Articles > Allan Hildon
This paper examines the proposition that Elizabeth Kenny was a lesbian who attempted to secure public respect and acceptance by concealing her sexual identity and assuming the personae of a dedicated nurse. Despite her efforts to project an image of respectability Kenny was unable to disguise characteristics which lead many people to describe her as masculine, and she was unable to escape persistent cross examination of her unconvincing tales of youthful romances with men. The paper presents the argument that in an era where attitudes towards homosexuality differed hugely to those held in the present era, Kenny's gender nonconformity could easily have been interpreted as a sign of her homosexuality and thereby provide a focus for homophobic prejudice, even if she did not privately or publicly acknowledge her homosexuality. This proposition, while beyond verification, offers a plausible explanation for the exaggerated level of acrimony and hostility which was displayed towards Kenny by so many members of the medical profession, and helps to explain her clumsy and persistent attempts in later life to fabricate an unconvincing of façade of heterosexual normality. Lifting the veil of silence which has cloaked this aspect of Elizabeth Kenny's life provides an opportunity for a more complete understanding of the mystery surrounding her personal relationships, the nature of the opposition she encountered from the medical establishment, and her marginalisation in the diaspora that is Australia.
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In the final stage of preparation of this paper I learned Margaret Ernest had passed away after a brief illness. Although I only knew Margaret for a short time, the news of her death left me feeling a profound sense of loss.
I met Margaret through the assistance of Sue Hoyt at the Sister Kenny Foundation in Minneapolis. As a result of Sue's generous facilitation I was able to exchange correspondence with Margaret, which led to her agreeing to a telephone interview in May 2009. In September 2009 we had lunch together in Minneapolis - a happy occasion I will long remember.
Over the years Margaret assisted many researchers in their enquiries into the life and work of Elizabeth Kenny. In her capacity as Kenny's secretary from 1941 to 1945 Margaret lived in the eye of the hurricane. If she tired of sharing her recollections and insight she never showed it.
From a researcher's perspective Margaret was the ideal informant. She knew my views about Kenny's sexuality, disagreed with me, then freely shared information which she knew was grist to my mill.
Margaret possessed a formidable wit. When I joked that Basil O'Connor would probably have thought I was a crackpot obsessed with a quack, Margaret laughed and with a note of merriment in her voice agreed O'Connor had thought Sister was a quack. Still, of all her fine qualities it was Margaret's graciousness which I believe endeared her to all who knew her. I am indebted to her for enriching my understanding of Elizabeth Kenny and for sharing some deliciously good stories. She will be greatly missed.