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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

God's Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia, by Anne O'Brien

Why is it that the men make all the speeches? Why is it that only men chair the meetings and preside at celebrations? Why are leadership roles for men only? And that their writings are regarded as the really important ones, not ours? Why are we the ones expected to cook and clean and look after the kids and do the donkey work in any of our organizations? Why?

No, these are not questions I imagine as coming from church women. Rather, they are complaints of women in the Communist Party years ago; and they come to mind because I have just read John McLaren's Free Radicals: Of the Left in Postwar Melbourne (Australian Scholarly Publishing, $ 39.95). McLaren's book is a triune biography of his mentors and friends, Ken Gott, financial journalist, Ian Turner, inspirational guru, and Stephen Murray-Smith, scholarly pundit and editor. Each started out in the Communist Party, left it over Hungary, and did not, as expected by some, fall by the wayside after that but went on to contribute to the Left presence in Australian intellectual life. But where were the women in all this, what did they contribute to their men's lives and public achievements? Nita Murray-Smith and Beth Gott seem to have been strong presences in their husbands' careers, while Turner expected his women to be willing helpmeets and lived off that expectation. Free Radicals is silent about how the women felt about these arrangements. If you want to hear their voice, or at least one voice, take a look at Amirah Inglis (she was Amirah Turner, l948-l962) as she has her say in her l995 autobiography The Hammer and the Sickle and the Washing Up. The title is an apt descriptor of the book: you would not expect it to be written by a man, would you?

Well, musing thus in a bookshop the other day, I came across a book I'd been expecting, the UNSW historian Anne O'Brien's God's Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia (UNSW Press, $ 49.95). Before I say anything more, let me acknowledge, in the light of what I've written above, that Anne O'Brien's book is not a scholarly whinge about how badly church women have been treated by their churches. No. What it is, is a fertile overview of what women, Protestant and Catholic, thought and felt and hoped and grieved and did about their church connections. Anne O'Brien seems to have read everything published on her topic and she puts this vast learning at the disposal of her readers, who will profit from her work - which is why I've used the word fertile. An example of what I mean: she quotes an old article of mine, written nearly 30 years ago, to the effect that because nuns did not write their memoirs or autobiographies they thereby became mythologised and escaped 'the historian's pen'. A lazy researcher might have said, 'Oh well, he'd know', and left it at that; but not Anne O'Brien: she winkled out the fact that in the past couple of decades religious sisters have been encouraged to put down their memories, either on paper or on the tapes of some oral historian - as for instance, in the magazine Women-Church, Erin White's edited tapes from her conversations with Sister Margaret Press RSJ, an invaluable window into a rich religious life. Thus Anne O'Brien has alerted us to the existence of new material offering a sharper picture of religious life as it has been experienced. Future researchers will thank her for opening these pathways.

In O'Brien's view the turning point for modern Catholic women was the anti-contraceptive encyclical of l968, Humanae Vitae. Vatican II (l962-l965) had seemed to promise a more open, more free model of church than the old pay-pray-obey one; the enforcers of Humanae Vitae wanted a return to blind obedience. What few studies exist suggest that Catholic women then contracepted at about the same rate as the rest of the community; and after they had had three or four children they resorted to abortion at the same rate. So began their long estrangement from the church. O'Brien thinks that this is the reason why no specifically Catholic feminist groups appeared in these years. Instead, Catholic women joined mainstream feminist bodies or found congenial comrades in broad Christian groupings like Christian Women Concerned, formed in Sydney's northern suburbs in l968 and publisher of the lively journal Magdalene from l973. Pretty soon it was noticeable how many Catholic (or ex-Catholic) women had become prominent in the women's movement. O'Brien suggests that the training in public speaking and apologetics they had received at school formed them to become leaders.

There are so many good things about God's Willing Workers that they threaten to crowd this column off the screen. A paragraph in Anne O'Brien's chapter in Bruce Kaye's collection Anglicanism in Australia: A History (MUP, $65.95) gave a snapshot of the estimable Narelle Bullard, an Anglican missionary in Africa for nearly four decades; now we get a fuller picture of her, with her hopes and disappointments and tested faith. Similarly, these pages shine with the story of Sister Bernard Haughey, who gave her life to Aboriginal advancement, a life O'Brien has recovered from the archives of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Then there is Sister Marcellus Baraguay, who founded a Catholic business college in the Sydney CBD and taught her girls self-esteem so well that demand for them exceeded supply. I wish we knew more about them, and her. Equally I wish we knew more about the women who founded and ran those big Catholic hospitals which are significant elements of our story but, as here, rarely get much attention.

In Protestant history one of the untold stories is that of the clergy wives. In l983 Kenneth Dempsey published Conflict and Decline, a gripping study of country town Methodism. There was a chapter on the ministers' wives, how their own lives were subsumed into their husbands' work, how their homes were considered open to all and how their fashion sense had to be calibrated to the congregation's dress codes. Has anything been written since then? I seem to remember Dempsey saying years ago that clergy wives would be the subject of his next book. O'Brien gives them only two passing references; so I suppose he never wrote that book. It's our loss.

But God's Willing Workers is our gain. Anne O'Brien concludes her long look at 200 years of history with these words about the women of our own time:-

Like many in the past they have been touched by the theologies of inclusion and equality at the heart of Christian teaching while living in a society where social hierarchies surround them. They have not relinquished the desire to eradicate those hierarchies. That desire must be the hope that sustains us.

Notice her final, revealing word: us. So history goes on and we are part of it... more than that: for good or bad, we are its makers. We.

The Work:

  • God's Willing Workers (UNSW Press)

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