The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954

John Richardson


It has been argued that Greenwood's description of her social programme conformed with a loose formula. After a long and arduous journey a traveller/heroine discovered an idealised society and/or a land of plenty. The landscape (nature) was either worked on, reconstructed, transformed, or it was re-discovered in an untouched but mystical state. Both the act of transformation and the journey of discovery required considerable effort and scientific endeavour. Science and industry together converted the disorder of the present into the order of a future-past. The quest was not always expressed as a concrete journey, often it took the shape of a social crusade. At other times the finished utopia failed to materialise. Like a carrot on a stick it remained fractionally out of reach, an object to be quested for in the present and grasped in the future. But whatever the permutation this basic figure with its dynamic of change generated the surface structure of the scripts.

It did so irrespective of the formal mode of presentation. Books were reviewed, interviewees selected, or "Mailbag to Microphone" topics chosen depending on their compatibility with the formula. To this extent Greenwood's source material was unimportant. Its function as a pre-text was governed by its degree of fit with the utopian paradigm. Whether newspaper cutting, magazine article, or novel, (all of which Greenwood nominated as the source of her elaborations at one time or another) the criterion for selection was the same. The scripts accredited to the reminiscences of travel writers do, however, merit special consideration.

According to Stuart Cunningham, travel writing (otherwise described as landscape, frontier or descriptive writing) was "unprecedentedly popular" in Australia between the years of 1929 and 1945.1 A characteristic of this "hybrid genre" was its tendency to juxtapose, "serious argument, sometimes bolstered with authoritative prefaces by scholars or politicians", and, "phantasmagoria of exoticism and the bravado of mock-pioneering adventurism".2 Or again, travel writing, "oscillated between "reportage" and "sensationalism", "fact and fiction"".3 The presentation of fantastic scenarios as documentary facts, the lack of distinction between fact and fiction, is today a part of the strangeness of Greenwood's texts, but if, as Cunningham argues, travel writing constituted an adjacent field which opened on to other discourses, the historical listener was armed with the techniques of analysis which made sense of Greenwood's strangeness. Travel writing provided the template from which Greenwood's texts were read, understood and to some extent constructed.

It may well be that travel writing, with its inbuilt voyage of discovery is related to the genera of utopian fiction. In any event, by the early 1940s Greenwood had progressed to a formula which more closely resembled that of utopian literature. At this point the journey took a less central role in the narrative. Greenwood's project, was (re)structured by the themes common to Utopian literature in general. These themes - the journey, science and its technological inventions, and the colonisation of strange lands - are at their most explicit in works of science fiction. Darko Suvin argues that science fiction is a sub-genera of utopian literature.4 It should come as no surprise, then, that Greenwood's texts have a thematic similarity with those of Jules Verne, one of the pioneers of science fiction. Pierre Macherey identifies, "the voyage, scientific invention and colonisation", as the major themes of Verne's work.5 For Greenwood, as for Verne, the themes are a crystallisation of the scattered components of the ideological field into a system suitable for the description of her project. For Verne, and other writers of science fiction, the conquest of nature (or more properly its domination6) was itself a sufficient project, while for Greenwood, it was a means to an end. In Greenwood's scheme the conquest of nature inevitably led to a particular construction of sexual equality. It was this notion of equality which Greenwood's present, with its insistence on women's natural place as the home but at the expense of the necessary infiltration of the private sphere, could not support. Hence, for Greenwood:

There is something very appealing about these little places that are far off the beaten track, where little communities of people live in co-operative societies, and the only enemy to be struggled against is nature.7

The project demanded, in Greenwood's words, "the conquest of nature".8 But for all this, she did not position nature in an unproblematic opposition to culture. In 1946 Greenwood cited Peter Kapitsa as saying, "science must provide the knowledge which is necessary to transform nature in such a way that it will serve man's cultural development".9 In Greenwood's scheme, the work of science on nature resulted in the multiplication of nature to a higher level - a level that would "serve [wo]man's cultural development" - but, like Isobel Hutchinson's Arctic, it was nature nevertheless. What was being conquered, or transformed, was the nature of Greenwood's present.

Greenwood's utopias could be modelled on "advanced" European societies, "mystical" Asian communities or "primitive" Pacific tribes. The common denominator was the shift to an altered state of nature. Utopia was figured in the present, held hopes for the future but had its roots in the past. In the end Greenwood's new nature was nothing more than the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall. Her quest was indeed a quest for origins.

Greenwood's valorisation of science may well be attributable to its particular role, and the changes which it supposedly initiated, within the family and home during her lifetime. Kareen Reiger has argued that during the late-nineteenth century, capitalism produced a class of professionals, administrators and technicians whose skills were brought to bear on the family and home. These professionals introduced "technical rationality" into the private sphere. This was manifested by growth areas such as domestic science, gynaecology, midwifery, ante-natal care and family planning. Reiger theorises that the result was a displacement of the myth of women as natural wives-mothers-housekeepers. Instead, these became skills to be learned, or, more accurately, taught to working class women.10 Greenwood played a part in publicising these new and scientific techniques. She cited Professor Winifred Cullis as saying:

"The wise child would, if he could, be careful in selecting his parents" and she went on to stress the need for ante-natal and infant welfare clinics. Well in Australasia at least, I think that there is no name so universally linked with this great work than that of Dr Truby King. And so it will be of interest to so many a young wife and mother who has found unfailing help from his little text book.11

It has been argued here that the early women's movement never relinquished the ideology of the home-family and women's specific place in it - that it was the tension between the desire to hold firm to what Katharine Prichard called "women's sacred function", whilst simultaneously attempting to enter the private sphere, which defined the early twentieth century women's movement in Australia.

Just as the intervention of science in the home led to a more rational approach to "womanly duties" without displacing the notion of "women's sacred function", in Greenwood's utopian scenario the application of science to nature resulted in "rational", but no less "natural", cultural arrangements. The pivotal element of the new culture, the evidence of its rationality, was sexual equality, and the concept of equality was read through the ideologies surrounding the women's movement.

It has been argued that the broadcasting techniques developed in the 1930s were a response to both the power relations of the social field and the apparatus of the broadcasting institutions. At the ABC these techniques favoured a relationship between broadcaster and listener which was similar to that of lecturer/student. Given Greenwood's particular area of interest, interwove as it often was with the controversial political issues of the day, a formal lecture on social theory was impossible. Just as importantly, the "political lecture" was incompatible with the generic guidelines of a women's session based on a diet of domestic hints and womanly self-improvement.

Greenwood's relationship with The Women's Session was problematical, as much for the authorities who (at the ABC) vetted her scripts as for herself. It can be speculated that Greenwood's place within the Session allowed her considerably more latitude than that enjoyed by her male counterparts working in other genre. Politics, after all, did not fall within women's sphere of activity! Greenwood was nothing if not political. But was she always read as such by those who authorised her scripts? The periodical censoring of Greenwood's material and the parallel case of Constance Duncan suggest that women's sessions were subjected to the same attention as any other talks programme. Where Greenwood did manage to broadcast marginal material it was due, in the main, to her persistence and inventiveness. The techniques which she adopted resulted in the collapse of the "political voice" into the "institutional voice" and this allowed a compromised version of her politics to be broadcast.

The notion that politics and women were alien entities was also embraced by the bulk of Greenwood's predominantly female listeners, those whom she sought to inspire to political action. The formula which she eventually adopted did not take the form of a lecture but it had the didactic characteristics of a lecture nonetheless. Her utopian fables were meant as a series of instructions to be assimilated and acted upon. Greenwood, like Nell Eurich's "new utopists", was a reformer presenting her ideal "as a realistic possibility, not as a statement for contemplation but a plan for action".12 Zygmunt Bauman comments that utopias "have a critical and constructive role in historical process".13 Karl Mannheim regards utopias as a revolutionary force which exposes ideological constraints of the present and works for social change.14 Greenwood would have agreed. Her possible societies invited comparison with the listeners' own reality. Their perfect structures stood as a critique of contemporary Australian social arrangements. In this way her utopias attempted to convince her listeners of the desirability of change, a desire for change being the precursor of social action.

Greenwood was not afraid to label her scripts "utopian", the word appeared in the text on a number of occasions. In 1937 she cited H.G.Wells, perhaps the most consistently utopian thinker of the modern era, as saying, "you in Australia, away from the narrow racial jealousies and hatreds of Europe, might lead in bringing into existence this new world which science envisages".15 Such was Greenwood's ambition. Towards the end of the war the materialisation of her vision seemed to be a realistic possibility. From then onwards it began to slip away. But Greenwood never lost faith in her project. The tension between her will to draw up the blueprint for her egalitarian design, the medium in which it was relayed, and the political forces which sought to contain it, structured her broadcasts.


1 Stuart Cunningham, "The Sentimental Age: Chauvel, Melodrama, Nationality". Framework (1986) 30, No 31., p. 41.

2 Cunningham, p. 41.

3 Cunningham, p. 47.

4 Darko Suvin cited by Peter Ruppert, Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Literary Utopias (Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 39.

5 Macherey, p. 172.

6 Macherey, p. 166.

7 "Women and Adventure", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 25 March 1938.

8 "Women of the Soviet Arctic", Greenwood.

9 "Peter Kapitsa - Physicist and Engineer. Director of the Institute of Physical Problems of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR", People in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 24 Feb 1946.

10 Kareen Reiger, The Disenchantment of the Home: Modernising the Australian Family 1880-1940 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985).

11 Untitled script, Women in the International News, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission,

12 Nell Eurich, Science in Utopia: a Mighty Design (US: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 267.

13 Zygmunt Bauman, Socialism the Active Utopia (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1976) p. 13.

14 Ruppert p 74.

15 Untitled script, A Woman Views the News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 13 Aug 1936.

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