Monday, August 31, 2009

Writing Women Back Into History

At the recent Melbourne Writers Festival one stimulating session drew attention to the problems of giving women their rightful place in history and, although specifically Australian in this case, the problem could apply to any country where the contribution of women has been marginalised.
“Females Exposed – Writing women back into history” was summarised as: “Prostitutes, religious sisters and the women of the Eureka rebellion are just a few examples of females who have been largely omitted from the pages of history. But many of these stories, together with tales of ordinary women, are increasingly coming to light. Hear first hand how historians are exposing females in the annals and writing women back into history.”
Nikki Henningham gave an overview of The Australian Women’s Register which contains an amazing amount of information about the unsung women who built Australia; Jill Barnard described her difficulties in writing the history of a Catholic religious order – not just in dealing with a male-dominated church, but because many nuns are reticent by nature; Rae Frances gave a number of examples of prostitutes and the white slave trade in late 19th/early 20th century; and Clare Wright described how the discovery of a private journal written by Samuel Lazarus, who was present at the Eureka Stockade, has challenged many male historians’ notion that women weren’t involved at this salient point in Australian history as the journal proves that women were injured, even killed, during the battle. (A small number of these women can also be found in Laurel Johnson’s booklet “Women of Eureka”).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Rugged Angel

I only discovered Lillian Armfield when I read the fascinating "Razor" by Larry Writer, a book that tells the "true story of slashers, gangsters, prostitutes and sly grog" in Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s.

While I was well aware of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, the notorious madams who controlled a big chunk of eastern Sydney's underworld in King's Cross and Darlinghust ("Razorhurst") during the period and who have acquired a legendary status in Australian folklore almost on a par with Ned Kelly, I knew virtually nothing of the police who had to deal with these notorious women of crime on a daily basis.

Lillian Armfield, one of Australia's first real policewomen (image from the NSW Police files, 1915), was as tough as many of the street women she arrested such as "Botany May" and Nellie Cameron

Although the first woman to receive the King's Police Medal, Lillian received no pension when she retired and spent her latter years in virtual poverty. She is another amazing woman who carried a bucket behind men, but also blazed a major trail for policewomen of the future and she really needs to be given much more credit.

A book, "Rugged Angel", was written about Lillian in 1961 by Vince Kelly, but surely the time has come for a new author to take fresh look at this remarkable ground-breaking woman!

Click here to discover more biographical info about Lillian Armfield.

Visit the real Razorhurst

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Now’s here one woman who was definitely one of the great bucket carriers of history. Mary Moffat Livingstone, wife of the sanctified missionary-explorer, David Livingstone.
Devoted and loyal to her husband and her family, she was an exemplary heroine – or victim, depending on your point of view - of the age in which she lived.
Few modern women can comprehend the conditions which she endured – a childhood in what was then a remote outpost of Southern Africa, a marriage of convenience to a dour Scotsman, long and arduous journeys in primitive wagons across deserts and through unexplored bush. Mary faced everything from attacks by wild animals and close encounters with death by starvation, thirst and disease, not to mention giving birth beneath the trees after which she was expected to climb back on board the wagon and continue as if nothing untoward had happened.
Only towards the end of her life after she had been cruelly abandoned to her own devices and poverty in Britain for years at a time while her husband continued on his glory-making exploits through Africa, did she show signs of finally breaking out of the mould into which she had been forced, even to the point of questioning her belief in God.
If she hadn’t died tragically from fever – exacerbated by a growing fondness for alcohol - in her early forties, perhaps a less compliant and more assertive Mary Livingstone would have eventually emerged and the story of David Livingstone himself might have taken a very different path.
In death, as in life, Mary remains on the neglected outer fringe and is buried on the remote banks of the Zambezi River at Chupanga, Mozambique while her husband David, of course, lies in far more exalted soil under Westminster Abbey.
David has had hundreds of articles and books written about him, yet there is still no sympathetic biography of Mary. Edna Healey is one of only a handful of authors who has researched her in some detail. See “Wives of Fame” (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1986)
Mary’s eldest son, Robert, was likewise a victim of his father’s great fame, and will be the topic of another entry.

That Other Australian Nellie

All the world still remembers the Australian-born opera diva, Dame Nellie Melba. Her recordings are regularly remastered and reissued and she has been the ongoing subject of numerous films and books – most recently in the marvellous biography by Ann Blainey, “I am Melba” – and so she certainly isn’t in history’s bucket.
Not so well-known is Melba’s contemporary, Nellie Stewart. Although occasionally revived in museum restrospectives, such as that currently on at the City Museum of Melbourne where this portrait from the National Gallery of Victoria is on display, she is largely forgotten.
Haughty Melba might have been the acme of high-brow operatic perfection, but Nellie Stewart was the actress-singer and musical theatre star popular with all ages. Very pretty, good-natured and accessible she was known as “Australia’s Sweetheart” and was famous for playing young roles right up until she died in 1931, coincidentally, in the same year as Melba.

Melba had famous dishes named after her – eg Peach Melba and Melba Toast – but Nellie’s lasting trademark was a simple gold bangle that she always wore and which was imitated and became a fashion statement of young Australian women.
The angel on Nellie’s tomb in Booroondara Cemetery, Kew, Melbourne even wears a bangle!

Read more about Nellie here