Women Exhibitors at the First Australian International Exhibitions

The John Hopkins University Press
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 2011, Winter 2011, 12 (3), pp. 1 - 10
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In 1879 the British colony of New South Wales hosted the first international exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere. Never before had an international exhibition been held so far from the cultural and commercial centres of Europe. Exhibits and visitors from all the great nations of the world made the daunting sea journey to the remote and little-known colony that, less than forty years before, had been the destination mainly of convicts and their keepers. The Sydney International Exhibition was immediately followed by the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 in the neighbouring colony of Victoria, approximately six hundred miles to the south. The success of these exhibitions inspired the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, held in 1888 to celebrate one hundred years of white settlement in Australia. All 3 exhibitions were magnificent events to which almost everyone was welcome. These were events where visitors surveyed the greatest achievements of the age and participated enthusiastically in the festivities, the pomp and the ceremony. This article examines new empirical data on the participation of colonial women as exhibitors at the Australian international exhibitions and the nature and extent of the items they exhibited. It compares the participation rate with data compiled by Paul Greenhalgh for the Paris Expositions Universelles (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900) and reveals that women in the Australian colonies participated as exhibitors at a significantly higher rate than their European and American sisters. Colonial women were living in settler societies, striving to maintain a spirit of Englishness and subscribing to the ideology of middle class gentility, with its principle of distinct gendered spheres of work, that was a common feature of the English-speaking middle classes throughout the British Empire. In this context, and supported by their previous experiences at intercolonial exhibitions, they were motivated to participate as exhibitors by a desire to take part in public life, to be recognised for their contributions to colonial progress and to promote women's work. The article garners specific examples of exhibited items from the exhibition catalogues to provide an insight into the nature and extent of women's contributions. Although the Australian international exhibitions primarily exposed colonial women to gendered views of productive work, they also provided independent and collective experiences that assisted women in the following decade to engage in social and political roles outside the home. There is an intriguing correspondence between the high participation rate of colonial women at the exhibitions and the fact that Australian women were among the first to achieve female suffrage.
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