Grace Cossington Smith, The Sock Knitter
(Source: National Gallery of Australia)
It’s International Women’s Day on 8 March, a global day when we celebrate the economic, political, social and cultural achievements for women. (Really, it goes without saying that such accomplishments should be celebrated every day!) For events in your city, click here.
It’s a day to reflect on the courage and determination it took to get here, the progress women have made, and what else we need to keep fighting for.
The story of women’s struggle for equality is as universal as it is ongoing. The World Economic Forum predicted in 2015 that it would take until 2133 to achieve global gender parity. The gap can only close if we all work together to help women and girls achieve their full potential, demand leadership, respect difference, practise and encourage diversity, and stop violence against women. As has been said by the former head of the Australian Army, ‘the standard we walk past is the standard we accept’. We can all do better.
Australia was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in federal elections and to be elected to parliament, and we achieved it peacefully and through legal means in 1902. South Australia was the first state to do so, in 1895, followed by Western Australia in 1899. (The UK did not achieve this till 1928.)
In East Melbourne today, near Parliament House, stands the sculpture of the Monster Petition (the Women’s Suffrage Petition) by Susan Hewitt and Penelope Lee. The petition collected 30,000 signatures from Victorian women in 1891 and presented them to Parliament so that ‘Women should vote on equal terms with men’. The original petition measures about 260 metres long, and takes three people three hours to unroll from one spool to another.
From these world-beating firsts, it would take nearly another 120 years for Australia to have its first female Prime Minister – its twenty-seventh – in Julia Gillard.
Pioneering women are vitally important as role models since, as Gillard herself has said, she knows it would be ‘easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that’.
When it comes to pioneering women, one image that always flashes to mind is Grace Cossington Smith’s The Sock Knitter, her 1915 painting of her sister Madge. Cossington Smith has been hailed an Australian modernist pioneer, and the Sock Knitter is often regarded as the first post-Impressionist painting here, and a challenge to the artistic traditions of the time.
At first glance, knitting socks seems such a small, domestic, humble gesture – but the socks were for the soldiers at the frontline in Europe. This is not a picture of a woman insulated from the larger, more tumultuous events of the world – and she is making a contribution. As has been said, the painting is a counterpoint to the usual images of masculine heroism – a salient reminder that behind the men were always women, holding up half the sky.
To read more about Grace Cossington Smith and her contemporary Stella Bowen, have a look at Drusilla Modjeska’s singular Stravinsky’s Lunch, a double biography of the artists that looks most eloquently at the competing demands of life and art.
It’s also worth looking at Cossington Smith’s picture alongside Vanessa Bell’s painting of her sister Virginia Woolf, who has famously said, ‘Knitting is the saving of life’.
In a world frequently chaotic and often adversarial, these knitters knew what they were talking about.
Just ask Julia Gillard. She knits.