Utterly feminist in nature, Barbara Baynton's book disrupts the notion of 'pioneer success' and accomplishment that forms so much of the masculine frontier narratives. Photo: Rebecca Worth
Content note: contains names of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In countries around the world, March 1 marks the start of Women's History Month. The first Women's History Month was celebrated in Australia in 2000, and as far as I can tell it ceased to be officially acknowledged in 2014. This lack of support for women's history is barely surprising, given how marginalised the recording of women's participation in Australian life has been.
A few years ago, I interviewed the historian Clare Wright. Wright had just won the inaugural Stella Prize (a literary award designed to recognise the excellence in Australian women's writing that is often so suspiciously ignored in other major literary prizes) for her groundbreaking historical account of women in the goldfields, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. During our conversation, Wright told me that some of her historian peers had scoffed on finding out what she was writing. "What could there possibly be left to say about Eureka that hasn't been said already?" they asked.
Oh, you know, just the astonishing revelations that Eureka hadn't been the quintessential Boys' Own Adventure it's always been imagined as but had included women who'd fought - and died - on the battleground.
But like I said, the lack of interest or even acknowledgement that anyone has been responsible for shaping history besides the white men glorified in it is still a bridge too far for some people. References to Women's History Month provoke some people to demand a Men's History Month, much like Black History Month causes mouth frothers to insist on there being a White History Month 'for fairness', and International Women's Day results in cries for International Men's Day. Because God forbid the dominant class already favoured by privilege, access and representation be forced to give even an inch of ground and learn about someone other than themselves.
Women's History Month never really took off in Australia, which is a darn shame because there are so many unsung women who've been either left out of the pages of history altogether or reduced to merely a footnote in it. I'd love to see Women's History Month celebrations take off once more, but in the meantime here are five women you may not have heard of or know that much about.
Barangaroo was a woman of the Cammeraygal people; she was active in the resistance against the invading White Man, helping to lure the fleets on shore probably, as Karskens says, to assist the Cammeraygal warriors in their attacks on them. She refused to wear clothes, even at the governor's table, where she sat adorned only with a bone through her nose. Barangaroo was, like the other Eora women, a fisher - she and the other women would take to treacherous waters to source food for their families. She is a fierce figure not just in feminist history and not just in Australian history but in world history - because Barangaroo contradicted everything that was 'understood' about indigenous communities at the time, and the women who formed such integral parts of them.
In 2012, Anita Heiss and Wesley Enoch presented I Am Eora, an artistic work at the Sydney Festival that celebrated the lives of "three heroes of Aboriginal Sydney", including Barangaroo, the "female embodiment of resilience".
Barbara Baynton (1857-1929)
I first discovered Barbara Baynton when I was at university, and her collection of short stories, Bush Studies, was assigned to one of my reading lists. It remains one of the most powerful books in my collection. Published in 1902, it's a gothic exploration of what life was like for a portion of women living in Australia at the turn of the century. Utterly feminist in nature, it disrupts the notion of 'pioneer success' and accomplishment that forms so much of the masculine frontier narratives. The bibliographer Percival Serle offered this criticism on publication: "The building up of detail, however, is at times overdone, and lacking humorous relief, the stories tend to give a distorted view of life in the back-blocks." That a woman's experience of "life in the back-blocks" would be considered 'distorted' as opposed to 'different and meaningful' is telling in itself.
Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905)
Fanny Cochrane Smith was born on Flinders Island after her parents, Tanganutura and Nicermenic, were 'resettled' there by the policy of white invasion. She is responsible for ensuring the legacy of her indigenous Tasmanian language, by the creation of wax cylinder recordings of Aboriginal songs. After witnessing brutal atrocities against her people at the hands of the British colonisers, she became the first Indigenous person to have her songs and stories recorded for posterity.
Henrietta Dugdale (1827-1918)
Henrietta Dugdale established the first women's suffrage society in Australasia. In 1869, she wrote a letter to Melbourne's Argus newspaper in which she argued for equal justice for women. She formed the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society in 1884, and began campaigning against the Victorian justice system for its inability to protect women from violent crimes. As she wrote in the Melbourne Herald, "Women's anger was compounded by the fact that those who inflicted violence upon women had a share in making the laws while their victims did not." The Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls is named in honour of her life's work.
There is a popular saying: "Well behaved women seldom make history". This is true to an extent, but even more true is that history has been dictated by people who far too often have the power to decide what matters and what doesn't. What matters is that the history and action of women, in all their guises and forms and from all their myriad backgrounds, is recorded and respected. And we have the power, now, to make sure that we broaden the stories available to those people looking back from the future. You are shaping history, just as countless women before you have done. You are changing the world. You will become its past, but right now you are making its future.
Happy Women's History Month!