By Dianna Newham (Curator, National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame)
The National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame in Alice Springs was founded by a woman on the land, Molly Clark, and this is her story...
In 1955 Molly Clark arrived at the 3,410 square kilometre station at Andado, around 330 kilometres south-east of Alice Springs with her husband Mac and three small sons. Previously, the young family had been working on grazing properties between Broken Hill, Birdsville and Tennant Creek. At Andado, they lived in the original 1920’s homestead for a few years, building a new one a few kilometres west. The old homestead was left to fall down, but in 1969 Molly decided to resurrect it and turn it into a homestay operation as an alternative income during drought years. The project took almost 20 years to fulfil during which time she physically worked on getting the building and surrounding area habitable.
The 1970s witnessed a catalogue of personal crises: one son had a life-threatening accident; Molly's husband suffered a fatal heart attack after crash landing his light aircraft; and her eldest son was killed by a freight train whilst driving his prime mover across a railway line at night. By the end of the decade, Molly had also lost her livelihood, when the Northern Territory government were forced to destroy all her cattle following a brucellosis scare. Molly continued to work on her tourist venture – one of the first of its kind – at Old Andado, which was now her home. From the mid-1990s, she welcomed guests into her 1922 corrugated iron and timber home, set amongst alternate landscapes of flat gibber and giant sand dunes.
In 1993, Molly and supporters in Alice Springs established the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame. In the late 1980’s, Molly had visited the now famous Stockman’s Hall of Fame and, in response, felt the need to establish a museum dedicated to commemorating the contribution and achievements of Australian women. As Molly later said:
I was sick of seeing women forgotten while the men got all the praise. I was backing my husband and I knew hundreds of other women who’d backed theirs all the way through but you never heard what Mrs So-and-so did, it was only what Mr So-and-so did. Well, Mr So-and-so could not have done it without the backing of his wife…My dream is just to see that women were recognised.
Molly’s story is not unusual for the women of Central Australia, and many more of these stories are told in our exhibition, Women at the Heart. The work of local Arrernte and other Aboriginal women, and the friendships between these women and the newcomers is also recognised. Central Australia’s pioneering women, black and white, often transcended narrow, nationally endorsed stereotypes about women’s work. As many an early male commentator noted, the outback could not have been settled without them. In 1929, for example, John William Bleakley, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Queensland, declared:
The lubra … one of the greatest pioneers of the Territories, for without her it would have been impossible for the white man to have carried on ...”
We also recognise Australian women on the land in our exhibition What’s Work Worth? The first objects displayed in this exhibition are a handful of wangurnu seeds (collected by Pulpuru Davies, Gibson Desert, Western Australia in mid-2000) lying on a grinding stone. Aboriginal women throughout Central Australia and the Western Desert worked laboriously at the time-consuming task of finding, grinding and baking seed, and we open our exhibition by acknowledging this work. It has, in fact, been argued that industrialised flour was integral to the colonisation of Central Australia.
We also reference the story of wool in Central Australia, in a cluster of objects which show shears, a washboard and an acetylene lamp. Tom Roberts’ iconic Australian paintings and stories about the important role shearers’ strikes played in the establishment of the Australian Labor Party have masculinised our perceptions of shearing. Local history, however, tells another story. Outback women who spent years working on Centralia’s family owned pastoral properties, often did the shearing as well.
Sheep shears also remind us of the cross-cultural dimensions of a sheep, rather than cattle-based, pastoral industry. Margaret Bain, who described herself as Centralia’s last missionary, was convinced that sheep were much more encouraging of a family centred Aboriginal nomadism than cattle. Sheep, unlike cattle, required close supervision. Local pastoralists, including the missionaries at Ernabella for whom Margaret worked, often employed Aboriginal women as shepherds. Shepherding enabled these Aboriginal women to travel through country with their children, hunting and gathering as they always had. It also enabled them to trade their work for highly prized European goods.
The washboard was donated by Jean Weir (nee Chalmers) and was used on MacDonald Downs station in Central Australia. Like many outback women, Jean Chalmers played an integral role in helping her family drive their 400 sheep, 13 horses and a few goats from the New South Wales-Queensland border to take up a pastoral lease in Central Australia in 1925. The washboard became obsolete when Jean acquired a pump up and down washing machine.
These are just some of the stories of Australian women on the land referenced in our museum. The term “farmer” is not common usage in the Northern Territory and part of our role in the Invisible Farmer project is to bring in stories and perspectives from Central Australia, to show the truly national contribution of women on the land.
We are proud to be a partner in the Invisible Farmer project and look forward to working alongside Arrernte and other Aboriginal women to highlight Indigenous women’s current and future contribution to land management. We will also develop new content relating to women on the land to add to our existing exhibitions and highlight the work of these women in our monthly oral history program, Stories from the Heart. In closing we would like to pay homage to Molly Clark for establishing our museum, and enabling us to capture and celebrate the diversity of women's stories.
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