Eureka to the Great War: women at historic turning points

Posted on December 3, 2013

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Hear the phrase ‘Eureka Stockade’ and chances are you’ll think of burly male miners confronting the local constabulary. But this leaves out half of the participants on the miners’ side of the fence: the women.

It’s the story of these women  that is told in a new book by La Trobe historian Clare Wright, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, published by Text.

Dr Wright reveals in the book that there were thousands of women on the goldfields in the mid 19th century and many of them were active in pivotal roles in the community and ultimately in the Eureka Rebellion.

The book tells the story of some key characters, like actress Sarah Hanmer who established one of Ballarat’s first theatres and played an active role in supporting the miners’ cause.

‘We’ve really remembered the Eureka Stockade as a male-only event,’ says Dr Wright.

‘Male blood was shed, male privileges were won, and all of the players on both sides of the stockade have been treated as an all-male cast. There was never any implication that there might have been a female component to this community in Ballarat.

‘What I’ve tried to do is restore historical authenticity to that time, to that place and to that story.’

Big year for women in history

The publication of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka comes towards the end of a big year for La Trobe historians following on the success of Janet Butler’s Kitty’s War, which won the NSW Premier’s Australian Prize earlier this year. Kitty’s War is based on the diaries of World War I army nurse Kit McNaughton.

Subscription ball in Ballarat by S.T. Gill, 1854 from Dr Wright's book.

Subscription ball in Ballarat by S.T. Gill, 1854 from Dr Wright’s book.

Kitty’s War and The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka share a common theme: both are histories of turning point events in Australia’s past – events that took place in traditionally male domains.

Yet both books tell a story that is quite different from the usual masculine histories of war and mining, revealing that women played a major role in both World War I and the Eureka Rebellion.

La Trobe historians shine

The success of historians at La Trobe has been reflected in the recent announcements of the Australian Research Council grants for 2014.

ARC Future Fellowships were awarded to Dr Tracey Banivanua Mar for her research into Pacific indigenous monarchies and to Dr Ingrid Sykes for her research into New Caledonian biomedicine.

Dr Clare Wright has also received an ARC Future Fellowship for her next project, ‘Red Dirt Dreaming: Re-Imagining the History of Mining in Australia’.

First national history of mining in 50 years

Dr Wright: from Eureaka to 'Red Dirt Dreaming',

Dr Wright: from Eureaka to ‘Red Dirt Dreaming’,

‘Mining has been more vital to Australia’s economic progress than wool, yet no national history of mining has been written for fifty years,’ Dr Wright says.

‘My research is timely, given that mining is at the centre of the Australian consciousness and economy.

‘The project will examine the complex interactions of people, land and governments when it comes to mining, as well as exploring the stories of some historical actors who have been previously left out of the story of Australian mining, notably Aboriginal people, women, ethnic minorities and environmentalists.’ – Suzi Macbeth

Read more

Dr Wright’s book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, has been reviewed widely including in The Guardian and The Age.

Opinion: Flashers, femmes and other forgotten figures of the Eureka Stockade  and Women are central to Australia’s history

You can also listen to a podcast interview with Dr Wright