By Paige Gleeson, University of Tasmania.
The site of the Cascade Female Factory is swamped in the cold shadows of autumn dusk long before the rest of the town. An inky blue mountain and steep hillsides lined with weatherboard houses encase what remains of the site. It was here in the early 1840s a group of three hundred convict women was reported to have turned in unison to flash backsides at the most important man in Van Diemen’s Land, Governor John Franklin, slapping their buttocks like bongo drums.
Hundreds of convict women mooning the Governor and Lady Franklin is a powerful image, and a brilliant leitmotif of female convict rebellion.
That a mythology has developed around The Flashing is seemingly unsurprising given Australia’s anti-authoritarian roots and long love affair with larrikinism, though for a group of women to land the starring role is unusual. In our masculinist national mythology, the larrikins are bushrangers, stockmen and military heroes. Yet the Great Mooning was repeatedly cited by historians for years and was subject to a visual depiction by local artist Peter Gouldthorpe that was widely circulated as a postcard, becoming something of a local legend.
Why do we have such a collective obsession with convict lady butt?
Before considering this question, it’s important to note that the event never actually occurred. If the Franklins ever did eye convict woman backside, it was not as this tale relayed it. The mooning was a myth that had taken on a life of its own. A colonial era manuscript which contained the story was mistaken for a genuine account by historians associated with the University of Tasmania in the 1950s. This manuscript was in fact a novel.
Convict women had previously only received historical mention in relation to male convicts, colonial administrations, or in order for their sexualities and characters to be morally condemned#. As Tamsin O’Connor has claimed, “The harshest criticism – at least until second wave feminists launched their attack – was invariably reserved for the female convicts.” It seems we have a preoccupation with women who break the rules.
Paige Gleeson’s (University of Tasmania) full article was published in The Van Diemen Anthology 2019 (Forty South Publishing)
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# Summers, Damned Whores, 319.
*Tamsin O’Connor, “Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia”, review of Depraved and Disorderly by Joy Damousi, Journal of Social History 32, No.4, 1999, 954.