International Women’s Day 1917

One hundred years ago today the Russian women stormed onto the streets demanding bread and an end to war.

Four days later the Czar abdicated and a provisional government granted women the right to vote.  The new government continued to support the war but soldiers deserted in droves.  Within months the provisional government was also overthrown.

Women clamouring for bread and peace started a revolution.

In England, women’s suffrage took a back seat to the demands of war.  Mrs Pankhurst publicly decried militant campaigns and directed her energies towards supporting the empire and the war.

Women embraced roles previously denied them.

Brisbane woman, Eleanor Bourne tried to enlist in the Australian army but was refused.  So Eleanor, the first Queensland woman doctor, funded her own trip to England and enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  She served as a Lieutenant at the Endell Street Military hospital founded by Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. “A great thrill came to me early in 1916 with an invitation to join the staff of the Military Hospital, Endell Street, London at which the medical staff is composed entirely of women.”

In her papers, which are part of the SLQ collection, Eleanor lists the women specialists recruited from Britain, Canada and Australia and says, “It was indeed a pleasure and an inspiration to be associated with so many splendid women”.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson were suffragettes and Eleanor met Mrs Pankhurst.  She describes her as “the militant suffragette leader, small but very definite and forceful”.  Eleanor didn’t share all their views.  “Dr Anderson won our admiration for having undergone a hunger strike but I’m afraid that both she and Dr Murray regarded us Australians as rather lukewarm in the suffrage cause.  They would say, ‘But you have had the vote for 15 years!’ with the implication, ‘what on earth have you accomplished by it in all that time?’ On our part, we found it hard to follow the doctrine that everything that was wrong, including the setbacks at the front were due to the fact that we live in a man-made world.  When the order came that prohibited women travelling out from Australia, this was regarded as another injustice and insult to women whereas really it was out of consideration for the crew who would risk their valuable lives to save the women if the ship were torpedoed.”

It’s impossible to know Annie Wheeler’s views on women’s suffrage because there are no references in her letters or manuscripts but it is clear she felt she was equal to anyone; her gender, class, nationality or marital status never held her back.

Eleanor and Annie knew each other and met several times in London during the war.  In June 1916, they were together at a reception at the Hotel Cecil in honour of the Queensland Premier T.J. Ryan and his wife.  The reception was hosted by the Queensland Agent General Sir Thomas Robinson.  Annie described it as “a delightful gathering of Queenslanders.”

Further Information

Eleanor Bourne’s papers are part of the SLQ collection and available online

Annie Wheeler’s letters to her friend Mary Trotman were published in the ‘Capricornian’ and have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

The photograph in this post is courtesy of the British War Memorial.

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