Susan Hewitt’s and Penelope Lee’s sculpture The Great Petition
If a man says, “I like a lady who’s independent and feisty”, pretty quickly I’m sucking in air through gritted teeth. A “lady” paints a picture of a woman being patronised as she’s being hoisted onto a pedestal. And the man who’s putting her on that pedestal may be slightly intimidated. Will he take a peak under her skirt while she’s on her pedestal being perfect?
Call me a ferocious wildebeest, but I prefer a masculinity that gives me the space to screw up and, let’s face it, there’s not enough room to falter on a pedestal.
There’s something about the L word that implies I will need looking after, that I’m not able to get things done alone, or competent enough to manage the big world. And it might be safer if I stick to trading recipes instead of investment shares. The words “she’s a great lady” make me run as fast as my G-string will allow without chafing.
But what is an appropriate collective noun for a group of women? “Hello girls!” Maybe, if I’m in charge of a bunch of tap-dancing eight-year-olds in tutus. “Gals” conjures up a tragic tableau of breathless bimbos waiting for Mr Right. “Yo bitches” is fine if you’re a rapper and you “throw your hands in the air like you care”. “Chicks” sounds tiny and frail and – wait for it – diminishing. Why not just say, “Hey, what kind of a night are you lovely ‘Adam’s ribs’ having?”
Adam’s rib no doubt haunted the 30,000 women whose signatures were on the “Monster Petition” offered to the Victorian Parliament in 1891 as evidence of widespread support for equal voting rights for women. But the continuing opposition of the Parliament, which knocked back several bills, meant that women had to wait another 17 years before they were given voting rights with the passage of the Adult Suffrage Act in 1908.
Although I wasn’t there to sign the petition, Susan Hewitt’s and Penelope Lee’s sculpture Great Petition makes me feel triumphant. It’s a gigantic white furl of dynamic ribbon representing and commemorating the 1891 Women’s Suffrage Petition. Located in Burston Reserve, between Macarthur Street and Parliament Place, it’s appropriately close to Parliament House, where the original petition was delivered. The 20-metre-long scroll-like form, comprising two steel elements and painted in parchment white, splits onto either side of the pathway that intersects the park, enfolding pedestrians as they pass through it.
I walked through remembering Vida Goldstein, Henrietta Dugdale, Annie Lowe, Annette Bear-Crawford and the thousands of women who lobbied and argued relentlessly for equal justice, equal privileges in marriage and divorce, rights to property and the custody of children in divorce.
The sculpture was unveiled on December 3, 2008 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in Victoria and provides an impressive and enduring focus on the issue of women’s (not ladies, gals, chicks or babes) contribution to public life. You can check if a woman in your family was one of the 30,000 signatures on the 1891 Women’s Suffrage Petition at the Public Record Office in the Victorian Archives Centre.
Inspirational tales of birth, death and mythology
Mary Gilbert Memorial
Mary Gilbert Memorial, Conservatory, Fitzroy Gardens
The inscription on this 1975 work by sculptor Ailsa O’Connor reads: “Mary gave birth to a son, the first white child born in the Port Phillip settlement, on 29 December 1835. As servants of John Pascoe Fawkner, Mary and her husband James Gilbert were in the original party of settlers who landed from the schooner Enterprise on 30 August 1835.” I wasn’t surprised to read that throughout her life O’Connor was active in organisations that sought equality for women. Her respect for Mary Gilbert is palpable; this face is strong and beautiful with an almost totem-like expression.
Nurse Edith Cavell Memorial
Nurse Edith Cavell Memorial, Kings Domain, Birdwood Avenue
Margaret Baskerville’s bust of Edith Cavell commemorates an extraordinarily committed woman whose tragic end is depicted on the cast-bronze relief panels on the pedestal. An English nurse, Cavell was posted to Brussels in 1907 to the Berkendael Medical Institute. At the outbreak of WWI she was left in charge of the hospital, where she helped more than 200 Allied soldiers who had been separated from their armies or had escaped German detention. In 1915, accused of conspiring to help prisoners escape, she was convicted and sentenced to death. Cavell was executed by firing squad on October 12, 1915, still wearing her nurse’s uniform.
The Water Nymph
The Water Nymph, Queen Victoria Gardens
Paul Montford’s bronze Water Nymph was unveiled in September 1925, at a time when the rise of the “flapper” signalled a loosening of sexual mores. This may have prompted the purchase of the sculpture of a naked young woman, but I doubt it had anything to do with its creation. Nymphs are personifications of the creative and fostering activities of nature and most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs at a specific location. In mythology, the essence of a water nymph is bound to her spring, so if her body of water dries up, she will die. What a perfect visual metaphor for Melbourne, a city in a river valley.