Utopia Girls: Historians and the Media

Women inside the gate of the city polling station, voting for the first time in a Queensland state election, May 1907. State Library of Qld

Women inside the gate of the city polling station, voting for the first time in a Queensland state election, May 1907. State Library of Qld

Historians don’t just write books.  They write pamphlets, construct websites, conduct walking tours, talk about their work on radio…  Communicating history is a creative process and this process starts with the choice of the medium and method to share the history.

The diverse forms that historians use to share history are well recognised.  The Australian Historical Association demonstrates the profession’s regard for other forms of history through their journal, History Australia.  This journal publishes reviews of history in exhibitions, film and radio in every issue.

The NSW Premier’s History Awards also recognises the diversity of the work of historians through the Multimedia History Prize.  Two documentaries and one blog have been shortlisted for this year’s awards. The other day I watched one of the shortlisted documentaries – Utopia Girls.

Clare Wright portrait

The presenter of Utopia Girls, is the historian, Dr Clare Wright.

Written, researched and presented by historian, Dr Clare Wright, Utopia Girls shares the story of the severe legal disadvantages women suffered in nineteenth century Australia and the agitation that led to Australian women becoming the first in the world to gain both the right to vote and to stand for parliament.  The story is told through a series of vignettes of six women who contributed to the groundswell of support that brought about votes for women in Australia.

Women suffered from severe legal disadvantages throughout the world until the momentous reforms of the twentieth century.  Presenter, Clare Wright reflected on the situation she would have faced as a woman in the nineteenth century:

I couldn’t go to university or get a divorce or, if married, own property.  I didn’t even have custody of my own children and women the world over didn’t have the power to change this situation because they couldn’t vote.

Clare Wright, Utopia Girls

The women portrayed in Utopia Girls came from a variety of backgrounds.  There was the privately educated English woman, Caroline Dexter, who had already received notoriety for her radical actions before she arrived in Australia.  Henrietta Dugdale had managed a successful dairy in Queenscliff, Victoria, with her husband.  Prior to her separation from her husband she had no background in public advocacy.  Mary Lee was a Protestant Irish woman who commenced her agitation for voting and workers’ rights for women after she arrived in Adelaide when she was 58.  Louisa Lawson was born in country New South Wales to an impoverished family and went on to publish a successful women’s magazine.  Like Lawson, Vida Goldstein was also born in country Australia but she had a privileged background, was privately educated and young when she commenced her agitation for the rights of women.

Maggie Heffernan was the only woman featured in Utopia Girls who was not a campaigner for women’s rights.  Utopia Girls commences with her story. Maggie Heffernan was a ‘fallen woman’ who had borne a baby outside wedlock.  The mores of Victorian society in 1900 dictated that Maggie Heffernan must be abandoned from community support. Homeless, impoverished and facing a dark future, Maggie Heffernan drowned her baby in the Yarra River.  Her desperate plight was highlighted at her trial for the murder of her son and aroused great public sympathy.  Vida Goldstein and many other women successfully campaigned for the commutation of the death penalty which had been handed down.  Maggie Heffernan’s case and that of many other suffering women served to highlight the appalling injustices which women suffered but were powerless to address because they were not allowed to vote.

As Professor Justin Champion has pointed out, a documentary like Utopia Girls is public history. Public history has very different objectives to academic history, one of which is the need to attract an audience who does not have much prior knowledge of history let alone the particular history being portrayed.  Of necessity Utopia Girls is a first introduction to the history of women in nineteenth century Australia.  As such it is not possible to introduce the nuances, depth and complexity of the history that historians wrestle with.

Utopia Girls is a celebration of how Australia led the world in allowing women to stand for parliament and to vote.  It fulfils its objective as an introductory history by being simply and clearly told. It is told within a traditional nationalist framework, however Wright does acknowledge that New Zealand was the first country where women while reminding viewers that New Zealand women had to wait longer before they could stand for parliament.  There is one unsettling factor that Wright includes to interrupt the tale of triumph.  Aboriginal women in South Australia lost their right to vote when white women won the right to vote nationally after Federation.

30,000 women signed Victoria's monster petition in 1891 for women's suffrage.

30,000 women signed Victoria’s monster petition in 1891 for women’s suffrage.

The stories of the women were interesting and I appreciated how the narrative thread tied the stories of the women together.  However, by focussing on individuals I lost the sense of the role of the collective in the campaign for votes for women.  Utopia Girls focusses on individual leadership but collaboration was a vital element in the campaign.  This is alluded to in the program through discussion of the use of petitions and the work many volunteers did to gather signatures.  However, women throughout Australia formed many organisations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union whose work was vital in the campaign.  One did not gain a sense of how important this collective effort was from the documentary.

Yet it is easy to sit on the couch and criticise.  Producers are much more constrained in terms of the sheer quantity of words that can be included than writers of books.  They cannot simply add another chapter.  There is a strict time limit which they must adhere to.  What would I delete to fit in the kind of discussion of women’s organisations that I say should be included?  My rather weak answer is that this topic demands two episodes, not the one, fifty minute program that was produced.  However, I recognise the size of the documentary is dictated by funding and the appeal it has to the broadcasters who are going to purchase the documentary.  The opinion of the historian as to the length of a documentary that a particular history deserves is nice but subsidiary to other considerations.

Writing for film is vastly different to writing a book.  The historian needs to write with images as much as with words.  The visual image tells the story as much as the commentator’s words.  This can be a challenge for historical documentaries where the raw product which is used to generate the visual imagery we expect on television today is just not available.  I appreciated the use of actors dressed in period costume, posing for old-style studio photos.  From their poses they spoke the words of the person they represented.

Utopia Girls is a much-needed introduction for the general public to the history of women’s suffrage in Australia.  I just want to see more of this history on television!

Historians and the Media: A great opportunity next week…

Documentaries such as Utopia Girls are valuable because they start conversations about history amongst the general public. The work that Australian historians are doing is exciting. I am sure that if more time was put into sharing historical research through the array of forums that the public use to gain information there would be a large number of Australians who would appreciate what Australian historians do and want to hear more.

Yet historians need a whole set of new skills to be able to effectively present history through documentaries and other media.  These skills are not taught to historians at university.

Next week in Sydney there is a wonderful opportunity for historians to develop these skills and discuss issues with leading broadcasters, producers and journalists. Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and Media, has a program which will greatly assist historians in their public history work.  It is organised by historians with substantial media experience, Associate Professor Michelle Arrow, Dr Tanya Evans and Dr Clare Wright (yes the same Clare Wright that was behind Utopia Girls). Media professionals from organisations such as ABC, SBS, Screen Australia and The Conversation together with respected independent production companies will be sharing their advice.  The program will also include historians with extensive media experience.  What a fabulous opportunity for historians to network and develop media skills!

I will be appearing on a panel about Social and Digital Media together with University of Sydney PhD student, Dave Earl; Dr Katrina Gulliver, lecturer at the University of New South Wales and City of Sydney historian, Dr Lisa Murray.

The new website for the Symposium demonstrates the depth and quality of this event.  Add it to your bookmarks and keep checking back for more updates.

The Symposium on History and Media is part of History Week in New South Wales.  Next week is jam packed with great history events which anyone can attend.  Aside from the symposium I will be attending the announcement of the winners of the NSW Premier’s History Awards and the Annual History Lecture which will be delivered this year by Four Corners journalist, Chris Masters. My week will be rounded out by attending From Glass-plate to Cyber-space, a panel discussion at the Australian National Maritime Museum about the use of pictures in history.  I’ll see if I can slip in a book launch and I might get a chance to visit an exhibition too.

It will be hectic but enjoyable. Look out for my blog posts and tweets next week!

Further Information

The other shortlisted histories for the Multimedia Prize in the NSW Premiers’ History Awards:

Historians may wish to read the following article which I found useful to help me better understand the role of history documentaries in the work of historians:

  • Justin Champion, ‘Seeing the Past: Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’ and Public History’, History Workshop Journal, 56 (Autumn 2003), pp. 153-174.

1 thought on “Utopia Girls: Historians and the Media

  1. Wow Yvonne you’ve been busy 🙂 Looking forward to seeing you at the maritime museum next week 🙂

    Penny & Nicole


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