While much has been written about the men who discovered Broken Hill and who pioneered the development of Australian mining, it is the women of the city who have made it what it is today – a place that embraces and celebrates equal rights and free speech.
Discovered in 1883, the early years of Broken Hill saw an influx of workers chasing their fortune – and with that came everything you would expect from a pioneer town, including a surplus of rough-and-ready drinking dens. Life here for the wives was tough – it was truly a man’s town, with few comforts.
In the early 20th century, as the city cycled through tough years of strikes and poor industrial relations, Broken Hill naturally became home to some of the most inspirational and radical thinkers of the Australian socialist movement.
Lizzie Ahern was among that group, and has been deemed one of the most inspirational female rebels of the time. After being arrested in 1906 during a Melbourne free speech rally, she decamped to Broken Hill and became an active speaker and “socialist agitator”, known for speeches such as The War of the Classes and its Resolution and The Revolt of the Woman. In the latter she noted that “until women recognised their position in life, they would continue to be degraded, and they must take up a position with the men of the working class and assist in the overthrow of a system which had held them down in subjection and degradation.”
Lizzie’s public reputation was responsible not only for a citywide swell in the recognition of the place of women in the growing unionist movement, but an increasingly militant stand by the women themselves.
In 1909, Caroline Gibson was arrested for insulting a policeman during a strike march. She refused to take a good behaviour bond, as she believed it would be the equivalent of being “gagged for six months”, and instead spent a month in Broken Hill jail, becoming something of a celebrated martyr in the local paper.
But her stance seems somewhat tame compared to Francis Egan, owner of the Barrier Café. She consistently ran up against the policies of her union during the First World War, forcing the café to close. Attempting to find employment elsewhere, she was suddenly refused union membership – a result of the personal grievances with the union president, Evan Marshall.
Out of work, and with four children to feed, she became desperate. She went to Marshall’s home, tied him up at gunpoint, tarred and feathered his entire body and then paraded him around the centre of town, much to the delight of the residents. Incredibly, she was found not guilty during the ensuing court case, and instead the union was charged with “conspiring to deprive her of a way of earning a living”.
Other great Broken Hill women followed in her footsteps in the ensuing years – women such as Tess Alfonsi, the first woman miner and mine-owner, who also had a handy knowledge of 23 Italian dialects; nurse and midwife Vivian Bullwinkel, the sole survivor of the 1942 Bangka Island massacre, who spent over three years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp; Nydia Edes, a politician and community worker who became the first female member of the Broken Hill City Council in 1962; and Marina Sulicich, the Broken Hill gymnast who represented Australia in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.
But the story of Broken Hill women isn’t complete without Jeanine Clarke. In 1981, Jeanine got married, but soon found herself at the wrong end of discriminatory union policies. The decades-old rules stated that married women were banned from taking up employment in certain professions in order to keep the jobs open for unmarried women. When asked to resign, she refused and mounted a legal challenge in the NSW State Court. Not only did she win the case against her employer, but the result saw the entire union policy overturned, allowing married women to take up employment across the city for the very first time.
These pioneering women, who refused to accept the status quo and stood up to do something about it, are truly responsible for making Broken Hill a place that celebrates equality and freedom of speech, and where tarring and feathering your union rep is just another day at the office.