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Deborah Swiss

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Strong Shelias: I'll Take a Tall, Leggy Blonde Please

Posted: 07/06/2012 11:03 am

When Julie Henderson accepted her role as manager of the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania, congratulatory messages included some good-natured ribbing. "Ah, I'll take a tall, leggy blonde please," joked one well-wisher. If only Julie's job were as uncomplicated as manufacturing a batch of living Barbies. Her mission includes the Herculean task of raising the millions of dollars it will take to restore and preserve a UNESCO World Heritage site that represents both the best and the worst of the human condition.

The Female Factory is sometimes misunderstood by visitors who stop for a quick, unguided look-see. One reviewer wrote: "Not much to look at, just a bunch of stone walls." What's so special about the jumble of old gray rocks along the Hobart rivulet?

This visitor overlooked what I might have missed had I not traveled the convict trail with descendants of Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, and Ludlow Tedder. They were three 19th century women transported from Great Britain to Australia and imprisoned at the Female Factory for crimes of petty theft. Other than prostitution, this was virtually the only way a Victorian woman in the lowest class could survive.

Routinely serving punishments that far exceeded the scope of their crimes, adolescent girls like Agnes and Janet came of age at Cascades, navigating a treacherous journey that carried them from desperation and injustice to love and redemption. Behind the cold, mildewed walls at Cascades, the convict maids refused to be broken. Denying their captors the right to steal their spirit, the skinny, pock-marked prisoners dared to be joyful and danced under a moonlit sky. Donning bright scarves and gaudy jewelry smuggled in via the prison's thriving underground economy, they dared to feel beautiful. They dared to feel alive.

Within the walls of Cascades there is a simple stone epitaph with the inscription "more sinned against than sinning." It stands as a stoic reminder of women who refused to relinquish the essence of what it means to be human. The miracle of their legacy is that the vast majority of the 25,000 transported women became loving mothers and grandmothers rather than the hardened human beings one might expect from years of malnourishment, abuse, and abandonment by a homeland that deemed them worthless chattel. Once freed, these iron-willed maidens helped form the very backbone for modern Australia.

My hometown is Lexington, Mass., which is known as "the birthplace of American liberty" and the location that marked the start of the American Revolution. As Lexington gears up for its 300th anniversary celebration, I've been thinking about what it means to be free. Standing in Yard 1 at the Cascades Female Factory, I was given a glimpse into the human suffering that too often is the price of freedom and the precursor for modern democracies.

I just returned from my third visit to the Female Factory and experienced "Her Story," an interactive theater presentation offered to visitors every morning and part of a longer tour called "Louisa's Walk." Two actors, one playing the role of a convict maid named Louisa and the other the dual roles of overseer and physician, convey the Female Factory's history in a way that seeps into your pores and into your soul. They give a voice to women who left no diaries and were never able to speak for themselves at Cascades. I couldn't help but feel the fear and humiliation Louisa endured as she cowered under the overseer's menacing threats, the despair of losing her baby daughter who was born at the prison, and finally her unshakable belief that she would forge a fresh start once freed.

I don't want Agnes, Janet, Ludlow or any of the convict women to be forgotten. Until recently, most had been cast into anonymity, lost in the facts and figures that have recorded traditional history. Their ultimate victory is their legacy. The exiled women achieved a good life despite overwhelming odds and today can proudly claim several million descendants scattered throughout Australia. Now that their story is out in the open, history is being rewritten from a new perspective. That's the true value of the "bunch of stone walls" tucked away under the shadow of Mount Wellington.

The walls serve as a witness to the triumph of the human spirit. I want these monuments preserved for my children and my future grandchildren so that they can understand their importance for generations to come: lessons about resiliency and solidarity, insight into what it takes to overcome social injustice, and clues into how a nation's character is formed.

If this sounds a bit like a commercial for the Cascades Female Factory, perhaps it is. Aussie descendants of the women I researched have unofficially adopted me into their families and I'm already planning my next visit to their welcoming homes. These are folks who wouldn't be here today were it not for strong Shelias who found the courage to survive and lived their lives with grace and dignity. That's the kind of freedom worth celebrating every day.

 
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