Hallelujah, I’m in the library again! I have three precious days on my own in Sydney, staying with friends, and free to spend as much time in the archives as I please between their opening and closing hours of 9am to 7pm. And what a joy it is! Mind you, I’ve set myself relatively easy tasks simply because I wasn’t sure what I would be able to achieve in my time here, given my unfamiliarity with the collection. I outlined my aims to Michael on Sunday evening: to upgrade my membership category from the ordinary ‘blue card’ to the slightly more specialised ‘gold card’ (which allows me to look at the rare books and manuscripts collection); to find a book about women’s decorative arts edited by Ann Toy that I’d failed to obtain in Coffs Harbour through the inter-library loans scheme because the only copy is in the Mitchell collection; and to familiarise myself with the card indices and catalogues here. So far I’ve achieved two out of those three aims, and managed to do some shopping in Sydney as well!
What is interesting me – apart from the act of doing the research itself – is how feminist my subject seems to be: blindingly obvious to some, I have no doubt, but obscured to me. As I look through bibliographies and lists of source materials, I come up against the notion of homemaking as a woman’s occupation – part of the ‘right order of things’, and the activities described – embroidery, decoration, feminisation of the home environment – are all ‘women’s work’, perceived as part of the Puritan desire to employ women’s hands so that they couldn’t make mischief. Women embroidered, tatted, knitted, crocheted, painted, decorated not exclusively for their own pleasure or as an expression of an inner compulsion to ‘make art’; they did these things mainly because the social order in which they lived expected them to do so as a way of keeping them in their place, cementing their position in the social hierarchy, and expressing their commitment to their male relatives and their families.
Some of my inept description can no doubt be argued with, but I think it is basically true that as women could not/should not earn a wage for their work, they were only allowed to become gifted amateurs at their occupations. Their artistic output was usually for the private audience of family and friends, or was distributed as gifts with no inherent value apart from sentiment. A few women made a decent living from their skills, such as the botanical illustrators the Scott sisters, but they were a rarity and described themselves as amateurs. And this isn’t a historical tendency: I do it myself. How often have I downplayed my skills? Given things away rather than charged money for them? Referred to my own art practice as a hobby rather than as a passion? Only now, at the rather late age of 40, am I beginning to reinterpret my own behaviour and reassess the world around me – thank you, Jules, for three years of conversation that have subtly opened my eyes!