“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
- 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.
- 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