Despite historical claims that the eastern goldfields district of Western Australia was 'a man's world', women have always been part of the Kalgoorlie-Boulder/Karlkurla story. The goldfields area is the land of the Wangkathaa (or Wongutha) people who also describe themselves as Wongai (or Wongi). Because of the arid climate people were traditionally scattered in family groups. Women and girls learned and lived by traditional customs within these scattered groups for thousands of years prior to the arrival of white people. As mining and pastoral settlement pushed into their land Aboriginal people were forced to draw closer to the camps and settlements of the new arrivals. They became a part of town life. White women migrants acknowledged they could not have survived without their help. Mrs Wilhemina Sloss, who arrived in Coolgardie with a two-year old in 1893, remembered with gratitude the help of Aboriginal people in constructing and looking after the family camp in Coolgardie while her husband was away prospecting. [1]

But even if we acknowledge the colour blindness of the early chroniclers of goldfield's life, their inability to see white women in that man's world is perplexing especially as several accounts testify to their presence. 'There are women to be seen everywhere', prospector John Aspinall noted in his diary of Coolgardie in August 1895. [2] Indeed one enterprising salesman was using 'a bevy of charming damsels who perform Tarara Boomdeay and flourish their legs about' to attract potential customers for his wares. [3] Old diggers were heard to mutter that the place was being 'ruined with the invasion of parsons, priests and barmaids'. [4]

Young girls arrived early on the fields, some to work at housekeeping or as barmaids in the hotels that quickly sprang up. Others came with their parents to provide essential services to the diggers (shops, hotels and boarding houses). The first nurses struggled in primitive conditions with an endless supply of patients. One recalled that 'nursing typhoid fever cases in tents was a new experience for us'. [5] Sex workers from many parts of the world also closely followed the diggers, and Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie were well supplied with brothels from the start. And young wives accompanied their digger husbands as families searched for a better life or at least a means of survival, so babies soon joined the new population. [6]

As the population grew, so too did the sense of permanence. The newly gazetted goldfields towns exploded into life as lively, cosmopolitan places to live. Women were important to that process, not only for the labour they provided, but for the role they played in developing social and cultural institutions such as schools, churches, hospitals and welfare associations. And, given that the town's development coincided with the rise of women's suffrage and the debate about federation, the white women of Kalgoorlie-Boulder were not backwards in coming forward to express their political views. Labour politics were very much women's business as well as men's. Furthermore, when two world wars had the effect of clearing the town of men temporarily, Kalgoorlie-Boulder became very much a 'Woman's Town', as women took on 'non-traditional roles to support the war effort. Women working in the mining industry that supports the town still defy pigeon-holing today.

It has not, of course, been all beer a skittles for the women of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. Aboriginal women suffered abuse and discrimination and the new settlements and mining prosperity brought no benefits to them until very recent times. [7] Women were not untouched by the dreadful race riots of 1919 and 1934. Harsh conditions made the lives of early white settlers dangerous and challenging. But they were always there, experiencing it.

Criena Fitzgerald


  1. Western Mail, 10 August 1939, p. 46. Return to text
  2. Diary entry for Tuesday 13 August 1895. A. J. Thompson (compiler), And Some Found Graves. The Goldfields Diary of John Aspinall, Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, 2002, p. 60. Return to text
  3. Aspinall, letter to his sister, 26 August 1895; in Ibid. Return to text
  4. Vera Whittington, Gold and Typhoid. Two Fevers: A Social History of Western Australia 1891-1900, UWAP, 1988, p. 63. Return to text
  5. 'A Goldfields Nurse' [Mrs Margaret Castieau], West Australian, 2 Septempber 1938. Return to text
  6. Norma King, Daughters of Midas. Pioneer Women of the Eastern Goldfields, Business & Professional Women's Club of Kalgoorlie-Boulder & Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, 1988, chs 1-6. Return to text
  7. KCGM, Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management Plan, December 2009. Stephanie Fryer-Smith, AIJA Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Benchbook for Western Australian Courts, Australian Institute of Judicial Administration, 2002, section 4.1.5. Return to text