From gardeners to governor’s wives – How have women shaped Australia’s cities?

Rachel Harris reviews a new book on how women have shaped Australian cities.

Jane Jose. Places Women Make: Unearthing the Contribution of Women to our Cities. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016. RRP $29.95. ISBN 9781743053942.

places-women-make-cover-2As soon as I heard about Jane Jose’s Places Women Make: Unearthing the Contribution of Women to our Cities, I was excited to read it. Knowing how irritatingly central and enduring both masculinity and the outback are to constructions of national identity, I was so pleased to hear that someone had finally written a book on the role of women in shaping Australia’s urban spaces. Jose draws on the stories of over 150 women – spanning from 1788 to the present – who have contributed in some way to the social, cultural and political life of Australia’s capital cities. There are some positive elements to this work – indeed, the subject matter itself is fascinating. However, I found Jose’s interpretation of the topic overwhelmingly disappointing. Instead of challenging stereotypes of women and place, Jose instead reinscribes them, focusing almost entirely on conventional female historical figures.

Jose has held a variety of public roles related to community development, urban planning and public policy. Beginning as an ABC journalist, Jose eventually became the Deputy Lord Mayor of Adelaide in 1991 and now serves as the CEO of the Sydney Community Foundation. Her background as an urbanist clearly influences the book’s thematic direction, although the depth of her practical knowledge is not on show throughout the work. Rather, she writes, Places Women Make is a work to “celebrate the places in cities we know women have given us … places that provide delight and enjoyment” (2). It was the winner of the National 2016 Bates Smart Award for Architecture in Media. Aimed at the general public as well as fellow urbanists and designers, the book is loosely divided into three sections: women architects; landscape and garden designers; and philanthropy and heritage conservation.

The Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden was designed by landscape architect Elsie Cornish in 1941 to commemorate SA’s pioneer women. The statue found at the garden’s centre was designed by artist Olga Cohn. Image via State Library of South Australia.

Places Women Make challenged me to think more about how women have contributed to our cities. Jose seeks not to prove “a theory about the skills of men versus those of women,” but rather to suggest that “women need to be more involved in the future shaping of our cities” (2). This is a basic objective which she successfully fulfills. I was pleased to discover that some of my favourite places – such as Melbourne’s Federation Square – were designed or overseen by women (139). I was also surprised to learn that Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Tasmanian governor John Franklin, purchased the land on which she intended to establish one of Australia’s earliest public botanic gardens (91).

Jose’s exploration of women’s contributions to city gardens and landscape architecture was one of the more noteworthy features of the book. Her section on landscape gardener Edna Walling – who was one of the first Australian gardeners to depart from a classic British style of landscape design – revealed the pioneering role women played in the establishment of a unique Australian gardening style, one now present across our capital cities. Even more forceful and persuasive was Jose’s examination of the work done by a range of female activists to save heritage buildings and spaces across Australia’s cities. As Jose herself has been responsible for saving more than 1400 heritage buildings from demolition in Adelaide, her passion for this topic is clearly evident.

Jose seeks to make a case for why women need to have greater involvement in the design and civic life of Australia’s cities. Asserting that architecture is one of the last ‘professional frontiers’ for women, she constantly draws comparisons with the situation overseas. Jose notes how far behind Australia is to the United States and the United Kingdom in regards to the number of major urban design projects conceived and carried out by women. I was therefore expecting her to advance a conceptual argument as to why this is the case. But Jose fails to engage with any existing cultural debates about gender, nation-building and national identity. While the aforementioned sections broadly outline the many ways women have contributed to Australia’s cities, Jose’s tendency to jump back and forth between topics, women and ideas sometimes makes the work difficult to follow.

In catering for a wide audience, Jose has seemingly compromised the extent to which she could engage with different practical and theoretical considerations. Historians such as Anne Summers, Marilyn Lake and Beverly Kingston have clearly laid theoretical foundations for discussions on why Australian women have been largely obscured from national life. Beverly Kingston in particular addressed the connection between women and the construction of urban space in My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary Ann: Women and Work in Australia (1975). Australian suburbs, economists and politicians have traditionally asserted, were constructed because of developments in transport, gas and water supplies. But this, Kingston asserted, obscures the “more thoughtful examination” that it was “largely for women and the production of children that the great Australian suburbs were built” (2). Jose could have presented a practical response to ideas such as this one. Instead, she simply identifies the lack of higher education opportunities for women before the 1970s as the only reason for their lack of involvement in major civic projects. Since Jose makes a point of telling readers that her own undergraduate background is not in the politics of urban design, but history and English literature, I was surprised that her argument did not engage with these dimensions of feminist history. Drawing on these theories would have given the book greater structure and nuance.

Jose also relies heavily on stereotypes about women. While she acknowledges that a woman’s place is no longer only in the home, she also suggests that women are naturally unsuited to contributing to public life in the same way as men. The idea that women are “natural storytellers and homemakers” (4) is constantly reiterated, as is the idea that “feminine sensibility” – rather than professional skill or ability – is the main reason behind the success of women who have undertaken major design projects. Many of the women are firstly defined in terms of their marital status and motherhood before their individual accomplishments are outlined. Jose constantly creates a dichotomy: women produce “nurturing”, “cocooning”, “delightful” and “feminine” places; men are responsible for the big buildings, such as sporting stadiums and other major institutions. Jose argues that women need only consider the ‘little plans’ while men can take care of the big ones. While she sees this as a positive, it suggests to readers that women should simply accept their “natural” role as homemakers and adapt it to suit their work. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, this certainly detracts from the main aim of the book – to encourage more women into architecture, which Jose firmly establishes as a man’s profession.

Women who have successfully broken the mould receive comparatively little attention. Mary Riebey (31), a successful businesswoman and co-founder of the Bank of New South Wales, is given a mere few words, while Louise Cox, Australia’s most distinguished female architect, gets only one paragraph (62-63). Jose also tends to sentimentalise the historical successes of women. When discussing house museums, for example, she argues that a place like Carrick Hill (a period home built in Adelaide during the late 1930s by the Haywards, one of the city’s most prominent families) “exemplifies the lives of women who have followed and lived their dreams” (124). On the contrary, I think Carrick Hill merely represents how lucky Lady Ursula Hayward was to be born and married into a position that allowed her to collect fine art as a hobby. In fact, the vast majority of women Jose mentions come from wealthy or privileged backgrounds. Although she argues that the urban design of Australian cities represents a “classless society” (74), her selection of women does not reflect this.

A woman crosses North Terrace, Adelaide. General view of North Terrace, c. 1928. Image via State Library of South Australia.
A woman crosses North Terrace, Adelaide. General view of North Terrace, c. 1928. Image via State Library of South Australia.

Cities are important not just for what they are designed but for what happens in them as well. As Jose points out, this is what makes Adelaide’s North Terrace an important street for women in Australia. It is a street where the parliament that first extended the vote to women is situated, the street on which the University of Adelaide – the first Australian university to admit women to degrees – is located, and the street where South Australia’s cultural institutions are thriving due in part to the general donations of female philanthropists. After reading Places Women Make, I will certainly be pondering these facts more as I walk down North Terrace each day.

Although disappointing from a historical perspective, I would definitely recommend this book to general readers interested in how women have contributed to the spaces they like to visit. Overall, it holds the greatest appeal to women much like Jose and those she mentions within the work. Its short length, together with a lack of footnotes and proper bibliography, lends itself to a coffee-table read rather than a work that would be of significance to history enthusiasts and scholars.


image1-copyRachel Harris is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Adelaide. Her thesis considers the lives of civilian women in South Australia during World War II. Rachel was the recipient of the 2015 Wakefield Companion to S.A. History Essay Prize for her work on the experiences of female munition workers and members of the Australian Women’s Land Army in South Australia between 1940-1945.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @racheldharris_.

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