Finding the women in the South Australian Field Naturalists

Almost three years ago I decided to write an academic history article. I’d always been intrigued by a story I had written about in my Honours thesis thirty years previously. It was about the South Australian Fauna and Flora Protection Committee and their enigmatic young instigator, Arthur F. Robin, a group which emerged from the Field Naturalists’ Organisation in the 1880s. His passion had always inspired me and it was heartening to know that people had been campaigning to preserve the Australian environment for many years.

My renewed interest in writing history coincided with my eldest daughter having moved out of home. While it was sad to see her go, her bedroom had gradually morphed into a study. Virginia Woolf was right, having a room of one’s own felt good. I had an old wooden desk, a view of the garden, a bookshelf, the summer holidays and possibilities. So, with notepad, pen and computer I embarked on one of many journeys to the State Library. The notebook became my constant companion, I wrote the paper and I found that I loved researching but also writing and uncovering people’s stories. After almost thirty years as an English Literary Studies, History and Geography teacher it was fulfilling on a deep level to be creating something for myself, to be thinking about how to do this and to be editing my own work. 

The Fauna and Flora Committee were a fascinating lot, but where were the women campaigning for the environment? Women now are passionate advocates for nature so why were they not doing so in the late nineteenth century? I’d never written women’s history, though I teach my students about women in history, I focus on issues related to girls, I teach at an all-girls’ public school and I’d even taught Women’s Studies. It was time to do a paper on women. So, with a new notebook and a desire to learn I headed back again to the State Library and on to Trove. This time I would look at women in the Field Naturalists and see what they were doing.    

I pored over the minutes of meetings, records of excursions and lists of members in search of my women. They were mentioned occasionally, I found a few leads, but finding these women was hard. With my first paper I had been able to find extensive first-hand records but here there was very little to go on. I gradually drew fragments together though and sometimes I just had to go by people’s actions. The woman I most connected with was Jessie Hussey. Her life scrambling over rocks, wading in the sea water, exploring the diverse natural world of the Fleurieu Peninsula, and piecing together her findings was fascinating. I found that women in the Field Naturalists were much more active than the official membership lists suggested. These women were engaging with nature in an intimate, often close-up way, they were painting and exhibiting and collating and collecting and collaborating. They were tramping through the bushland, noticing small details, adapting their clothing to suit the situation, taking risks. It was a far different world, but it had many connections.

Many women were ground breakers and amongst the first to achieve Science Degrees in the colony. One of these was Edith Haycraft, who was interested in the larger scheme of things, the broader ideas and she was a bit feisty, maybe even sassy. You could tell that if she wasn’t going to be accepted as an equal, she would move on to somewhere else. Women weren’t protesting though, at least not in the Field Naturalists. They were campaigning in other areas, with the suffrage movement the main focus for them at the time. The Field Naturalists, while accepting and even encouraging women, were inherently patriarchal, furthered by their connection with the Royal Society. Moreover, how could women speak with authority in the political arena and advocate for the environment when they had little agency, and when, at the onset of the organisation, they still had no franchise? 

Having never written women’s history before, I’m indebted to the staff at Lilith and their helpful remarks and their excellent reading list which sent me back, yet again, to the State Library. Their comments allowed me to see the wider historical picture and to consider the women absent from the organisation. I feel that I now understand the position of women at the time on a much deeper level and how they drew on their traditional roles to make gradual change. They were, like Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms, ‘Nudgers and shovers’, they were women who ‘widen the crannies’, and ‘shoulder through holes’. Their foot was in the door.

Sharyn Clarke is a teacher of history, geography and English at Mitcham Girls High School in Adelaide. Her interests lie in the area of South Australian environmental history. She has researched and written about the environmental movement in South Australia in the nineteenth century and her master’s degree from Adelaide University was an examination of the history of the River Torrens.

You can read the full-length version of this article in the 2021 open-access edition of Lilith.

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