There are few statues of notable Australian women in Melbourne. There are few public sculptures in Melbourne representing actual women, aside from nude idealized or symbolic women. For most of the 20th Century there were more memorials statues to British women, Queen Victoria and Nurse Edith Cavell, than Australians.
This was noted and in a small way rectified at the height of the women’s art movement in 1970s with the Mary Gilbert Memorial, 1974 by Ailsa O’Connor (1921-1980). The life-size cement fondue bust is in the Fitzroy Gardens Conservatory.
Ailsa O’Connor was teacher and a radical artist. O’Connor studied at both the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Melbourne University. She was a member of the Social Realist Group (along with Noel Counihan) and the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne (exhibiting in their 1942 Anti-Fascist exhibition). O’Connor joined the Communist party in 1944 and was a founding member of the Union of Australian Women in 1953. She represented Victoria at the World Congress of Women in Copenhagen in 1953. O’Connor taught at Brunswick Technical School where one of her students was Leonard French.
Ailsa O’Connor had done her research into women in early Melbourne and found Mary Gilbert the first European woman to live in Melbourne and the mother of the first European child born in the settlement. O’Connor’s imaginary portrait of Mary Gilbert shows a clear influence of Käthe Kollwitz, a German Realist artist (1867-1945) in style of the head. Kollwitz a major influence on O’Connor’s throughout her life.
In 2012 a statue of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop by Julie Squires is installed at Melbourne general cemetery cemetery’s new St Mary of the Cross Mausoleum. The life size bronze statue depicts Mary MacKillop embracing a child. Julie Squires is a Melbourne-based sculptor educated at the Hunter Institute of Technology and Newcastle University who has also created the bronze “Horse “ (2008) located at Mordialloc Bay and a memorial sculpture to motoring icon Peter Brock (2008) in Bathurst.
There is a bust of Nellie Melba in Her Majesty’s Theatre, a Peter Corlett statue of Kylie Minogue in Docklands and statues of the women sprinters, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland-Delahunty at Gate 3 of the MCG. That seems to complete the survey. A mother, a nun and entertainers – all archetypal conventional roles for women; the conservative tradition of Melbourne has left little room for women and Australian women are hardly included in the official Australian identity as it is represented in public sculpture.