** 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.
- 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.]
- Tone: It must be a positive story – because the purpose of this page is to CELEBRATE women.
- Acceptance: Offerings that do not adhere to the guidelines will not be accepted for publication.
- Editing: If necessary, there will be some minimal editing – to enhance clarity, to correct typos, etc.
- Photo: Please provide a photograph of your subject (if one is available), to be included with your article on the website.
- Submit: Please submit your story here.
- 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.
- 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
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.
My grandmother, Mill
Submitted by Susan Hawthorne
I write about my grandmother all the time. Her second name was Millicent. We all called her Mill and for many years I thought her first name was Maytie. In fact, it was the far more German-sounding Mehta. My grandmother was born in the nineteenth century and her mother was German. Mill died when I was about six years old. So I knew my grandmother, I loved my grandmother intensely, and many years later my mother told me that I was her favourite. I wear my grandmother’s engagement ring as a connecting link to both my mother and my grandmother.
My grandmother was a worldly woman. She had to be after serving as a nurse on a Red Cross ship during WWI. There she met my grandfather, a Scot from the island of Bute, and the ship’s captain. He died two decades before I was born.
My grandmother travelled a lot. During the short time of my childhood while she was alive she visited Germany, England and Japan. There were links to all these places. Her mother was German, which held some difficulty for Mill during WWI. I suspect it was at this time she stopped using Mehta as the sailors on the ship referred to her as ‘fraulein’. Tricky when the enemy is German. Mill also had a very good friend in Germany, whose name I no longer remember (it may have been Edith). The story I recall is that her friend looked after Mill at some point when Mill was laid up with illness. Every year we would receive Advent Calendars from Germany with the increasing excitement as Christmas Day approached.
I have a fold out postcard from her time in England, written to my older sister and me, so she must have been there around 1953, prior to the birth of my brother. Her sister Grace lived in London in Gracechurch Street.
Mill visited Japan after World War II. Her son, John, had been a Prisoner of War in Changi. I have sometimes wondered whether the families of former POWs were invited to Japan as a kind of reparation.
Shell (from Family Ties, edited by Jennifer Strauss, 1998)
My mother and I walk the back lanes of St Kilda
one sunny day in late October. Ghostly forms
like memories dart around us. This hotel,
where my grandmother lived throughout my childhood,
burnt down last year. Once grand it is now a shell.
From the lane I can see bathroom tiles dropping sheer
to the ground. My mother says, “The two Miss Hawthornes
lived on that side,” pointing to the edge that wings back
towards where we stand. “And Mill?” I say (for that’s
what we called her) “did she live at the front?” “Mostly,
yes.” “For how long?” My mother counts the years,
dropping out those not spent here. “About seven, altogether.”
“I remember my fifth birthday, I say, “the cane cradle
Auntie Aldyth gave me.” And we came again when Mill
returned from England. It was the front suite, had one room
with a large oak table, another where she slept. She brought
dolls, and I, as the youngest, had to choose first.
My biggest responsibility to date. I picked the one
with the prettiest dress. Later, as I grew older,
I thought my sister’s doll prettier. But on that day,
I was happy. Mill never left The Majestic. She died
in Fitzroy Street, hit by a tram. She’s still there.
I see her sometimes, wearing faded purple dresses
of grandmother hue, soft like irises. And I know that underneath
is a whalebone corset so huge, it would take three of me.
We buy a strawberry gelato at Joes, and I am remembering
the pink flesh, the pink fabric that spread between the hard ribs of
Jonah’s refuge. A link, perhaps, with my grandfather still
at sea. Today the tramlines stretch toward to sea,
and a hotel, once majestic, is a blackened shell.
from Valence (2011)
at the beginning of every year we ask whether
the killing spree is over for now all the soldiers
who heard earth’s tinnitus ringing on the frontline
fly home walk through the front gate
cannot explain what they have seen have heard
that there is no longer any grace in the world
in the houses where women keep time with days
over stoves where hunger is the taste of childhood
and thirst a close neighbour no one dares to speak
peace is a mirage a vision at the edge of thought
cities stagnate and are separated from the people
countries are divided like pieces of cake
few speak against revenge slit the veins open
let the blood run a long-fingered violinist
plays a spree of notes emergent gravity looping
as a new virus explodes crossing all the man-made
boundaries taking off on its very own killing spree
rampaging through the gutters into the glare of air
My grandmother worked as nurse on a Red Cross ship in World War One. I was thinking of all that she had seen, of the hopelessness of war wounds, of the hunger of children, and of the waiting. And then the discovery of what had happened in the trenches, the effect of mustard gas. Not only were the lines drawn in Europe, in that same period the precursor lines of the Middle Eastern Wars were drawn. A country is not a cake to be divided.
Australia: memory’s labyrinth from Lupa and Lamb (2014)
my grandmother’s needs were architectural
they arched stretched out over lawns
rose like great temple ceilings
they never lounged about ate chocolate
or wasted time in street-corner conversation
she was like a homestead with a return verandah
that looked out over paddocks
took in the whole landscape
and everyone who wandered or sped by
my grandmother was called ferocious
she took the world in her stride
insisted on respect and courtesy
gave a dressing down to the uncouth
on picnic race days she made sandwiches
not wanting to waste hours on competitive cooking
her bets were selected with determination
and she won more often than not
once she won at eighty to one
the bookie almost bankrupt
my grandmother perished as she had lived
the family waited for resurrection
not believing such a force of nature
could go so fast leaving nothing but dust
for the most part my grandmother is forgotten
except by the girl she told stories to
great architectural tales that wound through forests
took labyrinthine detours but always returned
to the space between them and silence
© Susan Hawthorne, 1998, 2011, 2014, 2018
A Remarkably Brave Woman
by Tahlia Briggs
My sister was two when she wandered off down the beach. My dad had taken her and my brother back down to the water to rinse off the sand. Instead of walking in a straight line back to my mum, my sister disappeared into the crowd and walked aimlessly down to the next patrolled beach. This was one of the most terrifying times in my mother’s life! Had this little girl been taken? Had she walked back into the water and drowned? My mother still remembers vividly the call to say that they had found my sister alive and well. Two years after this event I was born but the fear this event instilled into my mother affected her for nearly 15 years.
Although I learned to swim as a child and had many adventures in our back-yard inflatable pool, spending a day swimming at the beach was never really an option until one remarkable day, when I was 13 years old, my mother decided, out of nowhere, that she was not going to be scared anymore. My mum booked a motel right on the beach at the Sunshine Coast for a weekend away and together my mother, sister and I swam and played in the ocean all day.
I watched the waves wash over my mother as if washing away any fear she once had. As she took a deep breath and dove into a wave I realised that my mother was incredibly brave. Although the fear of losing a child at the beach was still there, and she panicked slightly when we were a little too far out of reach, my mother had overcome her fears completely independently. She never needed anyone to hold her hand, she simply found the strength within herself to not let her life be ruled by fear. As she came out of the other side of a wave she inhaled new life and as she smiled at my sister and I, I knew from this point life would be very different.
The next few years saw camping trips to forests and beaches unknown. Wading through thick seaweed filled waves reciting the mantra “anything that touches your leg is just seaweed”. We sang and laughed as we bush walked to waterfalls and mastered setting up a full campsite including having the kettle on within 20 minutes. Through these adventures, I always aimed to learn more about my mum as for the first time I was not just seeing her as a mother but as a fiercely independent woman who was much braver than she realised.
The more I learned about my mother’s life before children, the more I started to see glimpses of a rough childhood, the unwavering support of her siblings, a love of ‘good’ music, and a passion for ballroom dancing. As a young adult my mother even learned to ride a motorbike and went riding off-road through the bush with her brother and my father, yet she was still mortified when I got my motorbike licence.
When I was four years old my parents separated, and my mum raised the three of us by herself. My mother had no choice, she had to be brave. Brave for us. Through the horrors of homework, teaching children how to drive, dealing with the door slamming phase my sister went through at 16, and eventually watching us move away to start our own lives, my mother was our rock. She held our family together with such strength and courage, even when times were tough she found the strength within herself to be brave and carry on.
Through all the trials of raising three children independently, my mother after many years finally found the courage to be brave and start her own life again. Although dating did not come naturally to my mum, she managed to find a man who was not intimidated by my 6-foot-tall brother who loomed in the doorway before their first date. Like me, this man saw how brave my mother is and was captivated by her spirit and love of life and adventure. Together they found love and someone to grow old with. Now with a combined seven children and five grandchildren, my mother continues to be brave for all of us and is always there to lift us up as we journey through the issues that come with adulthood.
My mum and step father have continued their life of adventure for over a decade with trips to Paris, Turkey, Croatia, Italy, Singapore and more. Now on the eve of her 60th birthday she is adventuring through Canada and exploring the remarkable sights of Banff.
My mother sees her life as ordinary and unremarkable. Raising children, finding love and experiencing loss, my mother does not feel that she has accomplished much throughout her life so far, but what she fails to see is the impact she has had on everyone around her who she has lifted up even when she felt that she couldn’t.
As children we love, honour and respect our mother for the love and support she never ceases to give us, but as I reflect on that day I watched my mum wash away her fears at the beach when I was 13 years old, I realise that this remarkable, strong, adventurous woman made me into the kind of person I never expected to be. My mother made me just like her. My mother made me brave.
A Story of Bravery by Tahlia Briggs