Ask An Americanist

Ask an Americanist: Dr Yves Rees

Dr Yves Rees is a David Myers Research Fellow in History at La Trobe University. They are a historian of Australia in the world, with particular interests in gender, modernity, mobility and whiteness. You can follow Yves on Twitter at @AnneLRees


Q: Tell us a little about your background.


History has been a passion since childhood and ‘historian’ was my career objective from high school onwards. As a result, I’ve spent my entire adult life in universities. After finishing high school in Newcastle, I moved south to start an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne because it was reputed to have the best History program in the country. Aside from a brief flirtation with Art History (which had better fashion and more wine), my commitment to the discipline has never wavered.


Early on, I developed a fascination with Australia’s place in the world—and especially the competing appeals of Britain and the United States. I completed an Honours thesis on the Melbourne-born and New York-based artist Mary Cecil Allen under the supervision of Joy Damousi. Next, like a good colonial, I embarked upon what Angela Woollacott calls the ‘secular pilgrimage’ to the metropole, undertaking an MA in History at University College London. There I confronted my own cultural cringe. I arrived feeling like a provincial imposter, but soon realised that the standards at UCL were akin to those at Melbourne. I also benefited from a mind-expanding seminar taught by Catherine Hall, who modelled how to use tools drawn from postcolonial and feminist theory to unpack the historical operation of difference and power. My MA thesis, supervised by Catherine, was about the idea of the ‘Australian body’ in interwar London, and that project saw me develop a fascination with settler colonial ‘whiteness’ that continues to this day.


With my cultural cringe (somewhat) kicked to the curb, I returned to Australia to start a PhD with Angela Woollacott at the ANU. My project considered Australian women’s lives and careers in the United States (more on that below). Since completing my PhD in early 2016, I’ve been fortunate enough to hold two research fellowships back-to-back. In 2016, I was a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Junior Research Fellow within Glenda Sluga’s Laureate Research Program in International History in the University of Sydney. In early 2017, I returned to Melbourne as a David Myers Research Fellow at La Trobe University, where I have the privilege to work alongside a marvellous collective of kind and brilliant historians.


Q: How did you get interested in the history of Australian women in the United States?


This interest began with my Honours thesis on Mary Cecil Allen (1893-1962), a modernist artist and enfant terrible raised and educated in Melbourne. Allen, like most ‘colonial’ artists of her generation, went abroad to widen her creative and intellectual horizons. Yet instead of going to London or Paris, as was typical, Allen settled in New York. She moved there in 1926, and ultimately remained in the States until her death. This unusual trajectory raised the obvious question: was Allen unique, or were there other Australian women who had followed a similar path? And if so, why did they swim against the tide and head to California or New York instead of the Mother Country?


Angela and others had already written about the thousands of Australian women who made careers in London, and I had a hunch there might be a parallel story to tell about the United States. In particular, my research on Allen had hinted there may have been greater scope for women to pursue careers in the US, and I wanted to dig deeper into this question. Did the US have a particular appeal for career-minded women? And if so, could women’s transnational careering, the resultant mobility and exchange, have been a catalyst for the development of transpacific relations? These were the questions that framed my PhD thesis “Travelling to Tomorrow: Australian Women in the United States, 1910-1960.”


Once immersed in the archive, I was soon swamped with stories of women like Allen. I learnt that, in 1920, annual departures of Australian women to the United States numbered one thousand; by 1960, this figure had tripled. Thousands more entered the United States via Canada and Britain. The bulk of these travellers were short-term tourists, but many stayed for months or years. By 1940, around eleven thousand Australian-born individuals were resident in the States, fifty percent of whom were women. Among these long-term sojourners, tales of work, study and adventure abounded. There were librarians and actresses, milliners and aviatrixes, scientists and artists. Altogether, I collated around seven hundred biographies.


In most cases, these women headed stateside for economic opportunity—jobs, scholarships, markets, but they lingered for the modern lifestyles and unparalleled career prospects for women. Although the combination of imperial networks and restrictive US immigration laws ensured that transpacific mobility remained overshadowed by the traffic to London, America was nonetheless a major destination for Australian women’s education and careering throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Long before the rampant Americanisation of the 1960s, or even the ‘turn to America’ of 1941-42, hundreds of Australian women had sought their fortunes in the United States, and returned abuzz with new ideas about work, life and art. Here was a different narrative of Australian-US relations, a history that unsettled established chronologies and privileged women’s agency instead of war, high politics and cultural imperialism.


Q: What are you working on at the moment? How was this project conceived?


At present I’m working on three distinct projects. First, I’m turning my PhD into a book. After a period of soul-searching about whether to publish in Australia or the US, I’ve gone the latter route and secured a contract with University of Nebraska Press. The book will be called Travelling to Tomorrow: Australian Women and the American Century. Although based on the PhD, it is more explicitly engaged with debates about the nature of US global power. By drawing upon my research on Australian women’s pursuit of opportunity and adventure across the Pacific, I’m developing an argument about the ways in which the globally circulating ‘America=modern woman’ idea (as developed by Emily Rosenberg) led modern America became a global mecca for modern women. By conceptualizing the United States as an empire-by-attraction, I hope to offer an ‘outside in’ perspective on U.S. expansionism that foregrounds non-American and female agency.


My second project is called “The Limits of Blood Brotherhood: U.S. Immigration History and White British Subjects, 1921-40.” This project grows out of an unexpected discovery from my PhD: that the ‘quota laws’ introduced by the US in 1921 and 1924 had a profound, albeit inadvertent, effect on white Australians and other colonial British subjects. These quotas were a nativist attempt to limit racialized migrants from south-eastern Europe, and were part of the transnational preoccupation with ‘whiteness’ that encompassed the British settler colonies. Yet because—like Australia’s infamous dictation test—the quotas were ‘raceless’ mechanism of exclusion that carried the pretence of equitable treatment, they also extended to ‘white’ nations including Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (Canada was exempt because it was part of the Western Hemisphere). By 1929, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were each allocated only a hundred quota places each year. The British quota was far greater, but nonetheless did not always meet demand. My project takes up this little-known history of white immigration restriction, and considers the impact of the U.S. quotas on Anglo-American relations. I’m exploring how forms of mobility regulation intended to preserve the U.S.’s Anglo-Saxon credentials also exposed tensions and fault-lines in Anglospheric kinship by restricting entry and assigning illegal alienage to white British subjects.


Finally, I’m also engaged in a collaborative project on the history of capitalism in Australia. This interest stems from my 2016 stint at Sydney’s Laureate Research Program in International History, where there was a strong emphasis on ‘economic internationalism’. While there, I examined the career of pioneering female economist Persia Campbell, who was a prominent figure in my PhD. From examining Campbell’s economic education, which coincided with the birth of the Australian economics profession, I developed a more general fascination with the development of economic knowledge and economistic governance. Since then, I have been doing research that seeks to illuminate the roots of economists’ present-day role as—in Yanis Varoufakis’ words—the ‘apostles of market society’.  Others in Sydney were pursuing similar questions, inspired in part by the ‘new histories of capitalism’ literature emerging from the US. Over the past year, we’ve begun to shape a more concrete research agenda. In late November, Glenda Sluga, Ben Huf and I will co-convene an interdisciplinary workshop called “Capitalism in Australia: New Histories for a Reimagined Future”. This workshop will put historians into conversation with economists, political economists and other social scientists to discuss how historians and the historical imagination can better contribute to academic and public discourse about the past, present and futures of capitalism in Australia.


Q: Do you have a favourite source /collection that you have discovered or used in your research?


One source I have recently started using are the interview transcripts located within the case files kept by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration. Australians (and other aliens) who were detained at the U.S. border faced a three-person Board of Special Inquiry to determine their right to enter the United States. The Board would conduct an exhaustive cross-examination that probed the family background, travel itinerary, financial situation and ‘moral’ standing of the alien in question. Each interview was transcribed and kept for posterity. Although the bulk of Australian case files were destroyed in an Angel Island fire in 1940, a handful survive and are accessible at the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). What I love about these interview transcripts is they provide access to the voices of mobile Australians who were not rich or important enough to otherwise feature in conventional archives. Reading these sources in 2017 introduced me to a whole new cast of Australian travellers, including working men and women from surprisingly humble backgrounds. These transcripts therefore raised new questions about the motivations and demographics of Australians in the world. Our histories of Australians abroad have been people by wealthy tourists, high-minded reformers and the like, but here I met milkmen, cannery workers, shop assistant, secretaries and con men. Each individual story was captivating, and together they made me revise many of my assumptions about the flow of people across the Pacific.


Q: How have you seen your field shifting/evolving in recent years? What trends do you hope to see in the future?


I have three overlapping comments here. First, over the past few years there has been a real maturation in transnational history—especially in Australia. When I started working in this field, around a decade ago, ‘transnational’ still felt like a buzz word that lacked a firm conceptual foundation. Today I see historians using this term with much greater reflexivity and more theoretical sophistication.


Second, there has been an explosion of interest in transpacific history, especially work that considers US-Australian connections. There seem to be two factors behind this trend. Within Australia, there has been a transition, I think, from focusing on connections with Britain (as encouraged by new imperial history and postcolonial studies) to looking at the Pacific world (spurred in part by comparative settler colonial studies and the idea of the ‘white Pacific’). In the U.S. meanwhile, the long fixation on the ‘Atlantic world’ has been replaced, to some extent, by a turn towards the Pacific. The convergence of these two trends is leading to some wonderful research by scholars such as Marilyn Lake, Paul Kramer, Frances Steel and Ben Mountford.


And third, I hope that this turn towards the Pacific will lead U.S. scholars to take Australia more seriously (I obviously have some skin in the game here). Within the U.S., even transnational historians and foreign relations scholars have, in my experience, been quick to dismiss Australia as a crocodile-infested backwater of no significance to international or American affairs. The ‘Pacific turn’ and the excellent transnational scholarship coming out of Australia has, I believe, already begun to undermine this stereotype—and I have high hopes that Lake’s new book Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform (Harvard, 2019) will blow it out of the water.


Q: What has your relationship with ANZASA looked like over time?


In one sense, my relationship with ANZASA has been somewhat patchy, as I’ve only attended two conferences over the years. But looking back, I realise that both events were formative experiences that shaped my thinking and fostered important relationships. In February 2014 I attended the ANZASA conference in Dunedin, and there encountered my first critical mass of Americanists—including Nick Ferns, Emma Shortis and the wonderful Holly Wilson, who is now a friend and colleague at La Trobe. As a veteran of the enormous AHA, I was pleasantly surprised by the more intimate and collegial atmosphere that ANZASA afforded. A particular highlight was the presence of eminent U.S. gender historian Elaine Tyler May, who led an inspiring postgrad seminar and provided some confidence-boosting feedback on my paper.


In December that same year, I headed to Sydney for an ANZASA postgrad seminar at the US Studies Seminar. Over two days, our pre-circulated papers were critiqued by assigned mentors and an engaged audience. The comments I received from Shane White, Clare Corbould and Sarah Graham pushed me to sharpen my thinking but also gave me faith that my work mattered. And an afternoon tea conversation with Lisa Samuels provided me with what, in retrospect, has been the most valuable advice I’ve received to date (more below).


Q: Finally, as a scholar, what is the most valuable piece of advice that you’ve been given?


At that December 2014 ANZASA workshop, Lisa Samuels treated me to a bracing conversation about the importance of thinking in scales; that is, to look beyond the immediate meanings of our histories to also draw out the larger implications. Since then, I’ve come to think that the ability to ‘scale up’ analysis is what distinguishes the best scholars. There are many good empiricists out there, but the historians who really leave a mark are those with the ability and inclination to show how even a tiny story can recalibrate our understanding of much bigger questions. Making this conceptual leap is what I call the ‘so what?’ of history writing. Needless to say, this is what I strive for in my own work. It’s difficult but deeply satisfying intellectual labour. As much as I enjoy the storytelling dimensions of history writing, I’ve also come to love the challenge of pushing myself to better articulate why the histories I tell matter in a larger sense.