Reviewed by Professor Anne Pauwels, Head, Department of Linguistics, University of New England Armidale, NSW 2351
Published by Allen and Unwin. 1996.242 pp. $29.95
Editors’ note: Because of the controversial nature of this book, we considered it appropriate to present a second review. The first review appeared in WISENET Journal 43, p. 17.
The Meagre Harvest is Kaplan's second major book documenting women's movements. The first one focused on Europe, this second one is devoted to Australia.
To my knowledge this book is the first authoritative documentation of the second wave of the Australian women's movement.
The book is certain to cause ripples among the 'second wavers', including those who were among the prime movers of the movement, its followers, critics, and would-be documenters. This is a likely fate for books describing a social movement whose 'icons' are still alive and in some cases still play a significant role in the direction of the movement.
For some of these icons, the writing of a book about the Australian women's movement is like the writing of their biography in which they do not have a direct input. Their reaction is often either one of strong confirmation if their experiences tend to mirror those of the author or one of apprehension or even rejection should they hold dissenting views on the movement. A cursory glance at reviews of The Meagre Harvest to date certainly confirms this pattern of reaction.
The Meagre Harvest is not cast in a discourse of celebration of the achievements and successes of the Australian women's movement. On the contrary, it is a critical assessment of one of the main social movements of this century. The assessment is undertaken from the perspective of an involved, critical but marginalised member of the movement.
In her introduction Kaplan (1996:xii) states "It is my firm belief that a radical movement is best tested against its weakest, or most ostracised, members. A few can always make a success of things, but how do the least appreciated fare, where do they stand, how have they been treated, and how can they benefit today?"
It is this point of view which makes this book stand out: it is a critical and academic documentation of a movement not from the perspective of one of its central participants but from that of an often sidelined participant.
Although Berlin-born Kaplan admits that "my early years in Australia were particularly difficult" she does not blame the "Australian women's movement for my own deficiencies and uncertainties at the time" (Kaplan 1996: 5). However this experience has certainly influenced her in her assessment of the women's movement. She admits that "the nature of my personal history means that 'looking back' is a process that gives rise to profound unease.
For Kaplan the weakest or most ostracised members are "Sappho's new sisters" and the "sisters over the fence". The latter category includes Aboriginal women in Australia and migrant women, especially those from non-English speaking backgrounds. As the title suggests, the harvest has been rather meagre for them. They have seldom been able to set, let alone influence the agenda in the various periods of the women's movement in Australia. This seems to be especially true for the earlier years in which issues such as women's right to work outside the home, child care provision, equal pay demands, women's right to control her fertility (birth control including abortion), women's participation in politics prevailed. The way in which these issues were presented and handled reflected white, middle-class, Anglo-Celtic, English-speaking and heterosexual concerns.
Being members of more ostracised groups than these more main-stream women, lesbians, Aboriginal and migrant women often faced the dilemma of which oppressed group they should direct their energy to. To women because they are the oppressed group regardless of race, class or sexuality? Or should they join the menfolk who are oppressed by white people, English speaking people or heterosexuals? It seems that quite a few decided to choose the latter option. In that respect Kaplan also provides an incisive view of some of these 'other' movements, especially the lesbian and gay movement, black women's movements as well as migrant women's organisations.
However, I do not wish to leave the impression that this book is basically about the exclusionary nature of the women's movement in Australia. This is certainly not the case; in fact Professor Kaplan fully acknowledges the strengths and positive contributions that the movement has made to improving the plight of women. For example, she shows via an analysis of statistics on work, pay, family, and education that women's plight in Australia has changed, sometimes considerably, for the better. This improvement is clearly linked to the actions of a range of women's groups (grassroots and other).
She also shows the unique nature of Australian feminism, namely one that is firmly grounded in realism, is project-oriented and couched in pragmatism. Another unique feature of the movement is its orientation towards effecting change through government. Liberal feminism has been and continues to be a strong force in the Australian women's movement.
This book is a valuable and original contribution to the understanding of the second wave women's movement in Australia.
Professor Anne Pauwels is Head of the Department of Linguistics, University of New England Armidale, NSW 2351. She has published widely on the issue of gender and language. She is Deputy Chair of the Academic Board and chairs the Women in Leadership series at the University of New England.