The Dawn by Louisa Lawson, volume one

The Dawn mastheadContinuing in my quest to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’m cheating a little by selecting a magazine. It is, however, a really interesting magazine, if, like me, you’re into social history, and it is only available due to the hard work and diligence of a band of women who are still very much alive, and whose work deserves wider celebration.

Louisa Lawson started Australia’s first newspaper for and by women. She was quite hardline in this, even firing the message boy so that she could hire a message girl instead. Eventually she employed ten women in her paper, despite the threats from the Typsetters’ Union. Her goal was to give women a venue in which they could talk about their interests freely, and in doing so she created a record of Australian reactions to the first wave of feminism.

The National Library of Australia has been digitising Australian newspapers for some time, but had no plan to include The Dawn in this process, as it was already available in microform. A group of women raised the $7 500 required for high quality digitisation through a public appeal, culminating in a complete and clean scan of The Dawn going live for International Women’s Day 2012.

You can read more about the campaign to take The Dawn electronic, in the words of the camaigners themselves, at Digitise the Dawn. and, thanks to their efforts, you can also access The Dawn free, from anywhere you have web access, via Trove at the National Library of Australia.

The thing I found most interesting about The Dawn, as a first wave publication, was how class conscious it was. A lot of the first wave stuff, indeed a lot of modern feminist writing, seems entirely blind to income inequality among women. It’s easy to be a feminist crusader if you have a household staff sorting out the practicalities of your life. Louisa Lawson comes into the fight firmly on the side of the working class girl. This is novel and interesting, given that her circulation needed to include middle class women.

In old works like this, I always enjoy reading the adverts, because they tell you so much about the society. I hope that Lawson found the idea of using the money from, say, David Jones’s adverts for fox fur boas, to strike out in favour of divorce law reform, as funny as I do. I suppose part of it is that some of the “all personal things are political things” which arrived with later styles of feminism hasn’t been discussed when Lawson is writing, so there’s no incongruity, for her readers, in wanting to crusade for women, and, at the same time, look fabulous in calfskin gloves stitched by very poor women. Much as, I suppose, many people don’t see buying cheap shoes from Chinese sweatshops as anti-feminist. The thing is, Lawson clearly understood this. Her writing on behalf of about poor women makes this clear. I presume she needed to make hard-nosed decisions about her advertising revenue, and pick her battles, to allow her to maintain her public voice. I find that split, between the paid and editorial content, fascinating.

I’d recommend The Dawn to anyone interested in the social history of Australia. It makes for a fascinating read, and is divided into brief sections allowing it to be slotted in amongst other reading. I sincerely hope some of the other volunteers at Librivox pick it up for recording as an audiobook.