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Monday musings on Australian literature: Hidden Women of History

February 10, 2020

Every now and then I share some content from The Conversation, and so I am again today. This time, it’s an occasional series they have featuring the “hidden women of history”, in which they “look at under-acknowledged women through the ages”. Not all of these are Australian but around half, so far, are.

The most recent article in the series (see link below) is about Catherine Hay Thomson. It starts:

In 1886, a year before American journalist Nellie Bly feigned insanity to enter an asylum in New York and became a household name, Catherine Hay Thomson arrived at the entrance of Kew Asylum in Melbourne on “a hot grey morning with a lowering sky”.

Hay Thomson’s two-part article, The Female Side of Kew Asylum for The Argus newspaper revealed the conditions women endured in Melbourne’s public institutions.

Her articles were controversial, engaging, empathetic, and most likely the first known by an Australian female undercover journalist.

Before this, the intrepid Thomson had written about Melbourne Hospital, having obtained work there as an assistant nurse. She was quite a social justice mover-and-shaker, and worth reading about.

Here, though, I want to share with you some of the other women in this series which, at the point of writing, numbers 31 articles. The first was published on 31 December 2018, and featured  Elsie Masson, a journalist who became an advocate for Aboriginal people. Lydon writes in her article (see link below) that:

As one of the “first white women” to travel in the Northern Territory, Masson’s newspaper articles and book An Untamed Territory – a profusely-illustrated narrative of life in the wild north – show how she popularized the “expert” views of her circle: an elite global network of colonial administrators, including the famous anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer.

Lydon writes of Masson’s “transition from dislike to respect” not only of Indigenous Australians but of “others” as well, such as Chinese people. Attending the trial of nine Indigenous men arrested for the murder of trepanger James Campbell also changed her views. Lydon writes that her

account of this trial ultimately argued for the need to acknowledge the coherence of Indigenous tradition, and what today is termed customary law.

These articles cover a wide range of women – Indigenous, immigrant and Australian-born – from the early nineteenth century to well into the twentieth. They cover a wide range of professions and achievements, from the arts and sport to social justice and activism.

Listed below are the articles featuring Australian women (alphabetical by last name):

I haven’t read all of these articles yet, but once again, I thank The Conversation for bringing these women – few of whom appear, for example, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) – to our attention.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2020 00:32

    I always mean to read these when they pop up in my inbox, but then they get swamped by everything else…

    • February 11, 2020 07:57

      Yep, know the feeling Lisa. I’ve only read a couple. But now I’ve listed them with links I can find them easily. It’s a great little series. Some fascinating non-Aussies too.

  2. February 11, 2020 06:29

    “Hidden women of history: Flos Greig, Australia’s first female lawyer and early innovator”. What a gal ! – Flos had the ability and the personality to make real change in the legal profession. I’m amazed I haven’t heard of her before !

    • February 11, 2020 07:56

      She sounds great doesn’t she. So much reading M-R, but, you know, you could just read one a day.

      Did you read poor Wauba Debar?

  3. February 11, 2020 09:03

    Tweeted with thanks. I recall ADB is increasing its biographies of women

    • February 11, 2020 10:36

      Thanks David. Yes, I believe it is. Most of these would have been in earlier volumes when policies were different. Hopefully they’ll do retrospective articles.

  4. February 11, 2020 09:22

    Great topic. Throughout history and from every corner of the world, there are many women that history has underreported and undervalued. This is one reason that I have been reading more books dedicated to women’s history lately.

    • February 11, 2020 14:16

      Thanks Brian. I seek out women’s history too. Too many interesting stories have been ignored, haven’t they?

  5. February 11, 2020 11:35

    I had never heard of the Conversation but have now had a look and signed up. More things to read but looks so interesting.

    • February 11, 2020 14:20

      Oh, Pam. I’ve written about it several times over the years as I think it’s great. I can’t keep up with everything they write but I donate every year because I appreciate what they do and love knowing I can go to them when I’m looking for analysis.

  6. February 11, 2020 17:06

    I’ve never heard of any of these women. I’m glad I confined my Independent Woman thesis to writers and characters in novels or I’d have had to start all over again.

    • February 11, 2020 17:20

      Haha, Bill, you would. I’d heard of Pat Larter, and I think some passing references to Lindsay as a member of that family, but that’s it.

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