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This chapter explores the role played by exhibitions of women’s work in the development of feminism in colonial Australia. It focuses on two women’s exhibitions held in Sydney before Federation, the Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair of 1888 and the Woman’s Work Exhibition of 1892, and the New South Wales exhibit in the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

This analysis of women’s exhibition-making draws on Habermas’s model of the bourgeois public sphere to consider the exhibition as a public sphere deployed by women to critique the market and the state and give form to feminised alternatives.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Australian colonial women made vigorous, authoritative claims to shape and define representations of women and their work in public space at international exhibitions and at specialised women’s exhibitions. These efforts affected and were affected by wider claims to economic, social and political recognition for women in the public sphere. Internationally, suffragists and society women struggled for control of ideologically powerful exhibition representations (Weimann 1981; Darney 1982; Cordato 1989; Heaman 1997). In Australia, exhibitions of women’s work played a significant role in the genesis of the women’s movement in colonial New South Wales (NSW) (Sear 2000). Exhibitions made women and their work more visible, helped construct a constituency for feminism by materialising universal femininity, and articulated a role for women in cultural and economic production, as well as ‘national’ and ‘international’ affairs.

Feminism, then, has an exhibiting history (Sear 2002). The universality, idealism and ideological power of exhibitions, as well as their purported elevating, refining and educative qualities, made them, in Paul Greenhalgh’s words (1988, 174), ‘one of the first and most effective cultural arenas’ for women to ‘express … their misgivings with established patriarchy’. Reflecting on two Australian exhibitions of women’s work in the Centennial Magazine in 1888, commentator ML Manning described exhibitions as ‘common neutral ground’ on which women could perfect ‘legitimate aspirations’.1 Women did more, though, than simply step onto the exhibition’s ‘neutral ground’. The act of separation implicit in the creation of women’s exhibitions was not just a corollary of the separate spheres, or confirmation of wider separatist or inclusionist strategies in connection with feminist political action and women’s culture (Darney 1982; Cordato 1989). It was also evidence of women seeking to more actively make and remake the exhibition form, and the deeper structures it represented, inventoried, ordered, performed and made material.

This chapter explores the exhibition’s capacity to ‘realise’ in material form other, less tangible, institutions, including the marketplace, the ‘nation’ and the state. Peter Hoffenberg (2001) has detailed the participatory, subversive and transformative powers of exhibitions, and their active and constitutive relationship to the construction of nation, empire and market. Exhibitions presented ‘opportunities to organize and participate’ in distinctions between settler and subject colonies, he writes, ‘sometimes as alternatives to competitive political economy and sometimes as ideal market societies’ (22–23). Hoffenberg acknowledges the roles played by exhibition commissioners, visitors and exhibitors who attempted to ‘create and reconcile distinctions among those ideal-type societies at the same time that they confronted crises in nineteenth-century capitalism and political authority’ (2001, xv). It could be said that exhibitions also performed this function for gender-based differences in the colonial setting. They offered similarly creative opportunities for women seeking to attend to these crises, and their particular impacts on the female population, by reconstituting the market, the nation and its system of government in feminised forms.

Women in colonial Australia actively embraced the exhibition as a means to propose alternative, woman-centred visions for these institutions. This chapter explores the gendered aspects of the processes Hoffenberg describes, focusing on women’s agency as exhibition organisers and commissioners. It also attends to the implications of their actions for our understanding of exhibitions within Jürgen Habermas’s model of the bourgeois public sphere (Habermas 1989; Calhoun 1992).


The Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair (EWI&CF) transformed Sydney’s Old Exhibition Building into a women’s world. The crowning event of the NSW centennial celebrations, it was a display of more than 8000 exhibits from bootmaking to bread-baking: ‘Women’s Work’ classified, ranked and put on show.

A visitor to the display looking down into the body of the hall from the galleries of the Old Exhibition Building would first have been dazzled by the kaleidoscopic bustle below. From above, it would be easy to separate the Exhibition from the Centenary Fair that surrounded it. In the exhibition, shawls, caps, slippers and jams were carefully arranged in glass-topped showcases. Inquisitive schoolgirls peered at them. In the fair, the same stuff piled up high on overflowing tables. Acquisitive gentlemen could be spotted bidding for it.

From below, the distinction would not be so easy to make. Examining the collection of dried grasses in the Education Department it would have been hard not to be distracted by the delighted cries of anglers at the prize fish pond. Looking up from the dressed doll display to the toy stall nearby would have made a purchase seem almost irresistible. Squinting through the warping showcase glass to read the price tag on an award-winning lace collar might set gloved fingers counting the coins in a purse.

The all-female organising committee of the event, led by President and Governor’s wife, Lady Carrington, chose to communicate its ideas about women’s work through both an exhibition and a fair. Initial plans for a grand bazaar in aid of the Queen’s Jubilee Fund for Distressed Women were expanded to address the fund’s deeper concern with women’s financial vulnerability (Sear 1997). An interest in practically supporting and encouraging women’s employment, combined with NSW’s loss of the Centennial International Exhibition to Melbourne, gave the idea of holding an exhibition in Sydney in 1888 prominence and power. The resulting event had dual aims. First, it would raise money for the new fund. Second, it would show the variety of work women did in the colony, and ‘still further develop, encourage, and increase their sources of employment and their usefulness’.2

The form of the display gave material expression to these aims. A diverse collection of objects arranged in classes, forming the exhibition proper, was surrounded by the stalls of the Centenary Fair, where other examples of women’s work were sold at a profit for charity. ‘What the Exhibition is expected to accomplish in an educational or a national sense’, stated the official catalogue, ‘the Fair will do in a financial sense, for in this department lies the hope of the Committee for their profits’.3 In drawing together the best qualities of bazaar and exhibition, sale and display, the all-female organising committee intended to maximise opportunities and benefits to all women workers.

Their decision to combine the two forms, however, was unexpectedly controversial. The Australian Christian World surmounted its EWI&CF paragraphs with a weighty question in large black capitals:


The article which followed concluded with some severity:

If the affair is a bazaar, where everything is subordinated to driving a trade and taking cash, let that be plainly made known, and intending visitors can act accordingly. But if it is indeed an Exhibition which the public are supposed to look through for their satisfaction, they should be spared any annoyance from well-meaning but troublesome stall keepers.4

Press reaction was not just about discordant visitor expectations and experiences. It was illustrative of a deeper distinction drawn between the exhibition and the bazaar as gendered modes of display, and the efficacy, or even the appropriateness, of their being combined. As the Daily Telegraph argued: ‘The two things, a representative exhibition and a selling bazaar, are incompatible, and between the two, women’s industry … comes to the ground.’5

By 1888 the bazaar and the exhibition were well-established display forms with powerfully opposing ideologies. Both forms provided ways of publicly expressing middle-class identity, and resolving the tensions and dichotomies of middle-class life. Together they served a symbolic function in genteel ideology to represent different visions of the marketplace, clearly demarcated along the lines of gender.

Gary Dyer has argued that bazaars summoned up images of the exotic East, the marketplace, and middle-class women’s involvement in business feared by middle- and upper-class Englishmen ‘so that it could contain and exorcise them’ (Dyer 1991). As Mary Poovey (1988, 10), Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall (1987, 20–21) have shown, the Victorian marketplace ‘was structured by the organisation of sexual difference’. The visible exclusion of women from the market was necessary to define the middle class and legitimise the place of bourgeois men in the public sphere (Eley 1992; Ryan 1992 & 1992; Fraser 1992).

Feminised and racialised, bazaars came to represent the baser aspects of the marketplace. The bazaar was both enormously popular and vigorously opposed throughout the nineteenth century. A littoral space between the public and the private spheres, the bazaar became the focal point for interconnected debates about the separation of women from the marketplace and the regulation of female sexuality. Bazaars were an ambiguous part of feminine culture, simultaneously an expression of women’s moral and sexual power. As sites for flirtation as well as fundraising, bazaars sexualised and commodified women at the same time as they granted them a circumscribed form of agency. Bazaars destabilised the ordinary rules of exchange, exposing the domestic productivity of the middle-class woman while placing the value of her labour at zero. By the 1880s the bazaar had also become enmeshed in wider debates about the efficacy of charity and genteel women’s growing need or desire for paid employment.

When the organisers of the Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair decided to combine an exhibition and a bazaar, they drew not only on a traditional form of feminine display, but also on a potent force for upsetting and reassembling genteel ideology. Bazaars put funds and fundraising power in women’s hands. They offered a form of feminine display in which men could expect to find amusement and gratification, and where a fear of female authority was controlled and contained by the primacy of the male gaze. As feminised spaces that brought genteel women into contact with the market, they could both facilitate and contain women’s claims to economic independence.

The exhibition as a form offered women access to a refined and refining version of the marketplace. Exhibitions made sense of the market’s chaos by ordering, unifying and refining spaces, objects and people (Bennett 1995; Harris 1990; Rydell 1984 & 1993; Hoffenberg 2001). Exhibitions were conceptualised as transcending the physicalising and debasing forces of the marketplace by placing power in the eye on the object rather than the gaze on the body, and on display and absorption instead of sale and acquisition.

Exhibitions’ high claims rested on banishing direct sale on the exhibition floor. Nineteenth-century exhibition historians traced the evolution of the form from primitive sites of individual exchange, to vibrant but base marketplaces, and finally to the civilised and civilising exhibition, a marketplace without sale or exchange, where men traded in abstracts and ideals rather than goods and money.6 As Thomas Richards (1991, 38–39) has argued, by banishing the price tag the Great Exhibition of 1851 allowed the commodity to transcend itself. At the bazaar, this transcendence could not take place.

As a consequence, the men who organised and offered contemporary commentary on the nineteenth-century international exhibition were keen to distance their displays from bazaars.7 Such a separation was largely an illusion however, and many exhibitions, particularly those of a national rather than an international nature, often incorporated fetes to raise funds for pertinent charities, or allowed sales of goods, although usually with large doses of qualification or justification.8

These distinctions were drawn on the basis of race as well as gender. In order to sustain the idea of universal progress, and simultaneously maintain the superiority of Western culture, it was necessary to construct a symbolic hierarchy of marketplaces at exhibitions. Eastern nations in general, and colonised countries in particular, often found their productions on show not in the manner of the European exhibits, but in a bazaar within the exhibition, suggesting notions of racial inferiority were also allied to lower forms of commercial exchange (Breckenridge 1989; Mitchell 1989; Rydell 1984, 98–101; Coombes 1985). The bazaar united the productions of women with those of Indian artisans, for example, through their shared association with preindustrial labour and hand work, in an ‘imperial division of labour’ (Hoffenberg 2001, 159–160, 186–186, 229–233).

Exhibitions consistently struggled to rise above the taint of the marketplace, the show, and the material world. The ways in which the rhetoric, if not the reality, of exhibition culture emphasised the creation of a transcendent, spiritual, elevating, ordered, controlled, empowering, creative and educational marketplace, meant that Victorian women made extensive use of the form. For these reasons women in Sydney chose exhibitions to make wider claims about women’s work, but also why their choice was fraught with practical and ideological difficulty.

The EWI&CF’s organisers looked to the exhibition to do for women’s work what it did for masculine commercial enterprise: to idealise and legitimise labours as diverse as laundry and painting, typing and darning. At the same time they hoped to draw on the exhibition’s transcendent marketplace to crack open a whole new sphere of women’s employment, on the basis that the public sphere was now civilised and evolved enough for any woman, no matter her rank or station, to venture into it safely.

The EWI&CF represented a claiming and reshaping of the exhibition by and for women. Its profound idealism was used to advance the idea that all women’s work was ‘noble and holy’. The universalism of exhibitions helped suggest that all things women did and showed were work, and promoted the idea of shared womanhood. By creating a woman-centred classification system that included departments such as ‘needlework and knitting’ and ‘domestic industries’, the organisers revealed that women’s work could be classified, but not under existing schemes. Competition asserted that women’s work could be judged on the basis of defined rules and generally accepted notions of merit, skill and taste. By focusing attention largely onto objects rather than women and their bodies, the exhibition form minimised the risks of women becoming sexualised in the new marketplace.

The EWI&CF’s universalised vision of women’s work, made material through the two display forms, embraced competition and selflessness, paid and unpaid labour, women’s productive and reproductive capacities, and their experiences of alienation as well as reward. By combining the exhibition and the bazaar, the organisers of the EWI&CF simultaneously acknowledged the importance of the gendered distinctions Mary Poovey (1988, 10) has described around the public and private spheres and different kinds of labour, and challenged, destabilised and collapsed them.

The layout of the women’s display both separated and merged the exhibition and the fair. On the simplest level, the bazaar had proven popular appeal, and its frills and embellishments made the exhibition’s claims for women’s increased employment and role in the public world more palatable and less threatening to members of the audience that needed to be ‘won over’ – particularly men. Here the bazaar trope mediated and encouraged men’s entry into this strange new ‘women’s world’. The fair literally surrounded the exhibition in the hall, softening the harsh clatter of the factory girls’ machines. Luring visitors inside, past the buffer zone of familiarity, the exhibition cleverly extended traditional femininity into new and unexpected areas.

But the organisers of the EWI&CF also blurred the distinction between exhibition and bazaar in more overt ways. They deliberately broke the rules of exhibition practice by allowing women exhibitors to price and sell their work from the floor. This was intended as an encouragement to paid workers, particularly in the needlework, knitting and lace sections. It was necessary compensation for needlewomen and outworkers, who, unlike the manufacturers whose products dominated international exhibitions, could hardly be expected to devote hours and materials purely for the sake of admiration. This strategy proved successful. Of the 841 competitive exhibitors in the needlework and knitting, around half were women who described themselves as ‘in the habit of sewing for some payment’.9

So where the fair invoked women’s moral responsibility and collective social authority because of its connections with charity, the exhibition gave women’s work nobility and substance. Where the fair suggested women’s selflessness, the exhibition revealed their real economic and social worth and potential for self-sufficiency. Where the fair turned women’s leisure time into funds to aid poorer women workers, the exhibition suggested new paid employments to women of all classes. Where the fair’s fundraising sought to ameliorate the suffering caused by women’s weak economic position, the exhibitors’ battle for prizes suggested both the real value of women’s work, and a gentler, but still implicitly positive, vision of market competition. Together, the organisers hoped, they displayed women’s work in all its universalism and all its diversity. Their idealistic goals were realised in material form: a woman might sew for charity or for a living, but she was equally a woman worker, noble and feminine, a real contributor to colonial society.

The EWI&CF’s organisers brought together the exhibition and the bazaar to maximise benefits to all women workers, paid or unpaid, in the private or the public spheres. By doing so they reconceptualised the marketplace not only to include women’s work, but to be changed by it. The EWI&CF created, momentarily, a marketplace defined by women where women, their occupations and preoccupations took centre stage. The exhibition was chosen as the space to reveal and legitimise women’s work and achievements through ordered display. The exhibition form also implicitly constructed a marketplace freed from baseness, one in which women might expand and increase their ‘employment and their usefulness’.

But the strongly negative reaction to women’s blending of the exhibition and the bazaar reveals the limitations placed on women’s capacity to truly employ the exhibition form. The Sydney correspondent of the Goulburn Herald concluded that ‘the whole thing … as an exposition of women’s industries, is a giant farce. It is a big bazaar for Sydney, but a poor imitation of the world’s fair over the border’.10 The Bulletin spared nothing in its criticism: ‘after a week or two … the affair will dwindle down to its natural condition of an unattractive, unremunerative parody on a big bazaar’.11

A woman’s exhibition, it was suggested by the colonial press, could only ever be a bazaar. Women, it seemed, could only ever produce farcical, parodic marketplaces, and imitate men’s mastery of them. Criticism of the event was, ultimately, directed towards diminishing the women organisers’ claims to both the authority and the capacity to control exhibition space, and, by implication, enter the public sphere.

The next exhibitions of colonial women’s work would be less concerned with the construction of a feminised marketplace than with the creation of a place for a woman’s voice in national government. The Woman’s Work Exhibition was held at the Sydney Town Hall in 1892, preliminary to the display of a selection of NSW Women’s Work in the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Emboldened by their participation in the 1888 exhibition, many of the organisers and exhibitors again contributed to the development of the display. Following the emergence of an organised women’s movement in NSW in the wake of the EWI&CF, and in the context of colonial representation at an international exposition, emphasis shifted from the revelation, through the assemblage of ‘women’s work’, of women’s contribution to the colonial economy, towards materialising proof of their aptitude for enlarged citizenship.


The NSW representation to the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 was born of two interlocking visions: one, a dream of a federated Australia, the other, suffragist aspirations to a voice in national affairs. Both the men and the women who created the exhibits used the exposition to ‘realise’ new kinds of federated and feminised government. In doing so, organisers drew on another of the exhibition form’s potentials: its power to materialise and perform the ‘nation’.

As Robert Rydell (1993) and Peter Hoffenberg (2001) have argued, the exhibition not only represented but actively constituted ‘the nation’. Exhibitions created a dynamic relationship between symbolic and material expressions of the intangible webs of association, networks of trade, and structures of social, racial and political organisation that were nation and empire. Their administrative and spatial organisation created a platform for the performance of these ideas by organisers and visitors alike.

The men and women who directed the appearance of ‘Australia’ at Chicago did so with a desire to make manifest an imagined future nation and to demonstrate their fitness to govern it. At Chicago, the exhibition form gave Australian women an opportunity to position themselves in the ‘national’ realm, through the benefits of official organisational recognition, by claiming a role for women in the production of national culture, by creating a platform for the performance of progressive Australian femininity, and by confidently drawing down on an internationalist rhetoric of idealism and progress. The NSW representation at Chicago was imbued with a strong federalist sentiment, heightened by its appearance as the only Australian colony present at a world’s fair in the United States of America (Sear 2000).12

Women, too, drew great significance from the fact that this was the first time women had been officially recognised by government, both internationally and in NSW (Darney 1982, 66; Cordato 1989, 209). Towards the end of 1891 the NSW Commission to the World’s Columbian Exposition made women’s work a special department within the NSW representation and appointed the all-female Committee XII on Woman’s Work to develop the display.13 Calling for exhibits at a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall, committee President Lady Mary Windeyer impressed upon the women of NSW the ‘importance of marking their appreciation of the first national undertaking in which the promoters had recognised women officially’.14 This recognition was particularly striking given that many members of the committee appointed to deliver the NSW women’s exhibit at Chicago were also active members of the newly formed Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, including Lady Windeyer who was president of both groups.

Struggles between radical and moderate elements which had occurred in connection with the American Board of Lady Managers were repeated the world over (Darney 1982; Cordato 1989; Sear 2000). President of the US Board, Bertha Palmer, traced these conflicts to women’s redefinition of the exhibition as a form of display on a ‘higher ethical plane’, divorced from the marketplace.15 Palmer drew a distinction between the high-ranking idealists who recognised a role for femininity within the exposition’s ideology of transcendence, and the pragmatists who sensed the political opportunity afforded by official recognition of women as a group, that did not hold true in Sydney.16

There, unusually, suffragists from within the social elite controlled the exhibit. Drawing on their experiences at the EWI&CF, the feminist members of Sydney’s upper echelons now pitched their exhibition-making from the depiction of an elevated marketplace onto an even ‘higher ethical plane’, merging a ‘sociological effort’ to represent Australian womanhood with government endorsement of women’s role in the exposition into a single political strategy.

This strategy relied on two interwoven forms of ‘representation’ offered by the exhibition: the potential of the exhibits to illustrate the refining agency of Australian femininity and the organisers’ responsibility to demonstrate women’s capacity to exercise power. The key to achieving a merging of national and womanly interests lay in exhibits that expressed a vision of colonial femininity that was improving, adaptive and transformative. The feminisation of ‘national’ culture depended, it seemed to Committee XII, on a concurrent ‘nationalisation’ of colonial femininity, whether that meant women making a recognised contribution to a national undertaking like the fair, the incorporation of Australian materials or motifs into women’s exhibits of traditional work, or fostering a ‘national’ outlook amongst colonial women through the display.

For women engaged with the suffrage struggle, the exposition offered an unparalleled opportunity to argue for the importance of a ‘woman’s voice’ in national enterprise, and for women to prove themselves capable of fulfilling their duties in a manner that showed their commitment not only to their own sex, but to the national good.

‘Together’, taken from Tennyson’s Princess, was the motto of both the Womanhood Suffrage League and the Woman’s Work Exhibition. The Chicago exhibition was, in Lady Windeyer’s words, an opportunity for women to show ‘what they could do – not to rival men, but to work with them’.17 Despite this, her committee clashed repeatedly with the NSW Commission.

The involvement of Sydney’s suffragists with the NSW representation to Chicago showed women the limits of strategies based on feminine authority, and the scrutiny that would attend to their use of them. Apparently without irony, the NSW Commission imposed upon its women’s committee the same restrictions, the same kind of ill-informed assumptions and humiliations it so resented receiving from the British Commission.18 Both groups struggled to reconcile dual allegiances, to formal associations with the NSW and British Commissions on the one hand, and new, meaningful bonds with the US Board of Lady Managers and American Exposition Commission on the other. But the controls manifested by the NSW Commission reminded the women involved of the mixed blessings of power shared within or devolved from a masculine organisational structure.

Committee XII repeatedly sought to establish their autonomy from the NSW Commission, successfully claiming the need for a woman secretary, discretion to make payments to poorer women workers for exhibits, and ultimately the need for a Woman Commissioner to superintend the exhibit in Chicago. These claims were made on the basis that only women could truly represent women’s interests, as well as that many of the women involved had already proved themselves capable of exhibition-making at the EWI&CF.19 Exchanges between the commissioners and the committee were often terse and occasionally firey. In the midst of one dispute, Lady Windeyer wrote sarcastically to the Sir William MacMillan: ‘Your Commission probably did not realise that a collection of Woman’s Work might include something beyond the product of the needle’.20 The commissioners’ limited understanding of women’s work was both a source of frustration and a powerful argument for women to take charge of their own display, as well as a metaphor for the wider suffrage struggle.21

Ultimately, these difficulties exposed the organisers to even greater scrutiny. The press gleefully leapt on all these conflicts as evidence of women’s incapacity to exercise power. ‘The unkindest thing men can do, it seems to me’, wrote Bulletin wit Sappho Smith, ‘is to give the dear souls the reins, and then sit back and watch the fun’.22 Another correspondent for the Bulletin reported that the Woman’s Work Exhibition held in the Sydney Town Hall in October 1892 prior to the Chicago Fair ‘furnishes the most crushing conceivable proof of women’s incompetence to participate in serious affairs’.23

While the women’s exhibits were in Sydney they were a source of disappointment to the Committee as well as derision from the press.24 Developed in the midst of a severe economic depression, the NSW representation’s mission in Chicago was to highlight Australia’s wealth in raw materials.25 Women were charged by the NSW Commission to add a gloss to displays of wool, wheat and coal by showing the progress of the young colony towards civilisation and refinement. Committee XII went further, gathering what it thought was an unmistakably Australian collection of exhibits which applied the traditional feminine arts ingeniously to products peculiar to the new continent.26 On show were gloves knitted from possum fur, native flowers constructed from Australian bird feathers, fish scales and sheepskin, cabbage-tree hats, native currant jam, books of Aboriginal ‘fairy tales’ and 34 exhibits of taxidermy including a rug of 456 possum tails, a fire screen made out of a brolga, and collarettes, toques, tippetts and muffs of black swan, wallaby, platypus and emu. Women’s work was applied to local product, revealing the adaptiveness and ingenuity of the colonial woman as manufacturer.

This effort to connect women to the processes of developing Australia’s unique resources was a clever feminist reworking of colonial exhibiting practice, which made women’s leisure and skill emblematic of colonial progress, but separate to it. Committee XII ensured women’s work and status was positioned by the exhibition not only as a corollary of economic and social advancement, but centrally, as one of its key drivers.

In doing this, Committee XII both fulfilled and subverted the requirements and expectations of the NSW Commission. Intent on showing that ‘the women of NSW, in industrial skill, were not behind their sisters in older established countries’, the committee paid professional workers to give evidence to Australian women’s capacities in the domestic arts of needlework and knitting, defying convention that it was the presence of amateurism that truly represented proof of antipodean leisure and taste (Jordan 1995). It did the same in relation to the fine arts, paying professional women sculptors and photographers to produce work that represented men and women prominent in colonial public life.

Locating woman’s work within the international exhibition representation and classification created a larger, more powerfully legitimating, field for the women organisers to display women’s work, but limited their capacity to alter the form in which the work was presented to reflect gender differences.

It was in the promise of an imagined ‘nation’ which the women involved in the exhibition believed would offer a larger arena for women’s political participation, and ultimately their capacity to change and feminise society. At a Womanhood Suffrage League drawing room meeting Windeyer had expressed the hope that the suffrage might mean that ‘women, who are now permitted to have parochial minds’ might develop ‘national minds’.27 But in this regard the exhibition in Sydney brought disappointment rather than affirmation. Committee XII lamented in one report that the women of country NSW had lacked the ‘patriotic zeal to show that refinement, art, industry and capability exists among the women of Australia’.28 Clearly Committee XII had sought to make the NSW women’s exhibit at Chicago both a demonstration of what the colony and its women could produce, and a means by which the colony’s women could be brought more fully into national consciousness. Women’s material culture would not only represent colonial women collectively, but the making and displaying of it would make them individually worldlier and more nationalistic.

Women had been asked to demonstrate women’s contribution to the ‘general refinement’ of the colony in their exhibits, and to rise above the economic imperatives that underpinned the rest of the NSW representation – and the representational structures of their earlier exhibition. The exhibit imagined by Committee XII would represent the idea that ‘womanly influence’ transformed the raw materials of colonial enterprise into a civilised society. Within the concept of transformative femininity lay both a metaphysical challenge for an exhibition of women’s material culture, and the basis for women’s claims to political power.

Employing the exhibition’s idealising and transformative possibilities for feminist ends seemed impossible to achieve while the exhibits remained in the colony. But once it arrived in America, the NSW women’s work became a source of colonial pride, and the feminist implications of the representation became clear. At the fair, the display’s chaperone, Mary Windeyer’s daughter, Margaret Windeyer, could boldly and fearlessly champion the colonial woman and the progressive near-nation she represented by performing the Australian girl as a feminist role and animating and reframing the exhibits with her physical presence, speeches and official reports. She could link colonial women, and colonial feminism, to a future nationalism and a new internationalism. She could connect womanly and colonial independence. She could unite the exhibits of women’s work with claims for womanhood suffrage. The exhibit’s feminist possibilities, it seemed, could only flower and be fully expressed from afar, through the performance of their official representative.

Windeyer’s performance at the fair emerged from the interrelationships between three conceptual identities – that of being the non-citizen of a colony, the prospective citizen of a new nation, and a ‘citizen of the world’ – presented through the identity of one woman. Windeyer was certainly engaged in what Marilyn Lake has described as a ‘struggle for control of the national culture’ through efforts to redefine masculinity and feminise public institutions (Lake 1993, 1–3). But for Windeyer, nationalism and feminism were not necessarily ‘oppositional discourses’ as Gail Reekie describes them (Reekie 1992, 145–146; Sheridan 1988).

The greatest public display of Windeyer’s own nationalism came at the World’s Congress of Representative Women (WCRW). The exposition was the backdrop for several large congresses, created in the hope that the crowning glory of the event would not be ‘material triumphs, industrial achievements and mechanical victories … however magnificent’, but something still ‘higher and nobler’: ideas (Weimann 1981, 523). At this moment of profound idealism, of transcendence from the material to the intangible, women could find a space to speak and to talk in the public sphere.

At the opening of the WCRW held as part of the fair, Windeyer was asked to respond to the opening addresses in her capacity as delegate for Australia. ‘Coming as I do from the newest country represented in this august body,’ she said:

words fail to express how highly I esteem it an honour and privilege to be among your number. The members of this Congress stand upon the immovable basis of a common interest … the advancement of women and through them the whole human race; and it is no light matter to stand among you as the representative of that country of great actualities and greater possibilities, Australia.29

Windeyer’s feminist nationalist vision rested on the conception that ‘femininity’ and ‘the nation’ shared a common sphere of concern with ‘great questions’ and higher ‘principles’. By implication, then, the improvement of women’s status was a project for the new nation, and the movement for women’s rights was a nationalistic project. Federation was therefore a feminist goal. Speaking almost as if her dream of a federated Australia was already a reality, Windeyer simultaneously articulated the advancement and potential achievements of her ‘native land’ and a universal femininity which embraced all women.

The international exposition’s potential as a platform for women to idealise and make material apparently universal characteristics of femininity also ultimately made it an arena for the realisation of transnational feminism. Disenfranchised in their own nations, at Chicago women ‘tasted world citizenship’, as Maude Howe Elliot put it.30 In the Woman’s Building and at the World’s Congress of Representative Women, bonds of femininity that transcended national boundaries found a powerful venue for their expression. The exhibition form’s balancing of internationalism and nationalism, brotherhood and patriotism, difference and unity, was here used to an effective feminist end. The women involved with the fair used and renegotiated exhibition ideology to suggest women’s dual contribution to the coming age, as both a powerful international sisterhood, and enfranchised citizens of the nation state.


Mary Ryan (1992) has observed that ‘[e]ach of the many ways whereby nineteenth-century women became political tells us something important about that privileged space called the public sphere’ (284). Analysis of women’s exhibition-making reveals that nineteenth-century women’s engagement with the public sphere was not limited to the physical, rhetorical, textual or symbolic realms of protest, oration, publication and petition. It extended productively into the generation, organisation, appreciation and exhibition of women’s material culture in public space. Nancy Fraser has identified how Habermas’s public sphere

designates a theatre in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, and hence an institutionalized arena of discursive interaction. This arena is conceptually distinct from the state: it is the site for the production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the state. The public sphere in Habermas’s sense is also conceptually distinct from the official economy; it is not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theatre for debating and deliberating rather than for buying and selling. Thus this concept of the public sphere permits us to keep in view the distinctions among state apparatuses, economic markets, and democratic associations, distinctions that are essential to democratic theory (Fraser 1992, 110–111).

Nineteenth-century exhibitions can be understood as ‘public spheres’ within the definition offered by scholars of Habermas, with two crucial modulations. The first is that definitions of ‘talking’ and ‘discursive interaction’ need to be extended to exhibiting – the reasoned organisation of things in public space. The second is that exhibitions helped constitute the bourgeois public sphere by dynamically sustaining, in material, spatial and ideological forms, distinctions between it, the market and the state.

Exhibitions were constructed, by men and women, as transcendent arenas for the discussion of ideas, above the market and beyond the state. These two examples of women’s exhibition-making show women were able to exploit this separation to enter public space, and use the exhibition as a public sphere to critique the market and the state, while also offering feminised alternatives. This was achieved not just by women using exhibitions as arenas to speak, but by their actively arranging objects and spaces to create new kinds of public spheres.

At the end of the nineteenth century, exhibitions were used by women to create what Nancy Fraser has described as ‘subaltern counterpublics’ (Fraser 1992). Both exhibitions of women’s work discussed here, in Fraser’s terms, created ‘parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs’ (Fraser 1992, 123). At both exhibitions, genteel women created woman-centred public worlds by deploying and transforming recognisable forms of display. At the same time they gave material substance to universal femininity, building a public for these alternative public spheres. A powerful critique of the market and the state arose from the creation, assembly and exhibition of women’s work and from the performances of organisers, exhibitors and visitors, as much as through the verbal and written debate that swirled around them.

It can be argued, though, that each exhibition represented a different approach to the use of the exhibition as a public sphere. This had implications for the way the objects and exhibits created by women were positioned by organisers and read by audiences.

The titles of the two exhibitions were telling. At the Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair objects stood for individual women, and together they created an ‘exhibition of women’s industry’. It was ‘women’ in the plural that were to be represented, and the multiple resonances of ‘industry’ that were evoked in the display: commercial enterprise, systematic labour and energetic, devoted activity. The organising committee issued a call for work, and the variegated nature of the resulting exhibits made it what one commentator called

a manifesto of the position of the women of New South Wales. It was a history written in objects. Its unworded proclamation was ‘See what we can do with our hands tied. For centuries men have compressed us into the mould they thought befitted us, this is the best we can do!’31

It was the diversity and range of the exhibits, connected by the idea that women alone had made and displayed them, that generated the exhibition’s ideological and political power.

By 1892 it was woman’s work, not women’s industry, that was put on show. ‘Woman’s work’ invoked the elevated idea of feminine vocation, and a sense of its wider application. In connection with Chicago, an international exhibition where colonial women’s work formed part of a larger scheme, the women’s exhibits became highly illustrative and emblematic of an interrelated set of abstractions that included ‘Australia’ and ‘woman’s work’.32 Individual exhibits were to be harnessed to an already developed overall proposition for the display. Objects were aggregated and generalised to symbolise ‘woman’s work’ ‘Australia’ and ‘Australian womanhood’, but also federation, ‘a civilised colony’ and ‘women’s national outlook’. The NSW women’s participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition, already struggling to articulate an alternative vision for a feminised state from within the bona fide public sphere, was also embedded within another subaltern counterpublic, an alternative federalist public created by the NSW representation as a whole. All of these factors brought considerable pressure to bear on the exhibitors, the organisers and ultimately the exhibition itself when it was perceived that the actual results of women’s labours could not deliver the intended message. It was not until the exhibits were detached from place and reanimated by Margaret Windeyer’s idealising rhetoric in an international arena that they could truly function as their organisers had intended.

At the EWI&CF, organisers exhibited objects to make an ‘unworded proclamation’, to express what could not be said about colonial women in words. In doing so they communicated in a way that was consistent with their position within the colonial bourgeoisie and readily understood by their audience. Fraser (1992) argues that:

public spheres are not only arenas for the formation of discursive opinion; in addition they are arenas for the formulation and enactment of social identities. This means that participation is not simply a matter of being able to state propositional contents that are neutral with respect to form of expression. Rather … participation means being able to speak in one’s own voice, and thereby simultaneously to construct and express one’s cultural identity through idiom and style (125–126).

Perhaps this explains why women, more so than other subordinate groups within colonial society, made use of the exhibition to represent their interests in alternative public spheres. Women’s exhibitions allowed women to bring the private idiom of women’s lives, materialised in domestic production, genteel performance and the bourgeois culture of display, into the public sphere, while utterly exposing its enmeshment within it. In the exhibition, the middle-class practice of ‘private’ display, of things and behaviours, found its public translation. Here then was an arena familiar to genteel women, who were keenly attuned to display’s most delicate and subtle operations (Russell 1994). Little wonder they embraced the exhibition as a form to remake the public sphere. It reinforced a powerful element within Victorian women’s own mode of expression: of ‘speaking’ not with words but with things.


This chapter has focused on a key aspect of feminist potential in exhibition work: the claiming and reshaping of the exhibition, as a form and as public space, to facilitate women’s greater participation in economic, social, political and cultural life. At the Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair held in Sydney in 1888, women combined the exhibition and the bazaar to create a feminised marketplace where women’s work was visible and respectable, recognised and legitimised, expansive and expanding. Developing the NSW women’s exhibit for the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, and the preliminary Women’s Work Exhibition held in Sydney in 1892, many of the same women saw their superintendence of women’s work within the larger universal scheme of an international exhibition as a performance, proving both the need for women to have direct control over the issues that affected them, and their capacities to wield power and carry responsibility in the national interest as well as their own. Their efforts were intended to give practical expression, material form and rhetorical purpose to a future Australian nation in which women were enfranchised and productive participants in a national culture. The claims of both exhibitions proved provocative. Women’s efforts to use and control exhibitions were heavily contested. They met with a strong, critical response from the colonial press. Making these arguments, it became clear, was easier in an international context than a local one.

Robert Rydell (1993) has written of how the expositions of the twentieth century were focused on restoring confidence in capitalism and western political systems. A study of nineteenth-century Australian exhibitions of women’s work reveals their organisers’ efforts to both critique and build women’s confidence in these institutions, as well as their struggles to earn men’s confidence in women’s capacity to act in both of these arenas. It suggests colonial women saw in the exhibition form an arena to reshape the marketplace and national government in women’s interests. While it was not ‘neutral ground’ for women, the exhibition was a powerful public space to form and perform their ‘legitimate aspirations’ to work and a voice in national life.


I would like to thank Dr Penny Russell, who supervised my PhD thesis, and my colleagues at the National Museum of Australia, particularly Dr Kirsten Wehner for illuminating discussions of exhibition-making and the public sphere in contemporary museums.


1    Manning, ML. 1888. ‘The industrial employment of women: Thoughts suggested by the recent exhibitions of women’s work in Melbourne and Sydney’. Centennial Magazine (1): 405–411.

2    Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair Sydney 1888. [Prospectus], [n.p.d.]: 3. Manuscripts collection, Mitchell Library.

3    Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair Sydney 1888. Official catalogue: Corrected and revised edition, Sydney: John Sands: 12.

4    Australian Christian World, 18 October 1888: 458.

5    Daily Telegraph, 26 October 1887: 4.

6    Boyd, James P. 1900. The Paris Exposition of 1900: A Vivid Descriptive View and Elaborate Scenic Presentation of the Site, Plan and Exhibits. [n.p.d.]: 24.

7    Geddes, Patrick. 1887. Industrial Exhibitions and Modern Progress. Edinburgh: David Douglas: 1–2; Boyd, James P. 1900. The Paris Exposition of 1900: A Vivid Descriptive View and Elaborate Scenic Presentation of the Site, Plan and Exhibits. [n.p.d.]: 579–582.

8    See for example Lowe, Charles. 1892. Four National Exhibitions in London and Their Organiser. London: TF Unwin.

9    EWI&CF. Catalogue. Departments I and III.

10    Goulburn Herald, 13 October 1888, p. 2. For similar comments see also the Bulletin, 20 October 1888: 12; and the Daily Telegraph, 9 October 1888: 6.

11    Bulletin, 20 October 1888: 12.

12    World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893. 1894. Report of the President of the New South Wales Commission. Sydney: Charles Potter Government Printer: 4, 9; Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January 1892: 5; Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 1892: 6.

13    Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 1891: 4; Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 1891: 5.

14    Sydney Mail, 30 July 1892, cutting in Windeyer Family Scrapbook, ML *D159, Mitchell Library. See also World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893. Catalogue of New South Wales Exhibits Department of Woman’s Work. Sydney: Charles Potter Government Printer.

15    Board of Lady Manager’s Papers, Inward correspondence, undated, foreign, [description of efforts in relation to the foreign commissions]. [n.p.n.] Chicago Historical Society.

16    Board of Lady Manager’s papers, Inward correspondence, undated, foreign, [description of efforts in relation to the foreign commissions]. [n.p.n.] Chicago Historical Society.

17    Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 1892: 5.

18    Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 1892: 9.

19    World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893, NSW Commission, Woman’s Work Department, Reports of Committee XII, 1891–1893, ML MSS 932, ‘Report of a meeting, 22 December 1891’.

20    Letter from Lady Windeyer to William McMillan, 23 February 1893, Mary Windeyer Correspondence, ML MSS 186/14. Mitchell Library.

21    World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893, NSW Commission, Woman’s Work Department, Reports of Committee XII, 1891–1893, ML MSS 932. ‘Report of a meeting, 22 December 1891’. Mitchell Library.

22    Bulletin, 4 March 1893: 12.

23    Bulletin, 22 October 1892: 5.

24    Exhibition of Woman’s Work in the Centennial Hall, Sydney, October 1892: Official Catalogue. Sydney: W Andrews & Co.; Daily Telegraph, 10 October 1892: 3.

25    See World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893, Report of the President of the New South Wales Commission. Sydney: Charles Potter Government Printer: 3; Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 1891: 6.

26    World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893, Catalogue of New South Wales Exhibits Department of Woman’s Work. Sydney: Charles Potter Government Printer.

27    Daily Telegraph, 30 July 1892: 9.

28    World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893, NSW Commission, Woman’s Work Department, Reports of Committee XII, 1891–1893, ML MSS 932. ‘Report from Committee XII on Woman’s Work to W McMillan Esq. President World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago, presented to a meeting to the Commission 21 October 1892’; Daily Telegraph, 10 October 1892: 3.

29    Sewall, May Wright. 1894. The World’s Congress of Representative Women. Chicago; New York: Rand McNally Company: 24–25. See also Chicago Times, 16 May 1893: 5.

30    Elliot, Maude Howe. 1893. Art and Handicraft in the Women’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893. Paris; New York: Goupll & Co. Preface.

31    Illustrated Sydney News, 29 November 1888: 23.

32    These observations build on discussions of the place and role of the object in exhibitions within contemporary museum literature, notable Trinca, Mat and Wehner, Kirsten, 2006. ‘Pluralism and exhibition practice at the National Museum of Australia’. In South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture, edited by Healy, Chris; Witcomb, Andrea. Melbourne: Monash University ePress: 6.1–6.14. Available from:



Board of Lady Manager’s Papers, Inward correspondence, undated, foreign, [description of efforts in relation to the foreign commissions], [n.p.n.], Chicago Historical Society.

Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair Sydney 1888. [Prospectus], [n.p.d.]. 3. Manuscripts collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Windeyer Family Scrapbook, ML *D159, Mitchell Library.

Mary Windeyer Correspondence, ML MSS 186/14. Mitchell Library.

World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893, NSW Commission, Woman’s Work Department, Reports of Committee XII, 1891–93, ML MSS 932, Mitchell Library.


Exhibition of Woman’s Work in the Centennial Hall, Sydney, October 1892. 1892. Official Catalogue. Sydney: W Andrews & Co.

Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair Sydney. 1888. Official catalogue: Corrected and revised edition. Sydney: John Sands.

World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893. 1893. Catalogue of New South Wales Exhibits Department of Woman’s Work. Sydney: Charles Potter Government Printer.

World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893. 1894. Report of the President of the New South Wales Commission. Sydney: Charles Potter Government Printer.

World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago. 1893. Catalogue of New South Wales Exhibits Department of Woman’s Work. Sydney: Charles Potter Government Printer.


Boyd, James P. 1900. The Paris Exposition of 1900: A vivid descriptive view and elaborate scenic presentation of the site, plan and exhibits. [n.p.d.].

Elliot, Maude Howe. 1893. Art and Handicraft in the Women’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893. Paris; New York: Goupll & Co.

Geddes, Patrick. 1887. Industrial Exhibitions and Modern Progress. Edinburgh: David Douglas.

Lowe, Charles. 1892. Four National Exhibitions in London and Their Organiser. London: TF Unwin.

Sewall, May Wright. 1894. The World’s Congress of Representative Women. Chicago; New York: Rand McNally Company.


Australian Christian World, 1887–1889.

The Bulletin, 1886–1894.

Centennial Magazine, 1888.

Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 1886–1894.

Goulburn Herald, 1887–1888.

Illustrated Sydney News, 1886–1894.

Sydney Mail, 1886–1894.

Sydney Morning Herald, 1886–1894.


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Cite this chapter as: Sear, Martha. 2008. ‘“Common neutral ground”: Feminising the public sphere at two nineteenth-century Australian exhibitions of women’s work’. Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, edited by Darian-Smith, Kate; Gillespie, Richard; Jordan, Caroline; and Willis, Elizabeth. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 14.1–14.18.

© Copyright 2008 Martha Sear
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   by Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan, Elizabeth Willis