Monday , April 22 2024

The women who succeeded

Early Australian history is usually told as a male-dominated story, and it is remarkable how often this is a story of male failure – Burke and Wills et al. The women who do appear are usually painted in lurid colours as prostitutes and slatterns, or as the odd lonely, isolated “lady”, having a thoroughly miserable time of it.

Yet I’ve just read a collection of (mostly) success stories in which women undertake amazing feats and complete them with aplomb.

Just imagine the journey of Annie Caldwell, an Irishwoman who arrived in Adelaide as a free settler with her husband Matthew in 1841 with almost nothing. They both laboured to earn enough to take a lease on a small farm at Gumeracha, near Adelaide, but the land was poor and the rainfall scant. Matthew died in 1856, leaving Annie pregnant with their eighth child.

She decided to move to NSW in 1864, selling “everything except five horses, some cattle, Lassie the dog and a tilted wagon – similar to covered wagons in America”.

They took eight weeks to cover the 900km trek to Albury and they took up land near Holbrook (one of my old stamping grounds, where to my knowledge there is no memorial to her – although there should be!), where they selected a block in her oldest son’s name.

One of the children said: “How hard we all did work! Mother seemed able to turn her hand to any sort of man’s work after her ten years as sole manageress.” The farm did well and Annie died aged 69, surrounded by her family. (p. 15-17)

This book is A Wealth of Women: Australian Women’s Lives from 1788 to the Present, by Alison Alexander, which takes a fascinating, anecdotal approach to the topic, drawing heavily on the “History Search” by the Office of the Status of Women of 2000, which collected oral histories and much of the work of family historians.

The latter, it seems to me, is a much underutilised resource. No doubt it has its technical limits – but many family stories – particularly women’s stories – are now being recorded that should not be lost again.

The success that many female convicts made of life in Australia is an element that comes out again and again. Little has been written on this until recently, since this was until the 1980s regarded as a “stain” rather than the badge of honour that it is today. There’s for example Mary Smallshaw, a Welsh silk throwster transported for theft in 1818. She married first the clerk of the Tasmanian magistrate’s court, then, after bearing him a daughter, the magistrate himself, and her descendants were “respectable society”. (p. 6)

Although there were ladies made thoroughly miserable by the conditions. I particularly liked the one horrified at having to drink out of handless cups, and by the lack of visiting cards — if you visited someone who was out a piece of chalk was left near the door so you could record your presence on it!

And others were trapped with feckless males. The tale of Matilda Wallace, whose husband moved them from Mt Gambier (South Australia) to Mount Murchison, where he tried in a desultory why to open a shop, to Queensland, then spent the next decade roaming those areas, seldom more than six months in one spot. Two babies died young, and when her fifth was due she went to “civilisation” in Menindee – still the back of beyond.

It is story that reminds me of the mammoth tome I have just finished, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by (Henry Handel) Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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