'Not only a white race, but a race of the best whites': the women's movement, white Australia and eugenics between the wars
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This paper explores campaigns for white racial improvement emerging out of the Australian women's movement in the inter-war years. It argues that, compared to the relatively limited attention paid to the 'Aboriginal problem', concerns about white degeneracy abounded. The paper focuses on the female-dominated Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales, Australia's largest and longest-lasting eugenic organisation, and its campaigns around venereal disease and the segregation and sterilization of 'mental deficients'. Eugenics has usually been associated with moves to limit white women to their domestic and reproductive roles, to their status as 'mothers of the race'. However, this paper demonstrates how such racial discourses were also appropriated by elite women to support their own reforming agendas and to argue for a larger public role for themselves in working to halt the perceived threat of white racial degeneracy. These activities are significant beyond understanding the impact of racial thinking on the women's movement alone. They point to the ways in which discourses of whiteness, like eugenics, formed a major field of racial discussion more broadly. Since the 1970s historians have looked largely, if not exclusively, towards white western constructions of 'others' to understand ideas about 'race'. What I wish to suggest here is that such an approach is not always sufficient. Overlooking these discussions of whiteness means losing sight of one of the key domains in which ideas about race were being articulated.
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