Review: Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History by Eliza Reilly


Title: Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History

Author: Eliza Reilly

Published: 22nd February 2022, Hachette

Status: Read February 2022, Hachette



My Thoughts:


“The Sheilas in these pages are celebrated for the chaos and brilliance they bring, and they deserve to be spun into legend. They have helped me find out who I really am, and I think reading about them is going to give you some clues about who you really are, too.”

Sheilas: Bad Ass Women of Australian History is a fascinating, inspiring, irreverent celebration of some of Australia’s women who refused to accept the status quo throughout history, by writer, director and performer, Eliza Reilly.

Building on the (must watch) ‘Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History’ comedy webisode series Eliza created with her sister Hannah, developed as a part of Screen Australia‘s initiative called Gender Matters in 2018 (available on YouTube), the book ‘Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History’ introduces a bushranger and suffragettes, swimmers and pilots, a spy and an artist, among others. I was disappointed in myself to realise how few names I recognised.

Not content to simply regurgitate the dry facts and figures which are the hallmarks of many history books, Sheilas has a conversational tone, complete with expletives for emphasis. Reilly incorporates on point, funny and occasionally savage personal commentary, tweets and pieces of trivia. Her flippancy won’t appeal to everyone but I think it’s more likely to capture the attention of a wide audience than any history textbook. Photographs and ephemera support each story, while the illustrated titles for each woman, designed by Regine Abos, are whimsical and witty.

Here are a few notes on just three of the incredible Sheilas in the book…

Mary Ann Bugg

“There probably isn’t a better example of white Australia’s bad habit of holding up a grubby man as a hero and discarding a woman of colour who was literally doing the exact same shit but better than the story of the overlooked bushranger and her illiterate white boyfriend who was there too.”

Captain Thunderbolt (aka Frederick Ward) may be remembered for having the longest bushranging career in New South Wales, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Mary Ann Bugg, a Worimi woman who swam the shark-infested Sydney harbour with a metal file between her teeth to liberate her boyfriend from his prison cell on Cockatoo Island. When she finally tired of Fred’s company, she remarried and became a nurse.

Catherine Hay Thomson

“…very real and very scary grounds for being locked up included: ‘Laziness’,‘Masturbation, ‘Medicine to prevent conception’, ‘Mental excitement’, ‘Novel reading’ and practising ‘Egotism’. Which sounds more like my daily to-do list than a justification for insanity.”

Like her well known American counterpart Nellie Bly, Australian journalist, Catherine Hay Thomson, admitted herself to Kew Asylum in Melbourne to expose the abuse and corruption rife within the institution. In 1886 alone, Catherine published five stories on the Melbourne hospital. Her articles resulted in formal nursing training being introduced in Victoria and a ‘Ladies’ committee’ being imposed to help patients.

Deborah Lawrie

“Ansett went on to name The Period as enemy number one, pleading that people with periods should legally be banned from flying because they would ‘act strangely every month, simply were medically unfit once a month, “out of action”’.

Deborah Lawrie refused to take no for an answer when Ansett Airlines repeatedly rejected her application to become an airline pilot. In what was the first case ever held before the Equal Opportunity Board, Deborah won, At the direction of Ansett Airlines owner, Sir Reginald Ansett, the result was appealed to first the Supreme Court, and when they upheld the ruling of the EOB, to the High Court of Australia, where the court directed Ansett Airlines to hire Deborah after a two year legal battle. Sir Reg was so affronted he stood down as CEO and unlike the now defunct airline, Deborah is still flying today, a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a master air pilot.

Read Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History to learn about sheroes including Faith Bandler, Nancy Wake, Fanny Durack. This is informative, hilarious, and badass.



Available to purchase from PanMacmillan Australia

Or your preferred retailer

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Garrulous Gwendoline
    Mar 08, 2022 @ 13:56:58

    I’ve been hearing a LOT about this book. Looking forward to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. sandysbookaday
    Mar 08, 2022 @ 17:06:21

    I haven’t had any luck yet finding a copy of this. But your excellent review reminds me of a book I read several years ago called ‘The Floating Brothel’ about female convicts being transported from England to Australia. It was really good. ❤📚

    Liked by 1 person


  3. WendyW
    Mar 09, 2022 @ 02:46:05

    I love books that celebrate women and their accomplishments. My sister’s name is Sheila, I might get this for her. (to share with me!)

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Mystica
    Mar 11, 2022 @ 01:31:34

    The only badass I know is Phryne Fisher! I’d love to get hold of this on my next trip to Australia.



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  7. Tina
    Apr 03, 2022 @ 02:44:57

    I will look for this book, having trouble locally but I want to read it. Sounds great!

    Liked by 1 person


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