22 08 25_Theresa Borg
*Speakers: Kathryn Favell (K), Theresa Borg (T)
K: Hello and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Kathryn Favell, Director of Reader Services and I'm delighted to see you all here for today’s presentation.
We’re coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country and I would like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land. I give my respect to elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Today’s presentation, Feet of Clay, is by Theresa Borg, the 2022 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, a fellowship which is supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust. This creative fellowship is a little bit special, I think, because it assists writers to spend four weeks at the National Library researching and developing a new artistic work, artwork, play, novel, poetry collection that’s inspired or informed by the National Library’s collections.
You might well be familiar with some of Theresa’s work if not with her name. Theresa’s a graduate of the Victorian College of Arts and her directing credits including Sweeney Todd with Anthony Warlow and Gina Riley, The Light in the Piazza, Disney Under The Stars and most recently she was Resident Director for An American in Paris. You may have also seen her on stage playing principal roles for Cameron Mackintosh, The Really Useful Company, Opera Australia and the Victorian Opera.
During her fellowship Theresa has been researching the Australian Racial Hygiene Congress of 1929. Who knew there was even such a thing happening? She’s been particularly looking at the lives of the women who organised it. Her discoveries will inform a play, HYGEIA, a character-driven investigation of the intersections between white feminism and eugenics between the world wars. Please join me in welcoming Theresa Borg.
T: Thank you, Kathryn. Good afternoon. I respectfully acknowledge that I stand and speak today on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and I offer my respects to their elders past and present and to all first nations and Torres Strait Islander people and their elders. Also thanks to the National Library of Australia, the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust and the fellowship staff, Matt, Kelly and Sharon and Kathryn and the Library staff. Thanks to Jeremy of the NLA’s Indigenous Engagement Team for the first of many yarns on many things and to my fellow fellows for the crack and the chats. To my associate artist on this project, Dan Graham, director and disability advocate, to my dad for taking five daughters to the public library every month as we were growing up, a truly heroic effort. To the academics whose words and work I have ingested including Diana Wyndham, Jane Carey, Annie Reece and Nina Lemiere and I thank you for being here today in person or online.
Today I will refer to views held by historical figures and organisations that are disturbing including views that are ableist, homophobic, racist and classist. The circles we are visiting were also highly gendered and narrowly heteronormative. The views referred to are not those of this speaker. There is no suggestion here that Family Planning New South Wales endorses any of the policies of the Historical Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales.
So I’m writing a tryptic of Australian history plays. As Kathryn mentioned the second play of this series, HYGEIA, investigates the Australian Racial Hygiene Congress which was held in Sydney in 1929. The Congress was held at the behest of the Australian Racial Hygiene Association, the RHA, an organisation which came into being in 1926 as the Racial Improvement Society, because the Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales in 1928 and in 1960 changed its name again to Family Planning New South Wales.
It was actually this last name change mentioned in passing by a friend during a long COVID walk and talk conversing on Black Lives Matter and pussyhats that prompted my enquiry into the RHA, the Racial Hygiene Association, an organisation with a challenging name, a name that provoked a distressing set of assumptions about the organisation’s aims and priorities. The name change in 1960 spoke to a revision, maybe a whitewash. What exactly had gone on?
The RHA’s stated aims were to campaign for sex education, to campaign for the prevention and eradication of venereal diseases and to pursue community education in eugenics. This education in eugenics was in the same vein as contemporaneous eugenic movements in the UK, the US and across Europe. Eugenics advocated for the further elevation of the local white population and encouraged the breeding of those deemed the most fit while discouraged the breeding of those they deemed unfit.
There is academic to and fro in regard to the rigidity and embeddedness of the RHA’s philosophies given that its founders, Lillie Goodisson, Ruby Rich and Marion Piddington are now celebrated for their pioneering work in reproductive health and feminist issues such as support for unmarried mothers and equal work for equal pay rather than their advocacy for the sterilisation and segregation of physically and intellectually disabled people and recommendation of premarital health checks in order to predict and prevent the breeding of those considered unfit. However Lillie and Ruby had ongoing roles as primary organisers with the RHA and Lillie was present in 1932 which I note was the year before Hitler came to power in Germany when the then President of the Association, a Mr Victor Roberts, addressed the RHA’s annual general meeting as follows.
The general rule is to judge a person as being capable of being thrown on their own resources all by themselves in a country. If we measure the Australian people’s standard according to that we would have to write off a tremendous proportion as being mentally deficient. Of course we are not a political organisation but I should judge that every person who wants the government to put food in their mouths and clothes on their backs is wanting in mentality and further, VD is only the expression of something that lies deeper in the community. There are larger questions such as the clash of colour and mixing of races and again our society has definitely pledged along lines of human biological and eugenic ideals. A good or bad human race does not just happen, it is bred, the same as sheep etc can be bred.
This all seemed very familiar to me. So as to why this story for the stage, it boils down to this. As an ordinary punter with a standard secondary school education I did not know that first wave white Australian feminism and early reproductive health education intersected with eugenics. This play is a vehicle for communicating that history.
In addition the Racial Hygiene Congress presented sessions on topics that were considered revolutionary in 1929 but these topics also seemed to me to have plenty of contemporary juice, they were topics ripe for an exploration of potential legacy aspects of today’s Australia.
Some of the session titles are immediately familiar and directly transferable. Some particularly weasel titles would not transfer and nor should they but their legacy still resonates in ongoing institutional and systemic oppressions and in many public and private forums, for example the eugenic assessment of embryos in utero or Australian acceptance of an emigrant’s professional qualification seem to me to be connected to certain sessions.
At this point I acknowledge that my focus today is on the white able-bodied middleclass and middle-aged women who founded the RHA and a dismantling, even a pulling down of their metaphoric statues.
My associate artist on this project is director, disability activist and I am proud to say my friend, Dan Graham. Dan is off directing an opera today but there are a few words he had to say on the relevance of telling these women’s story.
It’s the joke of all jokes. Theresa and I have chosen a very difficult career path as directors. Someone said to me the other day, Dan, it’s commendable that you’ve stuck at it. My response was that I don’t have a choice. Emotionally and also physically I'm not a person who can work in a café or a call centre like a more typical independent artist. I went to a disability employment agency before COVID and was told to dumb down my CV. The joke is that I'm here and have many opportunities as an artist and I'm proving these eugenists of the RHA wrong every day. But many of the attitudes that they expressed back in the day are still prevalent in today’s discourse and what comes up continually in my discussions with Tess is that attitudes like this still resonate in my everyday life.
So I did begin thinking that moments from the Australian Racial Hygiene Congress would form the spine of HYGEIA but when I reviewed the Congress report the lectures were boring beyond all belief. The language of the speakers was politic, pompous, mannered and weasel, homogenised milk. There were some moments, a girls’ school principal and amateur theatrical, Beatrice [Tilsley] 9:12, called the music from films of the day good-good tunes and she was concerned that young women were getting hot and bothered watching Rudolph Valentino.
The press were more reliably entertaining in their reportage but also sat reliably in the biases of the time including misogyny calling out the lack of education of most of the women speakers at the Congress at a time when very few had the opportunity for university education. The moral I took away from this was that lectures are not equivalent to drama.
My current and extremely bumptious ambition for my play is that it might sit in conversation with Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls which famously opens at a dinner party attended by a group of historical figures.
In my play so far a character called Teale welcomes to the table female guests from 1920s Australia including Lillie Goodisson and Ruby Rich of the RHA and also outliers like Jean Devanny, communist, advocate of free love and eugenist and Mary Scales, a washerwoman from Glebe who became one of Sydney’s richest clairvoyants. Their conversations will travel through the topics discussed at the RHA from their personal points of view. The work will be cast playfully across multiple diversities and offer this group of actors an opportunity to chat back at history.
At NLA among much other fun I went on a treasure hunt for the voices of Ruby Rich and Lillie Goodisson. The first play in my series, A Fantasia on the Adventures of Egon Kish, taught me that source material is the pot of gold, truth truly is stranger than fiction.
Academic Diana Wyndham describes Lillie Goodisson as the stalwart unknown player of the Racial Hygiene Association and as indistinguishable from her work as organising secretary. It’s true, Lillie’s language is recorded in the minutes of the RHA as a politic language of difference, handmaiden language that many of us might be familiar with, pleased to say we still enjoy. Regretfully announce. Very pleased to welcome. We trust. Has helped us in many difficulties. Unfortunately, unavoidable, found it impossible to carry on, manifold duties, public and private, we probably, we hope and make good in the work.
Any trace of Lillie’s personal life during her long years working with the RHA is missing from the record. Goodie Goodisson, as her friends in the Association called her, is said to have inspired long loyalty and was warm and motherly. But this invisibility quite puzzled me. Lillie had history organising for the Australian Federation of Women Voters and the People’s Liberal Party. She had a regular Friday spot on Sydney’s [Theosophus] 11:40 Radio Station. She was an organising force behind the Congress so she must have been persuasive and charming enough to get high profile speakers on board ‘though she herself did not speak at the Congress except in summary at the finish line.
Lillie’s [dramaturg] 11:54 suggested to me a strong, sociable and even wilful personality. The said Victor Roberts compliments her as being on the war path. It now does seem to me, as Diana quotes one of Lillie’s friends saying, that Lillie was a woman who knew when to be quiet.
Here you can see the Wiki available timeline of Lillie’s life. Lillie Price was a physician’s daughter, born in Wales and married twice, first to Dr Lawford Evans at 19 years old and the next time at 43 years of age to 53-year-old Albert Goodisson, a wool-broker. Albert is now widely presumed to have died of syphilis, this presumably prompting trained nurse, Lillie’s later commitment, to the cause of eradicating venereal disease.
From a [felt] 12:39 point of view a couple of things stood out to me. Firstly, the amount of travel in Lillie’s life, Wales, Auckland, Melbourne, Western Australia, Melbourne, Sydney. Secondly, from the age of 53 Lillie’s official working for the good.
I tried writing in Lillie’s voice as a traveller, an adventurer in the vein of Isabella from Top Girls but really her life looked like a bunch of fresh starts to me followed up with some sort of reunion with her daughter in 1926 after a separation of 20 years. What was Lillie running from?
I suspected that Lillie was not an adventurer like Isabella but was perhaps more of a Nijo, Churchill’s courtesan turned monk, the first half of her life all sin, the second all repentance.
I then registered that the headstone marking the grave of Dr Lawford Evans, Lillie’s first husband, made no reference to Lillie or their children. Lawford died in Auckland while the 1903 electoral roll places Lillie in Melbourne at the time of his death. She was presumably the person who paid for both his headstone and his obituary as seen on the slide.
Interestingly the electoral roll also places Albert Goodisson in Melbourne in 1903. Susanna de Vries suggests that Lillie moved to Western Australia after Lawford’s death and then met and fell in love with Albert but, and this is drama, not history, perhaps Lillie met Albert in Melbourne while she was running Myrnong, the hospital she founded. Maybe she separated from Lawford and had to wait on Lawford’s demise before joining Albert in Western Australia and remarrying.
The records also suggest that Lawford was a full 15 years older than Lillie when they travelled to New Zealand and that Albert was actually 11 years younger than Lillie. She was 44 and he was 33 when they married. So many questions, so much drama. Albert was aged right in the middle of Lillie and her daughter, Evelyn. Was Albert Evelyn’s suitor first? Did Lillie’s lived experience of marriages with larger age difference inform the RHA Marital Clinic policy of discouraging marriages with more than a couple of years’ age difference? What had happened?
In my second week at the Library after reading a stack of extremely dispiriting and mildly remonstrative official documents out of the Melbourne School of Eugenics, Berry, Tate, Agar etc, I did what was supposed to be a quick dip into Trove to doublecheck Albert’s date of death and thus his age. A number of obituaries surfaced but the most interesting was this one.
Much sympathy is expressed for Mrs A E Goodisson on the death of her husband under particularly sad circumstances. Mr Goodisson left on a health trip to Batavia. Soon after his arrival his condition was so bad that his wife was cabled for and arrived in Batavia some weeks only before his death. Mr Goodisson was for many years manager for Mr Charles Herman’s Geraldton branch and was well known in that district. Mrs Goodisson took a prominent part in political matters and under her pen name of Sybil was a well known contributor to the press.
Eureka, here in Trove I found Lillie’s own voice. She writes twice-weekly from July 1907 for her local conservative paper, The Geraldton Guardian, and transfers her services to the local Labor right paper in 1911, still writing from a conservative point of view. She finishes up unannounced in the April of 1912 nearly five years and 300 columns on. This strange unannounced stop to the columns might hint at the state of Albert’s health 20 or so months before he dies.
I now know a surprising amount about syphilis and I can’t help wondering if the last stage of the disease surfaced late in Albert, perhaps the result of an episode prior to his marriage to Lillie or if the inexorable third stage surfaced more typically in the third year of his infection leaving Lillie 11 years older and approaching the climacteric to speculate on when a presumably adulterous Albert had contracted the disease.
There is some dissembling around Albert and Lillie’s departure from Geraldton. I suspect they left on the same ship for Singapore ‘though the press reports Albert as departing earlier. A travelog with Albert’s by-line describing his health trip appears in print despite Albert never having written for the papers previously. I suspect Lillie, and at this stage we might concede a moment of poor Lillie, was attempting to keep their predicament private. But a rival newspaper proceeds to out Albert as resident in a lunatic asylum in Batavia for the readership’s delectation.
Lillie stayed on in Batavia presumably at the [Witson Dorg] 17:12 Asylum a whole six months after Albert’s death. She lists teaching English in Java on her resume in a future press but it is also possible Lillie stayed on to have treatment for syphilis herself. There are future examples of Lillie absenting herself from the RHA. For instance in 1930 at the age of 70 she claims to have visited Tasmania to nurse her mother who according to an obituary in a Melbourne paper, presumably again placed by Lillie, had died in 1897 30 years earlier. Why did she go? Is it possible that Lillie herself infected Albert with syphilis having contracted it herself from her first husband? I’d like to say again, drama, not history.
While we are here let’s deconstruct Lillie’s pen name, Sybil, the ancient prophetess and oracle. To me the dramaturgy of Lillie’s choice of pen name seems to be Lillie identifying herself as a visionary, a harbinger of the future. Additionally many famous actresses of the day were named Sybil and in her columns Lillie writes in detail and with plenty of judgy-wudgy about the touring companies and actresses that visit Geraldton.
The pen name, Sybil, in conjunction with soliloquy seems to me to be a clue to someone performative, perhaps lonely in her performativity, an actress consciously playing a role and someone who appoints herself as seeing the way forward as others cannot.
It is tempting to just read to you from Lillie’s columns from here. Whereas later in life she’s guarded in politic, here Lillie is unguarded and political. Sybil’s soliloquys are revealing of her character and causes, especially in encouraging women to enrol to vote and educate themselves politically. She is regularly racist including the moment on the slide where she is an apologist for a Mr Canning, accused of a massacre of first nations people among other horrors.
There are moments when she holds forth in an impassioned manner on drunkenness, divorce and matters of privacy and personal choice that suggest reference to her own lived experiences and the odd aside that might be a joke or tease for Albert. She mockingly refers to the men about town as the lords of creation and longs for the women to have a club of their own as the men do.
The format of her column is surprisingly familiar, even Marie Claire. Lillie reports social happenings in Geraldton, the who’s who. Canary yellow table settings and the shortage of flowers due to drought, a bazaar where the dolls are prettily dressed and the emu eggs draw much attention, a [Leda Tarfle] 19:36 concert, the Presbyterian social, the founding of the Mothers’ Union, the repeated mechanical failures of the train to Perth, the price of fish and fruit and Geraldton’s fraught relationship with water, suffrage, suffrage and suffrage, much disapproval of the British suffragettes while always keen to stress that suffrage has long been achieved in Western Australia. A comment on an abortion case, the illegal operation and fashion, fashion, fashion, the [dizament] 20:02 of the hair with coloured beads, kimono sleeves and the impracticality of veils given the Geraldton dust.
She snipes at Melba but turns affectionate when Melba fundraises for bush nursing. She regularly returns to the subject of women earning their own living and has a soft spot for the troubles of domestic servants who more than once she gives the nickname Marianne.
From this woman’s point of view Lillie often hedges her bets, seeming to simultaneously make it clear to female readers that she’s all about furthering feminist causes while camouflaging her intention with socially acceptable broad brush strokes that seem intended to deflect the eye of the male reader.
She regularly puts her dissertations on fashion last as if to oblige her readership to at least skim through her politicking on their way down the page. Every so often Lillie’s column is held over with an editor’s note that this is due to lack of space. I note that this holding over seems to happen in the wake of Lillie’s politic blowing out to take over her column entirely in the weeks prior to said holding over. Perhaps this is Lillie’s education in when to keep quiet.
So far so much backstory. The biggest surprise I got, though, from Lillie Goodisson nee Evans, nee Price, sex educator and self-appointed moral compass was this, Lillie had a scandalous youth. This article I found about Lillie and Dr Lawford Evans tells their story.
Lawford David Evans, a surgery practising at Mold was on Thursday last brought up before the Justices of the Peace at North upon a charge of allowing his wife and family to become chargeable to the union. The circumstances of the case are as follows. Evans had been in practice for the past six years at Mold but his domestic affairs had been somewhat unsettled and in September last when Mrs Evans was away for a fortnight’s holiday, in her absence a Miss Price had acted as housekeeper.
On her return Mrs Evans suspected that something wrong had been going on and later in the month a letter was discovered from Miss Price who had gone to London addressed to Evans and speaking of a proposed voyage to New Zealand. In the letter Miss Price declared the 100 pound which Evans proposed to devote to their passage and outfit to be insufficient and considered it more practicable that he should go out first and make a practice and that in the meantime she should take a situation in London and afterwards follow him.
Five weeks ago the parents on both sides were invited by Evans to a social gathering and instead of joining them the defendant the same night took his trap and was last seen at Queen’s Ferry being presumably on his way to Birkenhead. A week later he was seen in London by Mr Forest of Mold and it transpired that he was making arrangements for a passage to New Zealand, having paid 30 pound toward the passage money of Mrs Elizabeth Evans on the ship, [Padishah] 22:51, which was to have sailed for Otago last week. A warrant was obtained for his apprehension and his wife going up to London on Monday by the midnight train with Inspector Mitchell of Mold, the prisoner was brought back in custody on Tuesday. The bench committed him to prison for one month’s hard labour.
Variations on this article from Wales made it into seven New Zealand papers, perhaps due to the efforts of 30-year-old Mrs Mary Anne Evans, a butcher’s daughter who elsewhere expressed a desire to scratch Miss Price. Well Lillie and Lawford made it to New Zealand three or so years later when the newsprint was wrapping fish and chips. They were never married in law, their children were illegitimate and perhaps this is why I’ve not yet found a record of their children ever marrying. Lawford had been bankrupted in Wales prior to running away with Lillie and was bankrupted again in New Zealand. He was also arrested there for drunkenness on at least two occasions.
It's hard to see how Lillie might have fit in her alleged nursing training. Lillie’s father, the physician, died when she was only nine years old and so was not around to teach her in her teenage years. Lawford was registered as an obstetrician in New Zealand so perhaps Lillie worked alongside him there ‘though there were two little children in the mix. It seems unlikely she was a trained nurse with the hospital training that became compulsory when Lillie was in her 20s. Instead Lillie’s reported as working as a housekeeper and looking for a situation in London. Maybe this informs her journalistic soft spot for domestics even while she kept quiet about being a jumped-up servant girl herself. Was that servant girl attempting to protect the younger cohort of domestics when she campaigned against VD and advocated for sex education with the RHA or was she distancing herself from her class with her eugenic philosophy in a classic example of survivor bias? Maybe both.
Anyway here is a real person from my play with a dramatic and morally ambiguous backstory. I feel the poetry of Lillie Goodisson shedding, reinventing herself. Whitewashing her past and outrunning the newspaper print has intriguing correlations with the Racial Hygiene Association’s shedding of their name and HYGEIA’s snake and its shedding of its skin.
Now to Ruby. At NLA there are over 110 boxes of material donated by the estate of Ruby Rich. Ruby lived and worked hard in her 100 years including across multiple women’s organisations and across many continents. I worked my way through only eight or so of these boxes but I’m here to say that it seems Ruby kept everything, press cuttings on her myriad areas of interests, reports, minutes, Acts of Parliament, copies of her frequent lectures, even tiny bundles of notes on recycled paper that were the miniaturised drafts of these lectures.
Ruby lived a life accumulating paper while Lillie ran away from it. I felt, and this is drama and not history, that there was also some sort of discrepancy between the layers of print in Ruby’s life and her handwriting which is, while articulate, very often illegible. I felt suspicious of a kind of papering over.
Ruby’s files are organised with frequent references to a future biography or memoir and she underlines her name whenever it appears. She has put together copious and sometimes duplicate files on her friends including Aletta Jacobs, Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger. It feels to me as if Ruby was keen to be held up in memory alongside this international pantheon.
I became a little obsessed with Ruby’s markups of printed materials, the neat circles and crosses in the margins denoting matters of particular interest and the contrast of this neat mark-up, typical of a musician on sheet music, with her handwriting. I was also intrigued by her infuriating habit of underlining and noting typos and spellos and omissions on already printed documents where the eye would otherwise pass over these little imperfections.
Lastly I became obsessed with her signature which until her very last decades always has a number 7 next to the B of Ruby. In the oral history Ruby has provided the Library as interviewed by Hazel de Burg, Ruby acknowledges her lack of formal education in anything other than music. She did debut as a pianist at Sydney Town Hall at 11 years of age and went on to further musical education in Europe and America in her early 20s, somehow getting past her father’s lack of enthusiasm and finding a career as a concert pianist. Here was a world traveller from [Iclay] 27:06.
I wondered if the little 7 was a reference to the note B7 on the piano, the second-highest note, somehow signalling a reach for perfection, a sort of ascension on the ladder of the musical scale that grated on me because as a fellow musician I recognised it. Perhaps it was this cult of perfection in Ruby that somehow got translated from her musical education to her pursuit of the sterilisation and segregation of physically and intellectually disabled people. She in fact led a deputation to the New South Wales Government on this matter in 1939 as world war two and Hitler’s atrocities loomed large.
Ruby was one of six children. Her youngest brother, Carrick, is noted by some as having died of tuberculosis and Ruby adopted his son, Charles, which has previously been considered ironic in the context of her eugenic views as by the standards of the RHA Charles should not have been born, given a tubercular parent. Ruby is quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald as saying that the reluctance she had felt when she was first asked to become President of the Racial Hygiene Association disappeared very quickly when she began to study the particular social evil with which it was intended to deal. But in her files were reports and other articles on VD dating to 10 years before the RHA was founded, mostly from Britain where she was living at that time.
In addition her markers in the margins from the early days of the RHA seem to note passages on VD and alcohol more often than other subjects. In this one on the slide she notes a passage on VD as reinforcing the main reason for my being on the Board. What was going on for Ruby in her life before the RHA? What actually had happened to Carrick?
Ruby’s youngest brother, Carrick, was in London by the time he was 19. His son, Charles, was born out of wedlock in July 1913 and in October Carrick married the child’s mother, Anne Margaret [Gellet] 29:03 of German parents born in Wales. Anne Margaret is noted in the records as working in London as a parlourmaid and it looks like she was 20 years older than Carrick. Carrick and Anne returned to Sydney to be married in the congregational church in Sydney, New South Wales, a venue that along with the circumstances of what Ruby elsewhere calls a compulsory marriage may well have been a shock to the Rich family who were Jewish.
Five years after this wedding Marguerite Rich – note the name change that presumably came with her social mobility – petitioned for a divorce from her husband, Carrick [Jessell] 29:35 for reasons including delirium tremors, wasting money on drink, locking her in their cabin on their return trip from Australia, paying stewards and other servants to spy on her, his attempts to have her interned as a German spy and multiple attempts on her life. Marguerite also lists as a grievance her husband contracting a disease in direct connection with frequenting houses of ill fame, dating this to 1914, the year after they married.
There is no mention of their son, Charles, Ruby’s nephew in the divorce papers but in a letter to Charles when she was supervising his education in a British boarding school Ruby reminisces about adopting him on his father’s anniversary in 1921. Perhaps Charles’ mother lost custody of her son in the divorce, perhaps the Rich family had done their best to secure this compulsory marriage. Their involvement is signalled in the wedding in Australia and Marguerite’s report that her husband complained of her swanking on his people’s money while he had to be a poor soldier but their support was conditional on Anne Margaret’s cooperation. Anne Margaret disappears from the record after the divorce and I can’t help wondering if she died a lonely death of venereal disease contracted from her young husband while separated by oceans from her son.
This story seems to support my feeling that Ruby papered over her own very personal stake in the consequences that venereal disease and inebriation could have inside a family. Perhaps she played Anne Margaret, parlourmaid, working class and 20 years older than her sibling for Carrick’s demise. This is one explanation ‘though of course no excuse for her eugenic vocation. Carrick’s death seems to have prompted an entire life’s work in activism.
Within a couple of paragraphs of her oral history listing her family members Ruby’s only elaboration on any of them is that her brother, Carrick, who died early was an adorable person despite the protestations of Anne Margaret to the contrary. My final wondering today is if perhaps the seven that adorns Ruby’s signature is not only an encoded symbol of her quest for perfection but is also an ongoing reminder of the event that brought her to the RHA, of the people she loved best in the world, Mum, Ada, Dad, Louis, and siblings, [Dirienzi] 31:48, Vera, Vivienne, Harold and Carrick, Carrick with the letter B standing as an initial for brother or even baby is number seven.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Lillie and Ruby were able to maintain such a long and productive collaboration across many years of campaigning, very loyal as Lillie says, despite many differences of opinion is because they had shared their secrets with each other if not the world. These two public-facing women who had stepped up as monoliths, distributors of eugenic propaganda, lived in fear of their public discovering their pasts, their metaphoric feet of clay. Thank you.
K: Thank you, Theresa. I loved your phrase chatting back to history and how much I would enjoy having these women in the room having heard about them now and having a good conversation with them and asking them some of the questions that you have raised today.
Speaking of questions we have time for some questions. If you are in the room where it happens please pop your hands up and we’ll bring a microphone to you so our viewers online can hear your questions as well but while you are thinking about what your questions might be my question for you, Theresa, is what happens next?
T: Well what happens next is I look at the material I’ve accumulated on these two characters and other characters. I’m also interested in looking at the Eugenics School in Melbourne which was sort of much more academic and sort of - revolved around in the first instance Richard Berry, William Agar – and William Agar of the University and also Sir Stanley Argyle, the Premier of the day who also ran The Argus and looking at this school that was run mainly by men with – and comparing it with the school that was run mainly by women and what they had in common and what they didn’t. So maybe there’s two dinner parties going on so there’s a lot more research to do. And looking at poetic ways to represent the oppressions of the time in conjunction with my associate artists. And then messing around writing in the different voices, perhaps looking at writing their life stories in their own words and then seeing how these might travel through the conversations that will be themed around the topics of the Racial Hygiene Congress.
K: Great, thank you. Any questions from our onsite audience? Oh there’s one up the back, thank you.
A: Hi, can you hear me? My question was when you’re approaching writing these characters who through your descriptions have become very human and easy to relate to you don’t risk making them too easy to relate to and almost glorifying them in a way.
T: Yeah, that’s a really tricky one. I guess I'm interested in a nuanced discussion while also not making any excuses for them. I guess a recent example that we might look at is Mrs America which explored Phyllis Schlafly. That seems to me to be a really great example of how you can explore these characters and disagree with them while giving them the context of the time and allowing them their humanity which I think is actually very important because if we – the personal is political but also the political is deeply personal and I think it’s really important to go back to the source material and to the humanness of these people so that we can look at - I think it’s Hannah Arendt said what was the banality of evil.
K: Thank you, that was a really interesting question. Have we got another one? Then I get a second shot at it. You mentioned that this is the second of three works that you’re working on. Can you tell us a little bit about your vision for the whole trilogy?
T: Yes, I can, I hope that they get put on. That’s my vision for the three pieces. The first is called Jump and it’s a fantasia on the adventures of maverick journalist, Czech-Jewish journalist, Egon Kish, here in Australia. He landed here in 1934 and he landed by jumping from ship to shore at Station Peer in Melbourne because Menzies who was then Attorney-General wouldn’t allow him into the country. Some people think it’s because he was a Communist. My own conclusion is it’s because Menzies was due to make his own, very own first trip overseas for – I think it was – I can’t remember which king it was off the top of my head, sorry, but for that king’s jubilee celebration in the January following after his arrival. He wanted to go back to the British who had excluded Kish from England with sort of this slate of having agreed with them, of continued their policy in Australia.
Mona Brand wrote about Kish. I think her play was about 1984 and of course she was much more closely connected, being a member of the Communist Party, but I sort of panned out on it and tried to look at the kaleidoscope once again of the oppressions in Australia and sort of some of the conjunctions of what was happening in Nazi Germany at the time that Kish found it - took up the invitation to come to Australia and speak to Australian workers and what was going on here during the depression and also for first nations people. I wrote with advice from some of my first nations advisers and I really enjoyed that, it was really, really fun.
And then the third in the series is going to be about – going to be a musical so HYGEIA I’m sort of seeing as sort of being perhaps post-dramatic. Some of the things that I’ve written for it are poetic and I think that it’s such a big subject that it might be – I think that I’ll be able to tell more truth by being more symbological. The Egon Kish story is written in verse and then the third one I’m thinking might be a musical and it’s going to be about the Crutchy Push who were a bunch of disabled larrikins who ran north Melbourne for 20 years around the turn of the last century and they – it will revolve around The Benevolent Asylum in North Melbourne and about his family’s frequent trips to court often in the company of his mother, Bridget, who was Irish and was always – whose appearances in court were famous because she chatted back to the judges. The history of the Irish in north Melbourne which is really interesting, it was the most densely Irish suburb in Australia at that time.
Also I’m really interested in sort of the layering of that landscape because now it’s – at that time it was so polluted, all of the sewage from all of the abattoirs etc went into the waters around North Melbourne whereas previously before the settlers arrived it was glorious wetlands and there was a sparkling blue salt water lagoon filled with birds and rushes and wildlife. So I’m really interested in that sort of overlaying of history.
Also North Melbourne was so multicultural at the time as well, there was a big Chinese population there. I’m interested in the push and pull between the Irish and the Chinese in North Melbourne and I’m very deeply interested in restoring to the canon lots of diversity because we’ve always been a diverse country and those voices are hard to find. I mean even Lillie who was white and Welsh, I had to look into – look past the official archive to Trove to find records that tell us about her life whereas the Melbourne School of Eugenists, they’re very easy to track in the archive.
K: I don’t know about you but I think I want to see all of those. I was hearing a bit of Sweeney Todd in the description of the musical too, maybe it’ll be Australia’s Sweeney Todd that you’re writing, no pressure, no pressure.
Any other last questions before we finish up for today? Then it wouldn’t be a National Library event without a little plug for what’s coming up next. Our next fellowship lecture will be on the 15th of September, that’s a Thursday at 12:30 again. It’s called Fabric of War, a hidden history of the global wool trade and it will be delivered by National Library fellow, Madelyn Shaw.
Thank you all for joining us today but thank you especially to Theresa for sharing your research journey with us, for inspiring us to think about the different ways the National Library’s collections can be used to tell stories and to uncover histories. Thank you very much and we can’t wait to see HYGEIA on stage.
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Theresa Borg is a theatre professional who lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her body of work includes performing, directing, writing and producing. She is deeply interested in multiple and diverse Australian voices from history, and is writing a trio of plays based on true, untold stories from the archives.
As the 2022 Creative Fellow for Australian Writing at the National Library, Theresa has been researching the Australian Racial Hygiene Congress of 1929 and, in particular, the backstories of the women who organised it, including Ruby Rich and Lillie Goodisson. Her discoveries will inform a play, HYGEIA, as character-driven investigation of the intersections between white feminism and eugenics between the World Wars.