This week, The Australian published an obituary for beloved and best-selling Australian author, Colleen McCullough. Her obituary opened with:
COLLEEN McCullough, Australia’s best-selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”
Readers responded angrily to McCullough’s obituary, labelling it sexist. McCullough, who died on Thursday at the age of 77, worked as a neuroscientist in the United States before turning to writing full-time and yet her obituary began by describing her as “plain of feature” and “overweight”. ABC journalist Joanna McCarthy tweeted the article along with the words: “Award for worst opening lines of an obituary goes to …#everydaysexism.
But sadly it’s not unusual for women to spoken about in terms of beauty and sex appeal, rather than with respect for intelligence and a lifetime of achievement. Effie Mann writing in The Age recalls The New York Times’ obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, whose professional achievements were listed below her cooking prowess and success as a dedicated wife and mother. The first paragraph of her obit described her as a woman who “made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.
I recall being at my mother’s funeral where I overheard a remark made by one of her former acquaintances who’d been surprised by the stories she’d heard of the richness of our mother’s life before she became ill. ‘I didn’t know Marion did all that,’ she said quietly to her companion. What this person didn’t know was that mum was very talented in dressmaking, gardening and crafts. She had left school early to care for her large family after her mother had died at the age of 47 years, so although she hadn’t had the career chances that her daughters have had, she made the very best of her situation.
Many of those attending her funeral service only knew Marion as our father’s wife and our mother. Father was the successful Managing Director and the local church elder. He sang in the church choir and helped elderly ladies with their finances. It was mostly all about Morrie.
So when friends and relations listened to the many splendid speeches devoted to Marion they heard about a woman in her own right: Talented in crafts, always quick to knit or sew or bake what was required for the village fete. She was a keen and skilful gardener, devoted to her beautiful garden, loved playing lawn bowls, and she enjoyed the company of her many women friends. This personal testimony to our mother preceded any mention of her role as a dutiful wife and mother.
Whereas my mother’s singular life was respected, the same cannot be said of the funerals of my aunts. Sadly, I can only recall the lives of these women being remembered in terms of how well they cooked. Speech after speech spoken by loving daughters, sons and grandchildren remembered my aunts, Jean, Marge and Betty as great cooks, willing babysitters and little else. I’m so glad that Marion was remembered as a woman who was very talented in the crafts, was great at sport and a keen and fruitful gardener. Mum and her sisters weren’t career women – their lives were largely spent caring for us and supporting their men. But mum sought an outlet in her very many interests even so.
I understand why our mother was remembered as a woman first and mother and wife second. My sisters and I had grown up in the 1950s with a very controlling father. We had married early but divorced and were at the time living as single mothers. My sister’s speech and respect for our mother emanated from the changes in society wrought by feminists.
But as Colleen McCullough’s sexist obituary revealed this week we still have a long way to go yet before due respect is shown for the complexity of the lives women lead.