A wonderful and little known bit of Australian history is the ‘riotous activities’ of the Women’s Brigade of Broken Hill. Formed around 1874 as a result of women being banned for participating in any and all union actions, the Women’s Brigade sought to end strikes for the better of their male counterparts, improve mining conditions (with a focus on lead poisoning) and create better support systems for those who lost family members to mining accidents.
A notice from their first meeting reads:
A number of Broken Hill Women are very anxious to do something towards supporting the men now out on strike and a meeting for women only will be held at the Masonic Hotel tonight, at 7:30.
Notice how it says 'for women only'? That’s because if they weren’t allowed in the men’s unions, they’d be damned if they let men into their Brigade. One man did attempt to attend a meeting dressed in women’s clothing. He was discovered and threatened quite plainly that ‘if the women caught him here again, they would see if they could make a woman of him’.
The ladies of the Women’s Brigade are most fondly remembered for their actions at the Moonta and Wallaroo mines where, after being dismissed from all dialogue and told to ‘go home, pick up your brooms and do what you’re supposed to’, they returned with a force of two hundred women, armed with brooms, mops and buckets of tar. They then beat the miners and occupied the mines for the night. Two were later arrested for trespassing.
The workers were delighted by these actions and from then on the Women’s Brigade became a fixture for all protests, and a source of deep pride for the Broken Hill men.
The November 14th article goes on:
The Women’s Brigade turned out last night, and acted as sentinels and rackets around the Hill. Instead of the historic broom the women carried tarpots for the purpose of branding blacklegs. This morning when the light revealed the women the non union men became afraid to go to work, and those who were at work were afraid to face the women to get back to town. Any of the men who did face the women were dabbed with the tar brush and otherwise assaulted as they passed. The Brigade now numbers 400 members, many of whom took part in tbe famous sweep ing affair at the Moonta and Wallaroo mines 15 years ago. It is understood that the men injured during the Strike by picket-women are to be compensated for the injuries done to them. Among those patting in claim for compensation are Williams, a shift boss in the Proprietary mine, who says he is suffering from injuries received and tar; BuHivan, a boss, who with Beale, another Proprietary man, fell into the hands of the women, and were badly tarred and otherwise injured; John Wilken, badly knocked about; and Walock, engaged on Block 14, roughly handled by male and female pickets, and who is confined to his bed, being unfit for work. Keal, a Proprietary man, has had his home surrounded, and was unable to get out, but he is reported to be uninjured. An orderly mass meeting was held this afternoon, and was attended by a thousand miners. A collection was made, £32105. bung raised to assist the wives of miners in distressed circumstances owing to their husbands being in the hospital.
This is where a lot of groundwork for feminism and equal rights in Australia got started. Mary Gilmore, the first women to join a union, was also from the area, from Silverton just outside of Broken Hill. People from the Hill are very proud, but always surprised to realise that almost no-one else knows about these incredible women.
If you’d like to read more, check out Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History