A few months ago I started a short series on Australian Women’s History. After completing the first three parts, Come In Spinner, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, and the Memoirs of Tilly Aston, life kind of hit, and part four has been languishing on my to-do list ever since. My original idea was to explore women in Australian history with a particular focus on women from diverse backgrounds. Come In Spinner depicted the changing role of women during World War Two. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence followed the incredible journey of three young Indigenous girls, members of the Stolen Generation, who made their way back home while dodging and outwitting police and trackers. Tilly Aston is a name that may not be familiar to many people, however she was a leading proponent for the rights of the visually impaired, and indeed, one of Australia’s earliest disability rights advocates. In finally wrapping up the series, I thought there is probably nothing more challenging to the traditional stereotype of passive femininity than the idea of “notorious women.”
When I first saw the title of Kay Saunders book, Notorious Australian Women, I envisaged stories about female criminal masterminds and underworld villains. After all, the word “notorious” conjures up images of disreputable characters, illegal activities and scandalous behaviour. However, this is not the original meaning of notorious. The Macquarie dictionary lists two definitions. The first, “widely but unfavourably known” is the common meaning today, but the second meaning, dating back to medieval times, is “publicly or generally known.” So a notorious person was just well-known, and not necessarily for their scandalous or disreputable behaviour. Interestingly, there is a side note suggesting that the old definition might be coming back into circulation.
Notorious Australian Women covers the lives of twenty women who were either born in Australia or lived in Australia for at least some time of their life. There are women whose names are still well-known today, such as Eliza Fraser, Annette Kellermann and Pamela Travers (creator of Mary Poppins). There are some whose names have slipped from memory, and some who perhaps deserve to be known far more widely than they are now. While the stories are definitely interesting, I found myself asking the question: what makes these women “notorious”?
The blurb on the back of the book says…
Notorious Australian Women celebrates the lives of some of Australia’s most fearless, brash and scandalous women. There’s Tilly Devine, who went from streetwalker in London to wealthy Sydney madam and standover merchant; Mary Bryant, the highway robber and First Fleeter who escaped by rowing from Port Jackson to Timor with her two children; Lola Montez, the Irish-born grande horizontale, who destroyed King Ludwig I of Bavaria; Ellen Tremaye and Marion Edwards, women who challenged the gender order and became men; and Helena Rubenstein, who rewrote her humble Polish background and became one of the most successful and astute businesswomen in the world.
Okay, so I guess you could call a “madam and standover merchant” or “highway robber” notorious. Perhaps rewriting your background is not exactly honest, but does it make one notorious? I bet Helena Rubenstein was not the only one who took advantage of a new life on the other side of the world to create a new identity. I wonder how many male colonial founders hid a murky past behind a fine and upstanding facade.
The story about Ellen Tremaye sat quite uncomfortably with me. As possibly Australia’s first transgender woman, she had a very sad life. Describing herself as a “man trapped in a woman’s body”, Ellen lived and worked as a man until she was exposed in the newspapers. She ended up in a lunatic asylum for a while and spent her last two decades in an immigrant home, which was something like the old English workhouse. All she wanted was to live a life true to herself. It broke my heart to read her story. Is this what we call “notorious”?
One of the most interesting stories was about Walyer, an indigenous woman who became a frontier warrior. In Australia we all know the terrible history of Tasmania. Sold to sealers by her own tribe, Walyer was kidnapped, raped and abused, but went on to lead a revolt against the British invaders. Apparently, she was considered “rebellious and disruptive.” Notorious? I think heroic is a better descriptor. Sadly, she died from influenza in 1851.
The final story of the book is about Lillian Roxon, whose family fled Europe on “the Dunera” in 1939. Regarded as the “mother of rock and roll journalism”, Roxon had a successful career in journalism working for the Sydney Morning Herald as well as in New York. Her book, Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia was published in 1969. Sadly, Roxon struggled with asthma which led to her premature death in 1973. I suppose being a female journalist was, you know, pretty non-conforming. Especially in the 1950s and 60s. And in rock and roll! Heaven forbid. No wonder she was notorious.
The blurb ends with…
From bushrangers, courtesans and cross-dressers, to writers, designers and a radical or two, what these splendid rebels have in common is a determination to take their destinies into their own hands.
I think the last phrase of the blurb sums up most of these stories. While some of the women perhaps could be considered “notorious”, were they doing anything that many men were not doing? For the most part, in times that were often unfavourable to women, they were taking “their destinies into their own hands.” I do feel that the title of this book was a bit of a misnomer and sets the reader up for an expectation of salacious tales about scandalous and disreputable women, when in fact, given that history has never been kind to women, they were perhaps just doing the best they could with the cards they were dealt. The subtitle uses the word “audacious”, and perhaps that is the real issue here. These were women who defied expectations, refused to conform to traditional gender stereotypes, and dared to live differently, and for that, they are supposedly “notorious.” Perhaps, we should charge our glasses and raise a toast instead to the courageous and audacious women of Australian history.