International Women’s Day always gives me a chance to reflect on the women who have influenced me. My maternal grandmother Kathleen Annie so wisely spread the message of ecumenical tolerance in a time of great sectarian divide in country Australia of the 1950’s when my parents came from different denominations. She took up this stance well before Vatican 2 and continued to support her grandchildren as we engaged in a range of ‘Protestant’ activities.
My paternal grandmother Enid gave up a concert pianist career to train as a nurse in the upheaval of World War One. Gran went on to become one of the early occupational health nurses in the footrest factory in Melbourne, part of a generation of women required to make pragmatic choices in a world unimagined in their childhood. After her retirement she lived with my parents and my three sisters instilling us with great feminist values from very young ages. She lived with my parents until she died at 103.
Joan my mother, taught me the gift of hospitality, where tables were always able to be extended at the drop of a hat and guests welcomed because of need not status. Doors were always opened no matter the time of day or the time of year. I learned how to make something out of nothing and how, mostly, to make it delicious! She continues to live a life of generosity and abundance shared.
Gwen, my partner’s mother, inspires me by her thoughtfulness, by her meticulous attention to detail and by her kindness to each individual. She taught me the way of quiet generosity. She continues to inspire me by her thirst for knowledge and her patience with little people.
Mangua Sagiba, a Maung woman from Warruwi, who graciously welcomed me into her family as sister and gently, patiently steered me to a beginning place for a journey of reconciliation and understanding. She introduced me to thousands of years of Aboriginal wisdom in a matriarchal community, and encourage the younger women to teach me to dance. Mangua was one of the first indigenous women to become a principal in the Northern Territory, and had a significant career in a time when it was less common for women to rise to leadership in many areas of Australian society.
Another woman who inspires me cannot be named. She spent nearly 4 years in a detention centre. She fled her country with two children, a daughter and a son, and became pregnant and gave birth while in detention. She is a brave person who stood up to the authorities in her country, braved the very difficult boat journey to Australia, and found no hospitality on our shores. Finally she was released into the community and came to live with my family. She continues to deal with the trauma of detention and has learnt that, despite our flawed policies, many Australians are kind. She has such resilience and tenacity and is a gift to Australia as are her children.
It is wonderful to reflect on the women who have and continue to inspire me. Who inspires you this International Women’s Day?
Rosemary Hudson Miller
Deaconess Dr Cath Ritchie
Deaconess Dr Cath Ritchie
The woman who has had the most profound impact on my life is Deaconess Dr Cath Ritchie. Born to a farming family in Gippsland, Victoria in 1909, educated in a one teacher rural school, she eventually graduated from the University of Melbourne. Raised in a Scottish Presbyterian family, her Christian faith was always central in her life. In 1937 she responded to a call from the Foreign Missions Department to serve as a teacher missionary in Korea, then under Japanese rule. When Japan entered the war in 1941, all Australian missionaries were recalled from Korea. Cath dreamed of returning once the war was over, but this was not to be. After a time as a youth worker in rural Victoria, riding her bicycle between towns, she was asked to become Principal of Rolland House, the Presbyterian Deaconess and Missionary training college. She remained in this position for 23 years.
Cath insisted that all the women trained at Rolland House were given a theological education equivalent in standard to that given to the men training for ordination. She also insisted that her students got practical experience of ministry, something that the men did not get. Within Rolland House she created a community grounded in spirituality and mutual service. At the time when women attending the Presbyterian Assembly were relegated to the galleries, Principal Ritchie was alone allowed to address the gathering and was a strong advocate for women in ministry. Cath forged links ecumenically and internationally with others called to diaconal ministry. In 1994 the Melbourne College of Divinity awarded her a Doctorate of Sacred Theology in honour of her leadership in theological education, especially for women.
As a young Christian I was inspired by Cath’s keen intellect, her humility in service, her strong advocacy for women, her passion for the mission of the church and her solidarity with the poor and oppressed.
Rev Bev Fabb
Rev Alison Longworth and her family at Badjaling, 1987
My childhood recollection of Great-Aunt Mary Belshaw is of an old woman who was losing her memory. Ironically, I almost forgot Aunt Mary, and yet her influence in my life has grown since 1986 when my Mother showed me an article describing the unveiling of a memorial stone at the site of the former Badjaling Mission. The plaque commemorated two missionaries, Mary Belshaw and May McRidge and the thirty-nine Nyungar families who lived at Badjaling from 1930 – 1954. The following year I visited the site with my family. It was the beginning of my research in Australian religious history, focused initially on Belshaw and her encounters with Nyungar people.
Remembering was important to Belshaw. Before she migrated from Ireland to Australia in 1913, Belshaw tended the family graves in the ancient Movilla Cemetery. On several visits to Northern Ireland I have paid my respects at the ancestor’s graves. When I saw the ruins of the sixth-century Abbey of Saint Ninian within the cemetery grounds I was in awe, realizing Saint Columba studied at this Abbey prior to his journey to Iona in Scotland. Remembering Mary Belshaw has brought an additional bonus of discovering my Scots-Irish heritage within Celtic Christianity.
Belshaw left monthly reports of her 38 years of service. In 1916 she wrote of the debt non-Aboriginal Australians owe to the Aboriginal people whose ancestors owned this land long before European settlement. My research has led me to visit most communities where Belshaw once lived, listening to stories of dispossession and separation of Aboriginal families and hearing the cry for justice. Remembering Mary Belshaw, her commitment to mission and her understanding of the importance of family and place, has influenced my faith journey, including my commitment to the Covenanting process between the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Uniting Church.
Rev Alison Longworth