The major Australian memorials to War, and the memory of death in war, are widely perceived to be the province of male citizens, sculptors and architects. Women sculptors in the main were not awarded the major commissions, and women citizens have been largely absent from the major rituals and ceremonies of commemoration.[1]

The First World War was seized upon by Australian politicians as a test of nationhood, while the war itself provided a rich source of imagery for the representation of nation. But it was not a balanced representation. Nowhere did these makers of culture paint the Australian nurses on the hospital ships sailing into Anzac Cove to pick up the wounded, and narrowly avoiding shelling.[2] The dominant art and literature of the World War One period actively constructed the nation as masculine, with armed, struggle in the landscape defined as the making of nation.[3]

When it was time to honour the memory of those who participated in the war, the Memorials also were constructed as masculine. The Anzac Memorial in Sydney, designed by Bruce Dellit, with sculptures by Rayner Hoff, is not benign, but functions as an ever-present reminder of past acts of patriotism, bravery and death. Deborah Edwards has referred to the Rayner Hoff sculptures on this memorial as masculinist in orientation.[4] As public history, war memorials exude masculine achievements; they make “permanent in letters carved in stone, a judgement about national achievement and historical events.[5]

Yet despite the prevailing cultural construct of the nation as masculine after World War I a discrete group of war memorials were either commissioned and /or designed by women. Patriotic women’s groups, some of whom were associated with the volunteer work of the Australian Comforts Fund, which created a wartime economy of goods of an estimated thirteen million pounds in value, commissioned memorials, mostly from prominent women sculptors.[6]

The major women’s war memorial that challenges the carving in stone of a masculine representation of nation and memory of war, is contained in the imagery of the Edith Cavell Memorial in Melbourne. Edith Cavell was an English nurse executed by the Germans, believing she was a spy. In 1917 Melbourne women, who formed the Edith Cavell Memorial Committee, commissioned Melbourne sculptor Margaret Baskerville (1861–1930) to honour her memory in a sculpture. This memorial, constructed as a bust of the warrior nurse, sits high on a column, the base of which is covered in a metal relief frieze of the arrest and execution of Edith Cavell.

Queensland women who wished to honour the memory of women who served in war, commissioned the Brisbane sculptor Daphne Mayo (1895–1982) to design and install the Queensland Women’s War Memorial in Anzac Square, Brisbane, in 1929–30. Women throughout Queensland were asked to donate a shilling with the aim of raising one thousand pounds to pay for the memorial.[7] Mayo’s design is a classical frieze in Helidon sandstone of soldiers, sailors, and nurses marching beside horse-drawn wagons: a human and non-heroic view of the long, tiring marches of war. By the time the memorial was installed its original aim was broadened, with the inscription honouring all the Queensland war dead.

The Sydney group, the Centre for Soldier's Wives and Mothers, later renamed the Anzac League of Women, commissioned a memorial fountain in a wall opposite the gates of No 2 wharf at Woolloomooloo, the point from which troops disembarked. This patriotic group, formed in 1915 by Dr Mary Booth, was very active in war work, assisting women whose husbands were away at war.[8] The fountain now repositioned to a nearby footpath bears the inscription: “To commemorate the place of farewell to the soldiers who passed through these gates opposite for the Great War 1914-1918.”

The women of New South Wales, the Women’s War Memorial Committee conducted a competition in 1921 to select a design for a women’s war memorial. Sydney sculptor Theo Cowan (c.1862-1949) was selected with her symbolic design To our Glorious Dead for the National Life. This pietà featured the widow holding her dead warrior, while symbolically the young mother holds her infant, the sign of new life. Permission to erect this unique memorial was unfortunately one of the very few refused by the NSW Public Monuments Advisory Committee, chaired by Architect John Sulman. It is not possible to establish why, but some aspect(s) of the design were considered unsatisfactory.[9]

The citizens of Mornington, Victoria commissioned sculptor Dora Ohlfsen (1877-1948) to design and install a memorial for their town. The memorial carries 1925 as the date of dedication. The memorial takes the form of a large cross, with an inverted sword in metal let into the stone, and an enlarged version of the obverse of Ohlfsen’s bronze medallion Anzac Memorial 1916 set on the base. This metal plaque shows a young woman grieving for the death of her fallen soldier, her long slender hands wrapped around his head. The life and movement of the young girl is in contrast to the stillness of death.

Adelaide women, the committee for the Women’s Memorial to the Fallen in the Great War, commissioned a Cross of Sacrifice in Pennington Garden, North Adelaide. They engaged English architect Mr Herbert Baker to design an ‘open aire cathedral’, with walls formed by olive hedges, symbolic alignment of all internal pathways which themselves formed a cross, leading up to the Cross of Sacrifice, and flower beds planted in rosemary representing graves, facing the altar: the Cross. During construction the women placed names of loved ones who died in the war, in small violet bags, in a memorial urn which is entombed in the base of the Cross. On the day of commemoration of this memorial, the women led the Anzac Day procession to the Cross of Sacrifice.[10]

Not all women’s memorials to death in war are in metal or stone. Some, like Mrs Griffith's Bedspread c.1915 are in the craftform of needlework, and originally conceived as private, domestic memorials, but the messages in thread about nation, Empire and death in war are similar to those carved by monumental masons. The interesting question to ask of these women’s memorials commissioned by women's groups is whose memory is being honoured? Certainly they honour the memory of the nurses and soldiers who died but the public memorials also became locations at which each women’s group assembled annually to conduct their own Remembrance ceremonies, as did the Anzac League of Women at their memorial Fountain until 1958. These women’s groups practised a form of womanly citizenship, with their own memorials to a war that left them, as Miss Gilbert of the Committee of the Women’s Memorial to the Fallen said: “with a memory, an ideal and an outlook on life very different from that which was ours before the war”.[11]

More recently Inge King was commissioned to design the R.A.A.F. Memorial 1971-1973 in Canberra, in memory of pilots who died in war. This sensitive sculpture with its three abstract aerofoils placed around a horizontal tomb-like shape, invites viewers to move around the space, to experience the memorial as a representation of heroic death. This memorial is notable in that, at the commemoration ceremony, the widows of the pilots who died in the Vietnam war were not invited to the ceremony, so these women conducted their own unofficial wreath-laying ceremony immediately prior to the official ceremony.[12]

Karen Genoff's 1994 memorial to all wars in which Australians have participated is entitled Navigators III. This memorial is installed near the War Graves section of Centennial Park Cemetery, Adelaide. War is represented by fragments from each of the armed services: a propeller blade, a gun carriage wheel, and a ship’s wheel. These sculptures, conceived as ‘puzzle pieces’ are placed at the perimeter of an intersection of a cross-shaped road, and on the grassed roundabout of the intersection is placed a compass, symbolically broken to represent the way war has fractured the lives of many.[13]

Ken Inglis has attributed to war memorials the twin function of the commemoration of conflict and of harmony.[14] There is a greater emphasis on the expression of harmony, rather than conflict, in the women’s war memorials, with the most outstanding example found in the memorial fountain: the water a symbol of harmony following conflict.

War memorials are in memory of those who contribute to war, for that ‘imagined community” of the nation. While many memorials are in memory of death, few actually represent the ultimate sacrifice. But at least two women’s memorials, by Theo Cowan and by Dora Ohlfsen, represent and confront death, with the woman holding her dead loved one. This is imagery devoid of euphemism.

Many memorials use unmistakeably masculine forms of imagery, such as the soldier, to commemorate conflict. Some of the women’s war memorials, commissioned by women’s groups, use less gender-laden forms of representation, such as a cross, that do not overtly exclude their evident contribution to war.

The war memorials commissioned and/or made by women are a direct challenge to the belief that “the masculinity of war is what it is precisely by leaving the feminine behind.”[15] Women’s war memorials represent women’s wartime citizenship and sacrifice, and the sensitive representation of struggle and death in war by women sculptors.[16]


  1. ^ MR Higgonet and J Jenson (eds.) Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars Yale University Press, New Haven 1987, p 4.
  2. ^ J Bassett Guns and Brooches: Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War Oxford University Press, Australia 1992, p 44.
  3. ^ I Burn National Life and Landscapes: Australian Painting 1900–1940 Bay Books, Sydney 1990, p 72.
  4. ^ D Edwards ‘Race, Death and Gender in the Anzac Memorial’ Art and Australia Vol 28 No 4 1991, p 481.
  5. ^ K Inglis and J Phillips ‘War Memorials in Australia and New Aealand: A Survey’ in J Rickard and P Spearritt, (eds.), Packaging the Past? Public Histories Melbourne University Press and Australian Historical Studies, Melbourne 1991, p 179.
  6. ^ E Scott ‘Australia during the War’ Vol 9 The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 cited in M McKernan The Australian People and the Great War Nelson, Melbourne 1980, p 73.
  7. ^ For the Fallen-Women’s Memorial Committee Proposed Women’s Memorial’ Telegraph 16 October 1929.
  8. ^ J Roe ‘What has Nationalism Offered Australian Women?’ in N Grieve and A Burns Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Questions Oxford University Press 1994, p 45.
  9. ^ To Our Glorious Dead for the National Life photograph held in the Theo Cowan Papers, Sketches and Photographs, PXA 16 No 71 Mitchell Library. The records of the Public Monuments Advisory Committee are incomplete, and I am indebted to Ken Inglis for some of this information.
  10. ^ The Women’s War Memorial’ The Register 26 April 1922; See also ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ City of Adelaide file 549A.
  11. ^ Miss Gilbert quoted in ‘To the Greatest’ The Register 25 February 1922.
  12. ^ ‘Steel Symbols of Flight’ The Australian 16 March 1973.
  13. ^ ‘War Expressed as one of life’s great puzzles’ The Advertiser 19 April 1994.
  14. ^ K Inglis ‘Memorials of the Great War’ Australian Cultural History Vol 6 1987, p 6.
  15. ^ G Lloyd ‘Selfhood, War and Masculinity’ in C Pateman and E Grosz (eds.) Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1985, p 75.
  16. ^ I wish to acknowledge helpful comments by Jean Duruz and Jude Adams on an earlier version of this paper.