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Dinner with the Devil

  •  AFMW 

In the late 1800s, women patients suffered, and even died, because they were too poor to get medical assistance, or too discomfited to see a male doctor.  And Melbourne reeled from the shock of its worst ever economic depression.  A small group of women doctors and suffragists met to set up the Shilling Fund.  They asked every woman in the colony to give a shilling.  Their shillings, given so willingly in hard times, were enough to buy a city building, worth millions in today’s money, and fit it out as the Queen Victoria Hospital for women and children.  The doctors and their suffragist backers chose ‘for women by women’ as the hospital’s motto and create what they called a ‘community of work and interest’ that endured for 90 years. 

In 1986 the Gain government closed the much-loved hospital after its 90 years of distinguished service to the community.  But many Victorian women and their women’s organisations believed that women had a moral and legal right to claim some of the Queen Vic buildings.  The Queen Victoria Hospital Action Campaign ran for three years and managed to salvage one beautiful, Edwardian, heritage building – the Lonsdale Street tower that now houses the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre. 

Nearly everyone who grew up in Melbourne has a Queen Vic story.  They were born at Queen Vic, their children were born there, they worked there, or were Queen Vic patients.  In her book, Helen Macrae uses material from extensive interviews to tell moving stories about women and children whose lives were saved by Queen Vic, and about the heartbreak of women who relinquished their babies there.  She describes the five years of work women’s organisations put in to ‘build a new community of work and interest’ as the basis for a bipartisan and feminist women’s centre in the Lonsdale Street tower.  The book celebrates their unique venture – where women put aside political and social differences to work for a common purpose, just as their feminist forbears did when they founded the hospital.  And it recounts the painful way that the community was shattered by the Kennett Government in 1994.

Dinner with the Devil ends with an evaluation of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre’s work over the past 20 years.  It suggests future options for the centre and challenges women and their organisations to renew the vision for united action they created for the centre in 1990.  The book identifies the great value of women’s organisations to the wider community and looks soberly at the necessary dangers and difficulties they face when they work in partnership with governments. 

The title of the book comes from a warning published in Accent Age by the journalist, Rosemary West, after the tower was saved.  ‘For the women who fought so hard on behalf of the hospital’s founders for their share of the old building, trusting the Government may be like supping with devil.  The question for the feminists involved in this issue is whether the spoon is long enough to prevent the dinner guest from consuming the hostess.’

The author, Helen Macrae, was nominated to the Victorian Women’s Honour Roll in 2008 by the Victorian Adult Literacy and Basic Education Council, for her voluntary work as a member of the Queen Vic Women’s Centre Inc and her leadership in adult education through community owned and managed organisations.  She is a former senior policy officer in the Victorian Department of Education, and has written many books, essays and articles on feminism, adult education, community development and the governance of incorporated organisations.


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