Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Jean Devanny & gender

I've just finished reading a sympathetic biography of Jean Devanny, a communist novelist and activist.

Devanny was born in New Zealand in 1894, married young and had three children and then embarked on a life of political activism. She moved to Australia in 1929, joined the Communist Party, was expelled in 1941 and spent much of the last period of her life in north Queensland. She died in 1962.

What I found most interesting about the biography, Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary, were the contradictions and inconsistencies in Devanny's attitudes, and in those of other communists of the period.


We are used today to political radicals who claim that gender is an oppressive social construct which society is progressing beyond.

As you might expect, Devanny as a Marxist revolutionary did take such a theoretical line. Her biographer, Carole Ferrier, tells us that,

... just before she left New Zealand, Jean was still working on and revising this manuscript which argues overall, as Marxists of the period habitually did, for the diminution of sexual difference being desirable ...

Devanny's argument was that gender conflict was being ended as women became more like men:

Sex war is rapidly retiring from the field ... Woman is being brought by capitalism into industry on equal terms with men, earning her own living independently of him. Therefore she is learning to think, to act and to talk like a man. (p.45)

But could Devanny really live consistently by such ideas? The biography suggests the answer is no. For instance, the following anecdote shows Devanny unsuccessfully trying to repress her femininity:

According to Kay Brown, Jean ... would sometimes ask her to go (mainly window-) shopping. '"I can't say it to anybody, but I just love a shopping tour," Jean told her, "and we'd go in and finger lovely materials and things, and I said, "Why are you ashamed of it? I like femininity." And she said, "Well, I think it's rather shocking."' (p.107)

It's interesting too that she chose to describe the ugliness of a shanty town on the natural landscape as being "like a cancer on the breast of a lovely woman" (p.240); she did, then, at some level appreciate feminine loveliness.

Nor did she follow the theory of the "diminution of sex differences" in her romantic life. She went for strong, alpha type men. She had a long affair with J.B. Miles, the general secretary of the Australian Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s, who she referred to simply as "Leader" in her autobiography. One of Jean's fictional heroes is described in a story as "a big man in the world of political economy, the biggest in Australasia indeed" - the heroine "knew him at once for a leader, for a warrior, by reason of the extraordinary virility that broke through every nuance." (p.31)

Similarly, in a public lecture praising communist Russia Devanny:

talked about this magnificent man in the wheatfields with rippling muscles and how magnificent he was, and she said that she could assure us that sex was a delightful experience in the Soviet Union. (p.128)

The communists may have promoted "the diminution of sex differences" as an ideal, but they didn't carry through with the theory in the political imagery they used. Communist imagery in the 1930s and 40s followed this pattern:

Workers are depicted as particularly strong and muscular. The enemies of the workers, be they scabs or capitalists, are shown as small and effeminate.

In World War II, the enemy was represented by the communists:

as feeble, weak, cowardly and almost emasculated, in the presence of the robust, brute and supreme soldier. (p.128)

Next instalment: Devanny & sexual liberation

1 comment:

  1. 's something about the left's ideals that has always struck me as more idealistic than natural.