Does Marilyn Lake’s ‘The Politics of Respectability’ challenge Russel Ward’s ‘Australian Legend’?

In Images of Australia, Marilyn Lake presents the argument that gender must become a central category of historical analysis. By focussing on the masculinism of the bushman as a cultural icon, Lake, in her essay The Politics of Respectability, presents another interpretation on the ‘Australian Legend’. Lake argues that while the history of womanhood has received much attention, historians have devoted limited time to the issue of manhood.

Lake states that man, in an historical context, has become ‘sexless’, a result of a history written by authors blinded by their own ‘sex-centredness’. In her argument, Lake points to the need for historians to look at historical men, as men, to consider their social, class and race interests and, just as importantly, their relationships to women. Historians concentrating on the bushman’s virtues of strength, and independence, as the embodiment of the national idiom, give rise to a character that is little more than two-dimensional.

As a result of urban rather than rural influences, publications like the Bulletin helped elevate the bushman to a cultural icon. Yet, while the bushman was seen as the ideal Australian, romanticised on canvas and in poems, it had little in common with male and female relationships. However, demographic shifts in the population gave many forced bachelors a greater prize, marriage, as opposed to the irregular sojourns of the love them and leave them frontiersman.

Changes in the makeup of the bushmen altered perceptions among the population. According to Ward, the change from squatter to selector as seen in Dad and Dave, emerged as the embodiment of everything unheroic. Backed by the Church and other influential organisations, women called for a rejection of a bushman lifestyle by embracing the virtues of domestic bliss. They needed security. Unions called upon their members to respect the family. Many leaders rejected the ideals put forward by the Bulletin, and instead spoke of being ‘manly’ through straight, temperate, monogamist lifestyles.

Lake argues because of the confines of this conceptual framework, one of Australia’s greatest political struggles – the battle between men and women for the control of the national culture, was largely obscured. Lake reminds the reader that, ‘to cast this struggle in terms of respectability and unrespectability is to miss the sexual dynamic in history.’

Lake points out that historians, like Russel Ward, equate the ‘Australian Legend’ to a man with a love of the great outdoors and a desire to roam free in search of work and adventure. Ward, in his study The Australian Legend, identifies pastoral workers as Australia’s cultural heroes, with the stockman and shearer representative of the ‘national character’.

Lake states that Ward helped trace the development of this national mystique. In doing so, Lake argues, Ward unwittingly contributed to an understanding of gender relations. However, Lake goes further by saying that in order to gain a greater understanding of the ‘Australian Legend’, you need to understand man on a personal level, and in particular the relationship between men and women, in shaping the history of Australia.


Whitlock, Gillian and Carter, David, Images of Australia, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1992