Book review by Joan Williams
The Untold Story — How Women Look at War
Australian women have written extensively about war, in diaries, auto- biography, letters, plays, poems, histories, novels. Why then have they mostly been ignored in official and unofficial collections? This gender imbalance in the recording of war has gone through six wars, in which Australians have taken part — from the Boer War to the Gulf War. Jan Bassett restores the balance in her splendid collection As We Wave Goodbye — Australian Women and War (Oxford University Press, Melb, 1998). In 80-odd extracts, war is looked at from many points of view — honest, practical, humorous, thoughtful, moving and often taking a shot at inbuilt sexism in the armed forces and officialdom. As the author points out, anthologists tend to be very traditional, very masculine, focus on battles rather than bereavement. The inclusion of excerpts from portrayals of high literary quality by our finest women writers are bolstered by honest and moving stories from women working in munitions, taking men's places in industry and on the land, writing home or to soldier sons or lovers. High calibre names include Katharine Susannah Prichard, Dymphna Cusack, Shirley Hazzard, Ruth Park, Kylie Tenant; many feminists past and present - - Jessie Street, Jean Devanny, Vida Goldstein, Dorothy Hewett. The woman doctor Mary Kent Hughes, who heard herself referred to by her commanding officer as "that bloody woman". They evoke the reality of war, the waste of life and resources, some tackle its causes through their characters. Vignettes from imagination or direct experience, powerful in terms of emotion, fear, bewilderment, determination to hold the family together, love or pity in sex with men who see death ahead. The different approach of women emerges clearly — the absence of jingoism, cheap patriotism, or self-glorification in the most harrowing circumstances, as with guerrilla Nancy Wake in the Resistance, and Vivian Bulwinkle, the only survivor of the Japanese massacre of army nurses at Banka Beach. Women artists are also included. So many who carved out roles for themselves against inbuilt sexism — driving ambulances, founding a rifle club to learn how to shoot, asserting the right to defend their home and family. Migrants are seen through the experience of a child refugee from Nazism, expecting an Australian girl will refuse to play with her, says "I am Jewish" and gets the casual reply, "I am Church of England". The wonder of finding a friend! The editors' wide selection from so many sources and points of view lets the untold story emerge with a life of its own that can never again be ignored in war history.