Sunday, 7 July 2013

Gender in the outback

It is not generally OK to comment, as an outsider, on the habits of a community - and commenting on gender roles is even less acceptable. I have no authority to do so and don't plan to, except to note that, when I think about the much smaller town I left twenty years ago, from my three week experience there, it seems Broken Hill promotes far greater gender equality and tolerates far more sexual diversity than I ever recall seeing in a country town.

Historically, Broken Hill is famous for the social engineering conducted between the mines and the union, which included a ban on employment in town of married women, long after it was acceptable for women to work elsewhere. The idea was that every family in town had work and income and that single women would stay in town, preventing some of the gender imbalances and associated problems seen in other mining towns.

Of the women I met who saw or experienced this, none supported it - though several admitted it did have its benefits for the community. Perhaps especially the male half of the community, however.

I had some really interesting discussions with women and teachers about whether the marriage ban impacted on girls' ambitions in and after school and their approach to their education. And whether, if their mothers had accepted this position, it might still impact on the ambitions of girls today. In our discussions, of course, we could only speculate - finding this out would require a different study.

But what fascinated me most from the conversations I had were the ways women resisted their place, decided for them by the union. The stories abound.

Some women, I was told, chose simply never to get married. Problem solved.

Many women, I was informed, selected nursing or teaching, because they led to employment beyond the union's reach.

But one older woman, Katherine, told me a different story. She did as she was supposed to - finished school, worked in a shop while she was single, married and did not work afterwards.

Except she did. Katherine's passion was in art. She started in cake decorating, then ceramics, then tapestry and painting. Masterful in all these things, she decorated and sold wedding cakes for decades - in fact, I think if there was space in the elderly home where she lives, she would keep doing so. Katherine learned with and taught others, developing and sustaining a rewarding and fulfilling career throughout her life. And no one could stop her.

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