Feminist History Seminar - Dr Esme Cleall (University of Sheffield): "Disability, Activism and Gender in Colonial Australia".
Tilly Aston (1873-1847): disability, activism and gender in colonial Australia
This paper uses the life and writings of Tilly Aston (1873-1947), a blind writer, activist and philanthropist, as a way into thinking about attitudes towards, responses to and organising around disability in colonial Australia. I argue from one perspective that Tilly Aston’s experiences illuminate contemporary attitudes towards disability which, I argue, were highly othering and discriminatory. From a different perspective, I argue that her life and writings disrupt the assumption that the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time when these attitudes were unchallenged and that activism around disability rights can only be dated as far back as the 1970s. Despite conservatism in many aspects of her life, Aston was committed to extending the rights of blind people both socially and politically. That she did this as a woman and in colonial Australia is further significant as disability history, like so many historiographical fields, still tends to be dominated by men and largely metropolitan focussed. In taking an intersectional approach, I also consider the way in which Aston’s life and work also spoke to issues of gender, class and race as well as to issues of disability.