Best We Forget: Excluding Women, Rape and Protest From the Anzac Myth and Memorial


“The clearest evidence that Anzac Day and the mythology it encapsulates privileges celebration over mourning and men over women is to be gleaned from the experiences of those who have challenged the exclusivity and nature of the day.” – Suzanne Davies (Women’s Encounters With Violence, 1997)

In What’s Wrong With Anzac? (2010) Marilyn Lake wrote that to question and explore Anzac Day is “to court the charge of treason.” Indeed, Anzac Day has become Australia’s national day of remembrance and identity, more so than January 26th. As such a powerful and legitimising force in Australian historical memory, challenges to or questions of its meaning and purpose are met with systematic resistance and rejection.

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“After the police had dispersed, Women Against Rape in War march up Anzac Parade towards the Australian War Memorial to lay their wreath at the Stone of Remembrance.” Glen McDonald (1981), Canberra Times Collection.

Bean’s Anzac and the Feminist Challenge
Through the iconic works of C. E. W. Bean, the Anzac landing at Gallipoli in 1915 has been inscribed in Australian history as our birth as a nation. The values embodied and protected by the Anzac soldiers – mateship, perseverance, bravery – were extended to define the nation and the ideal Australian, whom, it becomes obvious, is strictly male. Bean’s history was “a monument to the men who fought” (Inglis, 1998). Almost a century later, Australian leaders, such as John Howard, maintain that the Anzac values were fought for by the “first sons of a young nation”, whose “brothers and mates” gather to remember them in peacetime. This masculinity was contrasted against an innocent, passive femininity. As Carmel Shute (1995) argues, the Great War reinforced conservative and traditional gender stereotypes, enshrining man as “the warrior and creator of history”, while woman remained “the passive flesh at the mercy of fate (or rather, man).” It is this masculine and militarist identity that feminist groups and feminist historians began to critique during the latter half of the 20th century.

Women Against Rape In War
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, groups emerged around Australia calling themselves “Women Against Rape In War.” The original group, based in Canberra, came to national attention on Anzac Day 1981, through a demonstration mourning “all women of all countries” raped in all wars. In the years that followed, groups appeared in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne, with the same name and purpose. The groups held peaceful and non-violent demonstrations, attempting to join Anzac Day marches and lay wreaths at war memorials. For them, Anzac Day had become a celebration and glorification of war, and their demonstrations were an attempt to reclaim Anzac Day as one of mourning. Their critiques of rape in war existed amid the growing feminist scholarship on the issue of rape, which now understood rape as a weapon used by men against women, in both “peace” and wartime, to reinforce constructed gender roles and patriarchal power structures.

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“Women Against Rape in War lay wreaths at the Stone of Remembrance during the Anzac Day service at the Australian War Memorial.” Peter Wells (1983), Canberra Times Collection.

The Anti-Anzac Day Collective
Perhaps the most controversial challenge to Anzac Day came in 1984 with the Anti-Anzac Day Collective. Based in Melbourne, the Collective made a historically informed critique of Anzac and its exclusionist, masculine mythology, calling for the abolition of Anzac Day. Instead of the peaceful demonstrations of Women Against Rape, they chanted and sung loudly at the official Anzac Parade. Attempts to raise banners at the Shrine of Remembrance were blocked by Police, and 17 women were arrested. Adrian Howe, a feminist involved in the movement, claims that while the Women Against Rape groups had valuably forced public recognition of the frequency of rape in war, they were limited by their desire for inclusion in the Anzac “system”, one entwined with, and constructed by, masculine and militarist values.

The Shut Down
All these feminist protests attracted intensely negative responses from the general public, law enforcement and politicians. Over the years, hundreds of women were arrested. They were blasted in the media by articles titled “Anzac March Shame” and ex-servicemen wrote in The Canberra Times that “After seeing and hearing the women on TV I don’t think they have any reason to fear rape in, or out of, war.” A 1981 Traffic Ordinance was passed in Canberra making it illegal to disrupt or disturb Anzac marches, which made arresting demonstrators easier and more frequent in the years that followed. Similarly rejected were other groups who attempted to involve themselves in Anzac Day, and thus posed a threat to the traditional meaning of Anzac. Members of the Gay Ex-Servicemen’s League were prevented from participating in marches during the early 1980s, and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans remained unrecognised by the RSL.

Image“Protester in the Women Against Rape in War demonstration on Anzac Parade demands to know the number of the arresting constable.” Glen McDonald (1981), Canberra Times Collection.

Too far too soon?
The Collective’s protest in 1984 received a similar rejection to Women Against Rape. Male commentators again suggested that the women be “pitied more than condemned” for very few of the “so called women” were “endowed with any sexual attraction whatsoever.” Victorian RSL President Bruce Ruxton claimed, “If one looked at them, I wonder how rape would be possible.” Yet the Anti-Anzac Day Collective generated a new sphere of criticism from other feminists, who claimed the group went “too far, too quickly”, seeking to “demystify and unravel too much of the Anzac myth at once” (Howe, 1984). Simultaneously, the Collective were criticised as disrespectful to the feminist tradition of engaging in “non-violent, dignified action” (Howe, 1984).

If not now, when?
This begs the question, when and in what forum can we question the construction of Anzac and its mythologised place in Australian history? Despite a multitude of sources that examine feminist pacifism and anti-war movements, few historians have written about these feminist challenges to Anzac Day, and the groups themselves seem to vanish from past the mid-1980s. The few scholars who have documented the groups suggest this was from pure exhaustion, overcome by “constantly challenging and, in turn, being constantly rejected, misrepresented, and abused” (Davies, 1997). At the heart of their neglect in the historical record and the intensity with which their efforts were rejected, is the very truth they sought to reveal: the Anzac Myth has been indoctrinated into Australian history to the extent that it is untouchable. Where Australian citizens debate passionately issues such as environmentalism and marriage equality, Anzac Day remains an aspect of our society today firmly protected from speculation.  As the centenary of the Gallipoli landing approaches, this protection through mythologising is only intensifying. What does it mean that citizens cannot critically engage with an element so involved with their national identity, without being rejected and abused? The “transcendent experience” of Anzac, supposedly created our nation, yet many are not a part of that nation, as the response to and omission of these feminist protests makes clear.

Read More

Primary Sources

  • Mathews-Drew, F. “Reactions to women and Anzac march.” The Canberra Times, April 28, 1981.
  • Howe, Adrian. “Anzac Day – who owns the means of resistance?” Scarlet Woman, 19, Spring 1984, pp.22-26
  • Howard, John. “ANZAC Parade Address.” Speech given in Canberra, Australia on April 25, 2001.
  • Howard, John. “ANZAC Day Address.” Speech given at Gallipoli, Turkey on April25, 2005.

Secondary Sources

  • Davies, Susanne. “Women, War, and the Violence of History: An Australian Perspective.” Women’s Encounters With Violence: Australian Experiences, edited by Sandy Cook and Judith Bressant. California: Sage Publications, 1997, pp.159-176
  • Donat, Patricia L. N. and John Emilio. “A Feminist Redefinition of Rape and Sexual Assault: Historical Foundations and Change.” Confronting Rape and Sexual Assault, edited by Mary E. Odem and Jody Clay-Warner. Maryland: Scholarly Resources, 2003, pp.35-49
  • Howe, Adrian. “Anzac Mythology and the feminist challenge.” Gender and War: Australians at war in the twentieth century, edited Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.302-310
  • Inglis, Ken. “The Anzac Tradition.” Anzac Remembered: Selected Writings by K. S. Inglis. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 1998, pp.14-28
  • Lake, Marilyn. “Introduction: What have you done for your country?” What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, edited by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010, pp.1-23
  • Shute, Carmel. “Heroines and heroes: Sexual mythology in Australia 1914-18.” Gender and War: Australians at war in the twentieth century, edited by Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.23-42
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19 comments on “Best We Forget: Excluding Women, Rape and Protest From the Anzac Myth and Memorial

  1. madelinechatfield says:

    I found this post to be incredibly interesting! Having studied the sexual violence perpetrated against German women by Soviet soldiers after WW2 and the recent controversy surrounding Catherine Deveny’s comments regarding rape and ANZAC day, I found it really interesting (and horrifying) that such a blind eye is turned towards sexual violence in conflict. It was really interesting the way that you concluded that this part of Australian identity is perceived to be ‘untouchable’ – if anything, I think it further reinforces the fact that feminists cannot become apathetic or defeated in the fact of highlighting these victims of warfare.

    It was also incredibly interesting when you pointed out the level of vitriol directed towards these women by male commentators, (besides their obvious lack of understanding of rape as a mechanism and byproduct of warfare), it added a really fantastic element that illustrated just how hostile certain members of the population are to questioning this construct.

    Well done!

    • amywaymq says:

      Thanks so much Madeline! I wish I had more room to include some more of the scholarship on rape, and rape in war – there is some pretty interesting and horrifying stuff out there.

  2. esilk90 says:

    Amy an excellent blog post! You have taken a piece of the Australian identity (ANZAC myth and memorial) and revealed its true identity. Rarely in an Australian context do we hear about the experiences of women raped during war. Clearly the actions of those brave demonstration groups threaten the existence and romanticised notion that is the ANZAC legend. As we are approaching the century celebrations of Gallipoli, it will be interesting to see whether the ANZAC legend will still exist it its current form, or while it be modified to reflect a contemporary audience, inclusive of all elements of war, not just Australia’s son and brothers who fought for the nation.

  3. mhis300 says:

    Good post, Amy! But dots in the bibliography…..? Kate

  4. ayseerduran says:

    Wow, I did not know about the Anti-Anzac Day Collective or any other feminist challenges to the Anzac Myth.
    In recent years, with thousands of young Aussies flocking to Turkey for the annual Anzac Day remembrance, I wonder why so many ‘pilgrims’ are women…what does it signify for them…and do they now feel ‘included’…
    I agree that challenging the myth is taboo, even more sacrilegious coming from womens’ organisations. Great post!

    • amywaymq says:

      This is a really interesting contemporary idea, particularly when most of our leaders and speakers at Anzac Day try to stress the apparent inclusive nature of the Anzac Myth, and that it now represents both Australian men and women in conflict, and in peace time. I’m not entirely convinced myself, and it would be great to talk to some contemporary Australian women about how they view the whole situation. Cheers for the comment!

  5. tomvidot says:

    I found this really interesting, and something I could relate to after reseraching women-led peace movements. I definitely agree that there needs to be a place where everyone is society, including men should question the many by-products of a patriarchal and militrisitc soceity. Anzac day is such a ‘untoucbable’ myth as you say, but protesting in the sunshine of such a celebrated day is definitely an effective way of getting your point accross. As seen with many of the women-led peace movements, few remain due to the massive amount of criticism they recieve from the media or commentators about how they question a male-led soceity. It will be very interesting to see what happens next year, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open to see if there is a re-emergence of a Anti-Anzac Day movemet. Great Work!

    • amywaymq says:

      Thanks Tom! Great to read your interest in feminist/female peace movements, and the unfortunate tradition of their rejection and defeat by such forceful public resistance. Cheers for the comment.

  6. laurenswain15 says:

    Hey Amy, Awesome post! I really enjoy reading topics such as this (even though it often also makes me quite mad!). The quality of your writing was what I expected (Read: Really top notch). You talk about how the Great War enforced the stereotypical roles of men and women and that politicians have reinforced this by the way that they deal with the ANZAC ‘myth.’ I wonder perhaps if the creation of the group ‘Women Against Rape’ also places the sexes into specific roles. Namely that, even though they shouldn’t feel that way, men that feel attacked may take an automatic defensive position. I know that the argument can be made that as rape in war is primarily a female experience, women should be primarily involved with protesting against it and empowering themselves. However i still wonder if it might be more effective to have a group that represents ‘people’ against rape in war. Obstacles would of course still arise, but it seems much harder to position yourself against a group like that. Of course I strongly feel that men should also identity as feminists, so perhaps it is that influence guiding me. Anyway cheers for an awesome read!

    • amywaymq says:

      Thanks Lauren! And a great idea I wholeheartedly agree with. In a few of the primary sources I found on both groups (the rape focus and the anti-anzac day focus), they mentioned several “male supporters” who participated in marches, and several husbands wrote into newspapers defending their wives actions and making some very passionate critiques on Anzac Day. Despite this, it still seems to be a sphere dominated by women, and it makes me quite mad too that the instinctive male reaction to the word “feminism” or any discussions of feminist issues is complete and utter resistance. The scary thing is that it’s not just men who react this way now, but most people. Feminism has become a dirty word in critical discussion and ideology, and that makes me really sad. I know you’re opinion on this from our chats together, and hopefully someday people will be able to talk about feminism (and multiculturalism!) without giving in to preconceived prejudices. Cheers for the comment!

  7. pdiddy says:

    Hate to be picky, but you used ‘begs the question’ incorrectly. 😀 good article though.

  8. Great post Amy – it really reinforces how sacred ANZAC has become in Australia. I totally agree with you, it’s appalling that we don’t seem to be able to constructively engage in a discussion about it’s place in Australia or the integrity of its representation as our national identity.

  9. Great read Amy, was really looking forward to checking out your piece after your presentation. The extent of the untouchable nature of the ANZAC legend is something I almost wished I hadn’t learnt about, because I’ve always been proud to attend dawn services and pay respect to the memory of the ANZAC soldiers and basically the whole institution that is associated to the memory. That respect for the diggers isn’t lost at all, but my thoughts on the “old local RSL” has drastically changed, the segregation and exclusivity they used to exercise was so disappointing to learn.

    Here’s article you might find interesting that I found in my research on Kokoda which highlights just how protected the ANZAC myth is. Absolutely baffling, that a historian (also a Vietnam veteran) who respectfully and empirically corrects something that is being misrepresented, is chastised.

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/veterans-fury-as-history/story-e6frg6n6-1226500261130

  10. Vivienne Wiles says:

    I was one of the women who protested against Anzac Day in Melbourne and was a member of the Anti Anzac Day collective from 1984 to 1988. I, together with 16 other were arrested in 1984. I enjoyed reading you blog, as it has been 30 years since that eventful day. The hostility against the collective from the media, the RSL, the public and yes, some other feminists was extreme. But I still think the analysis of the collective was fundamentally right. Anzac Day is untouchable – I find the current lack of critique of the Anzac mythology very disappointing and somewhat surprising. It is a relief to know that there is still a debate going on somewhere in Australia.

    • amywaymq says:

      Wow Vivienne! Thank you so much for your comment, it’s an absolute honour to have you, an original member or the Anti-Anzac Day Collective, read my blog. The debate is definitely still alive in Australia, although I fear it is meeting the same stubborn resistance and rejection you yourself faced. The Anzac Mythology is only getting more and more entwined into Australian culture. Thanks again for reading!

  11. Angela says:

    I attended the 1985 Anti- Anzac Day Melbourne protest in solidarity with those brave women who were arrested in the previous year, The memory of the fury that we were subjected to has never left me. There was incredible menace in the air. We walked past a line of police- men and women- who felt justified in threatening us with physical violence once they got us back to the station. Their hatred was visceral. We braced ourselves for arrest and bashings but I think they were under orders to be careful after all the publicity in the previous year.

    The veterans were hysterically angry and I remember a Vietnam vet screaming, removing his prosthetic leg and throwing it at me. And all because we wanted to leave a wreathe to remember women raped in war. If ever I was in doubt about the risks of challenging patriarchy, the reality was clear. It was a powerful lesson in misogyny. Such raw anger and blatant harassment of women who refused to fall in line with the prevailing male mythology . This experience helped me make sense of the world and I (hopefully) have put this knowledge to good use over the years.

    • amywaymq says:

      Angela, thank you so much for reading my blog and sharing your experience. Your account of the reactions of the crowd is harrowing and indeed, a powerful lesson in misogyny. I too hope that by researching the Anti-Anzac Day protests and sharing the stories of the brave individuals who took part, others can be enlightened and engage more critically with the Anzac mythology and its often oppressive, patriarchal narrative. Thank you again so much for commenting.

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