Labour in vain: the forgotten novels of Australia’s radical women

On my cork board, clipped from Overland:

Not a month goes by in academia or in literary culture without a debate about Australia’s literary canon and calls for a more inclusive list. Undoubtedly our canon should include more voices from women, the LGBTI community and Indigenous Australians. But I’d like to throw forward another undervalued and underrepresented genre: women’s political agency and activism – and this year might be a good time to acknowledge it.

Eighty years ago in 1935, Jean Devanny spent the year, in between her political activism, writing a groundbreaking Australian novel that many, indeed most of us, have never heard of, called Sugar Heaven.

It was followed some twenty years later by two more pioneering books in Betty Collin’s The Copper Crucible and Dorothy Hewett’s Bobbin Up. They were all industrial novels about strikes, but more importantly they revealed the private lives of strong, radical women. All unique works of literature, they were quickly forgotten and dismissed from Australia’s literary canon – they were, after all, just about women. (A rough comparison would be Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory, and we all know how iconic an Australian text that book has become.)

Sugar Heaven and The Copper Crucible tell the stories of famous Queensland strikes from the perspective of the women involved. In Sugar Heaven, Dulcie, a wife recently arrived on the Silkwood cane fields in the mid 1930s, has a political awakening as she watches her husband and fellow workers deal with a drawn-out and bitter strike. By the end, she is organising the women in her community and neighbouring towns in support.

The Copper Crucible tells the story of the miner’s strike in Mount Isa in the 1960s, as told by a union delegate’s wife. In both novels, the central female characters start out relatively conservative and experience political awakening thanks to the strong women they met during the strikes. They become central to the story as they slowly challenge the racist and sexist norms of their small towns.

Bobbin Up, the first novel by well-known poet Dorothy Hewett, is set amongst women workers preparing to strike in a 1950s textile factory. The novel is a sincere portrayal of Sydney’s working poor: tough, repetitive manual labour in sweltering conditions.

All three writers were Communist Party members when they wrote their novels. It’s important to note that Communism was a force at the time (popular also amongst writers and intellectuals); and although the Party had about 3,000 members in 1935, only 200 of them were women – and sexism was rife. In a 1999 interview for Hecate, Hewett commented that Devanny (and herself) got into ‘terrible trouble’ for ‘all the sex’ in their books.

More than anything, all three novels deal openly and frankly with women’s sexuality: pregnancy and abortions, violence and assault, love affairs and extra marital affairs (at times with migrants, which added a further racial dimension). Tasmanian writer, Amanda Lohrey, who wrote a similarly impressive industrial novel called The Morality of Gentlemen in 1984, was surprised by the attention paid to the women’s private lives in Devanny’s book: ‘Nowhere in my reading had I encountered such a realistic and unpatronising representation of women’s sexuality,’ she wrote.

I’m frustrated that it’s taken me so many years to uncover these books; and that they weren’t part of my high school English classes, university reading list or early political education. These novels are seminal Australian texts because of their cultural and historical significance to the lives of working women; yet they were rejected because of their political agenda and sexual intimacy. Described by critics at the time as ‘not very good’ and about ‘uninteresting people’, they are actually poignant, unique and deeply moving stories.

Since they were published, these novels have been dismissed as merely proletariat propaganda. As the argument goes, leftie literature cannot be literary in the classical or traditional sense by its very (political) nature.

It is assumed that for a novel to have a political agenda is to abandon the ideals of ‘good’ literary writing; that good literature should have aesthetic qualities and not a didactic purpose. It should be rich, profound and pleasurable in its language – which these novels are not. One critic described Hewett’s characters as ‘crude [and] illiterate’. But finely crafted and polished novels also require extensive editing, something that the small publishing houses who produced their works could simply not afford. The editing that Collin’s novel did get, for example, was done mainly by the anxious lawyers and a male editor who cut the domestic scenes, deeming them too boring.

These novels are also brimming with revolution and optimism. Communism is a common thread that runs throughout, and all three books were re-published in Russia soon after first appearing in Australia. Their distribution was limited predominantly within women’s groups, trade union libraries and radical bookshops.

Academic Nathan Hollier described Bobbin Up as ‘part of the hidden canon of women’s writing.’ Historian Carole Ferrier lamented that Sugar Heaven might have got the wider readership it deserved had it been picked up by ‘a more fashionable publisher’ such as Penguin or Jacaranda Press (which bravely published The Copper Crucible twenty years later). What’s unique about these writers is that they had to overcome both class and gender barriers to achieve recognition for their work. Their books are still hard to track down today.

Criticised by literary commentators for being pure propaganda, the books were also judged inside radical circles for their rather public portrayal of women’s private lives, and the hypocrisy they experienced in the labour movement. One Communist Party figure described Devanny’s book as extraordinarily naïve, but, again, much of this criticism was founded in the sexually explicit material, which the blokes just didn’t like. In Sugar Heaven, Eileen, a committed activist who organises the women in support of the strikers, is refused Party membership because she is having an affair with a migrant worker. In The Copper Crucible, Julie eventually leaves her union delegate husband after a bruising scene at home, in which she tells him ‘your boss exploits you and you exploit me.’ Needless to say, these truths didn’t go down well in the male-dominated world of industrial politics and by the end of the 1960s all three women writers had left the Party.

So more than anything, these are the stories of the private lives of women. Hewett’s Bobbin Up is a particularly moving tale, in which the main event, namely the strike, only starts in the book’s final pages. Over sixteen chapters, we met the women at the factory, and learn about their hard lives as Sydney’s working poor. We know them so intimately that when they go on strike, as readers we are fully aware of the enormity of their decision:

‘Well I’m damned if I’m taking this lyin’ down,’ [Nell] cried. ‘How about it girls?’…

Julie thought of the Housing Commission home with its bare floors and the scanty furniture, she saw the three kids looking at her with their soft, honest eyes…

Jeanie saw herself, a little girl, trying to pinch her feet into the Welfare shoes…

Shirl thought of her life, once in the Girls’ Home at Parramatta, her sick mother with a mob of kids and no hope of bringing them up decent…

‘C’mon girls,’ said Nell. ‘We gotta fight.’…

The women surged forward.

Women make up half of all unionists in Australia today with particularly high density in the female-dominated health and education sectors, so the experience of Hewett’s women is a common story, just not one commonly told. Our literary canon, and our understanding of Australian women’s history and political agency, is poorer for it.

But now that I’ve uncovered this impressive genre of books, I can’t stop. I’ve moved onto Mena Calthorpe, Amanda Lohrey and Criena Rohan. Haven’t heard of them either? You’d better get reading, comrade.

A reading list for radicals:

Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse (Seven Seas Books, 1964)

Betty Collins, The Copper Crucible (UQP, 1966 / 1996)

Jean Devanny, Sugar Heaven (Vulgar, 1936 / 2002)

Dorothy Hewett, Bobbin Up (Australasian Book Society, 1959)

Amanda Lohrey, The Morality of Gentlemen (Vulgar, 1984 / 2002)

Criena Rohan, The Delinquents (Text, 1962 / 2014)


Danae Bosler is a feminist / unionist / writer / campaigner / paid-up Collingwood member.

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