“he’s a good bloke”
“what a legend!”
The word ‘mate’ in Australian culture incorporates some big, messy, disputed ideas about what it means to be Australian. The concept of mateship is an integral part of the origin story we have constructed, and it props up certain ideas about who we are on an individual and national level.
Convicts who travelled across the seas from Britain to the harsh conditions of the colonies used ‘mate’ tongue in cheek to address prison guards. Mateship is woven through the poetry of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. And the concept is valorised as having bound the diggers together in the trenches of world war one.
Today, the word is used by men to bond with other men. It is a marker and recognition of shared masculinity. The term is used alongside a solid handshake in business meetings. Trade unionists use the phrase to call to mind an idea of working class solidarity. And politicians, however cynically, use ‘mate’ to invoke an idea of national identity, and to say ‘we’re just the same as you’.
This myth, so inherent in what it means to be Australian, is inherently masculine and patriarchal. Women are not part of the origin story of Australian identity. Historically, women have not been welcomed in places where mateship thrives: the pub, the trenches, the boardroom. But women were there then and we are here now.
So where did all of this mate stuff begin?
Come back next week for Part 2 of this post…