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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 14052


Mr MORRISON (Cook) (10:50): Next Monday will mark 50 years since Australia lost Dame Mary Gilmore, the female face of our $10 bill, our first 'lady of letters' and a champion of social justice. She spoke for the voiceless—for women, children and Indigenous Australians—when it was unfashionable and often dangerous to do so, in our formative years as our nation came of age in the 20th century.

She was a prolific writer, a poet, a journalist and a trail-blazer in the fields that were strictly patriarchal. She brazenly carved her own path and stood toe to toe with anyone who dared stand in her way. She was a passionate nationalist, a zealous activist, an advocate for workers' rights rather than union largesse and a champion of the oppressed. But, above all of that, she was a wife, a mother and, maybe to the surprise of those on the other side of the chamber, my great great aunt.

Aunt Mary grew up near Goulburn, the product of a country state school education. At 16 she became a pupil teacher at the public girls school in Wagga Wagga but, after a series of placements in outback New South Wales, she requested a transfer to Sydney, where she returned in 1890 to teach in Neutral Bay. In the decade that followed, her interest in social reform burgeoned. She seized her pen and began to write of the injustices she saw in the world around her. It was at that time that she crossed paths with the renowned poet, Henry Lawson, and struck up that famous relationship. She later said it was a strange meeting but that Henry would become one of the greatest influences upon her work. There was an unofficial engagement between the pair, but it was not to be.

According to the Australian Women's Register, Dame Mary became the first female member of the Australian Workers Union, but it was by no means a passive membership. She claimed to have signed up initially under her brother's name, but she certainly went on to make a name for herself. Joining William Lane's New Australia Movement, she travelled to his utopian and soon to be hopelessly failed settlement experiment, Paraguay, in 1896, where she married a fellow Aussie, a shearer from Victoria by the name of William Gilmore, Uncle Bill, and they had a son—another Uncle Bill. Her hard and lonely years in South America revealed a determined and indefatigable spirit and a dedication to her family and the welfare of her son, which are well chronicled in Anne Whitehead's excellent book Blue Stocking in Patagonia.

Aunt Mary returned to Australia and threw herself back into her writing and politics, editing the women's page of the Australian Worker from 1908 to 1931. Mary published her first tome of poetry, a collection of poems. She became a staunch supporter of journals, including the Bulletin and The Lone Hand and even dipping into her own purse to keep the Bookfellow afloat.

When war broke out, Mary grappled with the horrific reality through her poetry. Her second volume, The Passionate Heart, published in 1918, featured the poem Gallipoli and she donated the royalties of that work to soldiers blinded in battle. From that time onward Mary's works were constantly in print and she published new material right up to her 90th birthday. Some of her driving thematic concerns included nationalism, pioneering women's rights and the experience of motherhood, Aboriginal welfare, pensions and health.

In 1937 she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire—the first Australian to be granted the award for services to literature. Mary was a founding member of the Lyceum Club in Sydney, the founder of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, a member of the New South Wales Institute of Journalists and a life member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

She passed away at 97, a day after my father's birthday—to whom she was very close. As a young constable, my father, John, patrolled the streets of Kings Cross. He would often at that time pay a visit to Aunt Mary to be regaled with her poetry, her stories and of course her jams, which were forever on the boil in the kitchen of her Darlinghurst flat. Aunt Mary was honoured with a state funeral.

In a society that still searches for role models for our young women, there are few ladies of greater inspiration than my great great Aunt Mary, of whom my two daughters should be very proud to call their aunt. Even to this day they look on the $10 note with great pride. She was an immensely talented and compassionate woman of fierce conviction and heart. She may well not agree with everything I agree with today, but she was a woman of great conviction and a great Australian. With her words, Dame Mary challenged a nation to its core, but she also helped to heal the grief of a war-torn people. The spirit of those famous lines she penned in 1940 in her poem No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest still resonate today. Dame Mary wrote:

We are the sons of Australia,

of the men who fashioned the land;

We are the sons of the women

Who walked with them hand in hand;

And we swear by the dead who bore us,

By the heroes who blazed the trail,

No foe shall gather our harvest,

Or sit on our stockyard rail.

This December, we will remember a remarkable woman; my family will remember a remarkable woman of who we are deeply proud.