Selden Clark, an American historian who wrote a commentary about Australia for an international audience in his publication The Labour Movement in Australia in 1906.  Diane Kirkby rounded off the session with a wide-ranging presentation which started with her own research as a doctoral student into Alice Henry, the labour and peace activist, and ended with drawing  parallels between the Sedition Acts of WWI and the present day.

Two of the speakers in the session ‘Australia in the World’ were recent colleagues of Marilyn’s. Emma Shortis is researching the environmental protection of Antartica, but she also spoke about Marilyn’s centrality to the recent ‘Australia and the World’ seminar series held at the University of Melbourne over recent years, for which she acted as research assistant.  Samia Khatun gave us a taste of her upcoming book Australiama which explores possible provenances for a book of Benali Sufi poetry in a Broker Hill mosque- and what a creative and challenging book this promises to be! The final speaker, Ian McCalman, drew on his own family history in exploring Theodore Rooseveldt and his associates in the ‘white hunter’ circle in Africa.

During the session ‘Campaigns for Aboriginal Rights and Recognition: Then and Now’, the speakers described their own research and how Lake’s work had influenced it.  John Maynard and Vicki Haskins spoke about their current research in writing a history of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board, and the issues of access to records that they are facing. Tim Rowse spoke on indigenous self-determination and its antecedents, focussing particularly on activists during the 1920s and 1930s.  Penny Edmonds spoke about her recent book, which Marilyn launched at the AHA conference, which looks at reconciliation performances and the cultural politics of emotion and nationalism.

The final session acted as a fitting bookend to the presentations which opened this Festschrift.  Margaret Anderson, currently at the Treasury Museum, spoke about the impact of women’s history on museum displays over the past forty years.  Mary Crooks  gave a striking presentation that listed all the things she didn’t know about women’s history, in spite of an undergraduate degree at Melbourne University, and the way that knowledge prompted by Marilyn’s own research and her Directorship of the  board  has informed the work of the Victorian Womens Trust.  Finally, Henry Reynolds (with whom Marilyn has co-written) returned to Tasmania, where he actually taught the eleven-year old Marilyn Calvert and spoke eloquently about Marilyn as a public historian- and one with guts.

Phew! What a wonderful two days.  Many people used the Lake-esque term ‘intervention’ to describe action, and the festschrift was replete with Lake’s own interventions into historical thinking and political debate.  “What have you ever done for Australia, Marilyn Lake?” Oh, so much.


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