** Writing our Foremothers into the Present **

Since writing my most recent book in which I focus on my grandmother’s life – Ann Hannah, My (Un)Remarkable Grandmother: a Psychological Biography – many people have told me stories about their own mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers and other influential women in their lives. I love hearing stories of strong women whose efforts to make a good life for themselves and those around them, often against incredible odds, have been taken for granted and their stories ignored.

It is time their stories were told!

I invite you – whoever you are and wherever you live – to put fingers to keyboards and write a story to submit for publication on our “foremothers” page. The subject of your piece can be any woman who you consider has had a positive influence on you, someone you admire, a mentor perhaps, a feminist from history whose writing speaks to you in transformative ways, your own mother or grandmother.

Betty McLellan    


  1. Length: Your story should be up to 1000 words in length. [It doesn’t matter how short it is, but must not exceed 1000 words.]
  2. Tone: It must be a positive story – because the purpose of this page is to CELEBRATE women.
  3. Acceptance: Offerings that do not adhere to the guidelines will not be accepted for publication.
  4. Editing: If necessary, there will be some minimal editing – to enhance clarity, to correct typos, etc.
  5. Photo: Please provide a photograph of your subject (if one is available), to be included with your article on the website.
  6. Submit: Please submit your story here.
  7. Enquiries: If you have an inquiry prior to submitting your piece, please contact me.



Our mother, Frances Jean Patton (known as Jean)

Responses from Jean Patton to questions from a Granddaughter (2016)

1. What sorts of things did you learn when you were in school?

  • The three Rs as they were then called – Reading, Writing and aRithmetic. We had no tv or computers in those days, and very few books in the house. Having books was not something as common as now, buying them was for rich people. So when I started school, I started to learn basics, the alphabet, reading, sums etc.
  1. How was your school different from school today?
  • We started school knowing less than kids do today. We had a slate and a slate pencil. This was a little bit like a small blackboard and when we wrote on it, we could rub it off with a rag. There were some books in the school which we got for reading but only at school. We were not allowed to take them home.
  • I only went to grade 6 at school and then I went out to work in a factory with my grandmother. These were depression years and families did not have much money. A lot of people were unemployed and going to, and staying at school was considered a luxury. I was 11 when I started work and I earned 2 and sixpence a week, about 25cents. That was a lot of money in those days.

In many ways, these words epitomise our mother. She had limited formal education, worked hard all her life and did so with no sense of regret or desire for more (for herself). While she did share the value of hard work with her family, she was also committed to the value that her daughters (and sons) would have as much education as they wanted to. She did not want us to have the same hard life that she had lived, while at the same time, acknowledging that she did not regret it and that “she simply did what she had to”.

Frances Jean Patton (Jean) was born on 16 August, 1929 in country Victoria (Australia). Her sister, Dawn, was a year old at the time of her birth, a relationship and friendship which was important to both of them through their lives. Jean never knew her biological father and was a teenager before she realised the man she knew as her father was her stepfather. It made little difference to her as he had been and always would be regarded as her dad. The family (which now included a younger brother, David) moved to Richmond, Victoria, when Jean was seven (7), a very different environment for the children.

Leaving school at 11 is unbelievable in these times, as is the hard and heavy work she did as a young woman, eventually becoming, at 16, a manageress for a dry cleaning firm. Jean learned early the importance of being careful with money, something which she came to rely on during the upbringing of our family.

At the age of 23, our mother met our father, Cyril, who had ‘wandered’ to Melbourne after returning from active service in World War 2. They quickly realised that they were destined to be a long term liaison. They were married in June 1953 and moved to Mackay in North Queensland soon after. The train journey from Melbourne to Mackay was “3 long days and 3 long nights” especially as Jean was ill for much of the time, pregnant with her first daughter.

In the space of just under 18 months, Jean had resigned a responsible position, moved from her home and city environment, had a child which involved considerable stress (Julie had been born 3 months premature, weighing only 2 pounds and measuring 10 inches at birth) and then bought a house. Coping with these changes was to become good preparation for their life to follow.

This set the pace for the next 20 years. Nine (9) children were raised, not including various foster children and long term placement of extended family members. The family experienced periods of unemployment, low income, some ill health and sadness yet through it all, Jean encouraged her children, the first six (6) of whom were daughters, to believe in themselves, to work hard at school and to look for extended education opportunities. She was determined that she would give her children increased life chances and particularly recognised that her daughters needed to be encouraged and supported to have more options than she had.

The following 20 years saw the family growing. Grandchildren were born and as their mothers returned to work outside the home, Jean took on the caring role, again supporting her daughters to pursue a life that they wanted, rather than what was expected of them. Daughters such as those who were pregnant before they married, one lesbian and one who has never married despite being in a long term heterosexual relationship all received abundant love and support, again respecting and encouraging their individual choices.

The next 20 years (yes it keeps going) now include the introduction of great-grandchildren and the support, love and encouragement continue. At 88 (2017), our mother is now in relative ill health and physically impaired, but she is still there for the generations that began with her. Jean’s daughters’ professions include an Assistant Principal, a Community Care Nurse, an Emeritus Professor, a Hospital senior ward clerk, a hairdresser/business manager and a long term senior public servant, jobs that Jean would never have aspired to, but she knew her daughters could and should have more options. As importantly, they are in loving relationships.

As daughters, we can look to our mother and honour the love she has given us. As feminists, we can recognise that she encouraged us to be independent, to be individuals, to have some life that we could call our own.

Bronwyn Patton and Wendy Patton



Great-aunt Gertrude

Submitted by Jennie Burrows

I never met my great-aunt, but I am proud to be honouring her remarkable life. At the age of 2, Gertrude Jane Burrows was taken across the seas from England to Australia, accompanied by three older brothers, her father James, and her heavily pregnant mother Rosina. As the boat was landing at Fremantle in June 1886, her mother bore a baby girl whom she named Oriana, after the name of the ship. Gertrude’s earliest memories would have been of a strange land (Fremantle was described as “a city of public houses, flies, sand, limestone, convicts and stacks of sandalwood”), a newborn sibling, and a very sick mother who died a month later from the complications of childbirth. Oriana died shortly afterwards at the age of 5 months.

Six months after the death of Rosina, James married Emma Taylor, a widow with two children who had also been aboard the Oriana. Little is known of the “Brady Bunch” life of the six children, except that James’ descendants said that Emma was harsh.

When Gertrude was 16, she sailed back to England with her father, perhaps because James’ mother had died. During their 3 years stay in England, Gertrude worked as a servant in Bedford, close to where she was born.

Gertrude and James returned in 1903 and Gertrude began a career as a laundress. This proved to be a useful occupation as, in 1906, at the age of 22, Gertrude had her first child, William Horace Meredith Burrows. A laundress was generally able to keep her child with her rather than hand over to someone else to raise.

There is no information on William’s father. The father’s name does not appear on the birth certificate, and when William married, the marriage certificate said “father unknown”. The English custom of using the unacknowledged father’s name as the child’s middle name suggests that a man in town named William Edward Meredith may have had contact with Gertrude.

In 1907, Gertrude worked as a laundress at Fremantle Hospital for the Insane. There had been much press about the poor conditions in lunatic asylums, and patients were being transferred to a new facility at Claremont whilst Gertrude was at Fremantle Asylum. At this same time, James and Emma’s marriage appeared to have broken down with James publishing in the local paper: “I will not be responsible for any debts contracted by my wife after this date”. In fact, when Emma died just two years later, there was no reference in the death notice to her husband or step-children.

In 1908, Gertrude made headlines when the police charged a nurse, Mrs Tonkin, with the crime of carrying out an abortion. The trial has been summarised as follows:

      By the 24th of April, one month following the alleged abortion, Gertrude Burrows was  sufficiently recovered from her ordeal to face the preliminary hearing of the case. She testified that she had gone to Mrs. Tonkin for the purpose of having an abortion; Tonkin professed herself nervous about doing it but agreed on the condition that Gertrude tell no-one. She performed the operation and told her to return in a few days if she was not well. Three days after the operation, Gertrude suffered a miscarriage, but did not recover as expected. She haemorrhaged and experienced high temperatures and was eventually seen by a doctor of the Asylum who contacted the police.

During the Supreme Court trial, Tonkin’s husband returned from the mines and he and Tonkin’s companion Ethel sat beside her during the trial. The jury decided that there was not enough evidence to uphold a conviction and returned a verdict of not guilty. The fact that Tonkin was a good looking woman, well supported and with an aura of respectability, may have encouraged this finding. Regardless of the fact that her mother was a convicted abortionist and that numerous women visited her house, Tonkin was given the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that chivalrous treatment is more likely to be proffered to respectable women.

The following year Gertrude moved to Geraldton, 400 kilometres north of Perth, where she was to reside for the rest of her life. In 1910, she gave birth to her second child Dorothy Rose Burrows, again father unknown. Later that year, the European Steam Laundry opened in Geraldton. Laundry work was hard:

     Shirts, collars, and the like, are of course ironed by hand. For this purpose an iron-heater has been provided. On this apparatus, which is really an enclosed furnace, about a dozen irons can be heated at the same time. This department is in the charge of Miss Burrows, who is regarded by those who know her work, as an expert laundress.

The Steam Laundry changed owners 6 months later and the new owner sacked Gertrude with no notice. Gertrude sued him for her rightful wages and the Bench agreed that as she was paid each Saturday, this constituted a weekly contract, terminable with a week’s notice, and gave a verdict in her favour for the full amount plus costs.

In 1912, Gertrude gave birth to her third child Frederick, who was nicknamed Blue due to his red hair. The following year, at the age of 29, Gertrude gave birth to her fourth child Robert, who also had red hair. The father is unknown in both cases.

Gertrude was taken to court in January 1921 by the owner of the Shamrock Hotel who claimed she was in the unlawful possession of some of their items, however the Magistrate held there was no evidence and dismissed the charge.

At some point Gertrude met Milo Sorenson, a handsome Norwegian who had arrived in Geraldton in 1911. In 1921, Gertrude (37) married Milo (32) bringing four children to the marriage: William (15), Dorothy (11), Frederick (9) and Robert (8). Gertrude went on to have another four children with Sorenson: Agnete (1921), Edith (1923), James (1924), and Milo (1925).

Gertrude died 21 March 1948 at Rosella Hospital in Geraldton, a woman ahead of her time.





Grandma’s Tattoos – Witness

A Film by Suzanne Khardalian in search of the “real” story of her Armenian grandmother’s life.

Submitted by Nayiree Roubinian

This film (YouTube) by Suzanne Khardalian represents one woman’s determined effort to uncover the mysteries of her grandmother’s difficult life. It’s a story of sexual violence and abuse, a story of the kinds of suffering women endured during the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks. Suzanne goes on a heart-breaking search and, here, presents a warm and tender tribute to her grandmother. Due to Al Jazeera restrictions, the URL cannot be included here but click on the arrow to watch it on YouTube.