The Golden Quest Discovery Trail guidebook provides travellers with an historical account of life in the goldfields. We are delighted to provide the following excerpt for your enjoyment.
Goldfields Women – resourceful, resilient and determined
Reading the often-rollicking accounts of early life on the Goldfields, the dominant impression is of one great ‘Boy’s own Adventure’. But women were not missing from the action. They may have been overwhelmingly outnumbered, but those who ventured out to the Goldfields played a vital role in what was a rapidly evolving frontier society.
As historian Tess Thomson points out (Kalgoorlie Miner, 31 December 1999) Goldfields women were ‘not only wives and mothers. They were single, they were widows, they were young and they were old. They ran boarding houses, kept dining rooms… worked as barmaids, washer women, book-keepers and shop assistants. They came as school teachers, nuns and nurses’.
In their formative years, the Goldfields were not so constrained by the straitjacket of mainstream society. Within the vast landscape, there was a freedom that, while strange and sometimes forbidding, was also exhilarating. Resourceful, resilient and determined, goldfields women answered every challenge. Most had journeyed for days or weeks to arrive at their destination. They were not likely to give in lightly.
This was an era when women throughout the Western world were beginning to seek equality of opportunity in education and employment. They were also fighting for the right to vote and to play an active part in political life. This fighting spirit found its way into public life. In the late 1890’s, Goldfields women were more politically active and progressive than most women elsewhere in Australia. During the political storm surrounding the issue of whether or not Western Australia would unite with the other colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia, they were actively involved in campaigning for the ‘Yes’ vote.
Women frequently took on all kinds of work, regardless of whether it was considered ‘beneath them’. A number of society girls from Victoria found their way to the Goldfields after their parents’ fortunes had been wiped out by the crash of Melbournes overheated property market. Many worked as private nurses, attending to sick prospectors in their tents for a bout three guineas a week. It is said that some journeyed west because they were too proud to be seen working in their home city. On the other side of the continent, few would know what they’d been ‘reduced to’. Others took the journey to seek husbands or to be reunited with family members or friends who had preceded them to the ‘Golden West’.
And there were those who arrived on the Goldfields as ‘working girls’. This enduring industry initially dominated by French and Japanese women, accompanied by male ‘pimps’.
With the development of pastoralism in the Goldfields, women found new challenges, often finding themselves alone for days on isolated stations. In an article published in The West Australian in 1993, Tommy Lowe, a highly-respected pioneer pastoralist, said that he was blessed with two great women in his life – his mother and his wife. he went on to say, ‘You know, women never really got the recognition they deserved from the community for their role in bringing station country into production. They had no real facilities to do anything… Women often held places together. Without them many men would have given it away’.