Mary Poppins and Pamela Travers on International Women’s Day

Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Happy day to you, women of the world. Thank you for making the world a better place for the women who come behind you.

Thanks to the infamous, The Huffington Post, I have quietly reflected this morning on women who have influenced me: Mary Poppins from my youngest age and then Marie Curie, Helen Keller and Florence Nightingale during my primary school years and the story of Eva Peron during my teens (perhaps influenced is the wrong adjective but her story certainly had a profound impact on the development of my social justice streak and feminist politics).

Over at Huffington Post, Kari Henley has a call to action for we sisters:

Who is the oldest living woman you know? Make a point to get in touch with her this week — give her a call or pay her a visit. Maybe show up with some flowers, or a card, and ask her to tell you what her life was like as a woman when she was young. For it is upon the shoulders of these foremothers we all stand today, and they cannot be recognized enough.

Never one to completely follow instructions (well, I grew up in Papua New Guinea – a Colonial brat who thinks she rules the world), I have opted to share the true God life story of my oldest female influencer: Mary Poppins by author, Pamela Travers.

The trauma behind Magical Mary
(author, Megan Bayliss)

Mary Poppins, a Disney beacon of hope and magic, had a sad, sad childhood. Given her early life experiences of child abuse, Mary started life as a symbol of anti-nanny propaganda: weekly magazine stories full of sarcasm and hatred toward those who failed to protect their children from the staff.

Mary was originally created to bring the middle classes to their senses. Mary’s job as protagonist was to reflect the weak ethics of the stuffy middle class who chose not to look after their own children. Further, Mary highlighted middle class inability to provide emotional stability and child protection.

The lesson of the story was that the Nanny was superseded by parental development: the middle classes awake to their children’s psychological needs and forever more parented appropriately.

But, Disney recreated Mary Poppins to make her a superstar, super singing and dancing, all time fantastic carer of children, animals and handsome suitors: a woman that the middle class Banks family just could not do without.

Mary’s creator was Pamela Travers, a young Australian women. A survivor of childhood neglect at the hands of her middle class parents, this is the life story that developed a now immortalized Mary Poppins:

Born Helen Goff, in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia in 1899, the celebrated author of Mary Poppins was the daughter of a bank manager who drank himself to death by the time Helen was seven. Helen’s histrionic mother, Margaret, dithered on for a few more years before also giving up on life and attempting suicide in a local river.

On a thundery night, Margaret Goff announced to her three children that she was off to kill herself. Helen, the oldest (age 10) was terrified. She was left, alone, to settle her younger siblings and she coped by putting them to bed, all three together, on the lounge room floor. In an effort to divert their attention from frantic thoughts around their mother’s impending violent death, Helen made up fantasy stories about magical flying horses in faraway lands that would ride them all to safety.

Although Margaret returned, unsuccessful in her suicide attempt, Helen withdrew from the hurt caused by her family and instead found solace in the strength of a spinster aunt.

Helen’s dysfunctional family predicament haunted her for the rest of her life. She was never able to rid herself of images concerning the appalling fate of children whose parents were unable to care for them.

At 21 years of age, Helen changed her name to Pamela L. Travers. At age 25, she moved to London to make a new life as a writer. She never married, wore trousers when she wanted, had an affair with an older married man and eventually entered into a long-term relationship with another woman. Ever desperate to protect children, at age 40, a single parent, she adopted and raised an Irish orphan.

It was Walt Disney who rewrote Mary Poppins as a screen play (1964) and the forever ingrained personification of Mary Poppins as the all rounded protector of children. Disney’s movie made Mary Poppins synonymous with love and magic, whereas Pamela had meant for Mary to be synonymous with neglect and rejection.

It is reported that Pamela sat through the Disney screening of her beloved Mary Poppins with tears rolling down her cheeks. Disney had made Mary into everything that she was not. Disney had failed to heed the protection of children through the symbolic development of a nasty and controlling Nanny interested only in her own needs.

Pamela L. Travers died a broken woman in 1996, aged 96.


Which women influenced you? Recycle their story and bring new life to the rich tapestry of women’s influence.

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  1. thank you Megan for the history behind the fantasy. It seems this is the better story. ?

    • Knowing the story behind the fantasy really moved me deeply. I did love the Disney version but knowing how Mary Poppins came into being absolutely helped me see the movie in a whole different way. Mxxxx

  2. Thanks for this post Megan! I loved the story of Mary Poppins and my kids watched it more times than I would like to say. I’m sad to read how disappointed she was in the Disney version of her story, but I believe the essence of her love for children shone through the story. I would like to read more of her writing.
    Joh recently posted..Men’s Shed Project

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