Tiffany Ko, on why she’s re-reading Nora Heysen for International Women’s Day


This Sunday is International Women’s Day, a day when we’re all invited to raise awareness for an equal, enabled world. This year’s theme is #EachforEqual, and we are all encouraged to fight against bias and stereotypes, broaden perceptions and celebrate women’s achievements to create a gender equal world.

When thinking about this theme I was reminded of Anne-Louise Willoughby’s biography Nora Heysen: A Portrait, which celebrates a woman’s achievement in spite of following a pathway which was then reserved for men.

Nora Heysen was a portraitist and flower painter, and her all-consuming drive to draw and paint led her to become Australia’s first official female war artist and the first woman to win the Archibald Prize. Her pursuit of art as a career wasn’t without its adversities – an article announcing her win in The Australian Women’s Weekly was titled ‘Girl Painter Who Won Art Prize is also Good Cook’, with the sub-headline ‘Nora Heysen Gives Recipes for Her Favorite Foreign Dishes  – There is scope for artistry in the kitchen just as there is in the studio’.

Another, for want of a better word, entertaining reaction to her win was by Max Meldrum, a fellow entrant, who said:

If I were a woman I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art. Men and women are differently constituted and women are more closely attached to the physical things of life. They are not to blame. They cannot help it, and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy. A great artist has to tread a lonely road. He needs all the manly qualities — courage, strength and endurance. He becomes great only by exerting himself to the limit of his strength the whole time. I believe that such a life is unnatural and impossible for a woman.

In response, Nora said: ‘Was he angry! Max Meldrum said a woman’s place was in the kitchen! … I thought my goodness gracious – fancy taking that view! Art’s art to me, no matter who does it – men, women or what!’

We have come a long way since then, but even now, no country has achieved gender equality. International Women’s Day to me has always been about building a gender-equal world, together. It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a world issue that, when solved, will lead to a more harmonious and thriving community. It’s easy to dismiss individual achievement as negligible in the face of such a large problem, but in my eyes, every ‘first’ from the first female winner of an art prize to the first female prime minister counts as a step towards an equal society.

This campaign doesn’t run just on Sunday but all year long. No matter how you decide to spread awareness – by reading an empowering book like Nora Heysen: A Portrait, or by joining the #IWD2020 campaign through social media, you can help spread the message for us all to be #EachforEqual.

Visit the International Women’s Day website to see what events are occurring near you, and find out how you can get involved.

Thanks for reading! Tiffany


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