The Advertiser. [Adelaide], 28 January 2002

Australian women who made a difference

GREAT AUSTRALIAN WOMEN. Volume II. By Susanna De Vries,~ HarperCollins.


In a book, highlighting the achievements of women in all aspects of Australian life, Susanna De Vries, an art historian and prize-winning author, tells us in her introduction that George Hegel, renowned Professor of Philosophy at Berlin University, insisted that women’s limited mental capacity equipped them only for housework and child-rearing.

Women could not succeed in science or allied fields and were incapable of intellectual achievement or creating significant literature or art. Closer to home, in 1894, Professor William Ball-Headley, Professor of Obstetrics at Sydney University, predicted that if young women were allowed to undertake tertiary education, “the energy needed by the uterus would be diverted to the brain, rendering them infertile.” This book attempts to disprove those theories and to celebrate women for their hard work, intelligence, talent, dedication and compassion, and the difference they have made as individuals to life in many ways.

In the early 1990s a survey by the Australian newspaper invited readers to nominate 20 outstanding Australians from the past. Caroline Chisholm was the only woman mentioned; she rated one place below Phar Lap. The author begins with Mary Penfold, who ran what is now a multimillion-dollar business which became famous inter­nationally as Penfolds Wines, now part of Southcorp Wines.

Sister Lucy Osburn (1835‑1891) is Australia’s answer to Florence Nightingale. She devoted her life to improving conditions in hospitals and for professional status and better conditions for nurses. She succeeded in ele­vating nursing to a level of professionalism that it had never had before. Another nurse, Mary McConnel (1824‑1910), is also featured. She was the founder of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Brisbane.

One of the most engrossing stories is that of Mary MacKillop, (1842‑1909). As a child Mary had a vision of a beautiful lady who told her she would be a mother to her always. Mary always believed she had seen the Virgin Mary and devoted herself all her life to God, caring for the poor, the destitute and the sick. She established schools in Adelaide, Port Augusta and Bathurst, and a branch of her order in Brisbane. She met great resist­ance from priests in her own church. She is now beatified for her saintly life and humanitarian work. Her Josephite Order now works with underprivileged migrants in inner‑city areas and with Aboriginal people in remote areas.

Nellie Melba, or Helen Porter Mitchell (1856‑1931), the Voice of Australia, also has a fascinating story. Temperamental, witty, at­tention‑loving, adored by many, she could al­so be a ruthless, autocratic and conniving en­emy to anyone who dared cross her, but she made Australia respected in opera circles with her beautiful voice.

The writer Stella Miles Franklin (1879‑1954) also demanded change to the role of women and fought hard to achieve it. She felt that without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien on their own soil. After a battle for recognition in a man’s world, Franklin eventually became accepted for her talent and services to literature.

Jane Sutherland (1855‑1928), Margaret Sutherland (1897‑1984) and Louise Bertha Hanson-Dyer (1884‑1962) are applauded as outstanding women in art and music.

Ethel Cooper (1871‑1961) won the Polish Gold Cross of Merit for helping refugees and was a concert pianist, aid worker and coura­geous intelligence agent. One of the most interesting accounts is the life of artist Marga­ret Preston, but the most poignant of all is the tragic story of Kylly Tennant, compassionate author and social commentator.