With International Women’s Day and the All About Women festival in the past week, there have been some great discussions around feminism and gender equality. Sydney has had its share of women’s rights activists, some better remembered than others. One of the lesser known of these women lived in the inner west suburb of Summer Hill, joined the temperance movement and spoke out against the evils of the corset.
Susannah Margaret Beckwith Beckett, or Susan Beckett as she became known, was born Susannah McCallum on 29 October 1851 in Chatham, England.
In 1874 in London, she married George Stevens Beckwith Beckett, an officer of the British Indian Army who was 25 years her senior. She had a son, George, from a previous marriage and gave birth to a girl, Ruby, while the family were stationed in India in 1878.
In April 1883 the family arrived in Sydney and settled in a cottage on Nowranie Street in Summer Hill which they named ‘Rubyville’.
Beckett became a member of the NSW Branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU was an international feminist organisation that campaigned for abstinence from alcohol as they believed the ‘demon drink’ was the cause of many social issues, from domestic violence to poverty. They conducted lectures and gatherings in the Temperance Hall, located on Pitt Street near Sydney Town Hall.
Involvement in groups like the Temperance Union gave women a credible and respectable platform to express their ideas. In addition to raising concerns about the effects of alcohol consumption on women and families, many of these women used their new voice to broadcast other issues like suffrage or, in the case of Susan Beckett, the restrictive women’s corset.
In 1893, she registered a patent for ‘An improved combination brace, bodice or vest’, with the New South Wales patent office. An invention which very closely resembles a modern bra, she claimed it would allow ‘muscle room for a deep respiration and facility for a vigorous heartbeat’.
Throughout the 1890s Beckett conducted many lectures around New South Wales, some in the Temperance Hall, others in towns out of the metropolis, about the dangers of the corset. In one lecture delivered in Goulburn titled ‘What is Man’, she commented on the fashion for tight lacing:
‘Don’t…squeeze your liver away somewhere and make people believe you’re naturally delicate…Look at the creatures going about…wasps-creatures fearfully and wonderfully made up; they can take their hair off, their teeth out, their backbone out, and their ribs away…What…had women done to men that they should be compelled, through the men’s perverted ideas of beauty to squeeze themselves up in the way they did?’
Beckett may not have successfully eradicated the corset, but she was part of a broader, important movement toward social change. Her public activism for the cause all but disappears after the 1890s, possibly after her husband’s death in 1901, and she died on 17 August 1937, at her son George’s residence in Lewisham. And today, just down the road from her former Summer Hill residence, is a bar called the Temperance Society!
Ann O’Connell’s article, ‘The New Women of the 1890s – and Ashfield’s answer to the corset’, in Chris Pratten (ed), Ashfield at Federation (Ashfield, NSW: Ashfield and District Historical Society, 2001)
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!