Gendered perspectives on Anzac

Carolyn Holbrook, Deakin University


The issue

The Anzac legend stands unassailed in 2017 as the most popular and pervasive symbol of Australian nationhood. The values that are represented by the legend have changed over time; there is less emphasis nowadays on the military prowess of the Anzacs. The imperial nature of Anzac commemoration has been discarded, though the valorisation of mateship and egalitarianism remain, together with the conceit that the Australian nation was born at Gallipoli. The conflation of military endeavour with national identity has drawn criticism of varying intensity over the course of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries. The innovative gendered perspectives that began to emerge in the 1980s have sought to expand our understanding of the Great War beyond the battlefield experience, and simultaneously to challenge the dominance of the Anzac legend in the national iconography.

Until the 1960s, Australians’ understanding of the Great War was dominated by the work of the official historian, Charles Bean. Bean had undergone a personal epiphany that began in the years before the Great War, shedding his ardent British-centred imperialism in favour of an imperial loyalty that increasingly emphasised and celebrated Australian distinctiveness. Bean’s twelve-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 was a textual monument to the AIF and a Book of Genesis for the young Australian nation. He represented the Great War as a test of Australian manhood and Australian nationhood; a test that both passed with flying colours. The war allowed (male) Australians to display to the world their distinctive national characteristics of mateship, resourcefulness, courage, stoicism and egalitarianism. They were slack with discipline on the parade ground, but not where it counted, on the battlefield. They were possessed of a distinctive, larrikin humour. Their deeds, according to Bean and seconded by the popular majority, had given birth to ‘the consciousness of Australian nationhood’.

Bean’s thesis of martial baptism mirrored the popular mood, but it was of little interest to the coterie of university historians in inter-war Australia, whose principal concerns lay with political and economic history. Ernest Scott incorporated the Anzac story into the wider tale of imperial triumph, but Keith Hancock’s acclaimed essay Australia, published in 1930, barely mentioned the conflict. Even after the great expansion of Australian universities following the Second World War, academic historians showed little inclination to study the Great War.

Recalling the academic preoccupations of the 1940s and 1950s, Ken Inglis wrote: ‘It was as if the spirit of Scott, conservative and imperial, had been exorcised in order to make a climate more congenial to liberal, left-wing radicalism’. Radical nationalist historians, such as Russel Ward and Ian Turner were not entirely silent. With their eyes squarely on working-class men, they characterised the war as the wrecking ball of earlier social reforms. But when they wrote about the men of the First AIF, the radicals offered up the same masculinist and platitudinous paeons as their liberal and conservative peers. Writing in 1974, Turner believed the Anzacs ‘had come to know their own manhood and that of their fellows … A man was judged by his performance, not by his birth, and by how he stood with his mates’.

Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years (1974) presaged a new field of war historiography, with its poignant representation of the personal experience of front-line soldiers, reconstructed from their letters and diaries. If Gammage was admiring of the Anzacs, Lloyd Robson was more critical. He consulted the extensive enlistment records of the First AIF to counter the Beanian assumption that most soldiers came from rural backgrounds. Alistair Thomson used interviews with veterans of the Great War in his seminal book Anzac Memories (1994) to show how survivors’ remembrance of the war was shaped by their shifting psychological circumstances.

Following the lead of Robson and Thomson, Australian historians increasingly turned their attention to the ‘construction’ of the Anzac legend. This project was premised upon the iconoclastic assumption that the legend did not emerge organically from the deeds of the soldiers, but was created for political purposes. The gendered perspectives that began to emerge in the 1980s have contributed to the deconstruction of the Anzac legend. They have sought to demonstrate that the history of Australian experience of the Great War was more complex than orthodox representations suggested; that women were affected as well as men, and that the progressive pre-1914 nation was never the same again.


Feminist interventions

In 1975 the feminist historian Miriam Dixson published her landmark book, The Real Matilda, which was critical of the masculinist bias of radical historiography. The feminist critique of Australian historiography was extended by Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly in their history of Australia, Creating a Nation (1994), which placed the efforts of women at the centre of Australia’s national development. The authors were critical of the Anzac legend and its trope of martial baptism: ‘Though women gave birth to the population, only men it seemed could give birth to the imperishable political entity of the nation’. Creating a Nation suggested that the role of women in giving birth to the population and supporting it through unpaid domestic labour deserved recognition alongside the well-recognised achievements of men on the battlefield and elsewhere.

The internationally discernible ‘cultural turn’ in historiography during the 1990s was particularly pronounced in the writing of war history, where it opened new fields of research about memory, trauma, grief, loss and mourning. In the Australian context, Joy Damousi’s The Labour of Loss (1999) studied the relationship between publicly displayed and sanctioned grief, and that of the private grief revealed through letters and diaries. Damousi showed how war widows and bereaved mothers sought to manage their private grief, while simultaneously being dispatched to the periphery of the masculinist, Anzac-centred public grieving rituals of the post-war years. Tanja Luckins, Marina Larsson and Jen Hawksley (Roberts) all wrote about the ‘disenfranchised grief’ of families whose soldier relatives died after the war.

Marina Larsson created a new understanding of the role of families in supporting the men who returned, broken and battered, from the war. Her book Shattered Anzacs, published in 2009, showed how families bore the burdens of caring for men labouring under disabilities including amputation, shell shock and chronic tuberculosis. In addition to carving out a space in the historical record for women, Larsson’s book presented a powerful counter to the able-bodied and athletic Anzac of conventional iconography.

If Larsson sought to tell the story of a lesser-known aspect of Australian war history in the hope of adding nuance to the officially received version of the Anzac legend, Marilyn Lake and her colleagues resolved to challenge Anzac head-on in their 2010 polemic, What’s Wrong with Anzac? Together with Henry Reynolds, Joy Damousi, Mark McKenna and Carina Donaldson, Lake argued that Australian history since the 1990s had been dominated by a militaristic view of the national past. The authors lamented the demise of the war protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s and documented the increasing official patronage of war history, through the provision of funding to the Australian War Memorial and the production of educational resources for school children. They argued that the zealotry surrounding Anzac commemoration made it difficult for critics to speak out against contemporary military campaigns, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, lest they be considered traitors to the Anzac legend.

While Lake and her colleagues tended to conflate the increasing appetite for sentimentalised war memory with the militarisation of Australian history, Christina Twomey identified the distinction in an acute article published in 2013: ‘Australians will better understand the current embrace of Anzac if we stop confusing it with a love of militarism. Anzac is a mythology with its origins in the exploits of men at war, but there is little talk today of weakling enemies and soldiers as exemplars of military manhood’, she wrote in The Conversation. Twomey observed how the rise of feminist protesters, such as Women Against Rape in War, turned attention towards the suffering and trauma caused by war; an awareness that was quickly transposed from women to the soldiers themselves. The soldier had begun his transformation from warrior to victim, and the tropes of suffering, trauma and grief their rise to dominance.

Carolyn Holbrook noted the same predilection to fit the war experience into a psychological template in her survey of the history of Great War memory since 1915, Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography. Holbrook showed how differing ideologies such as imperialism, nationalism, militarism and feminism have affected how Australians remember the Great War. She also described how various groups have been the holders and propagators of Great War memory over the decades, from the soldiers themselves, to family historians and, since the 1990s, politicians. By documenting how our memory of the Great War has been shaped by changing societal values, Holbrook continued the feminist project of revealing that the Anzac legend is itself a product of social construction.

That Joan Beaumont’s classic history of Australians in the Great War, Broken Nation, incorporated both the experience of the battlefield and events on the home-front, best demonstrates the enduring effect of gendered perspectives on the Great War; a comprehensive history of the war can no longer be written without due attention to its impact upon the women, men and children who remained in Australia. It can no longer be told without an awareness of the sorrow and trauma the war unleashed on subsequent generations and the developing rituals of grieving and commemoration that would prove so powerful and enduring.



The introduction of innovative gendered perspectives on the Anzac legend has produced a much sharper analytic lens through which to view Australian experience of the Great War. Most significantly, the feminist interpretations pioneered by scholars such as Marilyn Lake, Joy Damousi and Marina Larsson have helped to extend Anzac historiography beyond the experience of men in battle and the traditional trope of the birth of the nation. Gendered perspectives have revealed the roles that women played in war time, the experiences of grief and loss, and the burdens borne by mothers, wives and sisters in caring for returned soldiers and holding together families as they dealt with the aftermath of war. This new historiography has shown how the Anzac legend has changed over time from a myth grounded in the fighting ability of the Australian soldiers to one that honours sacrifice and mateship.

Given the central place that the Anzac legend occupies in conceptions of Australian nationhood, the introduction of gendered perspectives has significance far beyond the academy. By expanding the cast of historical characters in Great War history to include women, and simultaneously demonstrating that the Anzac legend is not an immutable entity, these new perspectives have sought to challenge celebratory and nationalist representations. And yet, the Anzac legend has proved to be remarkably resilient in its mutability. It has incorporated the experience of women in the past two decades. More recently, it has begun absorbing within its porous borders the experience of Aboriginal Australians, and those from non-Anglo backgrounds. As Twomey observed, revelations about the trauma and suffering caused by the war have not dinted the rise and rise of the Anzac legend. The enduring popularity of Anzac is evidence of the adaptability of human memory, and the need for unending vigilance.


Key readings

Beaumont, Joan (2013).  Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Damousi, Joy (2009). The labour of loss: Mourning, memory and wartime bereavement in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Holbrook, Carolyn (2014). Anzac: The unauthorised biography. Sydney: New South.

Larsson, Marina (2009). Shattered Anzacs: Living with the scars of war. Sydney: New South.

Lake, Marilyn, Henry Reynolds, Joy Damousi and Mark McKenna (2010). What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History. Sydney: New South.

Twomey, Christina (2013). ‘Trauma and the Revitalisation of Anzac: An Argument’, History Australia 10 (3): 85–105.




Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute