CONTENT WARNING: Domestic violence, murder, victim blaming.
The woman above is Emily Mather (1865 - 1891), whose grave I visited in the Melbourne General Cemetery yesterday. Mather, who was buried under her maiden name, was brutally murdered by her husband in 1891. Unknown to Emily, she had married serial killer, and her husband had previously murdered his first wife and their four children in England before fleeing to Australia; some believe he may be serial killer Jack the Ripper, although most historians doubt this. He was hanged in 1892 for the murder of Mather.
Mather was initially buried in an unmarked 'pauper's grave', until the efforts of family friend Edward Thunderbolt saw her exhumed and reburied in the Melbourne General Cemetery. The monument was erected by public subscription, with the inscription chosen by Thunderbolt, as Mather's parents were still in England. Aside from the standard inscription noting her to be a beloved daughter whose life had been taken too soon, Thunderbolt also thought it appropriate to place a piece of 'advice' on her gravestone, which proves that victim blaming is no new thing, even from so-called friends.
It reads as follows:
"To those who hereafter come reflecting
Upon this text of her sad ending
To warn her sex of their intending
For marrying in haste, is depending
On such a fate, too late for amending."
In modern terms, this translates to Thunderbolt saying that Mather married too quickly and if she had taken her time she might have made a different choice that wouldn't have led to her murder. He is saying it is her own fault her husband bashed her and slit her throat, and he has taken it upon himself to warn other young woman that they too are likely to be maimed or murdered by their husbands if they 'marry in haste', and not because, you know, their husbands chose to act violently against them.
You can write this off as a sickening example of the times if you want, but victim blaming is still alive and well today. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment are still asked 'What were you wearing?', and the actions and attitudes of murdered wives are regularly scrutinized to see if the killer husband was 'pushed too far'. Individuals coming forward with allegations of abuse are routinely disbelieved and ridiculed, while powerful people and institutions collude to protect their own.
It might not be written on graves anymore, but it is still deeply embedded in our culture, our minds, our psyche, and even our legal system. And while it remains so entrenched, while we continue to blame the victims and find excuses for the perpetrators, women like Emily Mather will never rest in peace.
I love cemetaries; they are peaceful places full of incredible stories and today I got a chance to visit the Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton, final resting place of many famous historical figures from Melbourne and wider Victoria, including Sir Redmond Barry, Peter Lalor, Sir Charles Hotham and, of course, Burke and Wills. The two men are not only buried there but also have a large memorial, which I saw today. The memorial reads: "Comrades in a Great Achievement, Companions in Death and Associates in Renown". These two men, who not only spent their own lives but cost five other men theirs, are a classic example of white-washed, glossed-over, rose-tinted history.
For those unfamiliar, Burke and Wills were a pair of so-called explorers who set out to cross the continent, going from Royal Park, Melbourne to Flinders River, North Queensland in 1860. Of the exploration team, only one man - John King - actually crossed the continent and survived to make it back to Melbourne.
Most publications about the pair describe the expedition as 'ill-fated', but the historical reality is far less peachy: Burke and Wills were not 'ill-fated', but ill-equipped, unprepared, inexperienced, arrogant, ignorant and had an inflated sense of their own self-importance. They died, and took five others with them, due to sheer stupidity, not bad luck or circumstance.
So please remember, when you see the memorials, and the statues, and the street names, they have been raised to a pair of STUPID MEN. History is full of them, and we seem to have a real hard time releasing the fiction and facing the facts.
Want to know more?
This article on Wikipedia is a good place to start: Burke and Wills Expedition. While Wikipedia has a reputation for factual inaccuracy, this article is one of the better ones and will give you a good grounding.
The National Museum of Australian has an online collection of resources decided to Burke and Wills, which you can find here.
The State Library of Victoria has a wealth of online and physical material regarding the Burke and Wills expedition, including journal articles, books, pictures, manuscripts and documents. Click here to search.
A really great book on the subject, which I can personally recommend is 'Burke and Wills, The Triumph and Tragedy of Australia's Most Famous Explorers' by Peter Fitzsimons. You can find this online or in any good book retailer.
Finally, you can visit the graves of these men yourself, and see the memorial, at the Melbourne General Cemetery in Parkville, Victoria. Just across the road from the cemetery is another monument, marking the place in Royal Park where the exhibition set off from.
Currently running at Melbourne Museum is an exhibition creatively titled YOU CAN'T DO THAT! It is billed as a fashion exhibition, of designers and models who broke the rules, rocked the establishment and pushed back to became fashion icons in their own right.
I'm not much of a fashionista, so I didn't have much interest in going to it until I happened to see a t-shirt in the window of the museum shop when I took Miss H. last week. The top in question was merchandise from the exhibition and bore the following slogan: YOU CAN'T ROCK THE ESTABLISHMENT.
It was love at first sight and, despite the price tag, I had to buy it. When I got home from my day out with Miss H, I went online and had a look at what the exhibition contained and discovered I'd been quite mistaken in thinking it was 'just a fashion exhibit'. It was not just about models and designers who had pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable, they'd completely smashed them! They'd rocked the establishment to its knees and blasted their way through every 'Can't', 'Don't', 'Won't' and 'Shouldn't' without fear or shame. They were not just daring fashion icons, they were true rebels with dreams they were determined to see to fruition.
I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition today and reading their stories, decked out, of course, in YOU CAN'T ROCK THE ESTABLISHMENT. The exhibit opened with the following quote which I want to share with you now, as it is relevant to everyone from all walks of life, not just in fashion.
When someone says you can't do you just accept it and give up? Or do you bristle at the provocation and think, just watch me go.
At every turn, the models and designers featured in the exhibit - Stella Dare, Prue Acton, Lois Briggs, Jenny Bannister, Christopher Graf and Andreja Pejic - were told YOU CAN'T, but what made them into icons rather than just designers and models was that they turned around and said I CAN.
Stella Dare was an errand-girl from Flinders Lane in the 1930s, who started who eventually started own designing business; in 1950, when she was designing, the only acceptable thing to wear in Melbourne was essentially copies of what was fashionable in England, but she bucked this trend and created her clothes in Melbourne, for Melbourne, using local influences. Then you had the story of Yorta Yorta woman Lois Briggs, who was the first Indigenous Australian woman to model in Victoria; she was also an accomplished singer, part of the Indigenous singing group The Sapphires. Christopher Graf spurned the common theme of the 1970s for black and white, designing bold, brightly coloured clothing that is still very much is demand today, despite him having officially retired from the fashion industry.
Graf's section very much resonated with me, and not just because I liked the slogan attached to his work in the exhibit. In an interview attached to his section, he stated plainly: "I rocked the establishment because I paid no attention to it." I can vividly recall, particularly in my first high school, the pressure to conform. I was never the kind of person who was terribly interested in being in the centre of everything, but high school - especially the all-girls school I attended - was a dangerous place to be non-conforming. Rocking the establishment was not something you did and the teacher's were just as much part of the problem as those students who controlled the social currency. During Year 10 (2008) one of our essay questions was 'Gay Marriage Will Never Be Legal in Australia. Discuss.' One of the girls in my class wanted to refute, but the head of the English department told her she would be automatically failed and that the mission of the school was to 'educate young women to be morally conscious and socially upright.' Yep. I kid you not.
I box I was up into in high school was that of 'quiet, boring, anti-social library-dweller'. For most of my young adult life, I've been boxed up in a similar way by those around me. First impressions, so I've been told, are either that I'm aloof or painfully shy, but the truth is that I'd rather get to know you before I start talking to you. As anyone who knows me well will attest, I will participate in activities with you for a few weeks before I start opening up to you. I take a while to make friends but, once you've earned my friendship, you'll have it for life. But cross me once and it's over.
It took me a long time to shrug off the box of 'quiet, anti-social person' in my personal life as well, and start doing things I wanted to do. Pole dancing and weight lifting were two of these things, and you'd be amazed how many people are stunned when I tell them I do and enjoy these activities.
"Jewels! Pole dancing! Didn't think she'd be brave enough to do that."
"Lifting weights? In a gym? I thought you were more of a 'read books and hide in your house' kind of girl."
But I've also had those four words levelled at me: YOU CAN'T DO THAT!
"You can't pole dance! It's an inappropriate hobby for someone in your industry."
"Weight lifting? You can't do that! You're not strong enough!"
But the best one would have to be from someone I know, after I mentioned in passing that I was taking up weight training along with my pole dancing.
"You can't do both - too much exercise is really bad for you. Besides, men don't like women who exercise too much, it's intimidating and makes you look less feminine."
I told them that it was incredibly fortunate that such shallow, vane, self-obsessed men would have no interest in me, because their egos wouldn't be able to take it when they discovered they were not the centre of my world. Equally, I have no interest in anyone, man or not, who tells me to behave a certain way.
So why all this after viewing this one exhibit? Well, YOU CAN'T DO THAT might be about the fashion industry, but the message within is powerful and can be adapted wherever you are. Society, the establishment, the people around you... Everyone you meet, at some point in your life, is going to try and put you in a box. Those who love you will be more than willing to let you climb out of that box when it no longer fits, but there will be plenty of conformers, conservatives and others who will tell you to stay in the box they put you in because, God damn it, you have to! You can't be anything other than what everyone else is. You can't do anything other than what is acceptable to everyone else. And you can't be you!
So the next time someone turns around and says "can't", "don't", "won't", "shouldn't" or tries to talk you down, look hard at then and think "watch me prove you wrong" and then go and do it. But do it for yourself, not for them, because they were never worth your time anyway. So go out, be you, create beautiful things, chase your dreams, follow your passions, and rock the establishment!
WHAT: You Can't Do That
WHERE: Melbourne Museum, Carlton
WHEN: Showing until 15 July, 2018
COST: Included with museum admission - Adult: $15, all others free.
My most recent transformation challenge at EP was in December 2017, prior to starting FIRE in March this year. That challenge culminated for me, like so many others, in a fitness photoshoot.
Each photoshoot I do with EP, I choose a theme. The last two shoots the theme has been pole dancing and yoga/meditation, but this time I decided to do something that represented my journey from scared, shy young girl to proud, brave, confident woman. My theme for December 2017 was NO SURRENDER.
No Surrender, for me, took into account all the struggles I'd endured to get to the point I was. I was at my strongest, I'd just performed in my first Showcase with PDCS and choreographed my first pole solo and performed it in front of an audience. I was eating well, staying on top of my workload and generally feeling great! I remember reflecting back on the past five years - the time I've been training with Hilal - and shaking my head at where I was now.
So why the 'pirate flag' for No Surrender?
The Jolly Roger, traditionally called the 'Skull and Crossbones' or the 'Pirate Flag', is probably one of the most recognisable symbols in history. The Jolly Roger I am flying in my photoshoot is the design used by the historical pirate captain John "Calico Jack" Rackham, who is famous for his expensive calico shirts, and for having two women on his crew: his lover Anne Bonny and Mary Read, a woman who had been raised and dressed as a boy since childhood and had served in the army and navy respectively before becoming a pirate. Calico Jack is one of my favourite historical figures and, while his life ended prematurely on the gallows in 1720, his name has continued down history and, along with Blackbeard, he is a pirate most people can name, even if they know nothing about him.
This is easily my favourite of the many Jolly Rogers, incorporating both that famous symbol of death: the skull, but eschewing the cliche of crossed bones in favour of crossed swords, being the instruments that bring death. It's a powerful image, and its minimalistic nature appeals to me aesthetically too: it would have looked very impressive (and undoubtedly terrifying) flying against a stiff sea breeze as Calico Jack and his crew descended upon a helpless merchant vessel in the Caribbean seas 300 years ago.
But this symbol is not only a favourite of mine, it is also a symbol that refuses to die, despite the fact that the men (and few women) who flew it and sailed under it are long gone. The Jolly Roger endured despite all attempts by the colonial powers who eventually exterminated piracy to eradicate it; it has cropped up again and again through history and most children can tell you about a skull and crossbones long before they know what a Union Jack (or other symbol from modern or recent flags) is or represents.
This is why it is so powerful for me. Everyone, everyone, at the time this symbol was a common sight loathed it and, once piracy was nullified in the areas where it once flew, the powers that were probably thought they'd seen the last of it. Yet, despite their best efforts, it wouldn't go away, it wouldn't die, and it stubbornly refused to surrender to defeat, or to be confined to the dusty annals of long forgotten history. It survived, being reinvented over the centuries to suit the needs of those using it, and even attempts to link it to the colonial version of the pirates - filthy, blood-thirsty brutes who wantonly raped, murdered and butchered for sport - and to paint it as a symbol of death and destruction, nothing history did to the Jolly Roger could make it go away.
For me, there have been plenty of times when events in my life and those around me have done their best to make me disappear. There have been times when it felt like, every time I pushed back or tried to climb back up, everything conspired against me and down I went again.
But stubbornly, I refused to surrender.
Six years ago this year I walked into a gym and met Hilal, and since then I have been on a journey that has not only got my body in tip-top shape, but my confidence, determination, and perseverance grew, as did my courage to try new things, to speak out when I had something to say, and grow as a person. I have learned to love my body and my mind, but it is a love born from strength and I refuse to give up, to let it go, or to let anybody take it from me.
Like the Jolly Roger, I will not give up just because those around me tell me it's time to shut up and move on.
And that's why I call it Straight Living, even though I'm standing up proud with the Jolly Roger. Because this is my opinion, straight as that, and I won't surrender or give ground on it; the Jolly Roger is representative of that.
You don't have to like me. I'm not a Facebook post.
Me With No Apologies.