Textual territories: Gendered cultural politics and Australian representations of the war of 1914–1918
If, having passed through the long courtyard where the walls are inscribed with the names of thousands of Australian war dead, you enter the inner sanctum of the Australian War Memorial, the Hall of Memory (quietly, as you have been asked to preserve the hush appropriate to a chapel), you will see first the towering six- metre bronze infantryman occupying the place of the altar. If you have read Ken Inglis on the subject of memorials, you may observe this figure critically, because you know that his position was once to have been occupied by a personified Australia in female form. Turning, and looking up and around, you see the three large stained-glass windows with their fifteen panels, each representing a figure in a uniform of the 1914-1918 war, and each typifying, to quote the booklet you may have bought at the War Memorial shop, 'what were judged to be the marked qualities of Australian service men and women'. 'And women': the central figure of the southern and central panel is indeed a woman, a nurse, although she is the only woman represented in the windows. Dressed in her nurse's uniform with red cape and white cap and collar, she stands out against the dominant greys and blues in the uniforms of the fourteen soldiers, airmen and sailors to either side of her. Above her are the Red Cross and a symbol, to quote the booklet again, 'of charity': 'the pelican feeding her young from her bleeding breast'. This central window represents 'personal qualities', and the four soldiers who flank the nurse embody 'Resource', 'Candour', 'Curiosity', and 'Independence'. Her attribute, however, is 'Devotion', the other-directedness of the label interrogating her central position in the window. While never entirely central (because that is the place of the bronze infantryman, towards whom she gazes), the nurse is accorded nevertheless both a nominal centrality (as the middle figure of the fifteen panels) and a defining marginality (as 'Devotion'). Her emblem, the pelican, identifying her with motherhood, places her again in both positions, as the sacrificial focus, and as the mother whose life is subordinated to those of her children.
Publisher: University of Melbourne
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Keywords: Australia; first world war; gender
Research Type: Journal Article
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