Date : April 28, 2019
Behind the whimsy and the magic of the bush babies, May Gibbs was one of Australia’s early feminists. Through the use of socially conscious cartoons published in various magazines and newspapers across the country, May Gibbs furthered the cause of women’s suffrage. She also actively pursued a career in the arts at a time where women seldom worked by choice – a fantastic example to her contemporaries and modern children alike. Read on to find out more about May Gibbs and her feminist history.
May Gibbs grew up in an era in early Australian history where women had clearly defined roles – as wives, mothers and caregivers. While she certainly didn’t disparage these roles, May dreamed differently. From an early age, she adored drawing, and was encouraged to explore her creative side. May was also highly educated, going to school in both Australia and the UK to pursue her dream of becoming an exhibiting artist. She would spend her evenings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, drawing nudes for free. She would go on to use her talents as an artist to further the cause of her gender, through witty comics and cartoons that appealed to a large audience. For a turn of the century woman, it’s a remarkable feat that speaks to her tenacity and dedication.
The company you keep
As a young woman, May Gibbs moved in creative, intellectual circles with other feminists with whom she shared ideals. She met and become lifelong friends with Rene Eames, who was a renowned activist and suffragette. The two would become flatmates and ultimately stay friends for life.
While pursuing her career as a successful artist, May submitted numerous politically-minded cartoons to notable feminist publications in Australia, including the Western Mail in Perth. The owner of this magazine was married to prominent women’s rights activist Agnes Robertson, who had seen and admired May’s work. She would go on to contribute feminist cartoons to the Common Cause newspaper, often referred to as the ‘organ of the women’s movement for reform.’ It’s clear her cartoons and artwork were having an impact on the masses.
Get up and go attitude
There’s no doubt May Gibbs was one hard working woman. She was also business savvy. When she learned that Ginger Meggs’ artist Jimmy Bancks was being paid 40 pounds per cartoon to her measly 5 guineas for the same amount of work, May Gibbs decided to use a male pseudonym, ‘Stan Cottman.’ Unsurprisingly, this seemed to solve the problem.
While best known nationally as a celebrated children’s author, it is perhaps her political art that is her greatest legacy. Australia was the second country in the world to gain the vote for women, and this would have pleased May Gibbs inordinately. Her drawings are a fantastic insight into the mind of one of Australia’s most creative and beloved authors, and her belief in the power of the female mind is something that should inspire generations to come.
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