Q&A with Dr Ana Stevenson and Dr Alana Piper

Jacquelyn Baker interviews Dr Ana Stevenson and Dr Alana Piper about their new book- Gender violence in Australia: Historical perspectives.

Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives provides huge insight into the history of gender violence in Australia. From the range of topics to the array of primary sources and the variety of methodologies, was there a particular idea that sparked the book?

We are co-founders and editors of VIDA, the blog of the Australian Women’s History Network. In 2016 when the blog first started, we decided to put together a series to coincide with 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, a global campaign that runs annually from 25 November to 10 December. We commissioned 16 authors to write blogs on different aspects of the history of gender violence. Initially, we worried that we might not find 16 willing and able bloggers, but we managed. The series proved incredibly successful, with several of the pieces remaining among the most-viewed posts on the site.

It struck us that many Australian scholars have been doing interesting and important work on varied topics pertaining to the history of gender violence in recent years, but that it would be beneficial to bring these different perspectives and approaches together. We were also very clear from the start that we wanted the collection to have contemporary relevance by speaking to the links between past and present throughout. We then started coming up with a list of topics that we would ideally want to have covered in such a collection, and key voices we would want to include. The end result does not include every single item that appeared on our initial list, but it does include the vast majority. Hopefully, it provides historical context to a wide breadth of issues relevant to modern discussions of gender violence. 

 

Can you outline your role as editors of the book? This question is of particular significance for those who may not know what an editor “does,” but to also further understand how the book came to be.

Yes, the process for being the editors of an edited collection is a bit different to the job of a traditional editor, who comes in largely at the end of the process to help authors refine their drafts. As editors, after we had conceived the idea for our collection and what we would want it to include, we started to reach out to potential authors to see if they would be interested in contributing a chapter to the book on specific topics. Once we had secured a number of authors who had agreed to write chapters, we then contacted Monash University Publishing to pitch the idea of the book to them. This involved writing up a detailed proposal of what the book would include, why it was necessary, and how it would be marketed.

After Monash offered us a publishing contract, we then had to coordinate a timetable with authors for drafting their chapters and returning them to us. This was a multi-stage process because, in addition to our own editorial feedback to authors, we also arranged to send each chapter out to anonymous peer review. Sharing each chapter with experts in the field in this way helps to ensure the overall quality of the book. Finally, once both we and the authors were satisfied with the collection, we wrote an Introduction for the book. Then we submitted the manuscript in its entirety to the publishers. They then submitted it to their own peer review process, and we went through a few more rounds of editing adjustments with the authors. Hopefully, the end result is a tightly-written and accessible exploration of the history of gender violence in Australia.

 

The chapters in this book have been structured into three sections: gender violence in the home, gender violence in the community, and activism against gender violence. Why has the book been organised into these three categories?

To begin with, we found it difficult to decide what would be the best way to structure the volume. Since women’s history emerged as a discipline during the 1970s, many feminist historians have structured their explorations of women’s history around the duality between the public and private spheres, and how this shaped women’s lives. While historians have challenged some of the assumptions that underpin this framework more recently, it remains influential. Our approach to constructing sections dedicated to gender violence in the home and in the community reflects this at the same time as it recognises the permeable boundaries between each sphere. These sections also explore the way that experiences of violence in one sphere are not actually disconnected from – but intrinsically related to – the other.

We also believed that it is necessary to have a section that is dedicated to activism against gender violence. It is important to recognise that gender violence is not a social issue that has only been acknowledged recently. In fact, activists – especially women and especially feminists – have long sought to bring public attention to the problem and find ways to address it. This approach allows for recognition of this history, both past and present.

 

Gender Violence in Australia investigates the history of gender violence from the 1800s to the present day. Were there challenges in covering such a large time frame?

Both of us actually focused on certain aspects of nineteenth-century women’s history for our doctoral theses, so the imperative to make clear and compelling connections between the present and a slightly distant past is something with which we have always grappled. We have both done further research into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, meaning that together we have a fair knowledge of the social developments across the time frame covered by the book. There were certainly challenges in being able to do justice to different eras, especially when confronted with inevitable obstacles such as word count! There was inevitably more detail that we would have liked to include, or additional chapters that would have added to the breadth of coverage. That said, we hope the collection highlights important patterns and connections across the span of Australian history it covers.

 

Turning to archival sources; Alana, your chapter seeks to historicise economic abuse in a time period when it may not have been called economic abuse but it was clear that there was at least an awareness of how money could be used in a way that abused or disadvantaged women. Can you discuss the primary sources that you analysed and explain how you traced the history of economic abuse in a period in which it was not recognised as such?

The main archival sources drawn on in my chapter about economic abuse were the depositions and minutes of wife desertion cases heard by the Brisbane Court of Petty Sessions in the 1890s. In nearly half of these cases, women referred to instances of physical violence by their husbands. However, in describing their marriages to the court, women also disclosed other types of behaviours that would today be recognised as abusive. In particular, the cultural attitudes of the time about men’s control of money and property within the marital relationship encouraged fairly rampant economic abuse. This, in turn, served as an excuse for physical violence, or as a means of keeping women dependent within violent relationships.

Four distinct types of economic abuse emerged from women’s stories. The most common was men denying women access to money or goods during the course of their marriage, including depriving their wives of food. Another type was economically-motivated violence, where a dispute about money would result in an episode of physical abuse. In other instances, men exploited their wives financially by appropriating money that they had earned or received from family members or else exploited their labour through unreasonable demands when it came to work performed in the household or family business. Finally, in some cases, there was post-separation economic abuse where men either sold, destroyed or otherwise deprived women of personal or joint property. This could be done strategically in an attempt to force women to return to the relationship, by depriving women of items like sewing machines that might assist them in earning a living independently.

Similar coercive behaviours remain evident in contemporary domestic violence; the chapter thus argues that society and the courts need to understand physical violence as just one part of a larger pattern of controlling and abusive practices in order to fully understand and adequately respond to family violence.

 

Ana, the chapter that you co-authored with Brigitte Lewis traces the shift in technologies, from print to digital media—as well as the way in which women’s rights campaigners, suffragists and feminists wrote about gender violence—from the late 1800s to the present day. Can you discuss the primary sources you analysed and whether your approach changed depending on the period of time that your primary sources were located in?

It is fairly unusual to analyse the history of women’s movements and the connections between different eras from such a long durée perspective, but I think it offers insights into important continuities and ruptures that otherwise remain obscured. At the same time, each of us is limited in terms of spatial and financial factors that are larger than ourselves when it comes to having access to certain primary sources. I have lived in South Africa for the entirety of the time it has taken to bring this edited collection together, so my own research is very much the beneficiary of Trove. The fact that Louisa Lawson’s newspaper, The Dawn, has been digitised was absolutely essential for making this research possible. I have also been fortunate to have the support of my research centre, the International Studies Group, to undertake other research at the State Library of Queensland and the State Library of Victoria, which offered me the opportunity to engage with the women’s liberation newsletters, magazines, and journals.

Brigitte brought her own insights to much of the contemporary digital analysis. There are less access issues surrounding these contemporary sources. However, I think we all, as individuals, have a relatively short memory of the details of contemporary events. For example, I remembered much of the media coverage of #SOSBlakAustralia, but when I read her close analysis of this very recent history, I was also made aware of just how much of the nuance I had forgotten. This is why I think it is important to be attentive to these recent histories, to record them, as well as our responses to them, and to contextualise them in terms of their longer historical trajectories.

 

The book provides a thorough history of gender violence in Australia, while also being grounded in contemporary contexts, such as the work of Rosie Batty, the sexism and misogyny directed at former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the #MeToo movement. What role do you see this book playing in future understanding of gender violence in Australia?

Gender violence is a phenomenon that many commentators have recently described as a “silent epidemic” that is quietly engulfing Australia. A culture of silence means that victims, as individuals, often feel too fearful or ashamed to come forward and report their experiences or speak about their experiences. Bystanders, in turn, are left in a position that makes them feel too uncomfortable or conflicted to speak out. As we have pointed out elsewhere, these realities can lead to the assumption that the phenomenon has always been invisible in Australia’s past, and that gender violence has therefore only very recently been recognised as a social problem. It is thus time for solutions beyond simply raising public awareness of the problem.

We hope that our edited collection contributes to furthering this public discussion. Currently, media commentary on gender violence rarely reveals the relationship between the present moment and the broader historical or cultural context. This is what we hope our edited collection is able to address, allowing media professionals, politicians and policymakers, as much as historians and other scholars, to connect the past with the present. We envisage that making these connections will be both useful and enlightening for addressing the phenomenon of gender violence as it continues to exist today.

 

Were there any final thoughts or comments that you’d like to leave our readers with?

To answer this question, we’d actually like to turn to the way we concluded the Introduction to our collection:

This history is not a comforting narrative in which social progress has gradually led to an amelioration of gender-based violence. Neither is it a confirmation that gender violence is historically inescapable, a social constant that legal and cultural shifts have failed to alter. This history is a rallying cry. The chapters in this collection confirm that gender violence comes in many forms, all of which are endemic and interconnected – but, most importantly, are able to be challenged.


Jacquelyn Baker is a PhD candidate at Deakin University. Her research seeks to uncover the experiences of those who participated in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne. Jacquelyn also volunteers as a fills presenter on community radio and has a particular interest in talks and interview based radio. 

 

 

 

Dr Ana Stevenson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State. Her doctoral research considered how nineteenth-century social reformers in the United States embraced a specific and problematic form of feminist rhetoric: the woman-slave analogy.

 

Dr Alana Piper is a Chancellors Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research interests draw together the social and cultural history of crime with gender history, legal history and the digital humanities.

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