New Book Tracks Australian Women’s Social History Over 125 Years

July 28, 2017

A fascinating snapshot of the last 125 years of Australia’s social history, from a uniquely female perspective, has been encapsulated in new book by the Managing Director of Physical Culture, Jackie Rawlings, released last week.

 The image-rich book celebrates the longevity of the uniquely Australian sport; Physical Culture, which combines various forms of dance and movement performed in sequence. Rawlings takes the reader through the history of physie (as its affectionately known) and provides social commentary, stories, charming images and action photography to illustrate how women’s role in society has changed over the past 125 years.

The book tells stories of women, set against the changing social landscape. For example, 1973 saw married women first allowed to participate in competitions. As Rawlings takes us through the decades, women increasingly take up managerial roles, with Judy Spence taking the lead to transform the organisation into a thriving sport through her risk-taking and confident decision making.

For a community sport to have survived 125 years is a testament to the original values and principles set up by Bjelke-Petersen and to the thousands of women who have managed, co-ordinated, promoted and led generations of girls and women over this time.

Rawlings says, “the success and longevity of physie is due, in no small part, to the 475 dedicated teachers who instil the values of camaraderie, support, community, excellence and team-spirit into each girl.

“In return for little or no financial reward, these caring and capable women instruct their students for the pleasure of seeing them develop their bodies, improve social skills, build confidence and work towards personal goals.”

Physie milestones over the decades

1920s – Bjelke-Petersen was responsible for the physical education of children in 120 private schools in Sydney and Melbourne including Kings, Abbotsleigh, Barker, Knox, Kambala, Loreto, Newington, Presbyterian Ladies College, Camberwell Grammar and St Andrews. Classes also began for young women in many business houses such as David Jones and MLC.

War years – Bjelke-Petersen gave free instruction to rejected army recruits, enabling 3,000 of them to attain the required physical standard for entry.

1920 – The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, spent many hours at the Bjelke-Petersen’s Institute participating in an exercise and massage program devised for him and bestowed royal patronage privileges to the company.

1929 – The Depression hit Australia. The organisation’s provision of cost-effective physical activities gave members relief from the harsh times and helped the organisation stay afloat during the economic downturn.

1930s – Physical Culture was so popular that schools began to advertise the inclusion of the activity

in their curriculum to promote enrolment.

1960s – In this year Physie introduced a ladies’ syllabus so that senior girls could continue participating after marrying and having children. The grooming fashions found their way into physical culture: women took possession of their sport wearing heavy make-up, figure-enhancing undergarments, racy fishnet stockings and the controversial leotard and sporting hairstyles such as the highly-teased “B-52” style. By 1973, married women were granted the right to compete for the first time.

1973 – On the first morning that the Opera House opened for business, the Managing Director, Judy Spence, booked the Concert Hall for the senior national finals. This continued to be the home of the finals, drawing full houses each year. In 2016, when ticket sales went online, the concert hall sold out within an hour.

2000 – Physie girls performed on the world stage before a packed Olympic Stadium and 3.6 billion television viewers.  On the evening of the ceremony, the BJP cast of 800 women dressed in large, heavy costumes as waterlilies, leschenaultia, honey myrtles, swamp daisies, snow gums and Sturt desert peas, representing the native flora of Australia.

2012-2017 – membership increased by 30 per cent over 5 years and the sport continues to grow.

Purchase a copy of the book here!

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