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History > General History > Greek-Australian Women. In Her Own Image: Exhibition by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski.

History > General History

submitted by George Poulos on 09.12.2004

Greek-Australian Women. In Her Own Image: Exhibition by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski.


Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski investigate the historical and contemporary Greek-Australian female presence a subject that has unfortunately not received the attention it should.

Greek women have been settling in Australia since at least 1835. Their stories, filled with successes, failures, hopes and dreams - of an Australia of challenges, a Greece of memory and a faith in the unfolding of a potentially unlimited future - have often been submerged under the voices of their male counterparts. Certainly, Greek migration to and settlement in Australia until the late 1950's and early 1960's was overwhelmingly male in terms of numbers.

Yet, those Greek women who did arrive before this time few in number as they were equally provide strong evidence of pioneering purpose.

Significantly, the social status of two early Greek female arrivals contrasted sharply to the Greek men, who arrived principally as convicts, sailors or gold-seekers. Katherine Crummer (nee Akaterini Plessa) arrived in 1835 as the wife of a British army officer, Captain James Henry Crummer, who went on to hold various important positions in the colony of NSW, including Chief Magistrate in Newcastle. Katherine was the first confirmed Greek woman to settle in Australia.

In 1859, Countess Diamantina Roma, of Venetian-Greek descent, arrived as the wife of Queenslandπs first Governor, Sir George Bowen. Bowen later became Governor of Victoria. Diamantinaπs philanthropic work became widely applauded and her name is still celebrated through place names: Roma Street, Lady Bowen Park and Roma Street Station in Brisbane; Diamantina River and the town of Roma in Queensland; and Diamantina Falls in Victoria. [See a number of separate entries at kythera-family, by searching under Roma].

During the gold-rush era (1850's-1880's) a few Greek women have been noted toiling on the gold fields of NSW and Victoria. With chain-migration of the 1890's and early 1900's and with Greek men finding more stable income particularly in food catering trades the number of Greek women in Australia gently increased.

Greek men at this time often married women of British background, but those more concerned with maintaining Greek values and tradition opted to return to Greece, marry and then re-migrate with their bride.

This period also witnessed Australiaπs first graduate of Greek background: a women - Orea Emma Hellas Moustaka, who graduated from Sydney University in 1897.

The early twentieth century saw the small number of Greek women in Australiaπs major urban centers banding together and forming Hellenic social groups and organizations. Antigone Krizos (nee Dimissa) for example, utilizing her good education and middle class background, assist in establishing the Melbourne Greek Women's Society. In 1917, as President of the Society, she instigated the staging of her husband's play - translated as The Inconsiderate Guest or the Uninvited Visitor in aid of the Greek War Orphans' Relief Fund (World War I). The play is considered to be the earliest written by a Greek settler in Australia and its staging by Antigone was the inaugural public performance.

Formal Greek womenπs societies were also constituted in Perth (1926), Sydney (1929), Brisbane (1931) and Adelaide (1937).

The creation of such social and cultural networks by Greek-Australian women also assisted in regard to family responsibilities. In an alien, host society, without their mothers to help domestically, particularly with childcare, they had to rely heavily upon each other; generally, the mothers of early Greek-Australian migrant women had no intention of departing Greece with their daughters and Australian immigration policy was not focused towards family migration. For the early generations of Greek-Australian women, picnics and other social and cultural gatherings were a much welcomed respite from the general isolation they experienced: their numbers were few, their family and work responsibilities great, their relationships with non-Greek women limited, and their interaction with non-Greek men for reasons other than business or neighbourly hellos, excluded.

Many Greek women during the first-half of the twentieth century worked in family-run Greek cafe's. The preparation of cafe meals, washing up and cleaning for many long, hard and monotonous hours was followed by the running of the household and caring for their childrenπs comfort, well-being, and the instilling of Greek spiritual and cultural values.

Some Greek-Australian women though broke out of this mould. Mary Dakas (nee Paspalis), for example, became Australiaπs only Greek female pearl lugger operator. A Dakas Street exists in Broome today as a tribute to this unique Greek-Australian pioneer pearler. She has been described as a fascinating lady of a very strong character because to take over the running of the luggers as she did, was against all the conventions of a staunchly male dominated Australian pearl shell industry and a very class conscious Broome of the 40's and 50's.

The Likiard (Likiardopolous) sisters became champion swimmers and divers during the late 1930's and 1940's. Stavroula Catherine Likkiard held the Victorian and Australian Springboard and Tower Diving Championships for a number of years, and at the time was the only women diver in Australia able to handle the one and a half somersault dive from the three-metre board.

The pattern of men greatly outnumbering women in Greek migration to Australia persisted until the late 1950's. Even with the initial post-war migration boom, between mid-1953 and mid-1956, Greek male assisted migrantsπ exceeded Greek female assisted migrantsπ by five to one. Many of those single Greek women who were left behind would wait and hope that someone amongst the men who had migrated from her village would remember her and propose marriage.

In 1956, a program commenced to redress the imbalance. Single Greek women were trained in Athens for domestic work in Australia, as well as being taught English. Like other assisted migrants, they were contracted for two years to the Australian Government, which would find them suitable employment. Interestingly, the Australian Governmentπs scheme also provided a means, though unwittingly so, for single Greek women to extricate themselves from the burden of the traditional dowry system. Between 1957 and 1963, more Greek females than males arrived in Australia, most though, it appears, as privately sponsored migrants, rather than assisted. With migrant ships carrying large numbers of single Greek women to Australia, many as prospective brides for Greek men, the vessels became known as bride ships.

Of course, proxy engagement agreements became common. But, not all promised brides were happy with their betrothed husbands after meeting them in Australia. Some chose to break agreements and placed their destinies in a new land solely into their own hands, a point well developed in Theodore Patrikarea's 1963 play Throw Away Your Harmonica. Pepino, which was later produced as a film (Greek title My name Is Antigone, English title The Promised Woman); the play has now acquired the title, The Promised Woman.

Occupations entered by post-World War II Greek female arrivals included: factory work; machinists; food catering (particularly in cafÈs, milk bars and fish and chip shops); cleaners; teachers in Greek afternoon schools; and for those with a good formal education and a firm grasp of English, employment as translators and public servants.

The era also evidenced the first nun to be ordained in the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia: Sister Kaliniki (Coralia Stavropoulos, nee Christides), who took her vows in 1971.

Similar to male post-war migration, Greek women were originating from all areas of their homeland, and assisted in numerically swamping, over time, the prominent traditional chains of migration from Kythera, Ithaca and Kastellorizo. Moreover, unlike earlier Greek female arrivals, many post-war Greek women were conscious that they were not simply migrating to Australia, but to a country with well-established Greek communities. This assisted in some degree to lessen the social and cultural dislocation experienced through the process of migration and settlement, particularly for those who settled in centres that possessed a significant Greek-Australian presence. Greek women could have their hair done at Greek hairdressers, buy goods at Greek-run shops, attend Greek Orthodox church services, and catch up on news through Greek language newspapers, Greek women's groups, and even acquire both food and entertainment items from Greek import shops.

The female offspring of post-World War II Greek settlers have generally benefited, along with the boys, from their parentsπ migration. According to a 1995 report by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, Melbourne, the children of post-war Greek migrants were high achievers in education and work, and gained better qualifications than their peers whose parents were born in Australia, Britain, Ireland or western Europe. With education being given a high priority for both Greek-Australian males and females in the second-half of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that Australian professional fields feature names such as: Ana Kokkinos (film-maker), Mary Kalantzis (academic), Maria Vamvakinou (politician), Mary Coustas (actor), Fotini Epanomitis (writer), Stella Moraitis (barrister), Zoe Carides (actor), Mary Kostakidis (TV newsreader/personality), Kay Pavlou (film-maker), Vasso Kalamaras (writer), Vicki Varvaressos (artist), Victoria Trantafyllou (fashion designer), Tess Lysiotis (playwright), Elizabeth Gertsakis (artist/writer/curator), Agape Stratigis (pharmaceutical marketing), Despina Mouratides (psychiatrist), Mary Zournazi (writer/philosopher/broadcaster) and Marilynne Paspaley (actor/company director).

Despite this, the limited public stereotype of the black-clad Greek-Australian woman persists.

G. Bottomley; Centre for Population and Urban Research, Monash University; Crosson family; H. Glichrist; G. Kanarakis; M. Krizos; S. Kunek, Y. McBurney; M. P. Tsounis; G. Tsolidis; and the In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project Archives, Macquarie University, Sydney.

In Their Own Image: Greek Australians
National Research Project and Archives
Department of Modern History,
Macquarie University. NSW. 2109.

Ph: 02 9850 6886.
Fax: 02 9850 6594


The picture gallery can be accessed at:

An internal search on kythera-family, under Alexakis, or Janiszewski, will reveal numerous other entries by, and about these two very committed researchers.

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