Labour in vain: the forgotten novels of Australia’s radical women

Not a month goes by in academia or in literary culture without a debate about Australia’s literary canon and calls for a more inclusive list. Undoubtedly our canon should include more voices from women, the LGBTI community and Indigenous Australians. But I’d like to throw forward another undervalued and underrepresented genre: women’s political agency and activism – and this year might be a good time to acknowledge it.

Eighty years ago in 1935, Jean Devanny spent the year, in between her political activism, writing a groundbreaking Australian novel that many, indeed most of us, have never heard of, called Sugar Heaven.

It was followed some twenty years later by two more pioneering books in Betty Collin’s The Copper Crucible and Dorothy Hewett’s Bobbin Up. They were all industrial novels about strikes, but more importantly they revealed the private lives of strong, radical women. All unique works of literature, they were quickly forgotten and dismissed from Australia’s literary canon – they were, after all, just about women. (A rough comparison would be Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory, and we all know how iconic an Australian text that book has become.)

Sugar Heaven and The Copper Crucible tell the stories of famous Queensland strikes from the perspective of the women involved. In Sugar Heaven, Dulcie, a wife recently arrived on the Silkwood cane fields in the mid 1930s, has a political awakening as she watches her husband and fellow workers deal with a drawn-out and bitter strike. By the end, she is organising the women in her community and neighbouring towns in support.

The Copper Crucible tells the story of the miner’s strike in Mount Isa in the 1960s, as told by a union delegate’s wife. In both novels, the central female characters start out relatively conservative and experience political awakening thanks to the strong women they met during the strikes. They become central to the story as they slowly challenge the racist and sexist norms of their small towns.

Bobbin Up, the first novel by well-known poet Dorothy Hewett, is set amongst women workers preparing to strike in a 1950s textile factory. The novel is a sincere portrayal of Sydney’s working poor: tough, repetitive manual labour in sweltering conditions.

All three writers were Communist Party members when they wrote their novels. It’s important to note that Communism was a force at the time (popular also amongst writers and intellectuals); and although the Party had about 3,000 members in 1935, only 200 of them were women – and sexism was rife. In a 1999 interview for Hecate, Hewett commented that Devanny (and herself) got into ‘terrible trouble’ for ‘all the sex’ in their books.

More than anything, all three novels deal openly and frankly with women’s sexuality: pregnancy and abortions, violence and assault, love affairs and extra marital affairs (at times with migrants, which added a further racial dimension). Tasmanian writer, Amanda Lohrey, who wrote a similarly impressive industrial novel called The Morality of Gentlemen in 1984, was surprised by the attention paid to the women’s private lives in Devanny’s book: ‘Nowhere in my reading had I encountered such a realistic and unpatronising representation of women’s sexuality,’ she wrote.

I’m frustrated that it’s taken me so many years to uncover these books; and that they weren’t part of my high school English classes, university reading list or early political education. These novels are seminal Australian texts because of their cultural and historical significance to the lives of working women; yet they were rejected because of their political agenda and sexual intimacy. Described by critics at the time as ‘not very good’ and about ‘uninteresting people’, they are actually poignant, unique and deeply moving stories.

Since they were published, these novels have been dismissed as merely proletariat propaganda. As the argument goes, leftie literature cannot be literary in the classical or traditional sense by its very (political) nature.

It is assumed that for a novel to have a political agenda is to abandon the ideals of ‘good’ literary writing; that good literature should have aesthetic qualities and not a didactic purpose. It should be rich, profound and pleasurable in its language – which these novels are not. One critic described Hewett’s characters as ‘crude [and] illiterate’. But finely crafted and polished novels also require extensive editing, something that the small publishing houses who produced their works could simply not afford. The editing that Collin’s novel did get, for example, was done mainly by the anxious lawyers and a male editor who cut the domestic scenes, deeming them too boring.

These novels are also brimming with revolution and optimism. Communism is a common thread that runs throughout, and all three books were re-published in Russia soon after first appearing in Australia. Their distribution was limited predominantly within women’s groups, trade union libraries and radical bookshops.

Academic Nathan Hollier described Bobbin Up as ‘part of the hidden canon of women’s writing.’ Historian Carole Ferrier lamented that Sugar Heaven might have got the wider readership it deserved had it been picked up by ‘a more fashionable publisher’ such as Penguin or Jacaranda Press (which bravely published The Copper Crucible twenty years later). What’s unique about these writers is that they had to overcome both class and gender barriers to achieve recognition for their work. Their books are still hard to track down today.

Criticised by literary commentators for being pure propaganda, the books were also judged inside radical circles for their rather public portrayal of women’s private lives, and the hypocrisy they experienced in the labour movement. One Communist Party figure described Devanny’s book as extraordinarily naïve, but, again, much of this criticism was founded in the sexually explicit material, which the blokes just didn’t like. In Sugar Heaven, Eileen, a committed activist who organises the women in support of the strikers, is refused Party membership because she is having an affair with a migrant worker. In The Copper Crucible, Julie eventually leaves her union delegate husband after a bruising scene at home, in which she tells him ‘your boss exploits you and you exploit me.’ Needless to say, these truths didn’t go down well in the male-dominated world of industrial politics and by the end of the 1960s all three women writers had left the Party.

So more than anything, these are the stories of the private lives of women. Hewett’s Bobbin Up is a particularly moving tale, in which the main event, namely the strike, only starts in the book’s final pages. Over sixteen chapters, we met the women at the factory, and learn about their hard lives as Sydney’s working poor. We know them so intimately that when they go on strike, as readers we are fully aware of the enormity of their decision:


‘Well I’m damned if I’m taking this lyin’ down,’ [Nell] cried. ‘How about it girls?’…

Julie thought of the Housing Commission home with its bare floors and the scanty furniture, she saw the three kids looking at her with their soft, honest eyes…

Jeanie saw herself, a little girl, trying to pinch her feet into the Welfare shoes…

Shirl thought of her life, once in the Girls’ Home at Parramatta, her sick mother with a mob of kids and no hope of bringing them up decent…

‘C’mon girls,’ said Nell. ‘We gotta fight.’…

The women surged forward.


Women make up half of all unionists in Australia today with particularly high density in the female-dominated health and education sectors, so the experience of Hewett’s women is a common story, just not one commonly told. Our literary canon, and our understanding of Australian women’s history and political agency, is poorer for it.

But now that I’ve uncovered this impressive genre of books, I can’t stop. I’ve moved onto Mena Calthorpe, Amanda Lohrey and Criena Rohan. Haven’t heard of them either? You’d better get reading, comrade.


A reading list for radicals:

Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse (Seven Seas Books, 1964)

Betty Collins, The Copper Crucible (UQP, 1966 / 1996)

Jean Devanny, Sugar Heaven (Vulgar, 1936 / 2002)

Dorothy Hewett, Bobbin Up (Australasian Book Society, 1959)

Amanda Lohrey, The Morality of Gentlemen (Vulgar, 1984 / 2002)

Criena Rohan, The Delinquents (Text, 1962 / 2014)

Danae Bosler

Danae Bosler is a writer and campaigner based in Melbourne. She has previously been published by Overland, the Guardian, The Conversation and National Times online.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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    1. Excellent, thanks Kerry – and I agree! “Come In Spinner” by Florence James and Dymphna Cusack (1951) was great…pages and pages of women at work…just talking about their lives…it was something I’d never read before!

  1. Danae, perhaps you could consider adding M. Barnard Eldershaw’s (Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw) ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ (1947)? And Eve Langley’s ‘The Peapickers’?(1942)

    1. Excellent, thanks Stephen! I’m hoping the comments will fill with amazing books by women writers. I should probably also include the ‘Martha Quest’ series by Doris Lessing…?

      1. Well Doris Lessing isn’t Australian. There are zillions of great women writers but Eldershaw and Langley occupy unique places in Australian literary history, and while I’m not one to mandate canons for anyone, both writers really deserve to be much more widely read. Langley especially repeatedly comes back to me – an idiosyncratic, gifted, one-of-a-kind.

  2. The trouble with the Communist writers was that they were limited by the Socialist Realism style of their time and really, while the subject matter is important, the books mostly aren’t very well written. Just look at that extract. Overly sentimantal and, do you think anyone talked like that? I have read of those books and found them mostly predictable, with little character development. That’s not to say there aren’t really good Australian women writers. Christina Stead is the really outstanding one. Seven Poor Men of Sydney, For Love Alone and, particularly, The Man who Loved Children would be top of my Australian list.

    1. You’ve read of them? Or you have read them? Sugar Heaven is full of strange dialogue but the point is that it is not ‘realistic’ in any conventional sense. The dialogue in the other books is such that people who have actually read them wouldn’t make the comment you made.

      The dialogue in the extract amounts to:

      ‘Well I’m damned if I’m taking this lyin’ down . . . How about it girls?’…

      ‘C’mon girls . . . We gotta fight.’

      Hardly seems to me to be a complete distortion of angry, unionist, working class voices in Sydney in the 1950s. Only the censorship of the period prevented the adjectival use of the work fucking.

  3. Absolutely marvellously interesting article. Gender discrimination by men in the Communist party interesting. Ruth Park was accused of all sorts of things because she wrote about poor people, as is well known of course. Thank you!

  4. Eleanor Dark may not be obscure, precisely. But her greatest novel, The Timeless Land, has certainly been marginalised by literary historians. It was, among other things, one of the few attempts to present the European incursion from the point of view of indigenous Australians. When it is commented upon at all this aspect of it is almost invariably slighted or ignored.

  5. Thanks Danae!
    I had no idea this ‘genre’ existed.
    Looking forward to exploring the books mentioned in the article and also in the comments.

    1. Thanks Ian, I have read your stuff – your introduction to Lohrey’s ‘Morality of Gentlemen’ (2002) was a bit of an inspiration to me! 🙂

    1. Thanks Tim – I admit, I haven’t really looked at any poetry, so thanks for the tip.
      I keep thinking of other names to add to this list, also perhaps Kalinda Aston who wrote ‘The Danger Game’ – a more recent novel where the backdrop is school fighting closure under the Kennett rule…

  6. Exiles at Home: Australian women writers 1925-1945. (1981) by Drusilla Modjeska is an excellent read. Kylie Tennant’s novels about working and living are terrific

  7. My PhD thesis was based on radical left-wing writers. More precisely playwrights in the New Theatre, The theatre was affiliated with the Communist Party and produced plays by ‘resident’ communist playwrights such as MOna Brand, Betty Roland, and Oriel Gray who are known to those academics and others interested in this genre. In fact,it was Jean Devanny who got the ball rolling to establish the New Theatre after a visit to Europe as a Communist Party delegate to the Workers INternational Relief conference and saw first hand what ‘workers’ theatre’ in Europe as well as the US. Hewett was briefly associated with New Theatre in the 1960s. I used a chapter of Hewett’s Bobbin’ Up on the syllabus at a campus in which I teach in the Diploma of Arts. However, while they enjoyed it, explaining socialist realism was a bit difficult to students totally unfamiliar with Australia’s history of left-wing activism!

    1. Thanks , i was about to say hmm, interesting article but a large gap here KSP — the founding member of the Communist Party , and whilst an undoubted social realist, still managed to be a half decent writer. ( but her name is spelt Katharine Susannah…) Karen Throssell

  8. Deidre Ferguson – Your statement about the extract that it is ‘Overly sentimental and, do you think anyone talked like that’ is simplistic and limited. When is the lived conditions of Australian at that time ‘sentimental’?
    Thank you, Ian Syson for a precise and well-rounded reply to the above post.
    Thank you to the other posters who mentioned Eleanor Dark and Kylie Tennant. Also The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson is a passionate call for re-igniting interest in many mid-Twentieth Century Australian writers, both men and women.

  9. Self-serving communist mafia rubbish. I had enough of this type of ‘literature’ while growing up in Eastern Europe. Romanticising communism from afar. Please! And don’t get me started on corrupt unionists. Bunch of racist pricks to this day. All of you marvelling this communist propaganda crap never had a RED baton hit you over the head and back.

    1. full marks for kneejerk emotive response, but have you read any of these books? I doubt it, or I feel you’d have a more nuanced critique.

  10. I’m not so sure that a work such as The Copper Crucible was rejected by the establishment, as you assert. I remember having to read it as an undergrad about fifteen years ago at UQ. But I couldn’t make any progress with it because I found the book so boring. Maybe I should give it another shot. I’m older now, and hopefully wiser, and it may read differently. Thanks for the article.

    1. Oh Todd, that’s great news that you has to read as an undergrad – maybe as it’s set in Queensland, it got a bit more of a run up there. While I enjoyed all these books (I’m happy to admit my bias here), I particularly loved The Copper Crucible, so I hope you enjoy it some day also!

  11. thank you for the timely article Danae. Mentioning Devanny is apt given the latest NZ-focused issue (219) of Overland. (Devanny spent her first 33 or so years in NZ, and there is some interesting work/info online from ‘across the ditch’ about her – I’ll pop a few here in case any one is interested; her 1926 novel The Butcher Shop was banned in Australia, NZ. US and Germany and has received quite a bit of recent attention

    General bio:

    A piece from area where she lived

    A History MA on Devanny as political activist

    ch 13 on Devanny – in Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World By Penny Russell, Angela Woollacott

  12. I rarely read comments but this discussion has been engrossing. I have Eve Langley, Dymphna Cusack and KSP, and Bobbin Up has always been on my parents’ bookshelves. Now I’m keen to find out more about the others. Thanks!

  13. Congrats Danae on a great article and for sparking such a good conversation. Spinifex Press, (who took on the Sybylla publishing list in the early eighties) has a fine repertoire of leftist feminist works. They keep alive this easily-lost body of women’s writing. Thanks for highlighting this great reading. Best wishes.

    1. Hi Al – thanks for your message, and yes Ruth Parks is also excellent reading! Most of these books are still available with a little bit of investigative work on the internet – I bought most of them second hand online! Good luck!

  14. It’s astonishing that so many women still get left out of our literary history but I would suggest that Drusilla Modjeska’s important book, Exiles at Home (1981), which documents a lot of the massive contribution made by Australian women authors might be usefully part of this discussion. Kylie Tennant, Eleanor Dark, Barnard Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack, Jean Devaney, Katherine Suzannah Pritchard, Netti Palmer etc. These women not only wrote books, they promoted literature and politics, wrote the reviews, created the culture. Shameful that they continue to be so overlooked.

  15. Some of these novels might be worth revisiting by historians but literature that lasts has literary merit. Don’t make it even harder for brilliant women writers to be remembered, by chucking in anything that happens to have been written by a woman about events that interest you personally. Sadly, lots of of beautifully written stuff by men and women doesn’t last more than a few decades or even years. BTW no-one reads ‘Power Without Glory’ these days either.

  16. Jean Devanny wrote Point of Departure and I played her in a film made in SA of the same title. She was quite a political activist but again disappointed in communism when she found out that the party that she thought represented women equally with men did nothing of the sort.

  17. Thank you, Danae. So lovely to see this acknowledgement of these gallant women writers! Betty Collins was my mother and it brought tears to my eyes to see this tribute. Mum wrote The Copper Crucible by getting up at the crack of dawn and banging away at the typewriter on the kitchen table until she had to get ready to go to work. I proof-read chapters for her, the original typewritten sheets laid out on the ironing board. Before the lawyers got to it, it was substantively longer, and richly depicted the texture of life for women enduring the ‘crucible’ of a harsh mining town. The second edition, published by Queensland University Press, restored some of the original material, and for a time was required reading for undergraduates in literature. Later, it was ‘remaindered’. So that Mum could have a little more income from it, I bought 1000 copies for a dollar each, of which she received a couple of hundred. I remember her saying once that her total earnings from the book wouldn’t have amounted to two shillings an hour.
    For the record, in her sixties Betty Collins was employed as a secretary in the School of English at Sydney University. At the time she was the most published author in the School.
    If anyone is interested, I still do have copies of The Copper Crucible.

  18. I agree with Ian Syson. Bobbin’ Up was written out of a poet’s Passionate commitment to the plight of women struggling against domestic violence and sub standard working conditions- let alone iniquitous pay packets- in inner urban working class Sydney. Most of Dymphna Cusack’s Novels and plays were penned with the zeal of her desire to right the wrongs of a very corrupt colonial society which, at the time, had managed to keep the lid on the truths of genocide, xenophobia and lack of a Treaty with the IndigenpuscPeople which of course enabled wholesale land-grabbing and the rise of the Bunyip Squattocracy- aka the National Party.
    All her causes and themes arise from her heightened commitment to and advocacy for – social justice.
    Cusack’s prose is bright and eminently readable and captures the mud 20th Csntury Zeitgeist. It was a period when good people speaking out were stigmatised by a manipulative and ultra conservative PM. The USA had the McCarthy Era. Australia had the RG Menzies Prime Ministership.

    I have just re-read Dymphna’s A Bough in Hell, her book written out of her battle to save her sister from alcoholism. A timeless work with no si-called “social realist “ agendas. She was a self-proclaimed “romantic realist” who was game to take on even the Nickear Arms Industry in her commitment to world peace and tha CND.
    What a woman! What a writer! What a pacifist who practised and wrote what she preached from platforms across the Western World , the Pacific and South America.
    Watch this space!
    Marilla North

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