I was pretty keen to read this book, billed as “the sensational lives and exploits of some of Australia’s most audacious women”. The author of this collection, Kay Saunders, is a highly respected historian, who was one of the pioneers of gender studies in Australian history, and I’ve used her work often. She has an Australia Medal and was Professor of History and Senator of the University of Queensland and has received the Medal of the National Museum of Australia and the Royal Australian Historical Society of Queensland’s John Kerr Medal. I know from her previous work, which goes back to the 1980s, that she has deep knowledge of her subjects, and a great deal of sympathy for their choices.
It was no surprise to me that Saunders has written such a book – short biographies were important sources for writing women into history in the 1980s and 1990s, and Saunders produced a number of vital feminist anthologies. She revives that work here, but for a mass market audience, with an alluring image of the temptress Lola Montez on the cover. The women featured range across Australian history and social classes and include the warrior Walyer, convict Mary Bryant, castaway Eliza Fraser, brothel-keepers Madame Brussels and razor-wielding Tilly Devine, firebrand Adela Pankhurst, gay socialite Lady Maie Casey, lovelorn arts patron Sunday Reed, physical fitness heroine Annette Kellermann, mystic Rosaleen Norton and flamboyant Florence Broadhurst.
Saunders has a lot of research to draw upon, and she handles it well. However, I have to say, the overall result was disappointing. Often the women were less notorious than notable – Helena Rubinstein and Lillian Roxon are cases in point – but even when the behaviour of the subjects was genuinely shocking, there is no sense of the ways the public reacted to them or the wider impact of their audacity. For instance, in the story of Ellen Tremaye and Marion Edwards, who both lived and married as men in 19th century Victoria, Saunders explores the motivations of these transsexual “men”, but presents their wives as dupes. Yet those women knew what they were marrying. What does their choice say about marriage and sexuality in that society?
After a while I found it hard to keep going. The chapters are fairly basic chronological biographies, which are not exactly compelling (sadly, a few attempts to shake up the storytelling ended up confusing me about what had actually happened). I really felt the book needs a touch of drama, and a sense of larger themes. It could also do with some stiff editing to remove typos and muddled paragraphs. Above all, it needs more images, and quotes from those women who did write about themselves, to give a clearer sense of their personalities and emotional lives.
We need books like this, that tell good stories about women who dared to challenge the roles our society has set for our sex. This book makes a creditable start, because of the strengths of the author, but it’s only just a start.