March 8 is International Women’s Day and today Lisa and Nic looked at three very different women who have shaped Sydney’s history, culture and society.
The Dictionary’s content includes hundreds of biographies of people who have been influential in shaping Sydney in different ways, and the Dictionary’s capacity for showing the many and varied connections between these people is one of its many strengths.
Today we’re talking about three women with a less structured connection. One was a suffragette, one notorious, and one a cultural pioneer, but they all share the same first name.
Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) will probably be familiar to many readers.
Publicly acclaimed as ‘the mother of womanhood suffrage in New South Wales’ when women gained the vote in NSW in 1902, Louisa Lawson was a gifted writer, a newspaper proprietor and an advocate for women’s rights. Often spoken of now only in relation to her poet son Henry, she was an inspiring woman to be reckoned with in her own right.
The Dawn, which she founded in 1888, was an intelligent feminist platform for women to discuss politics and issues that affected their lives. Wholly staffed by women, unions unsuccessfully tried to shut the journal down when she employed women as compositors. The Dawn had subscribers from all over the world and appeared every month for 17 years, making it the longest-running women’s paper, indeed, one of the longest-running papers, of the period.
You can read Susan Magarey’s entry on Louisa Lawson’s life on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/lawson_louisa and check out her other connections on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/person/lawson_louisa
Louisa Collins (1849-1889) was slightly more notorious in Sydney’s history as both the first woman to be hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol and the last woman to be hanged in New South Wales. In a case that became famous as ‘The Botany Murder’, Collins was charged with poisoning her two husbands, and after four trials, was found guilty and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on 8 January 1889.
That Collins was hanged at all was a matter of great debate at the time (to the point where the regular executioner refused to take part in hanging a woman), and one which was tied to the growing women’s rights movement. As Dr Rachel Franks has put it, the proponents for her execution believed that ‘If women, the argument ran, wanted equal rights – to vote, to be paid the same as men for work of equal value – then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder‘ (1). Two recent books Black Widow by Carol Baxter and Last Woman Hanged by Caroline Overington have also examined the case.
Our third Louise was an architect, dancer, teacher, choreographer and impresario who was a pioneer of both classical ballet and Indian dance in Sydney, with, incidentally the perfect name for a dancer, Louise Lightfoot (1902-1979).
In early twentieth-century Australia, only visiting foreign companies performed full ballets, and Indian dance was virtually unknown and unseen. Lightfoot played a major role in changing that.
In November 1931, Louise and her partner Misha staged the first full performance of Coppelia danced and produced by Australians, at Sydney’s Savoy Theatre. They called their amateur group of students the First Australian Ballet. Dance critic Valerie Lawson has called it ‘…the starting block of professional ballet in Australia’ and ‘an important building block for the professional companies to follow’.
Her interest in Indian dance was sparked during a visit there in 1937, and she spent
the rest of her life promoting Indian dance and culture, bringing the first Indian dancer to perform in Australia in 1947 and introducing forms of Indian dance to cities and country towns in Australia, then to New Zealand, England, Fiji, Japan, Canada and the USA.
Read more about Louise Lightfoot on the Dictionary in Mary Lightfoot’s entry here: http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/lightfoot_louise
(1) Rachel Franks, ‘A woman’s place: constructing women within true crime narratives’, TEXT Special Issue No 34 Writing and Illustrating Interdisciplinary Research, April 2016
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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