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Reflections on Extraordinary Women

Out of the blue some months ago, a woman unknown to me rang with the news that her mother had passed away and that she was preparing a eulogy for the funeral.

She recalled her mother speaking within her family about being acknowledged and celebrated in the Trust’s exhibition some 15 years ago, Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives. Confirming that she had indeed been featured, I emailed the daughter the biographical profile and the accompanying theme capturing the life and contribution of her mother, as well as the other women in the particular exhibition cluster.

It caused me to reflect for a moment more on the significance of this initiative. We knew at the time of developing and staging this exhibition that we had achieved something very special. From the decision to include all of the 264 nominations we had received instead of selecting out 20 women (how could we possibly consider one woman’s contribution more meritorious than others?), the Trust continued to break new ground – in ways which led eminent feminist historian, Marilyn Lake, to write in The Age (2 June 2001):

Collected in this creative and imaginative presentation, the documentation of so many and such different lives confirm how vital have been women’s endeavours to civil society … how adequate can history be as a record of the past when it so singularly fails to grasp the significance of women’s lives?

The exhibition toured Victoria in suburban and regional venues right across the State. Some 20,000 people saw it, with visitors’ books filled with overwhelmingly positive and illuminating feedback. Something major had resonated with people, especially women. They understood that the exhibition was publicly proclaiming a critical truth about the realities of women’s lives and their extraordinary social contribution – often unremunerated, not included in halls of fame and not properly reflected in society’s characterisations of worth and economic value.

A few of the featured women from the exhibition

In the following year, a print run of 5,000 copies of the exhibition booklet sold out. Almost half of these copies were on-sold to just about every secondary school in Victoria – public and private schools included.

These are all valid descriptors of important outcomes from the Trust initiative back then. But getting the phone call from a woman grieving for her mother hints at something more – the deeply personal impacts 15 years on from all the women who were celebrated, and on those who soaked it up as visitors. How, after all, can you place a dollar figure on what it means to successfully validate women’s worth and achieve further recognition of women on the public record which in itself is a pre-requisite for gender equality?

As another annual reporting year draws to a close, I would like to take the opportunity of paying special thanks to Board members, staff, volunteers and all of our wonderful and committed donors, for enabling the Trust to continue with the important work of seeing women respected as equals in their private and community lives.

This is an excerpt from the Victorian Women’s Trust 2015-16 Annual Report. Read the full report here. 

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