Woman's Work in Sydney

Randall Bass PhD '91, Assistant Professor of English, Georgetown University

Although the following item from a turn-of-the-century Australian periodical appeared about 40 years later than the setting for Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda, the rhetoric of the following editorial should give some indication of how women in the marketplace were conceptualized in Australia. The editorial also gives a sense of how much better the climate for professional women was in 1900 than earlier in the century. This is just one side of the story, of course. Historically, many women in Australia held an even lower and more subjugated place in the social hierarchy, especially women convicts and immigrant workers in the earlier part of the century.

From The Australasian Financial Adviser, January 8, 1900:

A HAPPY prosperous year to all our numerous readers. The Christmas and New Year holidays are over and past, and 1900, with all its glorious possibilities, is fairly before us. And if anyone should ask me who of all classes have most appreciated the Christmas festivities, I should say--Surely the busy workers in our cities, who throughout the past few months have laboured honestly and well for their enjoyments, the women workers especially. Further than that, if they would like to see some of Sydney's best, bonniest and happiest women and girls, who are certain to have a happy New and cheerful Old Year, let them visit the hives of industry presided over and worked throughout by the capable matrons and beauteous maidens I could tell them about.

In the days of our mothers and grandmothers, teaching was almost the only recognised profession for women; and as for business pursuits, why they were supposed to be unsexed altogether by such bold infringement into the realms sacred to men. And many a good woman groaned out her days in misery at home, and brought up her children in poverty, because prejudice barred her steps from securing independence through her own exertions. That poor creature of the past! How I pity her!

How gladly, if she could resurrect, would she change places with the business woman of today! What a crisp, hopeful, industrious body she is compared with the depressed, don't-care, or can't-help-it heroine that Dickens, Thackeray and many of their contemporaries set before us! Loyalty impregnates the air more thickly than usual at this period, because of our call to arms. It is the most fitting virtue of the hour for our men. But whether there be war or peace, abundance or famine, women should be loyal--aye, thrice as loyal as men. For have we not been emancipated from many states of thraldom during the reign of one of the best women the world has ever seen--Her Most Gracious Majesty, our beloved Queen.

And by no absurd proclamation of woman's rights, or overbearing insolence to men, has she done this--but by so usefully training her own daughters that they are all practical promoters of womanly work instead of limp apathy. And her granddaughters naturally follow the bent of their parents. It may not be generally known, but yet is perfectly true, that each and all of our English Royal ladies have been so practically educated that, either in professions or business, they could all earn their own living. Each has her pet hobby or forte, from the Princess of Wales down; and she, who will some day be the first lady in the Kingdom, could earn a splendid income in two or three ways.

Before the time when the Queen first, and, secondly, the Princess of Wales, exemplified so nobly the end and aim of woman's life, it might have been considered the correct idea for men to work and women to be useless and wholly dependent. But education and enlightenment have changed every condition of our lives for the better, and made a purer and nobler race of our mothers and sisters, because well-directed energies have made us more industrious, and widened our sympathies. That poor unemployed lady of the past thought it a grand idea to look fragile, to enlist pity, to languish in a constant state of discontent.

And her children? Of course they inherited apathy and all its horrors, and were left to the care of servants, or had to look after themselves, with not stamina enough to withstand sickness or cope with difficulties. What a wrong for any woman to do to her offspring! Yet many erred through ignorance. Nowadays it is one of the most cheering features that our women rejoice to be well, and delight in open-air exercise, with pleasant companions, rather than the secluded enjoyments of indoor life.

Apart from the many higher professions which engage the feminine mind to-day, I would like to call attention to the influence for good our business women of Sydney alone exercise. The repeated and steady successes they have made, tell their own tale. Our advertising columns testify to this fact, and also to the diversity of occupations by which women are catering, not only for the requirements of their own sex, but for the additional comfort of men. And foremost among big businesses capably handled by women, I must mention some of our important city hotels. There is the Globe, King Street; the Flower Pot, York Street; Cosmopolitan, Clarence and Erskine Streets; the Great Northern, George and Grosvenor Streets; besides many others, all as well and profitably conducted as if men were guiding their separate helms. And the management of such large establishments must be a great tax upon a woman's ability and good judgment. She must be far more clever and patient than the average of her sex to accomplish so much.

But women, we find, have no less suitably chosen their occupation in Registry Offices. Who should know so well as a woman the requirements of a home. And, because for the convenience of our country subscribers we wish our Journal to take the form of a directory, we should like to call our readers to some of our best City Registry Offices. The Standard, of 205 Castlereagh Street, is a very old-estabilshed business, and the genial proprietress makes a special feature of the various requirements of country cutomers; while Mrs. Spalding, 26 Elizabeth Street, seems to be more in touch with the needs of the fashionable residents of our best suburbs.

Further on we find Miss Swan, at 66 Elizabeth Street. This charming young lady, who was formerly connected with a large and oldestablished office, has launched out for herself, with true courage, and so great has been her success that her business will soon compel her to move to more commodious premises. She is a good example of how a bright manner and true rectitude are woman's passports to success. We find the Amazon Agency presided over by two exceptionally nice women, mother and daughter--Mrs. and Miss Sparkes. May their business soon be as brisk and bright as their name. For without a doubt they are at a good quarter for customers to be numerous.

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