In the midst of the COVID lockdown, what I really craved was a conference. With a plenary. With a keynote. With panels. With papers and questions afterwards. With muffins for morning tea. With club sandwiches for lunch. With stewed coffee that smells better than it tastes. With a name tag or lanyard. I was even toying with the idea of attending the Australian Historical Association conference in New South Wales until the last outbreak, at which point it just seemed too hard to plan a month ahead to cross a state border. But when the AHA announced that it was moving the whole thing online, I thought ‘why not?’
The conference actually started on Monday night with Shino Konishi from the University of Western Australia who is leading an ARC project on Indigenous biography, in collaboration with the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Her Keynote address, which was referenced several times in the session this morning, reflected the ‘Unfinished Business’ theme of the conference with her paper ‘The Unfinished Business of Aboriginal History’. But I missed it.
The Plenary Panel ‘Unfinished Business: First Nations Provocation’ featured Megan Davis (who has been heavily involved in the Uluru Statement and has recently published an article in The Monthly) and Crystal McKinnon. Megan’s presentation looked at the flaws in the reconciliation process and the progress of ‘Voice Treaty Truth’, with various states (e.g. Victoria) moving ahead of the Federal Government. Crystal’s paper took a recent case of two young Indigenous boys who drowned while being pursued by police. She picked up the historical overtones of ‘pursuit’ and its purpose in not just arrest, but in instilling terror. The session finished by talking about the historian as activist, and whether there should be an accountability structure for historians too, given the real harm they can cause.
Then there was a break for a funeral service, which speaks much of Stuart Macintyre’s importance to Australian history generally. There were really good tributes from Frank Bongiorno as a Labour historian and Anna Clark, speaking as a former PhD candidate; his running partner; a number of overseas colleagues via video and his daughter speaking for the family. It might seem strange to suspend a conference for a funeral, but in this case it really underlined his stature in the field, his fearlessness in being ‘political’ and his love of words, books and history, shared by all participants at the conference.
Back to the 11.15- 12.30 session. I attended the War stream, where Bart Ziino spoke on soldiers’ attitudes during the conscription debates in ‘Recasting the soldiers’ vote on conscription: new perspectives on an old issue’. Until recently historians have relied on the observations of Keith Murdoch, who was unnerved by the strong feeling against conscription amongst soldiers on the Western Front, and the Australian government did not give a detailed breakdown of the voting patterns. However, using Trove, it is possible to read soldiers’ letters home to their families, which were often passed on to the newspapers and reprinted, and sources from the Mitchell Library that have been transcribed. These sources suggest that there was reluctance to compel other men to fight, but at the same time, disdain for those who did not – a reflection of the complexity that was to mark veteran politics after the war. The second speaker was Alanna Dargan in ‘Anzac as a Political Pawn: The Commemoration of the Centenary of WWI in the Australian Parliament’. She used the techniques of corpus linguistics to analyze the 131 parliamentary motion speeches that were delivered in the Australian Parliament to mark the centenary of Gallipoli. Speeches by Abbott and Shorten in particular reinforced the ongoing political value of Anzac as a key facet of Australian national identity. Abbott referenced memory and the importance of not forgetting; Shorten emphasized family connections. Abbott’s speech saw commemoration as part of being Australian, now and in the future, and highlighted the role of Sir John Monash, who was being commemorated through the Sir John Monash centre at Villers-Bretonneux, an expensive museum and interpretation centre that is not without controversy,
Lunch time! I even bought a vegetarian wrap down at the coffee shop! I am clearly not a food photographer.
From 1.00 to 2.15 I sat in on the Australian Womens History Network stream, ‘Remembering 20th century women’s activism’. Natasha Walker‘s paper ‘Agency and Activism: the Transnational Network of the Feminist Press’ examined women’s agency and activism within a selection of feminist newspapers, from the United States of America (The Woman’s Journal), the United Kingdom (Common Cause),New Zealand (White Ribbon, temperance), and Australia (Woman Voter) between 1910 and 1914. Of course, in some of these countries, women already had the vote, but they all emphasized that citizenship was more than just suffrage. There was an interest in naturalization and its disadvantages for women who lost their own citizenship after marriage, as they took on the citizenship of their husband, even if he died. The newspapers were sympathetic to differing degrees to the suffragettes, but in their Letters to the Editor columns can be detected different attitudes towards the ethics of political violence. Sharon Crozier-De Rosa (‘Memory-Keepers: Women Activists’ Strategies to Preserve their History’) examined NSW activist Ruby Rich, active from the 1920s onwards, who was encouraged by Harold White from the National Library of Australia in 1961 to contribute to an archive of women’s activism, and to encourage other women to do the same. By International Women’s Year, the archive still had not eventuated, and the National Library was no longer interested. And in the 1980s, Jean Arnot wrote to the NLA, attaching Harold White’s letter to Ruby Rich, but still her attempt to imagine an archival future was unfulfilled. Catherine Dewhirst examined six Italian-Australia women who were interned or otherwise came to the notice of the authorities in ‘Subversive, Radical and Deviant: Italian-Australian Women during World War II’. Denounced by anonymous informants, they were accused of having fascist sympathies, or ‘utter disregard for National Security Regulations’ by not registering as an alien, or by disobeying blackout instructions. However, there was unease generally about interning women for fear of retaliation against Australian women overseas.
I attended the rather-sparsely attended Religious stream between 3.00 and 4.15 p.m (although attendance – or the lack thereof- is less obvious on Zoom). Katharine Massam looked at the involvement of women in Catholic social action and religious teaching in the mid 1960s in ‘Good, that will be all of them: the unfinished business of women and religion’. Many women were involved in the National Catholic Girls Movement (or Young Christian Workers), and when they moved into teaching, they introduced new forms of religious education based on experience and the ‘everyday Jesus’. Brenton Griffin spoke about Mormons in Australia in ‘Permanent Outsiders? Two Controversies Involving Mormons in Australia, a century apart’. The first Mormon missionary arrived in Victor Harbour SA in 1840, and the first congregation began in 1844 in Wellington NSW but the Mormons generally did not find Australia a fertile conversion ground. He compared two riots- the first in Adelaide 1913 where Mormons were accused of seducing Australian women to emigrate to Utah, and the second a recent riot in Mt Druitt involving the One Four rap group, where the members had met each other at a Mormon church. It is hard to tease out class, racial, and religious overtones. In ‘Reassessing Russell and Beamish’ Matthew Grubits revisited a dispute in 1847 between the Tractarian bishop of Sydney Bishop Broughton, and two Irish deacons Francis Cusack Russell and Peter Teulon Beamish. This has been seen as a theological dispute, played out through the newspapers, but Grubits argued that it was more about employment conditions and leadership, and that Russell and Beamish went on to have successful theological careers once they left Sydney for Melbourne.
The final session for the day was the Keynote: ‘The unfinished business of reproductive justice: histories & futures of abortion in the age of decriminalization’ by Catherine Kevin. When I was young, Adelaide was the place where young pregnant girls went for abortions, with more liberal abortion laws than elsewhere in Australia. However, over time, South Australia became one of the last to decriminalize abortion and to remove it from the Crimes Consolidation Act. Activism to decriminalize was sparked off in 2013 with an abortion flash mob #EndTheStigma, and the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition lobbied to remove many of the features of the earlier ground-breaking legislation that stipulated gestational limits, geographical requirements, a two-doctor law and provision only through a hospital. The legislation was passed on 3 March 2021, however only with amendments that reflect some of the old arguments against abortion- the trope of the incompetent backyard abortionist, the ‘silent scream’ of the Right to Life, the perception that women are ‘coerced’ into having an abortion, and that selfish untrustworthy women use abortion as contraception. They are still waiting for the regulations to bring the changes into effect – and it seems to be taking quite a while.