Mina Wylie: New book about one of Australia’s greatest swimmers you’ve never heard of

March is Women’s History Month and in honour of that The Broad is covering a new book about an Australian swimming legend and the woman who’s captured her story.

Mina Wylie at Coogee beach

In Search of Mina Wylie tells the life story of Australia’s greatest swimmer. It recounts the life of the Olympic silver medal winner, world record holder, state and national title holder, feted by the Australian public.

When Mina was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975, the Federal Government at the time refused a request to help with expenses. To help get her there, she became the subject of a national crowdfunding campaign that returned her to prominence some sixty years after she first unified the nation with her determination to compete alongside men in the Olympics.

As a former competitive swimmer herself, theatre director and playwright Grace Barnes has compiled a wonderful new book on Mina Wylie’s, drawn from her cherished collection of memorabilia. Grace focused on the female swimmer 1912-1922 as emblematic of Modernity and Australian identity.

“I examined issues around swimming and the female body, the early female athlete on ‘display’, the fragile nature of women’s archives and the recording of women’s history, ocean pools as unique Australian Space and the ongoing male bias in the recording and reporting of sport,” says Grace.

“Post-Federation, it was two women who excelled internationally at the new sport of swimming – Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie – and this contradicted the construct of The Sporting Nation as white and male,” she says.

MIna Wylie at the Hall of Fame inauguration

During her research, Grace travelled to Stockholm and visited the Olympic Stadium which was built for the 1912 Games in which Mini participated and is still in use. There was much time spent in the archives at Pymble Ladies College, where Mina taught swimming for over 40 years, and working through the extensive collection of personal records and material.

The book stemmed from Grace’s years of dedication in completing her PhD examining the early feminist and nationalist movements in Australia. “A PhD is a long, four-year slog!”

Another woman overlooked by history

Like many histories that have overlooked women, swimming and sport are no different. “I’m well aware of the absence of women from history in favour of stories of the so-called ‘Great Men’ of history. But I certainly had a desire to put Mina back into her rightful place in Australian sporting history. It’s inconceivable that a male athlete who achieved what she did would be forgotten in the way Mina Wylie has been,” she says.

“I became particularly interested in Mina Wylie not just because of her extraordinary career, but because her link to Coogee Beach and Wylie’s Baths made her emblematic of this new Australian identity based on an outdoors, healthy lifestyle which increasingly looked to beach culture to establish its difference to the UK.”

Medallists in inaugural women’s 100m freestyle. L-R: Fanny Durack, Mina Wylie and Jennie Fletcher (UK)

Accessing the archive material was a superb source of information as Grace tried to piece together her life. “Photographs, hundreds of postcards, letters, autograph albums from the 1912 Olympics and her trips to the USA, programmes from swimming carnivals, posters from early ‘ladies only’ carnivals and personal items.”

Forget Tar, most directors not women

Grace’s own career includes writing musicals, two of which premiered at the Tony award winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, and being associate director on large scale shows such as West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Sunset Boulevard, The Witches of Eastwick and Fiddler on the Roof.

Having worked for decades in musical theatre, she had become accustomed to being the only woman in a creative team, but Grace noticed a few years ago that the situation for women in musical theatre was actually getting worse, not better.

“Musicals (especially large scale commercial shows) still tend to have all-male creative teams (writer, director, lyricist, composer) and this situation is not changing. You’ll see women in the assistant positions or in traditional female areas – wardrobe and dance – but the real power in musical theatre remains firmly in the hands of men,” she says.

“What is particularly galling about this male bias, is that it is women who make up the majority of the audience for musical theatre. And yet we are frequently presented with a story ostensibly about women – Wicked, Muriel’s Wedding, Legally Blonde, Miss Saigon – told to us by men. As if women are not capable of telling their own stories.”

“There is no authentic female voice in musical theatre and this is a situation which has not just happened – it is deliberate. I wrote the book to examine what is behind this ongoing prejudice, and why it is accepted as the norm when other areas of the arts have moved towards greater equality.”

Grace Barner, author, In Search of Mina Wylie

What’s your advice for women wanting to develop stories for the stage?

“I’m going to be really brutal and say don’t,” says Grace. She says there’s no female voice in theatre because there’s no will to include it – especially in musical theatre. Her advice? Take the story to the large or small screen. “The fact that we can count female stories onstage in the last ten years on one hand says it all,” she says.

“You have a good chance of getting a play on about a man who identifies as a woman, but little chance of getting a play on which has women at the core of the narrative.”

“I’ve been trying to get up a play in the UK about the Greenham Women’s Peace camp for about ten years and no theatre is interested. Different story when it’s a narrative about the miners strike.”

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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