Australian Women Behaving Badly

The Melbourne Museum recently held a talk ‘Badly Behaved Women Seldom Make History’ with local historians each presenting an oral biography of Australian women who, in different ways, smashed glass ceilings, dismissed the accepted status quo of gender at the time, and to a large extent went unrecognised in subsequent history books (which were fat with chapters on the achievements of their male counterparts). Me and some of my ladies of worth went along for this talk and subsequent review over an oriental brew and fancy teacups.

Take a deep breath and a couple of minutes to read up on three of these women –

Tess Alfonsi:
* Emigrated to Australia as teen; married young and settled in Broken Hill in the 1920’s (and surely that’s impressive enough?).
* Started mining with her husband, using hand tools, and camping rough for weeks on end, living on rabbits and kangaroo tail soup in a handmade humpy.
* Struggled to make it. In a second attempt had her only sizeable loot stolen.
* Then went on to found the Third Chance Mine, fending off claim jumpers by guarding it alone with a .303 rifle.
* Divorced her husband who battled alcoholism and continued to succeed in the mining business, working alongside the men she employed.
*  Married her young foreman and opened 23 more mines in NSW supplying 90% of Australia’s feldspar (it’s important stuff supposedly).
* Retired to White Cliffs and died at age 67.
– Lady of Worth.

* Member of the Eora people.
* Lost a husband and two kids to smallpox before becoming the wife of Bennelong.
* Very skilled fisherwoman  ( the Eora women would routinely handle fishing tackle, onboard fire, small children and the breastfeeding of babies while out fishing in bark canoes. Phwoarrr!)
* Respected authority among her community.
* When her husband hit her, she hit him back.
* Protested against the flogging of a white man accused of stealing fishing gear, defending him by hitting the flogger with a stick.
* Refused to drink white invaders’ wine or wear their clothing but instead wore only a bone through her nose, even at functions put on by Govenor Phillip (take that, punks).
* Gave birth alone to her third child, who died a few months later. Barangaroo died a year afterwards
– Lady of Worth.

Kate Webb:
* Charged with first degree murder in a children’s court as a 15 year old after a friend shot herself with a rifle Webb handed her.  The charges were later dropped.
* At age 18, she lost her parents in a car accident.
* Received Honours in Symbolic Logic at Melbourne Uni.
* Paid her own way to Vietnam, arriving with a couple of hundred dollars and a typewriter.
* Viewed as one of the best journalists to cover the Vietnam War.
* Kidnapped and held for four weeks in the jungles of Cambodia, suffering forced marches and interrogations along with four others. Obituaries were mistakenly written for her supposed death before she emerged from the jungle, with two types of malaria.
* Described as an ‘action reporter’, Webb was known for her bravery in the battlefield and was very much in the frontline.
* Hard-drinking, chain-smoking (wouldn’t you be?).
* Once, during heavy attacks, an explosion knocked her to the ground then she got up and went back to help the wounded.
* Served as a correspondant in Iraq in the Gulf War, in Indonesia, North Korea and Afganistan.
* In Afganistan she was nearly scalped by a militiaman after she was dragged up the stairs by her hair. Afterwards she hid on a window ledge in the freezing winter with two other journalists while the militiamen searched the building for her.
* Continued as an hard-hitting, much admired journalist until her retirement in 2001.
* Died in 2007.
– Lady of Worth.

Want to read more about these ladies? Along with what I heard at the Melbourne Museum talk, here’s where I got my info from:

Tess Alphonsi –

Barangaroo –

Kate Webb –


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