In late 2017, the City of Melbourne approached the Victorian Women’s Trust with a request for assistance in developing a list of notable women to address the gender bias in street naming. As putting women on the public record is an important touchstone of the Trust as an organisation, we were happy to roll up our sleeves and start researching women of Melbourne whose mighty contributions shaped the city we live and work in. The result of this research was a short booklet with a curated list of women, each deserving of wider recognition. It is by no means exhaustive but it goes some way to highlight the influence women have had throughout the decades.
Two stark things quickly became evident in researching these women; one was how buried their incredible stories were. Not only were their names not featured on street signs and in public spaces but they were underrepresented, forgotten or buried in the footnotes. The other, was how vitally important it is to represent women’s long contribution to civic life with highly visible, tangible and long-lasting tributes.
Researching the lives of these women was a process that took us off the beaten track. Their stories were hidden, often within obscure sources like old feminist history books and archived local newspapers.
While the Trust’s own feminist history publication Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives, had a huge influence on this project, there weren’t many sources recording women’s achievements in equal depth and diversity.
As we continued to unearth their stories, it became clear that the lack of easily accessible information was not a reflection on the number of noteworthy women in Melbourne, rather, it revealed how women had been excluded from mainstream historical records, and their histories kept invisible within public space.
This invisibility has encouraged the assumption that women are underrepresented in our history books and in our public spaces because women did not have an ongoing involvement in public life. Their impact has minimised to two significant moments across history: attaining voting rights for (white) women, and the sexual revolution. This depiction seems to equate the public woman with the political woman, to the exclusion of the important achievements also made by women in the home, within their families and in their communities.
Women in the Life of the City aims to acknowledge the myriad ways women have shaped our culture and community. We have attempted to capture within this project the variety of ways in which women have contributed to the history of Melbourne. This booklet contains twenty-seven truly influential women from various backgrounds including science, academia, social work, politics, medicine, policing, urban planning, the arts, and child-fostering. Issues they have advocated for are just as varied, such as labour rights, pay equality, Indigenous rights, environmental protection, reproductive rights, and rights for women with disabilities.
Capturing the diverse ways in which women have contributed to our community is fundamental to creating a representative and factual public record. What we see reflected on the street and in our public records, places and projects both transmits and relays the value we afford in honouring the contributions of women and men in our civic life. However, for too long this ‘diversity’ is achieved by recognising one or some small proportion of women, rather than the diverse achievements women from a range of backgrounds in equal measure to men.
Fashioning a city into the future, one that embodies gender equality, will require a seismic cultural shift in our public record.
We must honour the legacy of women and men’s contributions in equal measure. Creating an enduring recognition of these women’s histories in the public spaces and community projects is a powerful way to restore the public record. Issues that many of us are passionate about, like pay equality and service accessibility, have their historical foundations within the stories of these women. As these issues are still so very relevant today, it is imperative that we preserve their legacy in our physical surroundings.
We produced this booklet with all of this in mind. We know that for every woman named here, there are many others yet to be recognised. However, this booklet is an important start and an accessible entry point for learning more about a broad range of Melbourne women’s contributions across disciplines and backgrounds.