Beyond the Ladies Lounge by Clare Wright

Clare Wright’s book Beyond the Ladies Lounge is a history of Australia’s Female Publicans. What caught my attention when reading the book is its engaging use of feminist theory. This is perhaps because the book was written within the University of Melbourne’s History School. This school’s full title is the School of History and Women’s studies and it is the only school at that university with a focus on feminist concerns (and history).This refutes (as does Wright’s work) the popularly held myth that history is an ‘old boys club’. The evidence suggests that architecture and law and even new media are much less progressive disciplines in this sense.

The book addresses the question, in a somewhat revisionist style; why has Australia had so many female publicans as compared to other countries such as the US and Britain? Wright concentrates on the legislative and legal frameworks of the historical causes and effects and claims that females owned pubs because women were excluded from other parts of the labour force and other forms of social mobility (this is a similar story to the history of milkbars in Australia in terms of the migrant experience). The book has a broad reach from the earliest days of the Victorian Gold Rush (when pubs were in tents) to the barren ‘blokey’ pubs of the 1970s.

She discusses the ‘feminity’ of pubs and argues that pubs were legislated to be ‘family affairs’ with a public duty and women were often in a better position to uphold public morality. The whole family often lived in a pub and the bar was in many cases simply an extension of the house. The pub had to provide food and accommodation and was often (and still is in my street) a hub of the local community.

My major criticism of the work is that perhaps because it was re-written from research done for a PhD qualification (in a prestigious history school) that it often suffers from a misunderstanding of its audience. I took the book to my local pub where the publicans didn’t really get it and I feel that the book, given its subject matter, could have benefited from a greater evocative style. It was well promoted in the media, on the back of the ‘blokey’ history wars, but still the popular perception and promotion of the book did not resemble the actual content of the book. It is difficult to publish a PhD, especially because on the one hand the audience are specialists in your field whilst on the other hand the audience is the general reader (who are often the ‘owners’ of the very history being told). It is a difficult chasm to traverse and although Wright’s work is an excellent history is it not an excellent popular history. I feel that it does not always do justice to the popular history that could have been told. It is not about making ‘populist short cuts’ (which is not scholarship) but is is about using words and images and stories that (metaphorically) have deeper and more significant historical meanings. It is possible to bury some of the more pedestrian skills of the historian within the narrative and privilege the story. This would have given the work greater public reach without sacrificing the excellent historical practice.