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Gilmore, Mary Jean

The Oxford Companion to Australian History

Sharyn Pearce

Gilmore, Mary Jean 


poet and journalist, was among the most revered of the first generation of nationalist writers. Dymphna Cusack declared after her death that ‘She not only created the stuff of which history is made. She was history.’

Mary Cameron was born near Goulburn, NSW, the eldest child of a struggling building contractor and his wife, both of Celtic backgrounds. She became a pupil-teacher when she was 12 years old, and her experience in schools in inner-city Sydney and outback NSW placed her firmly on the side of the poor and struggling worker. Mary became a committed ‘Labor woman’ and was the first woman member of the Australian Workers Union, as well as a member of its executive.

In 1895 Mary joined William Lane's utopian settlement in Paraguay where she met and married Will Gilmore, a shearer; her only child, Billy, was born there. After three years the Gilmores returned to Australia, where Mary's ‘descent into hell’ at her husband's family property in Casterton, Victoria, was made bearable when she became editor of the Worker's Women's Page in 1908. She moved back to Sydney three years later without her husband. For the next 23 years Mary used her page to ‘fish for women’ and to propagate her dream of an ideal socialist order based on sex and class equality. Mary was a feminist of a distinctively domestic kind, declaring: ‘Woman is the highest, holiest, most precious gift to man. Her mission and throne is the family.’ The flavour of her writing was often didactic, even messianic, but she was herself so approachable, and her political opinions were so leavened with homely wisdom, that her page secured a strong following. She became an object of veneration in many working-class households and consolidated her reputation as a champion of the ‘little people’.

Gilmore reluctantly relinquished her page in 1931 and for the next 30 years enjoyed an active retirement. The oldest working journalist in Australia was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1937; she was fêted and lionised, her birthdays became cause for public celebration, and she held court to visitors in her Darlinghurst flat. Following her death in 1962, she received a state funeral at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church.

Gilmore built up her literary reputation in the 1890s as a regular Bulletin contributor. She continued to celebrate Australian identity in prose works such as Old Days, Old Ways (1934), a series of vivid vignettes of pioneer life. Mary was best known in her lifetime as a poet, and her role as the conscience of the nation was enhanced by inspirational wartime poems like ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’; but her poetry now seems less durable than her prose.

No biography of Mary Gilmore was published in her lifetime, and an autobiography dictated to Dorothy Catts was never published. Thereafter, potential biographers seem to have been daunted by her status as literary giant and national icon. Yet Gilmore's many contradictions—the feminist who revered powerful men, the upholder of family values who saw her husband twice in the last 30 years of their marriage, and the reputedly humble and self-deprecating woman who was nonetheless prone to insistent bouts of self-aggrandisement (as in her claim to have fostered Henry Lawson's creative genius)—offer fascinating themes for a biographer with an iconoclastic bent. Mary Gilmore: A Tribute (1965) by Dymphna Cusack, T. Inglis Moore and Barrie Ovenden is embarrassingly eulogistic, and Sylvia Lawson's Mary Gilmore (1966) is also deferential. W. H. Wilde's official biography, Courage a Grace (1988), is meticulously researched and, although tactful, less inclined to portray her as an Australian secular saint.

Sharyn Pearce