What has the opening of the Town Hall on Barrack Street got to do with feminism? Give up? Well, let Dodgy Perth mansplain it to you then.
Everyone needs to tell stories, about themselves, their family and their community. For most of the last two centuries, the (white) people of Western Australia have told their history using one word: ‘progress’. And every new building, no matter how boring or ugly, was welcomed as yet another sign of the progress of this great state.
So it should come as no surprise to find that on the official opening of the Town Hall in 1870, a huge banner was put across Barrack Street with the word PROGRESS on it, for people to march under on their way to the new building.
But there’s a problem with this word. It doesn’t just apply to new buildings, but also to society. Little things like women’s rights, for example. If the fair sex keep hearing about how we’re progressive, they might decide they would like a little of this progress too.
At the Town Hall ceremony, there wasn’t much sign of this progress. The hall itself was filled only with the important men of Perth while the womenfolk were consigned to the gallery. The men feasted and drank the booze, while their wives simply looked on without even a sandwich.
But still, this whole progress thing had to be dealt with, and it fell to the Colonial Secretary, Frederick Barlee, to spell it out. Proposing a toast to the health of the ladies, like every misogynist before and since, he announced that no one could be more devoted to women.
As a lover of ladies, Fred continued, he well knew the power and influence they had over men. (Even if this did not extend to getting anything to eat or drink.) Recently he had been reading about something called “women’s rights and female suffrage”, and worse about women entering professions and becoming scientists. Not, of course, in Perth, but elsewhere in the world.
But, said Fred, addressing the gallery, none of the good and true women here would wish to see any such nonsense brought about. After all, they already knew how much power they had without needing legal rights. Nor did women need the vote, since all men did was vote the way they were told by their wives anyway.
The Colonial Secretary then called upon all present to drink to the health of the ladies by gulping down nine large mouthfuls of booze. Well, not all could drink of course. Some were in the gallery.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was what 1870 called progress.
One thing that struck me while working in local government was that any group that called itself a progress society seemed hell bent on stopping everything it could …
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