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.


“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.

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.

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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

Trends of popularity of Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend throughout the twentieth century

Anzac Day has been commemorated every year since the landing of Australian troops at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. The trends of the popularity of these commemorations have varied throughout the course of the twentieth century. Throughout the inter-war years Anzac Day was seen as an opportunity to remember those who served in the war and a reunion for returned soldiers. [1] Popular opinion towards Anzac Day began to decline in the post-war period and was continued until the beginning of the 1980s. In the 1950s and 1960s, this decrease was mainly attributed to ideas that Anzac Day was one for veterans to get together for a drink. [2] Throughout the 1960s and 1970s on the other hand, anti-war movements were one of the key causes to decline in interest and popularity. [3]

Additionally, throughout the course of the twentieth century the idea of the Anzac Legend was also subjected to fluctuations in popularity. In the 1940s the Anzac legend was viewed with great pride and was said to demonstrate how imperative the Australian forces were in regards to the outcome of the war. [4] During the post-war period up until the beginning of the 1980s, the Anzac legend was subjected to immense criticism due to protests against things such as the raping of women during war, and the large public demonstrations in opposition to Australia’s forces involvement in the Vietnam War. [5]

The 1980s saw dramatic changes in the attitudes and popularity towards Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend. The 1980s saw an increase in media coverage, spectators and participants of Anzac Day marches and celebrations. [6] The numbers of younger people attending and participating in marches with their families or in place of family members who were deceased or could no longer attend increased in the 1980s. [7] Additionally, the 1980s saw the release of a number of film productions concerning Anzacs and the First World War. Two of the most influential were Gallipoli (1981) and Anzacs (1985).

Gallipoli (1981) is one of the most influential films in Australian history. It is currently ranked number 16 on the All-time Australian box office record. [7] The film follows the Australian Gallipoli campaign, particularly the experiences of two young men, Archy Hamilton and Frank Dunne. The film focuses on Australian troops and officers battling with both the enemy and British officers. Gallipoli appeals to the audience in three main ways. One, the struggles experienced by soldiers. Second, the making of the Australian icon, the Anzac Legend, and lastly, it highlights the anti-British sentiments. The negative ideas towards the British were captured in the film where Frank is running in an attempt to halt a very dangerous attack authorised by the British aimed to distract enemy forces. The failure of Frank directly results in the death of his best friend, Archy, which again reinforces the idea of British incompetence.

Anzacs (1985) in contrast to Gallipoli was a television mini-series which aired on the Nine network. This series had the ability to reach a much larger audience. Anzacs followed the First World War campaign of one particular battalion from the landing on Gallipoli until the end of the war on the Western Front. The characters in this series all have their own stories and they all come from various backgrounds and represent different social classes. This production also emphasises anti-British ideas with the soldiers constantly showing disrespect towards British officers.

The release of these films during the 1980s facilitated the increasing debates surrounding the suitability of Australia Day being referred to as Australia’s ‘National Day’. These debates were centred on the idea that Anzac Day would be a more suitable day because it is the one that all Australian’s understand what exactly it is they are commemorating. [8] At the same time, Australia Day was being criticised and labelled as ‘Invasion Day’ by Indigenous people as well as many non-Indigenous people. [9]

Since the beginning of the 1980s, Anzac Day has increased immensely in popularity with Anzac Day marches and services being broadcast in its entirety on live television and increasingly larger attendance figures at specialised events. Government officials and Australian Prime Minister’s as well as large numbers of predominantly younger Australian’s frequently attend Anzac services at Gallipoli and France. It has become so popular that it is viewed as one of the most important topics to learn in the history classroom. The teaching of Anzacs and Anzac Day receives more government education funding than any other topic in the Australian history curriculum. [10]

The impact and popularity of the film Gallipoli (1981) is still evident in current Australian society. This is obvious when observing that this film is included in the Anzac section of the Australian curriculum. To demonstrate further, this film is the only form of popular culture included and it is required to be viewed and analysed as part of the curriculum.

The late twentieth century saw a massive increase in the popularity and national significance of Anzac Day. This is still evident and possibly even more significant in twenty-first century Australia.


[1] Blagg, Sub-Lieutenant Michael C. “Anzac Day.” Sabretache 47, no. 1 (2006): pp. 9-11.

[2] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[3] McKenna, Mark. “Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp: 110-134

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, “Fighting Tradition.” April 26, 1940.

[5] Damousi, Joy. “Why do we get so emotional about Anzac?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp. 94-109.

[6] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[7] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.


[9] Australian newspaper 23rd April 1980 quoted in Mark McKenna, ‘Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s National Day?’ in What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History, ed. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010): pp 110-134.

[10] McKenna, Mark. “Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp: 110-134

[11] Clark, Anna. History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2008.