Dust Bowl pp 203-234 | Cite as

Dust Storms and “the Despair of the Housewife”: War-Time Wind Erosion as “Natural Disaster”

  • Janette-Susan Bailey
Part of the Palgrave Studies in World Environmental History book series (PSWEH)


Chapter 6 explains how journalists responded to Australian “dust bowl” narratives of human culpability and impending doom. It shows how writers constructed both negative and positive imagery of wind erosion’s impacts upon women, and how in turn, these struggled for dominance in popular narratives. The chapter introduces Hazel Hogan who lived in the Mallee wheatlands of Victoria. Her widely published writing reflects tensions that existed within narratives at the time regarding soil erosion as either natural disaster or a human-made disaster, and the place of women as enduring figures, as victims of soil erosion, or as both. The chapter investigates how storytellers combined ingrained ideas about women, with actual observations of environmental conditions, and the impact of this imagery on attempts to promote soil conservation.


Soil Erosion Natural Disaster Dust Storm Wind Erosion Dust Storm Event 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

During World War Two, Hazel Hogan lived on an Australian wheat farm in the drought and erosion-stricken region of the Victorian Mallee. After one too many dust storms, and one too many struggles to clean up, she told her husband she was leaving for the city on the next morning train. Her story, told in this chapter, reflects the tensions that existed within “dust bowl” narratives about the place of women either as enduring figures or as victims of soil erosion—sometimes both. To examine these tensions, this chapter investigates how storytellers combined ingrained ideas about women, with actual observations of environmental conditions. These storytellers constructed both negative and positive images of wind erosion’s impacts upon women, and in turn, these struggled for dominance in popular narratives.

Though there was much that was specific to the circumstances of the drought-affected regions of Australia, international authorities commented on the plight of women like Hazel as a broader, even global phenomenon. Influential reports presented a gloomy picture. In 1939, a world survey of soil erosion published by Britain’s Imperial Bureau of Soil Science authors Jacks and Whyte expressed highly gendered ideas about the impacts of “dust bowls.” The title of their work The Rape of the Earth indicated a female earth corrupted by humans. But the contents also indicated the impacts of wind erosion upon humans, and this included women in affected communities “both on the farm and in nearby towns.” The “effect of soil drifting and blowing” they described as “extremely depressing and demoralising.” And in gendered terms, this meant “fine dust penetrates through the smallest openings and gradually covers everything indoors, floors, furniture, bed and food, to the despair of the housewife.” 1 Life under such conditions, Jacks and Whyte argued, indicated much more than a series of temporary setbacks for humans. They stressed that these conditions were about the “maladjustment of human communities to their environment.” Humans, they explained, could not sustain the “rapid re-adjustment” required in such a “continually deteriorating environment” and if they could, the result would “scarcely conform to the conception of an advancing civilization.” Rather, they argued “the net movement is away from…a civilised state.” 2

In Australia: Steinbeck’s Mother Joad and Russell Drysdale’s “Drought Women”

Created during the 1930s, Steinbeck’s portrayals of the relationship between women and wind erosion in The Grapes of Wrath had similarly pointed to decline. Australians had seen and commented on this controversial American imagery. Australian newspapers expressed awe at Steinbeck’s ability to portray the reality of hunger, migration, and unemployment. But portrayals of women as impoverished were not considered believable—one was described as “too savage to quote.” This may have been referencing one deeply moving scene portraying an exhausted young woman. She has suffered a stillbirth, is producing milk, and struggles with the decision to breast feed a starving man. But this was described as “one of the most horrible and unconvincing” scenes in the book. 3 The Australian Women’s Weekly observed that Californian “Ladies’ clubs and uplift societies” offended, had damned Steinbeck’s book as “filth” while others had defended it “as a social document of first-rate importance.” 4 But for the Weekly, the relationship between humans and “soil [that] is poor” and “silting back to the desert,” had exposed in Steinbeck’s story of “dust refugees” the “heroic figure” of Ma Joad. “She is the land and all it stands for.” She was “the land mother, a woman of the farm, plain, fat, the family drudge as well as its ruler…” She was “indomitable, courageous, valiant… brave against defeat, despair and famine.” 5 Joan McLeod reviewed Zanuck’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath, for the Women’s Weekly in 1940 (Fig. 6.1). Writing from Hollywood, she described mother figure, Ma Joad as a “buffer” against which “waves of trouble” were broken. She was a celebration of women’s “strength usually unsung” in the middle of the “sufferings of the American dust bowl.” For McLeod, it was “this aspect of the film that will stir the imagination of women” with “poignant meaning” because in this story, an entire family is “driven off the land by soil erosion.” Writing in the second year of World War Two, McLeod explained that “what Ma Joad does is what women the world over are doing for their families–taking the bumps and coming up smiling.” 6
Fig. 6.1

“Women’s courage shines in stark film,” Australian Women’s Weekly, 1940. Ma Joad is seen in the foreground in a scene from Zanuck’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath

Like the narratives of Steinbeck, and Darryl F. Zanuck in his film version of The Grapes of Wrath, the work of influential Australian artist Russell Drysdale also questioned traditional interpretations of the relationship between women, their courage, and the land. In sketches made during his 1944 drought tour of western New South Wales with Keith Newman for the Sydney Morning Herald, Drysdale constructed gendered narratives of decline—they described the state of the soil and the state of humans and their civilization, together, locked into a process of decay. And they were often controversial, seen as sullying familiar visual narratives of women that the Australian public felt comfortable with.

Some of Drysdale, Lange, and Steinbeck’s women are gaunt and some of them are fat. Either way their imagery challenged, and was seen by many to corrupt the traditional and popular image of the housewife and mother. Their imagery conveyed the fact that women were affected by drought and erosion conditions and the pioneering conditions of life in the outback or on the Great Plains. Sketched at Deniliquin in western New South Wales, Drysdale’s Drover’s Camp is evidence of this break with convention. The drover’s wife is portrayed surrounded by few possessions—in a later painting, only one bag. She has no “tidy doorstep” with which to demonstrate her domesticity, no broom in hand, no tidy figure, unlike Mrs Hofmaier, no rose garden. There are no four walls with which to protect civilization from “desert.” There is just a strong, big, body, grounded confidently in the land. But for their horses, nothing lives. 7 Drysdale’s reappraisal of the ideal image of the attractive, tidy wife in a trim frock, is seen clearly in a further development of the work, The Drover’s Wife, 1945. Here her large body, feet, arms, and hands “untidily” fill the space—not with a sense of impoverishment or decay—but with calm. Geoffrey Serle has explained that Drysdale’s outback women “stand calm and dignified, strong and patient, rebuffing loneliness.” 8 One critic affirmed of the painting that Drysdale had “interpreted the eternal verity of the outback.” And while The Drover’s Wife now hangs in the Australian National Gallery, in the 1940s, not all agreed that female dignity and strength should be portrayed this way. 9 A contradiction which offended many commentators, she appears to be part of “the desert” (an uncivilized place) and yet at the same time, she remains civilized. Rather than controlling nature and holding the desert in check, this woman has been changed by “wild nature.” And yet she is not “gaunt.” 10 She is not a “starving refugee.” 11 Critics offended by the work seemed to be asking “what would happen if Australian civilization gave up on the very idea of civilizing nature, only to be reshaped by those forces, into a nation of ‘hefty’ women in ugly dresses”?

Drysdale developed the image further in Woman in a Landscape (1948). 12 But the Sunday Herald’s “Candid Comment” captioned the image as “‘Hideous’- or ‘Simple and Revealing?’” adding racial commentary to describe how Drysdale had:

Shocked the good people of Adelaide with his Melrose prize-winning painting… There is much more woman than landscape in the picture… One wonders what grazier Alexander Melrose, who made the bequest, would have thought of the hefty dame in the shapeless frock as an outback type. A pastoralist's wife, from round about Alice Springs, vows that never in 17 years outback has she seen a white woman “with such hideous proportions and apparel.” But another lady is enraptured with the “simple and revealing” fall of drapery; admires the stance; and thinks the hand is “firmly disposed.” As for the feet: “Consider them so strong and patient.” (And so flat.) A bushman's terse comment: “Strewth!” 13

Keith Newman accompanied Drysdale on tour and provided the text for the Sydney Morning Herald’s feature articles. Newman was just one who feared that too many negative stories would swamp the public with an exaggerated picture of erosion—and the links between soil and human impoverishment. Populations affected both by erosion and by these stories also yearned for an end to what they perceived as this kind of exaggeration. They wanted an end to portrayals of their region as an “uninhabitable dustbowl” and it was not only images of large, sturdy women in these “dust bowls” that offended. These communities had also called for an end to depictions of “sad, gaunt women” who “stood by clasping their starving babies to their withered breasts.” 14

At this time, there was a strong association between this kind of imagery, state programs, and popular fears. Joy McCann notes that by this period, rural communities had been “dissipated by two decades of economic depression, war and drought.” 15 The catchcry “populate or perish,” corresponded to a fear of “the drift to the cities.” 16 This imagery also corresponded to programs designed to meet the population goals of the state and the needs of individual mothers—the lives of rural women, as much as those in the cities, were touched by modern ideas regarding “the scientific aspects of parenting.” These ideas belonged to “broader international theories of human development” that acknowledged the impact of environmental factors upon the lives of ordinary mothers and children. For example, from the 1920s, public health programs taught about nutrition for pregnant women. They gave instruction in the fundamentals of hygiene to try and protect Australians from diahorrea, infant blindness, diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, from morbidity and mortality in birthrates, and to try and control syphilis, in epidemic proportions by 1935. New approaches to motherhood and family planning were becoming part of everyday life. Grounded in ideas from both the sciences and the social sciences, “mothercraft” offered instruction to women based on the fact that all knowledge necessary to mothering did not exist intuitively. 17 By the 1930s, rural household science courses were run by state government departments offering instruction to women in the “domestic arts,” including the nutritional aspects of cooking. 18 A baby bonus payment was offered to mothers from 1912, but it “was exclusive reflecting the cultural aim of a general living standard, and the also the racial goals for a ‘white’ nation.” 19 It was not offered to Asian or Aboriginal women. 20

These ideas affected women across the nation during the 1940s, including those living in the southeast. In 1940, birth control lectures were advertised as touring rural areas. 21 But the aim was to “space” births not to discourage Australia from growing a healthy white population of large families—whether struggling under drought conditions or not. In the 1940s, as Hazel Hogan herself noted, a Country Women’s Association (CWA) Baby Health Centre Caravan and a dental van visited the Mallee region, while a CWA Home Science Van provided a “splendid service” to those learning the art of housekeeping. 22 All this was at a time when Australians were worried about a “steadily declining birth-rate.” 23 The nation looked to the well-being of women for its future. Meanwhile, CWA members were among those expressing the fear that a “drift to the cities” would take not only women but morality, and rural social sustainability along with it. 24

Women: Driving a Wedge Between Eroding Soil and Eroding Humans

Those living in affected regions expressed a fear that the reputation of erosion-affected communities, particularly women, would suffer from negative press coverage, while along with them, journalists including Newman also expressed such sentiments. Many of the stories recounted here provide evidence of a conscious attempt by writers to create “balance” in the media coverage where they saw too many stories about “uninhabitable dustbowls” and “undeserving people.” When writers argued against these negative portrayals, they were trying to drive a wedge between the idea of eroding soil—and that of the civility and morality of the people. The way that writers did this was with gendered narratives focused on housewives coping—the aim was to defend regions against calls for resettlement and attacks on the character of the people that lived there. In their stories, the symbol of the housewife functioned to drive a narrative divide between soil erosion conditions—and the condition of humans. Her presence in these stories therefore tended to absorb any alarm over civilization’s downfall or “human erosion.”

However, it is important to note that this narrative distance was not always constructed consciously by writers. Reflecting deeply ingrained beliefs about women, implicit in these stories is the tradition of celebrating the nation-building role of pioneering women, in need of little more than “good humor” and the “feminine virtues of craft, care and efficiency” to tame a “savage” frontier. 25 Based on writers’ observations of environmental conditions, in these stories however, this implied self-sufficiency was often coupled with the contradictory, conscious assertion that women needed help if the progress of the Australian nation was to endure. These stories provide evidence of a contradictory set of beliefs operating at the heart of the one idea of a “dust bowl.” The accounts recorded here reiterate the contradictory symbolism so prominent in US narratives where the idea of unmanageable “desert-like” conditions that are worsening daily, and the idea of women and their homes managing and adapting to “return to normal” each day, exist side by side. And although writers constructed this contradiction, none commented on it, if they were aware of it.

In Australia, as we have seen in the US case, in these stories, the experience of housewives and mothers facing dust storms was portrayed in terms of heroic but feminine toughness, overcoming a series of “natural disasters.” This experience was held up against the “easier lives of women in Australian cities.” 26 These conceptualizations imposed meanings on the lives of women, because in this imagery our tidy housewives symbolize “civilization holding wild nature in check,” while being only temporarily affected by the effort. As Tom Griffiths has recently written, in contemplating human conceptualizations of “unnatural disaster,” it is today still “hard for humans to accept, and therefore to remember, that nature can overwhelm culture.” 27 But in these narratives, “desert advance” does not overwhelm. It appears neutralized by “the care and graces of home life.” 28

Hazel Hogan, a housewife herself in Victoria’s northern Mallee, wrote gendered narratives which shifted between these two ideas—that of soil and human civilization as inseparable in the process of decline—and that of civilization standing apart from the process of soil erosion. Hogan was well known throughout her region and a widely published author of daily serials, articles for women’s magazines, city, regional, and international newspapers including the Melbourne Argus. Her writings provide an expression of one woman’s experience of living through erosion across the World War Two drought period. But penned for a variety of audiences, they do much more than that. Her various musings expose the desert/housewife contradiction at the heart of erosion narratives—her work is representative of the wider body of work created by journalists of the period including Keith Newman, Bruce Miller, and Noel Adams discussed here. 29 Their work reveals a story of people who were processing these very contradictory possibilities in the 1940s.

Sometimes in blatant opposition, but often subconsciously, these journalists responded to narratives of decline, by constructing counter-narratives of housewives holding the desert in check with progressive domesticity. These narratives brought a measure of balance to media coverage—but they also had the effect of masking women’s real need for support. Often in the same stories, these writers also constructed contradictory coexisting narratives portraying women as tormented by “desert-like” conditions. These did raise public awareness of the fact that under such conditions, the temperament of the housewife and her broom were not enough to sustain civilization—she needed various kinds of support. Yet either way, although there is no escape from descriptions of “desert-like” conditions in these narratives, Australian civilization is not portrayed as being under any permanent environmental threat. 30 Rather, at the core of these housewife narratives is the idea of dust storms and sand drift as one aspect of a “natural disaster,” and a “temporary setback.” 31

“Natural Disaster”

There had been Australian dust storms, sand drift, and severe drought before, and similar descriptions of “dust to eat” in the news across previous drought decades. 32 So what is different about the stories recounted here of Australians battling drought and erosion conditions? Severe erosion during drought periods had affected the same region during the 1890s, 1901–1903, 1920s, and the 1930s. But we know that during the 1940s, dust storm activity peaked. 33 A Labor push for extended Commonwealth powers and united conservation effort produced “dust bowl downfall” narratives and the defensive response. War-time restrictions and manpower shortages, coupled with an increased production demand, left people on the land, particularly women, laboring under extraordinary conditions, drought or not. Women and children struggled with labor that the strongest men, absent in the armed forces, would normally do. And all this was occurring during a period where a “moral and civilized” woman’s place was still considered by the Association of Australian Housewives to be in the home, and not, as they argued, “in gainful occupation.” 34 There were post-war population and employment debates enhanced by an enthusiasm for modern services and technology. Modernity was bringing change, or at least dreams of change to the mother and housewife with American achievements inspiring visions of regional planning and hydroelectric-powered homes. All of this underscored the stories recounted here, where dust storms and sand drift were treated as extreme weather events and one unpredictable aspect of a broader “natural disaster”—that of drought. 35 This understanding was expressed at a Conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers in Canberra, in late 1944, where all states and the Commonwealth agreed to a drought relief program. Though Victorian Premier Albert Dunstan was famous for his inaction on soil erosion, on “drought” particularly on requesting Commonwealth action (money), he was not slow to come forward. He spoke at great length on the matter, describing desperately needed drought aid for Victorian farmers, though he had been criticized for seriously neglecting all of this himself. Dunstan defined drought as a national emergency, threatening harvests, human and animal life, and most seriously, a “drift from the land.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Curtin described drought as an “Act of God.” It was a threat to the “efficiency of the war effort,” to meeting United Nations food production quotas under their Relief and Rehabilitation Plan, and to the needs of a coming post-war world. Curtin agonized over drawing any measure of resources from those “immediately available for the war.” He added, “I do not feel in a very generous mood.” 36 However, based on this understanding of drought and erosion as extraordinary, Act of God, or “natural disaster,” Curtin agreed to provide over two million pounds in drought aid to New South Wales and Victoria. It was this same idea of wind erosion, as natural disaster, which removed all sense of any human culpability from the war-time housewife narratives described here. 37 Meanwhile, stories stressing the morality and hard work of the “natural disaster victims” receiving these millions helped to reinforce the Australian public’s acceptance of such war-time expenditure.

The meaning of drought to the human experience has been redefined since the 1940s. According to Tim Sherratt, drought is now defined as a “normal” or an “inevitable” reality and feature of the Australian climate (rather than extraordinary—an Act of God or disaster). 38 But Sherratt has pondered the meaning to humans of the idea of “inevitable” drought: “what does this mean” he asks “to those struggling with the immediate effects of drought?” Just because it is “inevitable” over the long term, “is it any less of a disaster” in terms of impacting on the individual’s daily life experience? 39

The gendered narratives discussed here raised similar questions. They stressed that due to war-time drought coupled with manpower shortages, not only the soil, but also the domestic environment had changed—yet women and their families were adjusting and coping every day.

Housewives and Meaning: The State of the Environment and the State of Civilization

City audiences were able to draw two strands of information from housewife narratives. The first was environmental. They read of “unprecedented” and “fierce duststorms raging” across the landscape in the summer of 1944. But they understood the severity of those environmental conditions when they read about changes to ordinary domestic routines.

It was no doubt much easier for many city readers to develop a sense of concern over drought and erosion when the story was contained within the four walls of a house “just like theirs.” Readers understood the daily and weekly routines of women working in the home under ordinary environmental conditions. How much sweeping was considered to be normal for one day? People knew this. How often did women spring clean? How frequently did city housewives block the cracks in windows to keep out the dust, or use a shovel instead of a broom? Society knew the answers to these questions and could interpret changes to the daily working conditions of housewives in environmental terms. To further illustrate the severity of conditions to its city readers, the media compared the lot of city housewives under “dusty conditions” to that of country housewives under “desert-like conditions.”

Housewives often faced many dust storm events in succession over a short-term period of weeks, and many of these storms lasted for a period of hours. The day after each dust storm was experienced as a day of “recovery from disaster” or “readjustment.” This cycle of recovery and readjustment was rapid and often continued across a summer season. Its repetition meant that women in affected regions, tried to match their schedules to the “timetable of nature.” In doing this, their routine became an exaggerated version of a normal day or week. But it was the degree of good humor employed along with that effort which gave readers a way of measuring something else—the stability of their civilization.

The collection of stories presented in this chapter emphasizes the severity and the duration of drought (i.e. it is “like a desert”). 40 They emphasize that there is severe soil drift and there are severe dust storms—and yet, “civilization” is staying on track and coping. Echoing US Dust Bowl narratives, our Australian housewife adjusts in good humor, through accelerating daily efforts. On the sandy doorstep of her domestic world, broom in hand, she appears poised on the precipice of civilization, an enduring force of resistance against daily waves of dust and encroaching “desert” (Fig. 6.2). 41
Fig. 6.2

The print in this 1945 newspaper story is very dark, but shows an Australian housewife in her “very best heels,” broom in hand, from “AUSTRALIA’S DUST BOWL,” Agricultural Section, Western Mail (Perth, WA), August 2, 1945. “A sand-drift up to 50ft deep in places has crept up to this N.S.W. farmhouse.” The image had appeared in Illustrated London News (January 1945)

These were stories about women who lived in homes located in places which, under the right conditions, had always had the potential to blow. In the 1940s, the right conditions were upon them, and the soil was certainly blowing—under conditions that did not conform to Jacks and Whyte’s “conception of an advancing civilization.” 42 But gendered narratives reassured Australians that it was sand and dust that was “invading” the stable four walls of the human habitat—rather than humans that had unsettled the stability of the soil. Here, the “civilized women of the south-east” would cope, holding the desert at bay, and returning the home and its surrounds to “normal” after each dust storm event. All that was needed was a bit of temporary support from the nation. 43

News of Housewives with News of the Weather

New South Wales/Victoria dust events as located by the Australian media across 1939–1947 are mapped in Fig. 6.4. 44 The areas marked with unbroken diagonal lines show dust events that were reportedly generated from onsite or from offsite and reached other locations. Broken lines show dust events reportedly generated offsite. These conditions peaked on key dates across spring and summer 1944. Drought conditions intensified across the state peaking between the 14th and 20th November 1944. Dust storms reached the coast and beyond, newspapers describing “a pall over the whole of the eastern half of Australia,” with southern New South Wales “enveloped in dust” (Figs. 6.3 and 6.4). 45
Fig. 6.3

George. D. Butterworth, President, Hay (NSW) Chamber of Commerce, A dust storm descends upon Hay, in the New South Wales Riverina. The roofs of homes can be seen as light patches in the foreground while “the upper edge of the dust is clearly defined.” In C.M. Blandford, “Some Further Remarks on Dust Storms,” Journal of the New South Wales Soil Conservation Service 4, no. 1 (January, 1948). State Library of New South Wales

Fig. 6.4

Janette-Susan Bailey, “‘Dust Bowl’ imagery: wind erosion events [dust storms, sand drift] generated offsite and onsite: as located in New South Wales and Victoria by the Australian media, 1939–1947,” Sydney, 2012

Across January 1944 until late as 1946, housewives shared news content with “black-outs” where visibility was described as nil, a “pall” over regions sometimes giving way “to deep red dust.” 46 News stories described conditions for housewives alongside record temperatures, bushfires, stifling heat, “anxiety about domestic supplies,” even “kangaroos moving in to Balranald in search of increasingly low supplies of water.” 47 At Menindee and Broken Hill in western New South Wales, severe red dust storms and a “total blackout” were described while “sunglasses and goggles were the order of the day.” 48 City visibility was described as restricted. Heavy dust had closed Broken Hill aerodrome and canceled Melbourne and Adelaide plane services. And housewives? They were “not attempting to clean up until the dust has passed, and when it has they will have an unenviable job ahead of them.” 49 But there was no doubt they could do it.

In October, the Sydney Morning Herald defined “2 Days of Howling Wind and Dust” as a “Clean-Up Headache for Housewives.” Descriptions of “the longest” or “worst” dust storms “ever known,” suggested the entire history of dust storms on the Australian continent since European settlement, even beyond, and came with news of how “masses” of women were coping. 50 The Weather Bureau was quoted: “most of the disturbance came from the desert country in the interior of South Australia, swung round in a great cyclonic circle and came into the Mallee from the south, picking up clouds of local dust as it advanced.” 51 Domestic conditions made the severity of conditions even clearer to the reader: “After one of the worst duststorms the Mallee has ever had, thousands of housewives in the north-west worked hard to-day cleaning shovelfuls of dust from their homes.” 52

Along with the ABC war correspondent and journalist on the home front, Bruce Miller, Keith Newman, Howard S. Palmer, and Nancy Hall visited homes in the region and they described the wife and mother enduring “uncivilized” conditions surrounded by “fences sanded up” and “water courses brimming with sand.” 53 But the women themselves were not described as uncivilized.

In 1944, Miller took a 1500 mile tour of western New South Wales. He traveled through the Riverina and southwest areas of New South Wales, which he described as “still for the most part, without rain.” On this “Mobile Unit Trip” through New South Wales, Miller recorded a series of interviews broadcast to city audiences and internationally for the Office of War Information. 54 His aim was to “find out how the people were standing up to hardship and what measures were being taken to hold our soil.” 55 Maybe now Australia’s city populations Miller urged, might really understand “the advance of the desolation that a Dust Bowl brings” and they might influence parliaments to action. 56 With this in mind, Miller’s field unit recorded interviews not only with wheat farmers, graziers, and shopkeepers, but also with wives and mothers. 57

Audiences knew the difference between a broom and a shovel. They understood the role of a mother in the home. They knew how to manage housekeeping and how to prepare a meal. Audiences understood normal visibility levels inside the home and they knew what changing bed sheets involved. So when they listened to Miller’s radio programs, they could read the changes to these ordinary domestic tasks as a measure of how severe environmental conditions really were.

“What the drought means,” Miller explained could be “measured by its effect on human lives: that is, by the amount of human suffering it causes.” And it had caused a great deal, he explained, creating a gap between “prosperity and destitution, between ignorance and education for the children, drudgery and civilized living for the mother.” 58 Audiences were also able to measure the effect of such drought conditions on the fortitude or “good humour” of women. Despite the suffering, “country people” Miller explained, “describe the effect of drought on their stock or their crops, but they won’t talk much about their personal trials, especially the women.” 59 Journalists knew that these women often masked the reality of their daily domestic hardship. When Miller asked Mr Houen how many stock he would lose to the drought, he answered “Oh I think I’ll lose the lot.” 60 But when Miller asked Mrs Houen to define “the country woman’s attitude–feeling about the drought?” She answered: “Well, the people I’ve met and talked with lately just swapped yarns and everybody’s really humorous about it …nobody’s grumbling. Everybody’s laughing at their difficulties.” 61 Mrs Bray described laundering under dust storm conditions without complaint: “next day both these sheets wanted scraping before they were washed, I can assure you.” 62 In other words, it may not be possible to measure the severity of environmental conditions by what country women said. But, it was possible to measure that severity if journalists described those personal trials along with descriptions of drought, heat, dust storm, and sand-drift conditions.

A 1944 feature on “soil erosion in southern NSW” described encroaching desert and abandoned homes along with an account of “domestic trials” in the Mallee written by Nancy Hall. 63 The subheadings of her story provide a telling combination of society’s priorities under drought and erosion conditions: “Tanks Dry,” “Bakes Cake,” and “Sheep Dying.” By formulating a story around a child suffering pneumonia, Hall also revealed the impacts of dust levels on daily activity: “a car ran off the road five times while bringing a little girl to hospital” and:

it took half an hour to take her a few hundred yards. Storms like that happen almost daily here. The temperature today was 107. Visibility was not more than a few hundred yards. But to local people this was almost a pleasant day.

Hall described the home of Mrs Violet Jansson after a blackout, which she explained was a full-blown dust storm. 64 Its severity was clear when she described dust “inches deep against the inside walls of the house.” She added that dust was often ingested. Cups of tea filled with sand. When Jansson baked her husband a cake under these conditions, she said it would “have to be a chocolate cake, so he won’t know how much dust is in it.’” 65

Driving a Wedge Between Soil and Human Erosion: Civilized People–Uncivilized Conditions

Portrayals of housewives in these stories produced less controversial interpretations of women’s courage and resilience than Drysdale or Steinbeck’s imagery had done. Although Newman accompanied Drysdale on tour, his imagery along with others’ presented here was not attacked for portraying women as uncivilized, “gaunt,” or unfashionably “hefty.” 66 The problem was though that in seeking to achieve narrative distance between the idea of “soil erosion” and the condition of civilization, writers constructed often ridiculous imagery of physically inexhaustible, emotionally unbreakable superwomen. While traveling “on the road to ‘The Great Wall of China’” an extensive formation of sand dunes at Gol Gol, Newman, and Drysdale visited Carawatha station. Though Newman found Mrs Watts tormented, he also insisted: 67

On Carawatha’s pine ridges there are many dead trees among the living, and now the dust blows through the thinning screen with a density which plagues the life out of Mrs. Watts, although it has not yet eroded a particle of her house pride or good humour. 68

Newman recounted even sillier stories that sat very much at odds with the declensionist Drysdale images that his text accompanied:

The women joke of things which make housekeeping a heart-breaking job such as dust so deep on floors that a broom cannot tackle the job of removal. The dust is first scraped into heaps, carried out in buckets, and wheeled away in wheelbarrows. The broom is only a finishing instrument. Yet even on mornings after duststorms I never saw a dirty house. 69

So was civilization safe in the hands of the uncomplaining rural housewife? Certainly, Hall assured readers. After each dust storm, housewives had washed their homes “spotlessly clean.” The next day “the dust was back again.” But, Hall insisted, good humor remained intact. “Women like Mrs Jansson who can joke in these appalling conditions, shame city housewives who complain about war-time inconveniences.” 70 Hogan agreed. Temperament was enough: “one has just got to grin and bear it and clean up.” 71

Writing of the “trials of women in drought areas” for the Melbourne Argus, Howard Palmer asked, what “in all this welter of heat and dust” had “made it possible for the northern women to carry on”? He described a modern Mallee in a story designed to defend the integrity of its people. The two modern “boons of water and refrigeration,” Palmer claimed, proved that stories of starving Mallee families, carting water for miles with no modern conveniences were an exaggeration. Rather, water came from “domestic and stock water supply through the dams of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission.” The second “great boon,” he described as the kerosene refrigerator, which even made “ice blocks to drop in the beer (if any).” What did all this indicate of the people of the region? Invited in “out of the dust and the wind,” Palmer found women adapting famously. 72 He “marvelled” at the “drought-year lunch menus” that “these women produced at five minutes’ notice,” There was cold roast lamb, mashed potatoes and salad, wine, coffee, rhubarb and ice cream, and stewed plums and junket with cream, all taken “straight from the refrigerator.” 73

Writing of “housekeeping in the Mallee” for the Melbourne Argus, Hogan described the same conveniences, to defend her region against narratives of a civilization in decay—along with the soil. Hogan’s stories did not acknowledge the human contribution to erosion and fiercely defended her region’s reputation, while targeting prospective post-war settlers in Britain’s Farmer’s Weekly. They aimed, as Hogan put it to “dispel” that media myth. “Oh, you know what I mean” she argued, “you’ve seen pictures of them scores of times.” She referred to media claims that Mallee people lived in a desert, merely clinging to civilization in “tumbledown shanties constructed of hessian and kerosene tins.” However, she wrote firmly, “forget It. We don’t.” 74

Winter seasons, or the end of drought periods, brought respite from dust and the hardship it imposed. This was a paradise where “we live comparatively, like kings” while eating no rabbit and carting no water. “A healthy crowd” Hogan argued, they lazed by roaring winter fires made from the roots of the local Mallee eucalypt, while dreaming up winter menus to suit “the men’s fancy.” These included “baked potatoes….lots of rich gravy” with “apple pies and cream and feathery dumplings.” 75 Meanwhile, modernity meant “quite a number of homesteads” possessed “water laid onto the house, sewerage, flower gardens, refrigerators or cool safes, motor cars, telephone and wireless.” In one, there was “a hot water service.” In another, there was even “a kerosene bath heater and a washing machine!” Hogan described neighbors enjoying green lawns, even cultivated roses. 76 And there was more. Women of this wholesome paradise produced beautiful crafts of the local Mallee tree roots, while utilizing (but certainly not wearing) sugar bags or hessian.

Hogan described the benefits of the tractor bringing “modern Mallee farming.” 77 She boasted too, of the local firewood industry. This was a last prospect for earning an income for many in the region. The irony of her pride in the wood industry is clear where Hogan described the imperishable and utilitarian nature of Mallee roots—apparently unaware that their removal was a contributor to wind erosion. “A stack of Mallee roots is an every day sight on a Mallee farm. Indeed, on our own farm we made fences of them (for shelter from biting winds).” In addition to this, she said:

Clever fingers can fashion quite a number of things from Mallee roots, rustic seats, chairs, ornaments being just a few named off hand. I, myself, have placed a few around the garden here and there. Time, wind or rain cannot hurt them…Travellers on the road at night…think nothing of curling alongside a warm, Mallee log fire…Aye, Mallee roots. The very thought of them warms one through and through. 78

There may be dust storms and sand drift, Hogan admitted, but they were natural events that could not be avoided by anyone and they could be something of which to be really proud. She described soil raised into blackout dust storms in the Mallee, even at her own “front door.” These would “travel far and wide” bringing “trouble for us all.” Hogan boasted that “Mildura, Swan Hill, the fruit-growing settlements of the Murray Valley, Sea Lake, and the Wheat Belt, the Wimmera, and even Bendigo…all get flogged with Mallee dust as summer marches on.” In her efforts to defend her region from media attacks, Hogan also later denied vehemently that storms originated near her own front door, arguing that they came from “Central Australia and NOT the Mallee.” 79 There was also much to be thankful for. Some types of disasters might kill you, Hogan explained, but dust events would not lead to human fatality, at least in the immediate sense. For Hogan, this indicated that the relationship between the dust storm and the housewife was sustainable over the long term. She explained of dust storms:

It’s clean dirt…Not like the filth and stench of flooded areas. If we wanted to, we could walk on floors an inch thick with dust but you couldn’t do that in a flooded home. So, in spite of the labor dust storms cause us here in the Mallee, we have something to be thankful for. And, at its worst, sand won’t kill us. 80

No matter how contradictory her claims, Hogan portrayed her region as a paradise in “normal times.” In these narratives, a bit of summer hard work, toughness and good humor, modern services, and a change of seasons made it easy to adapt again and again to those extraordinary times producing relentless dust storms. Yet in attempting to do this, Hogan’s contradictory writings revealed that there really was much more to adapting to erosion. Palmer agreed, warning city readers: “don’t envy the Mallee housewife her pork and cream.” She suffered from the dust and not only that but isolation from shops, from doctors, and company, he added. And as Hogan stated, “we have another tale to tell, entirely, during summer–and a drought. And, strange as it may seem, we here still live to tell that tale.” 81 So just what was that other tale Hogan lived to tell?

Housewives’ Needs: The Torment of Wind Erosion Conditions

The problem was that women were not all adapting to erosion and drought conditions and many were leaving the land. Housewives confided in Howard Palmer their dreams of a better life. Many women “tell me they would far rather get out of the Mallee than stay. But they stay on.” 82 Some had left, Palmer revealed, “but many remain, and they merit our respect and our thanks.” 83

Was Hogan to be one of those who stayed? And what would be needed to support her? In 1943, Samuel Wadham (University of Melbourne) and a member of the Rural Reconstruction Commission wrote of the sociological aspects of farming as a way of life. Wadham argued that women in rural areas including the Mallee, needed more than just “good humor” if families were to remain. Rural living conditions, he explained, were particularly important to social sustainability. A modern domestic environment would keep women on the land, along with their contribution of child-bearing, home management, and child-rearing. However, standards of living for rural women, Wadham pointed out, were wanting, and this was a contributor to that “general drift of population towards the city in recent years.” 84 He described most districts as having some very comfortable homes but also “a regrettable number of houses which cannot be regarded as giving the women who run them a real chance of a reasonable life. We have to think not only of farm houses but of the houses of married farm workers.” 85

As Bruce Miller observed, poor living conditions coupled with dust storms and war-time labor shortages had left women in need of various kinds of support if they were to decide to stay on the land. When Miller interviewed Mrs Houen in the Riverina, she agreed that modern appliances and services were in urgent need. Launching an appeal to “city people” who “influence parliaments,” she described a lack of modern conveniences. 86 Country families were missing out on “modern developments in building.” Most homes were “built of galvanized iron,” while without a refrigerator women were “very badly off,” as were those without water supply. It was also “very difficult to get a telephone on to an out back place.” 87 The Houens could not meet the cost of a phone connection, which for Mrs Houen meant “a terrific strain if anybody’s away.” 88 Hogan described her own farmhouse as “sadly in need of repair,” and felt “not so fortunate, still clinging to kerosene lamps” and using “fire irons.” 89 As Wadham explained, “a contented country side” would never be achieved by imagining “tough he-men” and their wives happily living on farms with “no refrigerators, no electric lights, no equality of educational opportunity” and with no decent kitchen. 90 “The most important room on the farm is the kitchen, and you cannot keep a family on the farm unless the woman in charge has a reasonable life.” 91

Unlike Mrs Houen in the Riverina, Hogan claimed that modern electricity, water supply, and up to the minute appliances characterized the lifestyle for housewives in her region as equally progressive as anywhere else. Mallee housewives “keep our homes tidy and clean” just “the same as housewives the world over,” she claimed. But it was hardly the same process. Housewives in erosion-affected areas experienced inadequate systems for coping with both the “average” dust storm and major “black-outs.” Hogan described her strategy for managing the days following “the average dust storm.” She protected her hair from sand with a towel. She employed mops, buckets, and brooms to clean every surface, beginning with the ceiling and walls—with the refrigerator the only “dust-proof blessing.” 92

In her contradictory accounts, Hogan conceded that across the summer, women’s tempers became “frayed.” They felt trapped in “a losing game,” and were “almost beaten.” She said, “we cannot cope”; just do a “clean-up” after each onslaught, and save our energy between whiles.” 93 Houen also described an unmanageable timetable after each storm. She described the state of her home: “Well it looked as if it had stood for two years uninhabited in a desert.” 94 And she added that a three-fold effort was required to recover from a storm, only possible with additional help from her son and husband. Without them “it would have taken us fully three days–it has previously.” 95

In January 1945, “The Week from the Woman’s Angle” in the Melbourne Argus also addressed women’s need for support from family in order to cope with wind erosion conditions. Topics of interest included ironing shirts to make them look brand new, fashion, knitting patterns, Tasmania as a “housewives’ paradise,” women university graduates, and concerts under London air-raid conditions. The pages following (full of advertisements for women’s products) included a series of photographs of Australian naval and Air force personnel serving in the Pacific. Under the subtitle, “Australian Pilots Fly in Burma,” were images of the war against Mallee erosion. The combination of meanings in this imagery suggests that although fathers and other able-bodied men are away serving, the soil, under stress from drought and erosion, has not been left fully “un-manned” as children assist on the family properties. Children, such as fifteen-year-old Ken Jilbert, worked heavy ploughs for “eight to ten hours a day” in an effort to “save fathers’ property from Mallee drift.” Others, like Phylis and Aylis O’Brien, labored to water the few animals for domestic use their family had remaining that had survived the drought. 96

On tour for the Adelaide Advertiser, Noel Adams contemplated “the disease of soil erosion” and as he did he wondered at the relentless physical stressors forced upon women. He was a highly regarded writer, well versed in the story of the US Dust Bowl, and adept at constructing transnational imagery. Yet despite the similarities between US and Australian narratives portraying women, like other storytellers described here, Adams drew no parallels to American women’s experiences at all. Perhaps, it was a conscious attempt to avoid evoking the Lange kind of imagery that portrayed women as beaten, thin, and homeless. Perhaps, he was simply not aware of it. But as the “worst storm in memory” “raged” on, in what Adams described as a “seeming desert,” he wrote: “what these storms mean to the women in the country may be left to the imagination. So frequent are the storms that many have but finished sweeping the house to clear the dust, when it comes swirling through them again.” He added, “the country is under a pall of sand. It seems strange that anything can live in it.” 97 And when women did, they were often afforded the respect of the press.

Journalists recognized that for women to cope, not only the help of family but also holiday respite, and volunteer domestic assistance or help from the Women’s Land Army were urgently needed. 98 The Broken Hill Press called on authorities to provide a train so that “dust bowl prisoners,” could escape and the “harassed housewife” could seek Christmas respite. They also recognized the importance of the support of children or husbands not serving in the armed forces. Along with the respect and support of the public, all these were treated as essential, if women really were to cope with the tormenting timetable of erosion. 99

In early 1945, in the Melbourne Argus’ “Week from the Woman’s Angle,” Palmer addressed the need for respite in an appeal to female city populations:

Dust,” cries the city home manageress. “I don’t know where it comes from. There can’t be any left in the Mallee.” Well, ladies, there is, I assure you. Plenty. I have just completed a tour of the Mallee, my prime preoccupation being the effects of wind in erosion and sand drift. That is a national problem but there is a side to the story of the winds of the north that will appeal directly to you. 100

Palmer drew into his imagery a sense of the immediate effects of repeated events, the three-week time frame of the group of dust storms, and the history of such events over a human lifetime. He wrote, “Never, even in the memory of the oldest women of the north had so much dust covered the house.” As westerly winds persisted over three weeks, he added, “the Wimmera wife and the Mallee mistress of a normally shining home,” cleaned away the dust, but “like sweeping water. You wipe it away, and it is still there.” Erosion had forced housewives into an endless cycle of cleaning they couldn’t sustain. Many husbands were “really worried about the workload forced onto their wives.” Some were sending them with the children “away for some weeks to the seaside. The seaside where it is cool, and where the sand stays put.” 101

In the same women’s pages, in late 1944, the Argus columnist known as Vesta Junior reported on “help for women in drought areas,” in the form of such holiday respite. 102 This was a “very urgent service” needed for affected housewives, who she described as “struggling against” worsening drought “with truly heroic courage.” Drought may have forced some to resettle, she stressed. But for those “independent, energetic people” who stayed in these areas, her interviewee, Mrs Norman Welsh, of the CWA suggested a “system of volunteer domestic help is sorely needed.” Why? Vesta Junior explained: “this drought means as much as plague and pestilence, fire and flood.” During the war, however, the CWA holiday home was “temporarily handed over to service women.” So Welsh called for the CWA to “evolve a system” providing for needy women, in well-staffed “holiday camps.” She insisted: “It must not be said of us that we hearkened to the call for help from China, Greece, India, and blitzed lands overseas, but were deaf to the suffering of our own people in our Own land.” 103

How much of this respect, thanks, physical and emotional support from husband or family, holiday respite or electric-powered liberation did Hazel Hogan experience? When Hogan described her strategies for surviving not just an ordinary storm but a “black-out,” her optimistic tone changed and her defenses fell. At home with only her trusted dog Michael for company, a blackout descended.

Her husband, “the Breadwinner” and “the men” were out. As usual, Hazel tied her hair up in a towel to prevent a head full of sand and covered her mouth with a wet handkerchief. The room darkened. She could not see “the clock…the mantelpiece nor the walls opposite.” There was no air inside. “Half blinded” she felt her way to the stove, turned it off, made it outside to a shed, and chose “a pile of wheat bags” to shelter behind where “at least I found some air which is more than I could say of the farmhouse.” 104 She longed for the men to return. Remaining alone for what appeared to be hours, “sleep was impossible…my nerves were a’jangle. I was thoroughly sick and tired of my loneliness and the storm.” 105

The “hungry men” who “don’t like to return to deserted farmhouses even in a dust storm,” returned. Even under such conditions, she said, “the Missus is supposed to dig up some sort of a meal.” This meal of course could not be prepared due to the fact that there was no air in the house and Hogan “lay out there in the dirt and sand.” She was angered when she realized that the men had taken shelter “in the pub” while around her, farmhouse “chimneys have caved in [and] rooves blown off.” Her husband returned to find Hazel shaking, still hiding, in tears and covered from head to toe in dirt mixed with sweat, her protective handkerchief a muddy rag. Hogan lamented that he expressed no concern for her health or safety. He simply demanded “TEA!” 106

How did Hogan respond and how did she cope? Hazel supposed that “anxiety, and crawling along the road for 15 miles in a blinding dust-storm, hadn’t improved his temper or appeased his hunger.” 107 She nonetheless threatened to leave for Melbourne on the next morning train. Many others had done so. The CWA worked to provide holiday accommodation in Melbourne so that women in Hazel’s predicament could have much needed break. So what was her strategy for coping? Did she leave? No. Hogan acknowledged the inevitability of facing more storms over the summer adding that it was “best to grin and bear it…And, oh well, no use making a fuss.” 108 She had one more important strategy for coping with this “inevitable reality.” Hogan centered her thoughts around the war effort:

I feel rather comforted at the thought that I, merely a clog–and a very small clog–in the wheel of industry necessary to feed and clothe and warm a war-torn hungry world, am doing my bit as a soldier settler’s wife here in the Australian wheat belt. This sorry world needs every Mallee farmer, every grain of wheat, and every farmer’s wife. 109

So Hazel Hogan remained.

Hogan’s defensive writing clearly aimed to disconnect a degraded environment and the human experience of it, from the character, morality, intelligence, and progressiveness of the women of the Mallee. But in a letter composed to “Uncle Bob,” she began to reveal that she did not after all feel “the same as housewives the world over.” The summers of dust storms, blackouts, and drought that Hazel Hogan had lived through, understandably rendered in her imagination dreams of a better life, and the comforts of civilization she did not truly believe existed for her in the Mallee: “I’m woman enough to realize that I’ve missed much of the good things of life coming here,” she said. Hogan exposed one last coping strategy, her dreams of “a prosperous, well populated” town near “Old Man Murray”: 110

if possible in an all verandahed, fly wired bungalow home complete with modern car, orchard, a tidy lawn and flower garden, plenty of water, large mallee root fire, and with my books, wireless, and a comfortable bank account always at hand−plus a couple of dogs, of course–my boon companions. Telephone, sewerage, and good roads. 111

And there would be “masses and masses of tall-growing hollyhocks…growing against a high wall.” 112 In the final section of her letter, Hogan returned to the daily reality of her domestic environment—and to optimism:

The men are almost on my doorstep, and there’s cold roast leg of lamb, mint jellup (my own brew which the men say they prefer to beer)…lettuce and tomato salad…We still have a hot dinner mid-day here on the farm. At least the men do…. Until my next,


The “Cultural” or the “Natural” Disaster

During World War Two, the Australian media constructed gendered drought and erosion narratives which aroused considerable protest. 114 Russell Drysdale’s “desert” images offended popular perceptions of how a woman’s strength ought to be portrayed. Similarly, gendered US Dust Bowl imagery strongly offended some, while the Australian Women’s Weekly celebrated Steinbeck’s non-traditional portrayals of women’s strength. But when Australian newspapers more generally reported on conditions at home, they were able to construct less controversial imagery that the general public could accept.

What did these gendered narratives seek and what did they achieve? Many of these writers passionately believed that collectively, their stories, whether focused on downfall or on coping, would raise awareness of soil erosion as a national issue, achieve constitutional change, and lead to a national soil authority. This goal was never achieved. Through these gendered narratives specifically, they also sought to achieve a measure of balance in the media coverage. They strove to raise public awareness of the implications of wind erosion for ordinary people. Here, they succeeded. They gave the public a reason to support war-time drought-aid expenditure. For affected regions, they provided a “defense” against calls for reclamation of “marginal” land and against narratives potentially compromising to the reputation of women and their families and hence to the very idea of white Australian civilization. Above all, their stories showed people then, as they still do today, that soil erosion was a complex human experience. The struggle imposed on women and their everyday domestic routines, while living under such extreme environmental conditions, demonstrated that erosion could not simply be considered an issue about the human neglect of the soil. They also highlight the problem of how deeply ingrained ideas about women can influence perceptions of disaster. They show us that when soil erosion is treated as a natural disaster—that of drought—women should not be portrayed as domestically invincible bastions of civilization in order to reassure populations. These stories serve as a warning that gender myths should not be used to explain away the possibility of human culpability, nor to protect the interests of regions or individuals. Perhaps, wind erosion must also be understood in the immediate, short- and long-term sense, as a cultural disaster.


  1. 1.

    G.V. Jacks and R.O. Whyte, The Rape of the Earth, 182. Published by the Imperial Bureau of Soil Science. Robert Orr Whyte was a New Zealand trained agronomist and Honorary Secretary of the British Grasslands Society from 1945 to 1950, see The New Scientist (October, 29, 1959): 830. Reference to the importance of the US publication, The Future of the Great Plains is on 292–293. On Jacks and Whyte’s vision for ecology, see Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells, Nature and Nation: Forests and Development in Peninsular Malaysia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), 175.

  2. 2.

    Jacks and Whyte, The Rape of the Earth, 37.

  3. 3.

    John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin, 1976), 617. “The Grapes of Wrath,” Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, QLD) March 7, 1940: 3.

  4. 4.

    “Grapes of Wrath Raises Big Storm,” Australian Women’s Weekly, January 20, 1940.

  5. 5.

    “Grapes of Wrath’ raises big storm.”

  6. 6.

    Joan McLeod, “Women’s Courage Shines in Stark Film,” Australian Women’s Weekly, May 25, 1940. Supplement: The Movie World.

  7. 7.

    Newman, “Artist’s Journey.”

  8. 8.

    Serle, From Deserts, 167.

  9. 9.

    “Candid Comment,” Sunday Herald, May 22, 1949; Russell Drysdale, The Drover’s Wife (1945), National Gallery of Australia,

  10. 10.

    “Conservation of Soil: Grazier’s Urged to Co-operate,” SMH, March 15, 1945.

  11. 11.

    She is not gaunt, even if the bag she is holding indicates her intention to leave.

  12. 12.

    Russell Drysdale, Woman in a Landscape (1948), National Gallery of Victoria, 1999.

  13. 13.

    “Candid Comment.”

  14. 14.

    “Conservation of Soil: Grazier’s Urged.”

  15. 15.

    Joy McCann, “History and Memory in Australia’s Wheatlands,” in Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, eds. Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2005), 3.3. On failed World War One soldier settlement leading to 1930s abandonment, and federal government resettlement programs for Victorian and Western Australian areas deemed “marginal,” see Waterhouse, Vision Splendid, 201, 204. On World War Two birthrates, wartime relationships, and abortion, see Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police: Women’s Lives in Australia, 2nd rev. edition (Victoria: Penguin, 2002), 465.

  16. 16.

    Powell, “Mothering,” 142.

  17. 17.

    Powell, “Mothering,” 144.

  18. 18.

    “Woman’s Realm,” West Australian (Perth, WA), February 8, 1935.

  19. 19.

    Powell, “Mothering,” 87.

  20. 20.

    Powell, “Mothering,” on population objectives see 144, scientific parenting, 99, human development theories, 99 and 141–142, “human habitats,” 103, illness and mortality, 91, infant blindness, 92, disease prevention and mortality, 94, nutrition, 138. On high maternal death and still births rates between 1931 and 1932, see Summers, Damned Whores, 454, the syphilis epidemic and efforts to eliminate it, 437. On nineteenth century ideas about the dangers of education for women, see Summers, Damned Whores, 363, 372–373, 381, motherhood as a “special vocation” in need of “scientific training” and on the influence of the first basic wage in Australia upon the division of labor, 383, 385, on child endowment payments of the 1920s, 438, on the Family Endowment Act (1927), 439. See also Kerreen M. Reiger, The Disenchantment of the Home: Modernizing the Australian Family 1880–1940 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985), 84–103, on “scientific” housekeeping, 74–75, the role of women’s popular literature, 76.

  21. 21.

    “Birth Control Lecture,” Barrier Miner, March 21, 1940.

  22. 22.

    Hazel V. Porter, “The Breadwinner, Michael and Me” (Victoria, 1948), 152. NLA MS 1040. Foreword pages describe this as a “biography of my own pioneer life in the Mallee,” and her married name as “Mrs. J. P. Hogan.”

  23. 23.

    Powell, “Mothering,” 162; Joy McCann, “History and Memory in Australia’s Wheatlands,” in Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, eds. Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2005), 3.3.

  24. 24.

    McCann, 3.4; Kate Murphy, “Rural Womanhood and the Embellishment of Rural Life,” in Struggle Country, 2.10.

  25. 25.

    Brigid Hains, “Mawson of the Antarctic, Flynn of the Inland: Progressive Heroes on Australia’s Ecological Frontiers,” in Griffiths and Robin, Ecology and Empire, 154. On domesticity in the wilderness, see 163, 164.

  26. 26.

    On European women’s preference for towns and cities over the frontier, and national myth celebrating the “masculinity” of bush life, see Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 2009), 330–331.

  27. 27.

    Griffiths, “An Unnatural Disaster?,” 35.1–35, 35.5. On the history of preceptions of catastrophes as “unlucky” natural events victimising humans, see Christof Mauch, introduction to Natural Disasters, 4; Christian Pfister, “Learning from Nature-induced Disasters: Theoretical Considerations and Case Studies from Western Europe,” in Natural Disasters and Cultural Responses, eds. Christof Mauch and Christian Pfister, 18. For discussion of “natural disasters” more recently perceived as “both physical events and social or cultural occurrances,” see Mauch, Introduction in Natural Disasters, 4.

  28. 28.

    “Pioneer Women,” Argus (Melbourne, VIC) June 16, 1934 describes President Hoover unveiling “The Pioneer Woman,” in Oklahoma and the debt owed to “the settler’s wife” by settler societies for the strain they had endured.

  29. 29.

    This contradiction is described in earlier chapters focused on the US experience.

  30. 30.

    Neville Nicholls, “Climate and Cultural Connections in Australia,” Australian Meteorological Magazine 54 (2005), 317.

  31. 31.

    Tim Sherratt, “Human Elements” in A Change in the Weather: Climate and Culture in Australia, eds. Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2005): 5.

  32. 32.

    For histories and personal accounts, see full references in the bibliography for: Tom Griffiths, “One Hundred Years of Environmental Crisis,” 9–10; Don Garden, Droughts, Floods and Cyclones, 278; Geoffrey Blainey, A History of Victoria, 133; Myrtle White, No Roads Go By; Francis Ratcliffe, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand, 254, 279.

  33. 33.

    McTainsh et al., Wind Erosion, 32.

  34. 34.

    Powell, “Mothering,”161.

  35. 35.

    On cumulative effects of recurring disasters, see Pfister, “Learning,” 19.

  36. 36.

    Among the resolutions were that “Tentative estimates of the requirements of each State discussed by the conference were: New South Wales, £1, 100,000; Victoria, £1,000,000; South Australia, £19,00,000, these amounts being subject to review.” Attending were “Prime Minister and Minister for Defense, J. Curtin, J. M. Fraser, Minister for Health and Social Services, C. W. Frost, Minister for Repatriation and Minister in Charge of War Service Homes. Premiers W.J. McKell represented NSW and A.A. Dunstan Premier and Treasurer with A.E. Lind represented Victoria. Conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers held at Canberra, October 3–5, 1944. Proceedings of the Conference (Commonwealth Printer, 1944).

  37. 37.

    On perceptions of “natural disaster,” see Mauch, Introduction in Natural Disasters, 4.

  38. 38.

    Sherratt, “Human Elements,” 5.

  39. 39.


  40. 40.

    See Neville Nicholls for a discussion of cultural aspects in “Climate and Cultural Connections in Australia,” 309–319.

  41. 41.

    “AUSTRALIA’S DUST BOWL,” Agricultural Section, Western Mail (Perth, WA), August 2, 1945.

  42. 42.

    Jacks and Whyte, The Rape of the Earth, 37.

  43. 43.

    Nicholls discusses the impacts of climate upon culture. “Climate and Cultural Connections,” 317.

  44. 44.

    Note that in media weather reports and stories of the 1940–1947 period, NSW areas popularly identified as a “dust bowl,” even before and after the time period defined on this map (1939–1947), would have fallen primarily into the entire Western Division and the Central Murray region (Riverina irrigation districts and including the “dust bowl” centers of Balranald, and Jerilderie, Deniliquin, and Wakool). But they also fell into the Murrumbidgee and Upper Murray regions. Subdivision of the Western Division had not been recommended due to weak community interest, sparse population, limited industry potential, and the lack of major water conservation facilities. A “dust bowl” tended to describe the whole Division, including Broken Hill, Wentworth, and Wilcannia.

  45. 45.

    “Heat and Dust in Sydney,” Argus (Melbourne) November 14, 1944; “Hot Blast from the Inland,” SMH, November 14, 1944: 1; “Worst November Day for Years,” SMH, November 17, 1944: 3. “Stock Dying in Parched West of State,” SMH, November 14, 1944; B. Blomfield, The Rolling front of a Major Dust Storm (Hay, New South Wales) in C.M. Blandford, “Some Further Remarks on Dust Storms,” Journal of the New South Wales Soil Conservation Service 4, no. 1 (January, 1948), 37; CSIR, A [New South Wales] South-western town being enveloped by the dust storm in Blandford, “Some Further Remarks on Dust Storms,” 39.

  46. 46.

    “Black-Out in Broken Hill,” Argus, January 31, 1945.

  47. 47.

    “Duststorm Blasts Inland: Breeze Protects Sydney,” Dewar Wilson Goode Collection, SLV.

  48. 48.

    “Menindee Had Blackout Storm,” Barrier Miner, February 1, 1945; “Dust-storms, High Winds, Fires, Heat: Weather Cycle on its Vicious Course Again,” Herald (Melbourne), December 18, 1944; “Severe Duststorm at Barrier,” Recorder (Port Pirie, SA), April 9, 1945.

  49. 49.

    “City Again Blacked Out By Dust Storm: All Planes Cancelled,” Barrier Miner, March 16, 1946.

  50. 50.

    “2 Days of Howling Wind and Dust,” SMH, October 19, 1944.

  51. 51.

    On Mallee soil types vulnerable to erosion, see M. Barson, “Wind erosion in Australia,” Caring for our Country Sustainable Agriculture fact sheet. Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, 2013, 1.

  52. 52.

    “2 Days of Howling Wind and Dust.”; “Towels on Cots to Beat Dust,” Sunday Mail (Brisbane), December 17, 1944.

  53. 53.

    Bruce Miller, “What the Drought Means,” 2, Australia’s Dust Bowl—series of broadcasts (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1945), 1. “To be broadcast 2 FC 10.15 p.m. 15/1/45.” National Archives of Australia, Series: SP300/3 Item: 750. Bruce Miller, “First Drought Broadcast,” 1, Australia’s Dust Bowl. Broadcast details: “7.50 p.m. 2FC 6.12.44.”

  54. 54.

    Miller, “What the Drought Means,” 5.

  55. 55.

    Ibid, 1. Broadcast details include “OWI broadcast to Europe and Asia.”

  56. 56.

    Ibid, 2.

  57. 57.

    Ibid, 1.

  58. 58.

    Miller, “First Drought Broadcast” 1, Australia’s Dust Bowl.

  59. 59.

    Miller, “Interview with Mr Houen by Bruce Miller on the Dust Storm,” 2. Australia’s Dust Bowl.

  60. 60.

    Ibid, 2.

  61. 61.

    Miller, “Interview with Mrs Houen,” 1.

  62. 62.

    Miller, “Talk by Ken Bray,” 1. Australia’s Dust Bowl. Broadcast details: “7.50 p.m. 2FC Friday, 8.12.44.”

  63. 63.

    Possibly a pseudonym.

  64. 64.

    “Soil Erosion in Southern NSW”; Nancy Hall, “Sick Child Caught in Storm,” Daily Telegraph (Sydney), November 17, 1944, Dewar Wilson Goode Collection, SLV.

  65. 65.

    Hall, “Sick Child.” Also see Glennis Irene Johnson, Mallee Girl: A Memoir (Heath Ridge, WA: Glennis Irene (Johnson) Dees, 1999), 119.

  66. 66.

    “Conservation of Soil: Grazier’s Urged.” “Candid Comment.”

  67. 67.

    Wife of Aubrey Watts; Newman, “Riddle.”

  68. 68.


  69. 69.

    Newman, “Drought Lands’.”

  70. 70.

    Hall, “Sick Child.”

  71. 71.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 205.

  72. 72.

    On Palmer, see Melbourne Press Club History (Melbourne Press Club, 2014).

  73. 73.

    Howard S. Palmer, “Trials of Women in Drought Areas,” Argus, January 16, 1945. On modernity as both a time period and a concept, see Christof Mauch and Kiran Klaus Patel “Modernities: Competition versus Convergence,” in The United States and Germany during the Twentieth Century: Competition and Convergence, eds. Christof Mauch and Kiran Klaus Patel (Washington, DC: German Historical Institute; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5–6. See Johnson, Mallee Girl, 119–120 on refrigerators, and crackling telephones during storm emergencies.

  74. 74.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 73.

  75. 75.

    Hazel V. Porter, “Housekeeping in the Mallee,” Argus, November 20, 1945.

  76. 76.

    On appliances, see Porter, “Breadwinner,” 152, gardens, 73

  77. 77.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 152.

  78. 78.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 156.

  79. 79.

    On “trouble,” see Ibid, 206, her list of affected districts, 156, origins of dust storms, 206.

  80. 80.

    Ibid, 207.

  81. 81.

    Palmer, “Trials.” Porter, “Housekeeping.”

  82. 82.

    Palmer, “Trials.” On women’s courage required to stay, see Johnson, 117–122; Conway, The Road from Coorain, 75–76.

  83. 83.

    Palmer, “Trials.”

  84. 84.

    On “only 12,000 of 83,000 farms in New South Wales” electrified in 1947, see Richard Waterhouse “Rural Culture and Australian History: Myths and Realities.” Inaugural lecture given to the Arts Association on September 19, 2002. Arts 24 (2002): 84–85.

  85. 85.

    Wadham, The Land and the Nation, 98.

  86. 86.

    Miller, What the Drought Means, 5.

  87. 87.

    Ibid, 7.

  88. 88.


  89. 89.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 254.

  90. 90.

    S.M. Wadham, “Reconstruction and the Primary Industries,” (Series) Realities of Reconstruction 7, (Melbourne; London: Melbourne University Press and Oxford university Press, 1944), 12–13.

  91. 91.

    Wadham, The Land and the Nation, 98; See McCann, (3.4) on rural “modernisation, decentralisation and civic progress.”

  92. 92.

    In “Breadwinner,” Hogan describes “the average dust storm” in Porter, 203, the refrigerator, 205.

  93. 93.

    Ibid, 205.

  94. 94.

    Miller, What the Drought Means, 5. See discussion regarding “disaster” in Pfister, “Learning,” 19.

  95. 95.

    Miller, “Interview with Mrs Houen,” 1.

  96. 96.

    “Australian Pilots Fly in Burma,” Argus, January 16, 1945: 11; On families coping with war-time manpower shortages, see Porter, “Breadwinner,” 11.

  97. 97.

    Noel Adams, “The Disease of Soil Erosion,” Adelaide Chronicle, December 21, 1944.

  98. 98.

    Vesta Junior, “The Week from the Womans Angle: Help Women in Drought Areas,” Argus, September 26, 1944; Hogan complained in “The Breadwinner,” that the Women’s Land Army did not come out to the Mallee, working instead, in irrigation areas. On the Australian Women’s Land Army (established 1942), see Summers, Damned Whores, 461.

  99. 99.

    “Dust Bowl Prisoners,” Barrier Daily Truth (Broken Hill, NSW), October 17, 1944.

  100. 100.

    Palmer, “Trials.”

  101. 101.


  102. 102.

    Junior, “The Week.”

  103. 103.


  104. 104.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 271.

  105. 105.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 273; See Johnson’s account of her mother’s experience of a two day storm, in Mallee Girl, 119.

  106. 106.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 273–274

  107. 107.

    Ibid, 277.

  108. 108.


  109. 109.

    Hogan is referring to a “cog in the wheel,” in Porter, “Breadwinner,” 285. All underlining is Hogan’s own emphasis.

  110. 110.

    “Old Man Murray” refers to the Murray River.

  111. 111.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 285.

  112. 112.


  113. 113.

    Porter, “Breadwinner,” 286. The “men” she refers to are the farmworkers who work, and perhaps live, on the Hogan property.

  114. 114.

    On this theme, see Mauch, introduction to Natural Disasters.


Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Janette-Susan Bailey
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South WalesPontypriddUK

Personalised recommendations