Annette Kellerman was never going to be put into a box.
A trailblazing Australian swimmer turned Hollywood vaudeville star, she held all the world records for women’s swimming in 1905, is credited as being the first woman to appear nude on film, was portrayed by Esther Williams in the film Million Dollar Mermaid, and performed her own stunts including a 20-metre dive into the ocean with her hands and feet bound, and jumping into a pool of crocodiles.
It’s an incredible life by any measure, says Lisa Matthews, producer of SBS’s upcoming four-part series Australia In Colour.
But for all her remarkable feats, Kellerman’s sheer fearlessness in challenging the policing of women’s bodies a la Lady Gaga is perhaps her biggest achievement, says Matthews.
In 1907, Kellerman stepped out onto Revere Beach, Boston, wearing a one-piece bathing suit that ended in shorts above her knees. It caused a huge scandal; in the early 1900s, women swam in black, knee-length wool dresses worn over bloomers with long black stockings, bathing slippers, and even ribboned swim caps.
Kellerman may as well have been nude. Police were called, and she was arrested for indecency.
Women’s bodies have long been a political battleground, subject to legislation and regulation. Swimwear was a particularly controversial area; in the US, policemen measured women’s swimsuits on the beach as modesty laws demanded shorts were no more than six inches above the knee.
When Kellerman rejected the heavy, cumbersome woollen pantaloons women were expected to wear at the beach, she was sending a powerful message about female autonomy, sexual freedom and choice, says Matthews.
“To me she was a real trailblazer in her ideas of emancipating women, sending the message that we can enjoy the beach just like men.”
Be who you are, wear what you want, said Kellerman, who would go on to design her own line of one-piece bathing suits.
It’s a message that is still relevant today, Matthews says: witness the controversy that still shrouds women’s swimwear choices on beaches all over the world, whether it’s a burkini or v-string bikini.
Kellerman’s story also points to a wider issue. History has long been a boys' club, Matthews says. “Women are so often airbrushed from history.”
Consider fearless aviatrix Maude Bonney, who, in 1931, broke the Australian record for the longest one-day flight by a woman and who became the first woman to circumnavigate Australia by air a year later; suffragette and activist Vida Goldstein; pioneering actress and filmmaker Louise Lovely, and the three McDonagh sisters who made history in 1926 by becoming the first Australian women to own and run a film production company.
All remarkable figures - but their stories have slipped through cracks in our history, Matthews says.
“When I talk to my daughter about Australian history, and she says [this man] did this and did that, I tell her there are lots of women who have done [amazing things] and she’s surprised. She says, oh, I didn’t know that - and that’s common. We need to keep their stories alive through series like this.”
Experience Australia’s story brought vividly to life when the 4-part series Australia in Colour premieres at 8.30pm on Wednesday 6 March on SBS. Available anytime, anywhere on your favourite device after broadcast on SBS On Demand.