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Bill Edwards: Gender Rebel (1881-1956)

Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications.

Life for working class women for most of the nineteenth and twentieth century left very few options. They could perform domestic work for the wealthy or opt to slave away in their husband's home with a few romantic myths thrown in as compensation. Naturally many women bucked this order and carved out what independence they could within the limits of domestic life. The first wave of feminism and its middle class concentration on votes for women largely ignored the needs of these "sisters". Despite their sexism the radical and labour movements at least afforded a larger role for those women able to fight their way through to demand access to birth control and equality in all walks of life.

Some women however forswore the political path and simply chose to live as men. Many were motivated by their own lesbianism and the popular belief that women who were attracted to other women were by nature more "manly". Havelock Ellis and others gave this theory an academic spin through their "inversion theories." Women such as Ellen Tramayne and Eugenia Falleini lived out lives as men until committing crimes which saw them outed. There is plenty of reason to believe that other women successfully lived as men and husbands until their deaths.

One such case is that of Marion (nee "Bill") Edwards. Whilst Marion/Bill's sexuality was never clearly alluded to in the few interviews she/he granted during her/his life it is true that despite a few brief hiccups she lived out most of her life successfully as a man. Certainly Edwards enjoyed the kind of life available to few working class people, male or female. If nothing else, her rebel life exposed Victorian notions of innate gender roles as the lies they were.

Born in Wales during 1881 Edwards migrated with her family to Victoria four years later. She attended a Geelong school and at the age of 12 was bonded as a domestic worker to a local farmer's wife. Although the exact age at which she began to experiment with her gender varies in her interviews it is clear that she rapidly bored of this life and rejected the usual "escape" option of marriage to a local lad.

Having rejected all that was due to her, thanks to gender and class, Marion Edwards decided at the age of 16 to head for the bush. She acquired a horse and some men's clothes and transforming herself into Bill headed off for the Riverina area working on a variety of stations. Life was tough and the pressure to maintain his/her new role was intense. Edwards however warmed to the life and spent the next few years working as a station hand and shearer throughout three states.

After three years Edwards became tired of the rigours of bush life and headed for the city working as a storeman, a French-polisher, horse dealer and bar man before heading bush again to work in remote Queensland sorting wool. 1904 saw a drift back to Melbourne where more bar work eventually led Edwards into the lucrative racing game training and owning ponies. Horse racing seemed to attract women like Edwards as in 1975 another gender rebel Bill Smith was found to be a woman upon her death. Smith was an established identity on the North Queensland racing scene working as a jockey and winning the St. Leger Quest in 1902, Jockey Club Derby in 1903 and the Victoria Oaks in 1909-10.

Edwards dealings with the racing scene saw him charged with a major crime. Whilst on bail he skipped out to Queensland where he eluded the law for a further two years. This period saw the occasional person out him as the added pressure led to an occasional slip in role.

The excitement was interrupted however when an old associate led the Queensland police to Edwards' door. Arrest and deportation to Victoria saw Bill forced by the law back into life as Marion. The trial did not last long however and saw a speedy acquittal. In no time Bill had returned despite continued police attempts to make him remain a woman.

Due to the time periods (1908 and 1956) it is unsurprising that sexuality was skirted around in the few interviews that Edwards gave during his/her lifetime. From what was said however we know that she/he achieved intimacy with both men and women. Whether these encounters were specifically sexual is unclear. Unlike other women of her time who lived as men she certainly she never settled down with a partner of either sex and was clearly cynical about romance in general.

Post trial life saw further travels and adventures. Initially capitalising on the trial publicity Bill joined a sideshow travelling the country as a "she-male" attraction. There was talk of writing a book which sadly never appeared. After the sideshow Edwards disappeared for a spell in an attempt to restore some anonymity. Secrecy restored he ran a S-P bookie business and hotel in North Melbourne for a number of years and later boasted of "handling the roughnecks" himself. Edwards also made several world trips as a man and re-entered the horse dealing business delivering horses personally to India. In later life Bill worked as a clerk before retiring to a house in Roden Street, West Melbourne. He was known as a constant visitor to the local pubs. Bill's original gender was by this time a well known fact in the area. Yet, as a neighbour Mrs Golea related it, no one had much of a problem with this, proving that inner city working class communities of the 1950s were far less bigoted than is widely believed.

In 1955 Bill entered the Mount Royal Home for the Aged and Infirm and was forced until death to live as Marion. In 1956 she was buried in Fawkner cemetery only escaping a pauper's grave through the charity of the Golea family. Despite her grave stone bearing the name "Marion" it is as Bill that we remember her.


The Lone Hand, 1908.
The Herald Sun, 1956.
Camping on a Billabong, R.French, Black Wattle Press, 1993.

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