My trip through parts of Europe last year really drilled home how little importance has been placed on the lives of women throughout history. In Italy, church after church had funerary monuments dedicated to important men, with statues of women mourning around the monument. Women, when they existed at all, had small plaques outside the church. Only men were important, women were decorations. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, but after having previously travelled through Germany and France where prominent women are more likely to have been acknowledged, even if not at the same level as the powerful men, it did come as a shock.
In Cologne, Germany, some Abbesses had funerary monuments inside churches, and many of the men buried inside the churches were either prominent priests or bishops, or Kings/Lords of the region (sometimes both, Cologne is odd).
In France, there are less people buried inside churches, but there were still some recognition of prominent women, St Genevieve (Patron Saint of Paris) and Joan d’Arc in particular.
On one hand, it’s tempting to say that this is all in the past, that women are now (more) equal with men and therefore if those same churches were built today that there would be far more women recognised. However, I don’t think that is true. In Paris, the honour to be interred at the Parthanon goes by far more to men than to women.
President François Hollande, who had been strongly urged for more than a year to add more women to those awarded the honor of burial in the Panthéon, named two women on Friday — but also two men.
In doing so, he disappointed feminist groups and others who had lobbied on behalf of an array of women and who wanted to see only women added this time.
The Panthéon, a huge building in one of the oldest parts of Paris, has been the nation’s monument to worthy historical figures since the French Revolution. Of the 73 people honored there, 71 are men and include figures like the philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as Louis Braille, who invented a system of reading for the blind. Marie Curie is the only woman to make it on her own merits (the other was included at her husband’s insistence). [New York Times]
Yes, the Parthanon is not a new institution, and so the number of men will outweigh the number of women, but there are many prominent women in France that have not been recognised for their contribution to that country.
But have things really changed since the Renaissance and the French Revolution? Are things much better in Australia, a nation that prides itself on being much more egalitarian? Sadly no. Australia was Federated in 1901, which is when we became a country and not a collection of smaller countries/states that struggled separately. Women won suffrage shortly after that (1902) Federally, and then the States had to follow (though South Australia and Western Australia led the way granting suffrage to women before Federation).
This means that when someone prominent dies, someone who has contributed to society in a meaningful way (usually politics, sport, military service, arts, philantrophy, etc) the Government (State or Federal) will offer the family a State Funeral. Now remember that Australia is egalitarian, but not equal. Women’s involvement in the public sphere is still relatively recent, so there are less known prominent women in Australia than men.
That said, the number of women who have been offered State Funerals is really very low. Most recently, State Funerals have been offered to Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, AC DBE, Hazel Hawke, AO and Margaret Whitlam, AO (whose family turned the offer down).
Some prominent Australian women have either not had offers made, nor had their request for a State Funeral accepted. Janet Powell, AM, former leader of the Australian Democrats, and the second woman in Australia to lead a political party, was refused a State Funeral in 2013.
In the last few weeks of her life, a number of women assisted Janet’s family to make a formal request to the Victorian Premier for a State Funeral for Janet.
It was refused. We were told it was a Federal matter. And so we went back to the Prime Minister’s department. Time was of the essence. Finally came the ever-so-polite email. Apparently it has not been customary for successive Australian governments to accord a former leader of a recognised minority party with a State Funeral. The email went on to say that occasionally a distinguished Australian is recognised, who has made an outstanding contribution to Australian society. Not surprisingly, the names given were all men.
In our social history thus far, few women have been accorded the fitting honour of a State Funeral. Such tributes customarily have been made for major party leaders, Ministers, Chief Justices, footballers, racing car drivers and yes, wait for it, many other – men.
Edith Cowan, MBE, Australia’s first elected woman to Parliament was not offered a State Funeral. Vida Goldstein, the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election into a National Parliament, and who worked tirelessly for feminism and suffrage, was not offered a State Funeral. May Holman, the first female ALP politician in Australia, who served as MP for 14 years before her untimely death in a car accident, was not offered a State Funeral. Dame Annie Florence Gillies Cardell-Oliver, DBE, who until recently held the record for the longest sitting woman Parliamentarian, was not offered a State Funeral. Dame Nellie Melba, one of Australia’s greatest performers, was not offered a State Funeral. Queensland’s first female politicians, Irene Maud Longman, who was barred from using the Parliamentary dining room, and who had to cope with the fact that there were not female toilets in Parliament House, was not offered a State Funeral. Victoria’s first woman elected to Parliament, Lady Millie Gertrude Peacock was not offered a State Funeral. The first Victorian woman in Federal Parliament, and co-founder of the Aborigines Advancement League, Doris Black, was not offered a State Funeral. Margaret Edgeworth David McIntyre, OBE, the first woman elected to the Tasmanian Legislative Council was not offered a State Funeral.
This is not to say that women haven’t been offered State Funerals, but they seem to be exceptions to the norm. The earliest offer of a State Funeral to an Australian woman that I could find (it was turned down by the family) was to Emma Miller in 1917. Other State Funerals include:
- Dame Enid Lyons, AD GBE – The first woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives and the first woman appointed to Federal Cabinet.
- Dame Mary Gilmore, DBE – An Australian literary icon and the first writer to be accorded a State Funeral since Henry Lawson’s death.
- Joan Child, AO – First woman to be the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives
- Dame Annabelle Jane Mary Rankin, DBE – the second woman member of the Australian Senate, the first woman from Queensland to sit in the Parliament of Australia, the first Australian woman to have a federal portfolio and the first Australian woman to be appointed head of a foreign mission.
- Janine Haines, AM – the first female federal parliamentary leader of an Australian political party, the Australian Democrats. She was also the first member of that party to enter the federal parliament after the party’s formation.
- Dame Roma Flinders Mitchell, AC, DBE, CVO, QC – first female Governor in South Australia (and probably all of Australia), and more kick arse than you can imagine.
All together I could only find evidence for 8 State Funerals conducted for prominent Australian women, and 2 funerals that were offered but were declined by the families of the deceased. I’m sure I’ve missed some in my afternoon of research, but it seems rather unbalanced that there are only 10 easily found State Funerals for women. In Australia as in the rest of the world, men are mourned and women mourn them.