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A Monument of One's Own

Did you know that there are more public sculptures of famous animals in Victoria than there are of famous women? Did you know that of 580 public statues in Melbourne, only 4.3% are women? And that only 1.4% are non-fictional and non-royal? (i.e. not the Queen or Greek/Roman goddesses.)

On Friday March 5th, however, the ratio was improved marginally with the unveiling of a monument dedicated to one of the great women of union history: Helen Robertson.

Helen Robertson Thumbnail.png

Helen, a staunch leader and activist during the Tailoresses' Strike, probably never thought about being immortalised in bronze. What she wanted, and what she finally saw built, was something useful: a place where women could organise and build their collective power. As was mentioned in the story above, the Female Operatives Hall was built in 1884 following the Tailoresses' Strike. It was, admittedly, a way for the THC to support women unionists but keep them at arm's length, but in practical terms the space was massively valuable.

It no longer stands, as visitors to the Hall today will know. It was torn down in 1960 to make space for the "New Building" that looms over the back of Trades Hall now. This is a sin that the Victorian union movement must live with. However, some small justice was done for Helen this past week with the unveiling of her monument, which will stand at the Lygon Street entrance for as long as the building does. We hope you will come by and pay your respects to Helen and the great many women whose names we unfortunately do not know.

We spoke with Jennifer Mann (@jennifermannsculptor on Instagram) who was the artist behind the monument unveiled on Friday. Here is what she had to say about the face and the woman she spent so many hours bringing to life:

Whenever I scuplt a face, in every tiny movement, I’m thinking about that person, who they were. For me, I spent several months really studying Helen Robertson’s face — it’s a kind face, but she was obviously also such a tough, powerhouse of a person. I mean she was only 30 when she led the tailoresses’ strike. She was so young, she already had this hugely demanding day job, plus she had kids. And she went on to work on the 8-hour movement.

Speaking about the process of making the sculpture itself, she said:

It was a tricky process making this scuplture, there were lots of danger points along the way! It’s a relief sculpture so you start off making it in oil-based clay, I did the whole thing in one piece. Then it goes to the foundry, it has molds made of it and an exact replica is made in wax. Then there’s an investment mold on the wax version, the wax is burnt out of it and then you pour molten bronze into the cavity. And you end up – hopefully – with an exact replica of what you did ages ago in clay.

And regarding the rewriting of history, she says:

Why didn’t we learn about Helen Robertson and the tailoresses’ strike at school? We never learnt about women’s rights, women have just been washed out of history. It’s been a delight to have the opportunity to sculpt Helen Robertson and pick up the threads, tell these stories. I’m so impressed by Trades Hall’s Workers Museum too. It’s such a valuable asset – a walk around there and you’re up to speed with significant parts of the movement, and our working history, in no time.
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