by Kim Kelly
I’m often asked why I write historical fiction, and it’s often difficult to answer that in a way that truly shows my endless fascination with and commitment to exploring the past, especially Australia’s past, questing for glimpses of who we are, where we’ve come from, what’s changed and what hasn’t.
But this morning, researching the conditions for working women in the late nineteenth century, I came across this article, published in the Brisbane Telegraph, in 1886:
It would be difficult nowadays to mention any sphere of labour into which women do not enter, or try to enter; even in laborious and toilsome work they try to take a share. I have read with great interest (says a writer in Sydney Town and Country), the census returns reporting the remunerative employments entered into, and creditably performed by what is known as the ‘gentler sex’.
It is admitted that they make efficient clerks, bookkeepers, postmistresses. The Telegraph Department in other countries encourage busy female manipulators. Then there is a new introduction, in the form of a machine called a type-writer, by which women of intelligence make a very fair income. Lady doctresses and dispensers, lecturesses and preachers, are deemed desirable, more or less. Photography is another field for them, especially the branches of tinting and re-touching negatives, which require delicate handling. Literature is a ‘pecuniary prize’ suitable for ladles of education many of whom win fame and profitable distinction. Women have been miners and ‘pointsmen’, and occasionally flagswomen are seen on our own lines. Then in artistic work in glass, painting, decorative art, tapestry, wood-engraving, plan-tracing, and mural mosaic work, feminine talent has been recognised. Women have been, and are, in printing establishments as compositors and proof-readers. Even shorthand reporting has been systematically undertaken by ladies.
So, after all, the term ‘working women’ is not a misnomer, however novel it may sound as a novelty. The subject has of late undergone such eager discussion that it might be excusable to think at times that the working woman has just arrived on our planet! Yet women have been thorough and hard workers from time immemorial. In all ages there have been some whose talents brought them to the front to show the world what women can do. In the quieter and less conspicuous home life they have been, and are supreme. Women, as a rule, are thorough; in whatsoever their hand findeth to do, they do with all their might.
Considering the great interest taken in the increased sphere of usefulness of women it is surprising that so little is done respecting the ‘overworked,’ for of all enthusiasts the world has known there are none more eager than women workers. Of course, I refer to the energetic ones, for there are, we know, drones in every hive. But the treadmill of labour is not ‘scamped’ by women, even at the loss, as too frequently happens, of health, spirits, and hope itself, though that is the anchor they cling to last of all. In the domestic circle the anxious mother and fretted wife heroically bears ‘the thousand natural shocks’ that are inevitable, the tender helpmeet of every trouble that assails the home-nest. She is the willing and patient sufferer, and the thoughtful heart does grieve when she is overworked.
Speaks for itself really, doesn’t it?
Photo: Women undergraduate students of Sydney University, 1893.