Academic journal article Hecate

Women of Substance: The Depiction of Women in Australian Monuments

Academic journal article Hecate

Women of Substance: The Depiction of Women in Australian Monuments

Article excerpt

Justice is not spoken of as a woman . . . because women were thought to be just . . . Liberty is not represented as a woman, from the colossus in New York to the ubiquitous Marianne, figure of the French Republic, because women were or are free.(1)

The female form abounds in many monuments where it is not women who are represented but rather abstract ideals, such as 'liberty', 'justice' or 'Australia'. Less common are the monuments which celebrate dead or living females. However, a number of these latter monuments does exist in Australia, as a national survey carried out between 1987 and 1989 revealed. The Australian Bicentennial Authority provided access to the 800 local Bicentennial Community Committees (BCCs) which covered most of Australia. I sought to compile "A National Register of Unusual Monuments", defined as monuments erected to the 'other' Australians (Aborigines, non Anglo-Saxon immigrants, workers, Anglo-Saxon women) and to 'ordinary' people (as opposed to explorers, monarchs, political leaders). These categories were drawn from the challenges to orthodox history provided by labour history, women's history, social history, and Aboriginal history. Two-thirds of BCCs responded, submitting 600 monuments for consideration. The two major recording agencies were local history groups and councils.

In this paper, the terms monument and memorial are used interchangeably and refer to built structures (which may range from a statue to a plaque) which remember a person or deed. I will outline the changing representation of women in Australian monuments, as revealed by the national survey, drawing some connections with the changing role of women and women's movements in Australian society. Three categories are discussed: pioneer women, women in war, and women as exceptional individuals, worthy of recognition because they trod where before only men dared to go. Before analysing the representation of "actual" women, I wish to outline briefly the use of the allegorical female form.

Allegorical Women

As long as women could not wage wars, gain university degrees or practise law, they could be used to represent their own absence, and the virtues to which men aspired. The statuary in Brisbane reveals a gradual inclusion of the male form along with the female form to symbolise abstract concepts, occurring at the same time as women asserted their public role in the early decades of this century. The 1903 pedimental pair of Agriculture and Mining on the Elizabeth Street facade of the Land Administration Building were both buxom young maidens, naked to the waist. In 1920 a similar Commerce and Industry pair was placed over the Administration Building. In 1931 the Commonwealth Bank building was decorated with two males, Industry and Commerce, while Agriculture remained female. This reflected a recurrent theme of female proximity to nature, and male proximity to the fabricated world of culture. In 1934 the Macarthur Chambers were adorned with the male Strength, the females Plenty and Production and a cherubic child Growth. The City Hall relief by Daphne Mayo,(2) "The Progress of Civilization in the State of Queensland," was sculpted in 1930. The robed and female State sends out her male explorers, while her industries and settlers (who vanquish the Aborigines) and her arts are both male and female.(3)

Given that real females are fragile "leaky" vessels, the marble female form is often sealed or strengthened with armoury of various sorts which "shows that her allegiance lies with the fathers; it masculinizes her."(4) Even where women wear no armour, their clothing is reinforced "through decoration and emphasis of contour" while the materials of bronze and marble, or muscular and oversized arms also serve to distinguish Justice, Prudence, or Courage from flesh and blood women.(5)

Allegorical females often side "with the fathers" by carrying a sword. "Womanhood" on the Adelaide war memorial in South Australia carries a sword. …

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