The Australian women expats who found liberation in the US

  • Written by Anne Rees, David Myers Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Obituary writers paid tribute last week to Jill Ker Conway, an Australian writer and historian who died on June 1 in Boston, aged 83, after spending most of her adult life in the US. Educated at Harvard, Ker Conway came to prominence in 1975 when she was appointed the first woman president of Massachusetts’ august Smith College.

In Australia, Ker Conway is best known for her acclaimed memoirs, The Road from Cooraine (1989) and True North (1994), which recount how she fled the narrow, sexist world of her youth to pursue a life of the mind in New England. By the time The Road from Coorain was adapted for television in 2002, Ker Conway was one of Australia’s most iconic expats; a US equivalent to London-based figures such as Germaine Greer and Clive James.

The Australian women expats who found liberation in the US A portrait of Jill Ker Conway, made in 1987 by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, part of the First Ladies: Significant Australian Women 1913-2013 exhibition. National Portrait Gallery

Less well known is the fact that Ker Conway was far from unique. A century before E3 visas enabled today’s entrepreneurs and baristas to create a “Little Australia” in downtown Manhattan, young Australians flocked to the US. Its appeal was especially pronounced for Australian women, who often faced sexism in their attempts to build an independent life at home. Well into the 1970s Australia could be “an inhospitable place for women”, as poet Kate Jennings recalled. When Jennings headed to New York in 1979, she found a reprieve from the “misogyny” that prevailed in Sydney. Many women felt the US was more tolerant of female ambition; one called it a “woman’s paradise”.

By the time Jennings headed Stateside in the 1970s, thousands of women had gone before her. These included anarchist poets, opera stars and film directors, as well as architects, dentists, teachers, librarians, businesswomen and diplomats. They went to the US to further their education, gain professional experience, or simply have an adventure.

Unlike Ker Conway, most returned to Australia after months or years abroad. This trans-Pacific mobility not only transformed their own lives, but also forged professional, cultural and economic links between the two nations. Decades before the “turn to America” announced by Prime Minister John Curtin in 1941, Australian women expats helped pioneer our “special relationship” with the US.

Persia Campbell was a star of this cohort. One of Australia’s first female economists, in 1929 she headed to New York on a Rockefeller Fellowship and established an academic career. After spearheading the field of consumer economics, she was later appointed adviser to President Kennedy and became a development expert at the United Nations.

The Australian women expats who found liberation in the US President John F. Kennedy with Members of the Consumer Advisory Council, 1962, including Dr Persia Campbell (front right). Photograph by Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

No less impressive was Campbell’s contemporary Mary Cecil Allen, a Melbourne-born painter who won plaudits in interwar New York and controversially championed US-style abstract expressionism in 1950s Australia.

One provocative figure was Melbourne-born dentist Dorothy Waugh, who trained and then taught at Pittsburgh’s Temple University during the 1920s. When Waugh visited her hometown in 1934, she publicly condemned Australia’s regressive gender politics.

“The fact that I was a woman had no bearing on my appointment to a University position. That is the attitude in the United States and it should be the attitude here,” Waugh insisted.

The Australian women expats who found liberation in the US The painter Mary Cecil Allen in the 1920s. National Library of Australia

Pioneering librarian Wilma Radford also went to the US to study. In 1948, Radford graduated from New York’s Columbia University, making her the first Australian to hold a degree in library science.

Back home, she urged Australia to adopt the US model of training librarians at university – a campaign that came to fruition in 1960 when UNSW opened the nation’s first library science school. By 1968, Radford was both Head of School and a full Professor, becoming Australia’s first chair of librarianship.

Jean Wilmot Bemis made her mark by teaching Australians about the US. A Melbourne-trained journalist, she lived in Boston from the late 1920s. There she hosted an ABC radio program called “American Letters” (1943-65), which advocated Australian-US friendship and espoused the virtues of American modernity.

Wilmot’s broadcasts were a hit, but others found a less receptive audience. When dietitian Alice Caporn arrived in Perth fresh from America in 1938, her newfound enthusiasm for almond milk was condemned by Public Health Commissioner Dr Everitt Atkinson. In an instance of the anti-Americanism then rampant among British-minded male elites, Caporn was denounced as a “food faddist” attempting to spread the “pernicious virus of American ‘hooey’”.

The Australian women expats who found liberation in the US Poster for the 1921 film The Heart of the North, starring Australian-born actor Louise Lovely. Wikimedia

For Melbourne aviatrix Jessie Maude Miller, the US promised fame and fortune. After becoming the first woman to fly between England and Australia, she headed Stateside in 1928 to capitalise on the public fascination with women pilots. There she broke the female record for a transcontinental flight, raked in cash on the competition circuit, and survived a spectacular crash in the Bahamas – all before getting embroiled in a murder scandal that saw her hounded from the country.

Queenslander Dorothy Cottrell had an equally rapid rise and fall. In 1927, this unknown writer became a overnight publishing sensation when she sold her first novel in the US for a fantastic sum. Although confined to a wheelchair, Cottrell relocated to California and built a palatial home with her royalties. A few years later, however, Wall Street crashed and her income evaporated. By 1932, she was penniless.

Australia also exported a steady stream of theatrical talent. Louise Lovely, Enid Bennett and Sylvia Breamer all adorned the silver screen during the 1910s and ’20s – becoming some of Hollywood’s first stars. Over on Broadway, Adelaide’s Judith Anderson was one of the biggest names in the 1920s and ’30s.

The Australian women expats who found liberation in the US The broadway actor Judith Anderson. Wikimedia Commons

Melbourne-born performer Rose Quong was one of several Chinese Australians to forge an American career. After a stint in London, Quong moved to New York in 1939 and there won fame as an authority on Chinese culture. Alongside these pioneering career women, the US also attracted more ordinary Australians who wanted to spread their wings.

By 1940, over 12,000 Australians were resident there, half of whom were women. And when Ker Conway left for Harvard in 1960, she was only one of 3,000 Australian women who arrived in America that year.

In their stories we find an alternative history of Australian-US relations that challenges the existing emphasis on diplomacy, politics and war.

Authors: Anne Rees, David Myers Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Read more http://theconversation.com/the-australian-women-expats-who-found-liberation-in-the-us-97868

Australia Today

What sea creature can attack and win over a blue whale?

Wally Franklin, Researcher and co-director of the The Oceania Project, Southern Cross University

Blue whales are the largest creatures to have ever lived on Earth.ShutterstockThis is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might ...

Read more

how leadership instability and revenge became woven into our political fabric

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-NDBack in 2012, a major study on the selection and removal of party leaders in Anglo parliamentary democracies was published. The book contained a section with the inviting title of “Machiavellian tactics”. Most of the authors’ examples came fro...

Read more

How to move energy policy models beyond bias and vested interests

Shirin Malekpour, Research Leader in Strategic Planning and Futures Studies, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

Modelling should be a chance to test your assumptions, not just confirm them.ShutterstockThe Turnbull government’s flagship energy plan, the National Energy Guarantee, was intended to end a decade-long stalemate on energy and climate policy in Australia. Ironically, since its unveiling in Octo...

Read more

University staff and students are at high risk of ill health. Here's how to make sure they can cope

Brad Wright, Sessional Academic (Health & Physical Education), Charles Sturt University

Students and staff at universities have many of the same health risk factors, including poor mental health and alcohol consumption.www.shutterstock.comUniversity students are an at-risk population for many health issues. These include mental health, alcohol and substance use, sexual assault and hara...

Read more

What do your earliest childhood memories say about you?

Penny Van Bergen, Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology, Macquarie University

The experience "this happened to me" is stronger than "this happened" in memory formation. epicharmus/flickr , CC BY-SAWe experience thousands of events across childhood, and yet as adults we recall only a handful. Some might be “firsts” (our first ice cream, our first day at school), or...

Read more

what is loss aversion and is it real?

Brendan Markey-Towler, Researcher, The University of Queensland

You may still feel losing a wallet more than finding it.ShutterstockA recent study claims a core idea in behavioural economics – loss aversion – is a fallacy. Loss aversion is the theory that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure we feel by gaining something equivalen...

Read more

Holidays & Travel

Guide to Travel Necessities for 2018

Sure, it sounds like quite an adventure to hit an open road with nothing but a one-way ticket and an open mind, but the harsh reality is – you won’t...

Top Sightseeing Spots in New Zealand

New Zealand is one of the most fascinating locations for anyone to visit in the world. After all, it’s a place with a variety of unique landscapes, but it isn’t...

Must-Pack Items for a Travel Blogging Boss

As a travel blogger, you get to see and explore so many wonderful destinations and meet various interesting people, but before you embark on a new adventure you need to...

Luxury Camping Adventures Around the World

Perhaps in direct response to the dominance of technology in the modern world, many travelers are feeling a strong draw towards nature. While some are able to fully embrace their...

Dredging works underway Plantation Island

Tourists and workers travelling to popular tourist destination Plantation Island, Fiji, are set to benefit from safer access when marine channel dredging is completed at the end of June 2018...

Top 5 Tips for Traveling With Dogs

Travelling with your dog can be thrilling, but sometimes it can turn into a real nuisance. Unless you know how to properly restrain the pooch, whether it’ll be able to...

Top Island Destinations for 2018

When we picture island destinations in our minds, we often imagine a tropical beach of white sand, a sun lounger laid out in the shade of a line of palm...

Why Car Rental Excess Insurance is a Smart Choice

Some car rental agencies include basic damage cover in the standard rental fee, with the option to add on liability reduction, or excess insurance. The addition of excess insurance normally...

More Than a Third of Australians Feel 'Too Busy' With Work to Take a Holiday

New research from InterContinental Hotel & Resorts has unveiled a large number of Australians (32 percent) are simply too busy with work to take some much-needed rest and relaxation. Almost...

Fashion & Beauty

Groom To Do List

Sorry Aussie Men, you no longer just pay for the alcohol, flowers and marriage license. Times have certainly changed. Wedding Expert shares what Australian Grooms are now expected to do before...

Simple Secrets To A More Confident Smile

We all know just how important first impressions are. After a handshake, what’s one of the first things people will notice about you? It’s your smile. A friendly smile is...

Improve Your Body Confidence and Feel Great

No matter how good you feel about yourself, sometimes you just can’t help but see a few little flaws that seem gigantic to you and make you feel self-conscious. Whether...

First-Timer Tips For Your First Lip Filler Appointment

Getting injectable lip fillers can be a quick and effective way to plump up your smile with minimal drama. They’re a cost-effective and safe way to boost the natural shape...

The Most Common Skin Conditions and How to Deal with Them

We often underestimate the importance of our skin, but as the largest organ in our body, and our primary layer of defense, it is constantly affected by many environmental factors...

Beach Babe Basics: Everything You Need to Look Stylish at the Beach

Summer is right around the corner, and this year, we all should make the best of it. Right now, it is not just about looking stylish on the streets, it...

HEALTH

National Action Plan For Endometriosis Is A Game-Changer For Australian Women

Heba Shaheed, The Pelvic Expert, shares her personal story and expert tips for living with endo... First National Action Plan For Endometriosis Is A Game-Changer For Australian Women   The announcement of the first...

Pre - summer pampering: Australian women are detoxifying themselves in the most “kind-Ly” fashion!

In today’s society we are completely exposed to materials, products and chemicals which we unfortunately have no clue if it’s origins, meaning and purpose. Getting back to basics...

Eye Health Dos and Don'ts

Most people take their eyes for granted and spend little to no time thinking about their eye health until they notice something wrong. This leads to plenty of common and...

Non-invasive Cosmetic Treatments

In a world where everyone is chasing perfection, plastic surgeries have become more and more common to the point where it’s odd if you don’t get one during your life...

My Health Yoga

Carrie-Anne Fields of My Health Yoga has taken her Gold Coast yoga teacher training worldwide. She started her health business 20 years ago aged 22 and has grown into a...

Fit Body 101 - Increase Your Fitness Effectiveness

You have to find some space for physical exercise in your weekly schedule in order to live a good life. Embracing this way of life is very beneficial because it...

LIFE STYLE

Add a little colour to your move - and life!

How a little ‘colour’ and planning can take your Move, and make it a more enjoyable one Colour plays a huge role in our lives, it can take us up, or...

6 Simple Rules for Redesigning Your Kitchen

How do you feel about your kitchen? Well, if you feel like your home needs a bit of lifting up, one of the best and most effective places to start...

Dog Flea Allergy

Severe itchy skin disease in dogs causes Flea bite hypersensitivity. The itch is as a result of an allergic reaction to the saliva of the flea which is injected into...

5 Ways to Turn Your Bedroom into a True Zen Retreat

The bedroom should be our little sanctuary where we come to relax after a long day of work. However, in order to be able to unwind all the accumulated stress...

Things to Consider when Deciding on your Wedding Flowers for the Big Day

Choosing the wedding flowers is a complicated process where you have to take into account many elements, from the wedding dress to the wedding theme. You can discover in this...

Renovating tips for your house

There are very few property owners who move into a house where they don’t want to make any changes. Alterations are almost inevitable every time you move-house, but alterations can...

FOOD & DINING

Morning greens: the breakfast skincare regime

It’s safe to assume that most Aussies fail to eat enough greens. Although this was momentarily resolved with the rise and popularity of the green juice movement, the lack of...

Best Hidden Gem Hong Kong Restaurants

You finally find yourself enjoying the endless beauties of China and this fascinating city. In a place with so much variety, all your senses will be wide awake, and your...

JOHNNY DI FRANCESCO NAMED OFFICIAL AMBASSADOR OF EAT STREET MELBOURNE

Johnny Di Francesco, world champion pizzaiolo and owner of Melbourne’s Gradi Group of restaurants, is excited to announce he has been named official ambassador for Eat Street Melbourne 2018. As Ambassador...

The best Mother's Day gift EVER!

Whether it’s to celebrate a special occasion, or just wind down at the end of a long day, there’s nothing much better than pouring yourself a glass (or two…) of...

Sing for Your Supper at Chargrill Charlie’s

To celebrate the final curtain call of the Barden Bellas, Chargrill Charlie’s is giving you the chance to Sing for your Supper! Show off your best acapella vocals to win...

MAKE IT WINE TIME, ANY TIME

Whether it’s to celebrate a special occasion, or just wind down at the end of a long day, there’s nothing much better than pouring yourself a glass (or two…) of...