South Australia, say the authors of the beautiful coffee-table book Trailblazers, “was an early leader in women’s rights, so it’s no surprise that it has produced an army of trailblazing, inspirational women”. However, they continue, their stories are not well enough told or known, hence this book!
As with any endeavour like this, it was a challenge to limit themselves to 100, but they did. The women they chose cover “an array of fields – from vineyards to laboratories, from the judiciary and politics to schoolrooms, charities and the stage”, with their influence ranging from local communities to the international stage. They make the point that not all the women they chose were born in South Australia or, alternatively, not all those who were born in South Australia made their mark there. They also make the point that although South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to grant women the vote and the right to stand for election, back in 1894, “the fight for a ‘fair go’ continues today”. This means, I’d argue, that the women in this book serve as both a record of what has been achieved and as inspirations for what still needs to be done.
The women are ordered alphabetically, which is clever as it saves the need of an index (though an index would be good if you seek other information, like writers, politicians, activists, etc. There is an excellent bibliography at the back, organised by subject, so you can quickly check what sources were used for each woman. I was pleased to see, for example, that Desley Deacon who wrote the authoritative (I’d say) biography of Dame Judith Anderson (my review) was used for the Anderson piece. The sources include primary sources, like newspaper articles, from the subject’s time. The book – a heavy tome I must say – is also beautifully illustrated with plentiful photographs.
So, who is here? There are the feminists, of course, including 19th century born Muriel Matters (who was featured in Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom) and 20th century born Anne Summers (author of Damned whores and God’s police). There are the social reformers, such as Catherine Helen Spence who was also an early Australian woman “novelist, journalist, preacher and teacher”. Born in 1825, she was, as well, an early campaigner for women’s rights. On her 80th birthday in 1905, she described herself as “an awakened woman”:
Awakened in the sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to family and the household, but to the State; to be used not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born.
South Australia has produced many women who have made significant political careers in Federal politics, such as, from recent times, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard, (the late) Janine Haines, Natasha Stott Despoja and Penny Wong (listed alphabetically to avoid bias!). What a powerhouse of women. What is in South Australia’s water?
There are Indigenous Australian women, such as the activists Ruby Hammond and Lowitja O’Donoghue, Alice (Alitya) Rigney, Australia’s first female Aboriginal school principal, and Faith Thomas, the first Aboriginal woman selected for an Australian sporting team (cricket)
Australia’s beloved cook, Maggie Beer, and fashion icon, Maggie Taberer, are included, as is the Olympian, “Lithgow Flash” Marjorie Jackson, who, among other achievements, was South Australia’s governor from 2001 to 2007.
And there are the writers, artists and performers. Mem Fox, author of the children’s classic Possum magic is an example. She was, writes the authors, “fired up over the need for more Australian stories for children”. But also included are the aforementioned actor Judith Anderson, writer Nancy Cato, artists Nora Heyson and Margaret Preston, composer Miriam Hyde, to name just a very few. I knew some of these were South Australian, others, like Margaret Preston, surprised me.
However, there are also the unsung, or lesser-known achievers. Medical workers, lawyers, educators, charity workers, activists and campaigners of all sorts, churchwomen, and more. I’ve never heard of environmentalist Barbara Hardy, or Pearl Wallace who became Australia’s first female riverboat captain in 1947 after passing “a gruelling three-day examination”. Gladys Sym Choon, described, simply, as an “entrepreneur”, was born in Unley in 1905 to Chinese parents. She opened her own store in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1923, believing herself to be the first woman in South Australia to incorporate. Doris Taylor, the founder of Meals on Wheels, was called “one of the great unsung heroines of Australia” by the late South Australian premier Don Dunstan.
There are so, so many stories here of women who have strived and achieved, often, of course, against immense odds. Because of its alphabetical arrangement, Trailblazers works more as a reference book, or one to dip into, rather than one telling “a story”, which it might have been under, say, a chronological arrangement or if ordered by spheres of activity or influence. The approach is, in a sense, encyclopaedic, providing brief biographies relevant to each woman’s reason for inclusion. This is not the place for whole-of-life, warts-and-all stories. Nor should it be, as that’s not its intention. However, the writing is bright, engaging and accessible. These authors want you to read about these women, so the pieces launch right in:
Living eight months a year on the Nullabor Plain while your dad hunts foxes and rabbits gives you a great backstory if you’re a kid with ambitions to be a country singer. (Country-singer Kasey Chambers)
When Mary Miller went to work for the war effort in 1942, she was surprised to find her co-workers at the munitions factory were more afraid of their bosses than of the explosives. (Unionist, activist and teacher)
Published just days before last Christmas, Trailblazers probably didn’t make it under many trees, but it would be a great Christmas present for anyone interested in Australia’s trailblazing women, in South Australia’s settled history, or, in fact, in that of Australia as a whole. An enjoyable read.
Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston
Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian writers
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)