Australia became an official nation at a time when feminism was just taking off. As federation was finding it’s feet in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries so was the idea of feminism and female rights. Hence, some Australian literature from this period has dealt with the idea and challenged the Australian Legend of the ‘blokey-bloke.’ Of course, the middle of the twentieth century was possibly the biggest time for feminism. During the 1950’s, feminism was not just an idea but an entire movement.
Literature from this time presents it’s challenge to the Australian Legend also. In this essay, two stories from each of these periods will be compared in terms of gender relations – Barbara Baynton’s short story The Chosen Vessel from the 1896 and Ray Lawler’s play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll which debuted in 1955. The reason these two texts have been selected is because they both challenge the traditional role of females, both in a very different way, and also because the authors are a woman and a man, respectively. Perhaps the most interesting point discovered when analysing these texts is that the piece written by a man is more effective in presenting a feminist’s view.
Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is the story of a couple of Melbourne barmaids who spend the last few months of the year with their Summer boyfriends in the year of 1953. It’s main character Olive, is a forty something year old, single woman who has a seasonal relationship with Roo, a cane cutter from North Queensland. Essentially, the story is about growing up. It becomes obvious to Roo that he is middle aged and he attempts to push his need to grow up on Olive as well. Roo’s greatest attempt at moving on with life occurs at the end of the play when he asks for Olive’s hand in marriage.
However, she flat out refuses him, instead choosing a life of sexual freedom. Lawler’s women are direct opposites to the men in almost every aspect. The girls have their own jobs, money, possess their own houses and their personal interests are explored and explained. The men are going or have gone broke, their personal interests are not largely explored and they possess nothing more than their egos, which are constantly being crushed by the women in the story.
In contrast to this, Barbara Baynton’s woman from The Chosen Vessel is helpless, frightened, alone in the world, nameless and cursed by men. First published in the Bulletin as The Tramp in approximately 1896, it is the story of a woman – the nameless wife of a bushman – left alone with her child in their shanty home. She meets her fate at the hands of a passing swagman who rapes and kills her. Baynton’s woman imparts no protest to the male characters, neither her husband nor the swagman, and it is in doing nothing about her situation that she meets her fate.
In essence, the women from each story are faced with the same challenges, but the way they choose to tackle them is very different. Both are faced with the expectancy to marry and enter motherhood. Baynton’s woman gave in to the pressure and is now a married woman, with a child and is at the mercy of the men around her. The outcome is negative, and she lives and her life is ended by the will of a man. Inversely, Lawler’s Olive refuses to get married and rejects the things she simply does not want for her life. The outcome is positive as she therefore is able to live her life how she might enjoy it.
Lawler’s women are more successful in proving a feminist point. Baynton’s woman is helpless and nameless, not even recognised as a person, the only feelings she emanates are negative ones, she has no control over her situations – as in when her attacker attempts to enter her house:
“She waited motionless, with her baby pressed tightly to her, though she knew that in another few minutes this man with the cruel eyes, the lascivious mouth, and gleaming knife, would enter.”
The woman makes no real attempt to save herself, even though she knows this man will bring about her death. In contrast, Lawler’s woman has control over every decision affecting her life. The greatest of these being Roo’s proposal at the end of the play:
“Roo: Look, I know this is seventeen years too late, and what I’m offering is not much chop, but – I want to marry you, Ol.
[There is a moment of frozen horror and then she pushes herself away from him, almost screaming with quivering intensity.]
Olive: You can’t get out of it like that – I won’t let you…”
Although Olive experiences fear just as Baynton’s woman does, she takes things into her own hands and controls her own fate by refusing Roo’s proposal. From a feminist’s perspective, the events in The Doll are much more satisfactory in proving a point. Where Baynton’s character is merely there to show there is an inequality, Lawler’s character reforms it and shows a woman holding her own – fighting back for her cause.
Another good example of how Lawler manages to prove the feminist point better is found when analysing the idea of sexual inequalities. Baynton’s woman is sexually inferior. Her husband is hardly ever home, but she has a child. It can therefore be seen that her husband’s only use for her is as a sexual object – he leaves her with the child and goes off to work again:
“..the end of the week that would bring her and baby the companionship of its father, was so far off. He was a shearer, and had gone to his shed before daylight that morning. Fifteen miles as the crow flies separated them.”
On the other hand, Lawler’s Olive has a mutual sexual relationship with Roo. Neither one is being exploited, and at the end when it becomes apparent that they both want different things out of the relationship, it ends. She refuses his proposal and after lamenting their argument and crying over the seventeenth doll (the representation of their seventeenth summer together) Roo leaves with his best friend, Barney:
“He looks across at Barney, and in this brief meeting of eyes there is no bravado or questing hope, it is a completely open acknowledgement of what they have lost. Barney jerks his head indicating the open front door. Roo joins him, and they move out on to the front verandah, and leave the house.”
Olive and Roo are sexual equals throughout the story. They enjoy a sexual relationship with each other and when an inequality presents itself, instead of the woman choosing to submit to the man’s requests, the relationship ends and therefore no one is demoralized. However, in The Chosen Vessel, Baynton’s woman is constantly sexually inferior – an object – as she is used by her husband and raped by the swagman. Lawler’s story challenges the Australian Legend – the man is not in control and does not hold all the power. Baynton’s story does not challenge this ideal at all – the man is in control and does have all the power, and the woman doesn’t even make an attempt at challenging that, even when it concerns her own fate.
It is also worthy to note how the role of ‘male’ is formed within both the texts. Baynton’s men are harsh, nasty people with no real care for women. The husband in the story is horrible to his own wife when she cannot perform the ‘man’s’ task of penning a cow: “…but the woman’s husband was angry, and called her – the noun was cur.” (Baynton, 291). Baynton presents Australia’s favourite son – the Swagman – as a sinister individual. The woman fears the presence of a passing swaggie: “She was not afraid of horsemen; but swagmen, going to, or worse, coming from the dismal, drunken little township, a day’s journey beyond, terrified her.” (Baynton, 291).
One can plainly see the character Baynton builds for the men in her story – a spiteful, villainous and sinister character. Lawler’s approach at building the male characters in his story are dissimilar. Rather than creating much of a male character at all, instead The Doll “…fails to construct… a unified, univocal and ultimately masculine identity.” (Cousins, 5). The men in Lawler’s story are not built up to be sinister or villainous, or even just as an opposition to the women. Instead they are cut down from the masculine pedestal right from the very beginning. They are weak and confused about their place in life. Barney tells Olive the story about how Roo becomes angry when he feels emasculated by the younger cane cutter, Dowd.
“Barney: Well, first off, Roo, the silly cow, strains his back – There’s no need to throw a fit, nothin’ serious, nearly better. But it slowed him down all through the season, see. [Frankly putting his cards on the table] Roo’s a pretty hard man, y’know, on the job. Got no use for anyone can’t pull their weight;…
…Well, right at that moment Roo’s knees went. Never seen anythin’ like it, they just buckled under him and there he was, down on the ground. This strikes Dowd as bein’ funny, see, and he starts to laugh. Well, that did it. Roo went him and it was on, cane knives and the lot.”
Roo is emasculated right from the beginning by other men. The women have nothing to do with the disintegration of his masculinity.
It is interesting to find that the story written by a man, that was not really intended to be a feminist piece, is more successful as a feminist text than a story written by a woman in direct protest of the inequalities women are faced with when posed against men. Granted, one should take into account that Barbara Baynton’s story was written in the 1890’s – a time when a candidly feminist piece would probably have not been appreciated let alone published, and Ray Lawler’s play was written at a time when the women’s rights movement was really taking off.
However, the former was intended as a protest against the horrible treatment of women at the time and the latter was not, and yet the latter is vastly more interesting in it’s approach to the subject and is therefore successful as a feminist piece. The way Baynton developed her characters was less than beneficial for her argument. Sure, it shows that women were treated awfully at the time but she, like the woman in her story, presents no solution to the problem. Ray Lawler manages to hit the nail on the head, so to speak, by challenging the stereotypical gender roles and does so in a way that makes for a more enjoyable story that also provides more food for thought than perhaps Baynton’s does.