This paper examines how the women of Broken Hill in 1910 found their voice in a correspondence column run by “Madge” in the local labour daily paper, the Barrier Daily Truth. It follows the rise of the women’s page in the Truth and its role in the lives of women on the Barrier. Their letters reveal much about the living conditions and political aspirations of women in the town at that time.
In 1910 the women’s column of the Barrier Daily Truth welcomed the New Year: “Here in Broken Hill, with the cruel hand of Capitalism bearing oppressively heavy upon us, here happiness is out of the question…Unemployment, and the Water Famine…wind and dust…Would it not…dishearten a stone?” (8 January, 1910)1
In 1910 Broken Hill was a man’s town, 55 per cent of the residents were men2. Many of them were drifters who came for the work and stayed in the pubs or one of the little boarding houses run by widows around every corner. Some of them were young men, newly married and just setting out. They bought with them the girl who was last week their sweetheart and this week their wife. Some were men who would always tear at the earth—experienced miners from England and Wales, Kalgoorlie and the Transvaal. Their families travelled the line of the lode with them, women who had learnt to interleave their lives between folds of damask in an old tin trunk. A few of the men had lived in the town all their lives, boys suckled on silver milk and socialism and dreams of when they would go down the mine.
In 1910 the women of the Barrier waited. Around the town through all the day and every night they waited. They waited hand and foot and they waited with their breath for the warning siren from the mine. Daughters, mothers, sisters, lovers, friends, whores and wives: they waited. Widows muffled their ears and withdrew behind moats in their eyes. Strangers noticed the silence of the town, women did not sing about the house, mothers hushed their children and swept the dust softly aside.
In Broken Hill in 1910 there came a place for silent women to speak. “Woman’s Sphere” was a correspondence column in the local labour daily—not an agony column, not a recipe page, not a bulletin board, though sometimes it was all of these—it was more: it was a quiet speaking, a chance for women to act in character behind a pseudonym. In “Woman’s Sphere” the women of the Barrier became the cast of their own epistolary play lived out behind the tin walls of humpies, the cheap timber and canvas homes of the city and its surrounds. The leading voice of this dumb choir belonged to “Madge” their editor.
Established in 1897 the Barrier Truth became a daily in 1908. It was the first union controlled daily newspaper in the English speaking world. It still runs today, making it also the longest running. There had been previous attempts to integrate a women’s column into the Truth. The first was “Women’s World” edited by “Comrade Eth”—Ethel Ross the wife of Robert Samuel Ross who joined the paper as editor in 1903.
But Comrade Eth’s time was short. In less than two years her husband was voted off the paper for revolutionary tendencies and, naturally, she went too. “Women’s World” was followed by a column of another kind: the aptly titled “A Woman’s Gossip” edited by “Dorothy”. What can I say about Dorothy? She had a kind of politics—of a querulous kind, but her passion was clothes. A snippet from her on the defection of a local labour alderman should suffice:
Oh, dear, wherever I go I hear nothing but Devitt and how he has ratted. That word is a horrible one. I seem to shudder whenever I hear it. It makes a kind of creepy feeling come over me. Why do men do such things? I wish that I were a man I should let Mr. Devitt know what I think of him. I should give him a piece of my mind, sure. Yet, being a poor, weak woman, as you men call us, what can I do? 9 March, 1906
There were, of course, women in the town who knew exactly what Dorothy could do, and before the year was out she was replaced by a promising, but short lived, correspondence and chat column, “For Women Only”, edited by “Annie Maria”. A few of the correspondents who later wrote to Madge began writing at this time. However, Annie Maria left town in October 1907 leaving a gap in the paper and correspondence unanswered. To deal with this situation a new column appeared under the title of “Woman’s Sphere”.
The title had some history in the Truth. In 1905 there had been a series of correspondence under the heading of “Woman’s Sphere” between the editor Bob Ross and a person using the pen-name of “A Lady Friend” who argued women had no place in politics.
I can’t see that it is a woman’s place to be pottering around and dabbling in this sort of thing. Her place is home— that is where she can help her husband, by keeping his home bright and cheerful and the children neat and in order— and she will find that her time is fully taken up.…I think that’s more a woman’s sphere than the platform.
5 August, 1905
To which Ross replied,
Here is a lady writhing to TRUTH of all papers bemoaning her sex’s partial emancipation!…We are told that a woman’s place is home. What of it?—isn’t a man’s place also the home. If it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?…It is a woman’s DUTY to think and to study—by what right, doing neither, does she make bold to undertake the tremendous responsibility of creating life?…Where thinking is absent, where study is absent, there will be found savagery and slavery; there will be found woman restricted to “the home” of her lord and master, owned and degraded by him to the beast level.…Aren’t you aware that in this question of politics is bound up everything that matters to woman— salvation, sickness, sweating, education, marriage, employment, everything! There is nothing politics does not reach.
5 August, 1905
The Australian Woman’s Sphere had also been the title of a suffrage journal edited by Vida Goldstein which adopted the motto: “I am a human being, and I believe nothing human is outside my sphere.”3
The Truth’s women’s page also had a debt to the notable tradition of women’s correspondence columns in Australian left wing publications. Louisa Lawson’s The Dawn is well known. Begun in 1888 the journal dispensed household advice along with feminist articles. Correspondents were answered by Lawson herself. In other labour papers there were a variety of approaches to the woman’s page and most of them sought correspondence from their readers, though with varying success. Mary Gilmore in the ambiguously named “Our Women’s Page” of the Sydney Worker, had a steady stream of letters which she answered in the column.
The Truth’s “Woman’s Sphere”, at first edited by an anonymous “Lady Editor”, opened with an appeal for letters:
We need short, bright letters dealing with every subject of interest to women…
The grave, the gay, and the political will all have their place…nothing will be beneath our notice, nothing will be too great or grand for us to wrestle with.
16 October, 1908
In February 1909 Madge took the by-line to the column. Madge is, of course, a pseudonym, all the names of writers in “Woman’s Sphere” are. In this the column is not unique, but follows in a tradition which can be traced back to 1691 and the first advice column established by that great uncle of all agony aunts, John Dunton of the Athenian Gazette.4
The use of pen names was strictly adhered to by Madge. If a letter came with only the writer’s real name upon it then Madge would assign a name to that writer. On the other hand, like most editors, she would not publish a letter without the writer’s full identity being known to her, and occasionally notices appear to that effect. While state and national women’s column’s, such as Mary Gilmore’s, published real names, initials and pseudonyms, it may have been felt that in a close knit country community, such as Broken Hill, anonymity was necessary for an uncensored dialogue to flow. Some of the women did come to know each other outside the column—friendships and committees were formed—but the frank quality of some of the letters suggests a freedom which comes from being able to speak without consequences. Unmasked their bravado might have been lost. While the need to cover identities must reflect on the submergence of women in society, enforced anonymity also provided an avenue of liberation.
Madge’s immediate antecedent may have been the acid tongued “Madge”, “doyenne of society commentators”, who wrote a column for an English radical paper also named the Truth, published in the 1880s. While not making any claims to a shared identity, it is interesting to note they both have the same habit of using rhetorical questioning tags, such as “Don’t you think so?”, to include the reader.5
Having taken over the column Madge emphasised the door was open to the women readers of the Barrier Daily Truth.
This column has been placed at the disposal of the women of Broken Hill, and it is their’s to either make or mar…I know the average working woman of the Barrier has not too much time…but surely a moment…can be spared to drop a line or two occasionally.
22 January, 1910
Madge urged, grumbled, sulked and cajoled her readers to write and slowly, in a trickle at first and then a flood, the letters came.
Why did the women write? They wrote for many reasons. Some, like “Marguerite”, wrote because they were staunch labour women who were outraged by what they saw about them:
Dear Madge—My blood fairly boiled when reading “Truth” this morning to see that a poor worker murdered his wife and four children and committed suicide because he could not get work to provide food for his family, and then to read about all the money that has been spent on a lot of useless trappings and show for the death of the late King.…Oh, the bitterness of it! While hundreds are starving in our midst, many of the poor workers are mangled and killed, and the shops would not close their doors for an hour in sympathy…MARGUERITE
28 May, 1910
Marguerite’s letters are quick and reactive. She is one of the few women you suspect would have written anyhow— without anonymity, without a special women’s forum, without fear. Marguerite is not just a talker she is a doer. She is the principal breadwinner for her family and politically active. In her first letter (21 May, 1910) she informs the readers of the formation of the Barrier Women’s Political Labor League, which not only attended to the necessary politics of professionalising the demands of women, but also responded to the immediate and practical needs of women in the town.
The rise of political activity by local women is parallelled and, perhaps, linked to the success of Madge’s column. Where at the beginning of the year mining families were still struggling to recover from the strike of 1909, as the months roll by the women become noticeably more involved and vocal in the public sphere. As well as the activities centred around the Women’s Political Labor League, there are often references in “Woman’s Sphere” to a scheme suggested by Madge to raise funds for a Children’s Ward in the local hospital. 1910 was also an election year and Madge especially does not miss the chance to urge women to get on the rolls and vote. By October there is general jubilation over Labor’s win.
If Marguerite’s letters often have something of the flavour of propaganda about them it is because she writes to make her readers think. Her outbursts are part of a thread in the letters which is found most explicitly in “Would-Be-Helper” who wrote equally outraged missives on topical issues of the day, but with a more clearly educative purpose to them. Her letters show great insight into events surrounding the upcoming war and a proper socialist sensibility of economics, but the one I wish to read addresses the poverty of those around her.
Dear Madge—In my walks abroad, I am often struck by the hard, careworn faces of so many of our sisters on the Barrier, and my heart goes out to them, as I wonder what has brought such lines of care. What poverty, hardship, and sorrow, possibly also neglect, must be responsible for such a change; and one wonders sadly if, perhaps, their own want of knowledge has helped to make them hard and careworn. Poverty is hard for the men; but I think very few of them realise how much harder it is for their wives, who all day long, and day after day, month after month, are reminded in every thing their hands touch of the cruel limitations of poverty, as they note the signs of wear and tear on needful garments and other things, and know not where the means to replace them is to be found. WOULD-BE- HELPER
16 April, 1910
As is often the case with Would-Be-Helper, she goes on to recommend books which would alleviate the ignorance of women and help them make choices which might save them from such a life.
By mid year the flow of letters to the column had reached a steady trickle which still occasionally left a column without letters and Madge grumbling in their absence. In May, however, she hit upon a scheme which made the popularity of the column soar. With the enthusiastic support of the Truth’s editor a recipe competition was held, and following its success more were conducted in its wake.
Even behind a pseudonym some of the women are clearly shy about sending a letter which would appear in print. Their own right to write is only dimly acknowledged; often there are little sign offs where correspondents indicate Madge should cut their letter if it is too long or unimportant. This despite Madge’s constant pleas for letters. The recipe competition at once gave any woman on the Hill a legitimate reason for writing in. Fifteen new correspondents wrote enclosing a recipe in the first few weeks. The competition also gave the writers of the column a common ground, as recipes were offered and discussed in a fall back conversation as comfortable as the weather. In reading these letters one gradually realises that every single new correspondent enters the conversation with some useful contribution or advice—if not a recipe, then a cure for whooping cough, or to notify the readers of an upcoming meeting. There is one notable exception to this, and I will come to it later, but as a rule it is true—practical advice was the common language of the correspondents of “Woman’s Sphere”.
There has been a tendency to approach this practical function in labour women’s column’s, such as that run by Mary Gilmore in the Worker, as a cover to get readers interested in social issues.6 But a feminine cringe is unnecessary; there is no shame in dispensing the practical advice needed to run a home to women isolated from their families and friends. Conducting an efficient home was the work of women at this time, like any other profession there was a need for training, a mutual advantage in swapping experiences, and pleasure in the acknowledgement of excellence by one’s peers. In the midst of poverty and a high infant mortality rate some of this advice was life saving, and most of it at least added to the comfort of otherwise comfortless lives.7
“Windorah” was one of those who first wrote to submit a recipe, she outlines better than I the necessary function of advice to such women.
Dear Madge—…I do not see any letters from the bush, so I thought I would drop a line and a suggestion for a competition. To my fancy a few suggestions on the treatment of children’s ailments would not be amiss, especially to us poor bush wives, with a family of little ones and lean pockets. I mean simple treatments which have been tried by mothers with success. We all know—we mothers—that at certain times we cannot do without doctors; but doctors, as a rule, are no good with babies. I have a family of seven living children, and I am happy to say they are a strong, healthy lot. I have only had a doctor to one of them in their lives…The one I brought the doctor to, a fine sturdy boy, 12 months old, lies buried in a far-off grave…My eldest is 14 years and youngest 19 months…. I will send you my cure for croup…Hoping some other mother will try it before the doctor can get there, and a save a little life.—I remain, your new friend, WINDORAH.
4 June, 1910
Windorah quickly became a favourite and her letters are often mentioned by other writers. She gives us insight into the implications of poverty and isolation in the homes surrounding the Barrier.
Dear Madge—My nearest neighbour is six miles away from me. We see one another but very seldom, but with it all I would not exchange for the town…We had a travelling school here for 12 months, one week in the month. It was not much, but since I shifted down here they have taken even that small amount away; their excuse was no accommodation. Well, Madge, as you know, if you have been in the bush, a good shed lined with bags and a good tent is a good house anywhere, but our Government says you must build to their pleasure…(25 June, 1910) Well, I must get on…I see by our columns of the 16th instant that “Marguerite” would send me some fancy work patterns if I sent my address to “Truth.” I enclose it, if “Marguerite” would be so kind…and it is not putting her to any trouble. WINDORAH
30 June, 1910
Here we see one of the many friendships that started up through the column, sometimes through an offer of help, and occasionally at the suggestion of Madge herself. In this instance the worldly, practical Marguerite was able to not only help Windorah in the small concerns of fancywork patterns, but also by framing a resolution to be sent to the annual conference of the Political Labor League demanding the immediate resumption of bush schools by the party which was then in power.
Another young contributor who joined the column at the time of the recipe competition was “Babs”. Her tragic story emerged over the next few months in a short series of letters.
Dear Madge—I have been going to write to the Woman’s Sphere for a long time.…You said you wanted to know about ourselves. My age is 16 years, and I am housekeeping for my father and three brothers and one younger sister, aged 7 years. My mother died two years ago…Dad tried two housekeepers, but somehow they did not suit, so they had to call on me. I was learning dressmaking, and have only been home six months. I am sending a recipe. I found it in my mother’s cookery book, and it is very nice, but I do not know where it came from…BABS
24 September, 1910
Dear Madge—…I tried my hand at washing on Monday, but I am too short to hang sheets or counterpanes on the line. I have to let the line down so low, and then the ends get in the dirt. Just as I was struggling with a counterpane my brother came home, and now he says he is not going to pay any board this week, as he had to come home to do the washing. Dear Madge, you must not give me too much praise, as my dear mother was ailing for four years before she was taken from us, and during that time she taught me how to keep house, so that I was not quite a new chum. Oh Madge, I often think if I only had my dear old mum how different things would be. I always look for “Windorah”’s letter, and I hope there will be one for this issue, and that she is quite well again. I remain, yours truly, BABS
15 October, 1910
There were only three letters from Babs. Her story is taken up a friend, Lily, who writes to inform Madge that Babs is ill, suffering from fits, “She is very determined, and she never cries.” Lily writes again to say Babs has been taken to Adelaide, and finally a letter comes with “the sad news that dear little ‘Babs’” has died. (12 November, 26 November,17 December, 1910)
The death of Babs bought a scurry of condolences from the writers of the column. Somehow their awfully ordinary platitudes do not seem enough. It is only when you realise that phrases such as “happy is the child taken when a child” are not commonplace murmurings, but hard won beliefs that the quality of their grief starts to make sense. I said there was only one case where a new writer did not offer or seek practical advice. On Christmas Eve the last of the new contributors to “Woman’s Sphere” that year wrote only to console, moved at last to the action of writing by this small tragedy.
Dear Madge—I have long thought of writing to you, and at last I make a start. I was sorry to read of the death of little “Babs”. I always read her letters, as I also was left without a mother at the age of 12, and I had a baby brother 6 weeks old to look after; so I know a little of the worries of home without mother. My youngest sister died thirteen years ago. Christmas Day was her birthday. We were broken-hearted, but I do not wish her back to this wicked world again. I hope “Bab’s” friend, “Lily” and father will be comforted with the thought that God knew best what was before her, and saw fit to take her while she was ready to go. I must now close. Wishing you A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year. Yours truly, LILL
24 December, 1910
And so the year ended as bleakly as it begun. In her last column for 1910 (24 December, 1910) Madge asks, “Do you like looking back over the past and thinking of all those little life dramas and tragedies that have been enacted on your own life’s little stage? Ofttimes I find myself musing over the “what-might-have-beens.” After a hard day at the washtub, or mayhap after a vigorous day spent in removing the traces of the last duststorm, and when aching limbs and tired feet cry out for a rest, it is good to sit and ponder o’er the past.” She reflects on the joys of the year, the “pleasant thoughts [that] crowd the brain”, and the tragedies that “bedim the eyes.” But something has lifted from Madge. In action there is hope, and 1910 was a year of action for the women of Broken Hill -they formed their own political league, they raised funds for a Children’s Ward, they elected a Labor government. Perhaps most of all they found again their voice and Madge is hopeful. “Surely, sisters,” she writes, “the coming year promises big things for us. Labor (sweet-sounding word) is coming into its own, and slowly but surely the toilers of our own bonny land are having their living conditions made a little brighter. We are going to strive to accomplish big things in the coming year, aren’t we?…You will help me in the year now dawning, won’t you? And now, sisters mine, I wish you one and all, and all your dear ones A Happy and a Prosperous New Year.”
1 All quotes appearing with dates are from the Barrier Daily Truth (known as the Barrier Truth until November 1908). Author’s names will appear within the text.
2 As at 2 April, 1911 the population of Broken Hill and surrounding areas consisted of 16 921 males and 14 051 females, making a total population of 30 972. John B. Trivett, The New South Wales State Register for 1912, Government Printer, 1914, p. 1110.
3 Vida Goldstein, editor, The Australian Woman’s Sphere, 1900-1905. The quote is attributed to Terence.
4 Robin Kent, Aunt Agony Advises. Problem Pages Through the Ages, WH Allen, London, 1979, pp. 1-7; Kathryn Shevelow, Women and Print Culture. The construction of feminity in the early periodical, Routledge, London, 1989, pp. 71-74.
5 Robin Ken, ibid.
6 Sharyn Pearce, Shameless Scribblers. Australian Women’s Journalism 1880-1995, Central Queensland University Press, 1998, 43-44.
7 The state infant mortality rate for 1910 was 74.6 per thousand in the first year alone. John Trivett, The NSW State Register, op cit, p. 94.