Gold Coast Bulletin, 3 June 1996


By Drena Parrington

As Susanna De Vries speaks of the extraordinary courage and spirit of the heroines of her latest book, her eyes and voice betray sentiments which transcend her pro-women perspective and the passion of the scholar.

The stories of Austra­lia’s pioneering women tap a wellspring of emotion in her which appears to be sourced in her acute understanding of the backdrop of appalling physical and social condi­tions against which they struggled — and a desire to see their contributions and accomplishments ac­corded long overdue recognition.

As Susanna sits in the study of the Brisbane home she shares with her husband, Jake, whose most recent architectural design is the Brisbane Entertainment Centre at Boondall, it becomes obvious De Vries feels an intimate connection and union with those whose lives she has so painstakingly researched

.“I love these women,” she says simply. “They are magnificent.”

That De Vries’ book, published by EJ Dwyer, of Sydney, is an artfully managed marriage of scholarly research and compelling narrative is no accident.

She says her approach is much influenced by the ­techniques of the modern novel. An historian by na­ture and among other pursuits, a lecturer in art history at the Continuing Education Department of the University of Queens­land, De Vries also is acutely aware of the aca­demic imperative.

Conscious of the fact that exploring women’s place in history is one of the growth areas in the field, she constructed Strength of Spirit with its use as resource materi­al in mind — hence the detailed footnotes at the end of each chapter.

“But I also wrote it with the idea that if peo­ple simply wanted a good read they would be able to canter through the chapters,” she says.

Susanna points out that pioneer women made out­standing contributions. Without the benefit of the vote, little or no education and certainly none be­yond year nine, electrical labour-saving devices, contraception, the right to an opinion, control over their lives, property or money. If they chose to leave violent or loveless marriages, they left with nothing, sometimes not even their children who were considered by the courts to be the property of the father.

They laboured in a macho and patronising society which stereotyped women either as Madon­nas — childlike, intellec­tually inferior chattels whose job it was to bear a child every 18 months or so and tend to hearth and home — or as ‘damned whores’, the epithet ap­plied to all convict wom­en, their daughters and women in unmarried rela­tionships.

And still they were re­sponsible for remarkable achievements. Achievements which De Vries. says chroniclers of our history either largely ignored or blindly attributed to men.

It was, for instance, Elizabeth Macarthur, not her husband on whom history generally bestows the credit, who in her spouse’s absence, success­fully experimented with crossbreeding merinos to greatly improve the wool yield of the Macarthur flocks.

It was Mary Penfold, not her husband Dr Christopher Penfold, who founded and ran Penfolds Wines, establishing the initial vineyards with the help of only a ploughman and a maid and ably managing the flourishing winery or many years after the doctor’s death. De Vries makes the observation that the name of the racehorse Phar Lap is better known in this country than most women of achievement.

She contends the cavalier historical treatment of women like Mary Watson, Lucy Osburn, Mary Penfold, Elizabeth Macarthur Mary McConnel and Georgiana Molloy, to name but a few, has robbed Australia of its rightful heroines and role models.

It’s a situation which she is working to redress, first with her 1987 book, Pioneer Women, Pioneer Land (which won the Cornish International Literary Prize for Biography) and now with Strength of Spirit. A second volume, Strength of Purpose, which will chronicle the history of Australian women from Federation to the arrival of The Pill, is well under way.

Delving into the history of Australia’s women of achievement is De Vries’ second love. Art history, the world of antiques, rare books and works of art was her first passion and remains so. “The antique trade is fascinating ‑ it’s the uni­versity of life,” she says. “We acquire an object, research its history and, through the process, can learn a great deal about life and the human expe­rience.”

Born in London, she studied art history at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University Complutense in Madrid and worked in the fields of art and journalism in London, Spain, Austria and Germany before heading to Australia. Here she headed the rare books and Australian watercolours department of Lawson’s, the Sydney art auctioneers.

For nine years until 1992 Susanna acted as Art Editor of The Australian Collector magazine. She was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship for her achievements as an art historian. She is the author of six books, including Impres­sionist Masters, Paintings From Private Collections, now in its second edition and a best-seller in America. While De Vries was working at Lawson’s Auctioneers she was introduced to the journals of Austra­lia’s pioneer women and came to the conclusion that Australia’s history as had been presented was ‘bor­ing’. Australian history is littered with men who went trekking off into the bush but who hadn’t the wit to live off native foods and consequently perished,” Susanna says. She contends the challenging circumstances of Australia’s first century of white settlement produced women, both white and Aboriginal, who were every bit as courageous and deter­mined as the ex­plorers whose achieve­ments are lauded in our history books.

If historians have been cavalier in their treat­ment of the achievements of pioneering white wom­en, they have almost to­tally ignored those of Ab­original women. Who knows of the exploits of Walyer, the Aboriginal Boadicea? After rallying a small band of her peo­ple, she used her knowl­edge of the bush to fight a guerrilla war against the Europeans who were in­tent on hunting down and killing the Tasmanian Aborigines as if they were vermin to be exterminat­ed.

De Vries contends that Truganini was a percep­tive, intelligent woman whose compliance and co­-operation with Robinson’s plan to encourage Ab­origines to move to Flin­ders Island, where they would be issued with food and clothing and be safe from extermination, owed more to a pragmatic de­sire to ensure the survival of her people than to treachery.

“It seems highly likely that with her bitter expe­riences of white men she would have concluded that the struggle for Van Diemen’s Land lay be­tween totally and un­equally matched oppo­nents,” she says.

De Vries is adamant that every nation needs heroines as well as heroes and despairs that the lives and achievements of Aus­tralia’s greatest women have been largely ignored for much of our history.

“Australian women have been every bit as brave and determined as their male equivalents and achieved so much. “The lives of the 20 women 1 have written about in this book were truly remarkable, as were their contributions to Australia. They made me laugh and cry. 1 hope their stories may serve as an inspiration to Austra­lia’s present‑day women to help them reach their own goals and aspira­tions.”