The attributes of the modern Hellenic woman: Are we similar or different to our predecessors?

The following speech was given to the Hellenic Lyceum of Sydney’s symposium “Lifting the veil — challenging the stereotype of the Hellenic woman throughout history” on Saturday 9 April 2016.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I’d also like to acknowledge the many outstanding Hellenic women here today. In particular I’d like to acknowledge Kathy Liogas-Stojanovic, President of the Hellenic Lyceum; and Nia Karteris, Chair of the Greek Festival of Sydney. Kathy and Nia are amazing women who make a phenomenal contribution to our community.

There is a stereotype of the ‘good Hellenic woman’.

Often, she is depicted as humble, meek and submissive. She is depicted as being focused on household responsibilities and duties of childrearing.

While those responsibilities are incredibly important, they are often undervalued relative to the contributions traditionally made by men in the public sphere.

The stereotype of a humble and submissive Hellenic woman is a powerful one. It informs how women are seen by those both within and outside Hellenic culture. It is a powerful stereotype which informs how we see ourselves.

It is my belief that the stereotype of Hellenic women as meek and submissive is inaccurate.

Not only does this stereotype fail to reconcile with the reality of Hellenic women in Australia today, it also does not match the reality of Hellenic women throughout Australian history.

Far from being meek and submissive, Hellenic women have been pioneers, entrepreneurs and leaders in diverse fields such as medicine, journalism, finance, science and community welfare.

Modern Hellenic women can be proud to say that we follow in the footsteps of those who came before us. We are masters of our own fate and we are proud to make exceptional contributions throughout Australian society.

When people think of the first Greek-Australian women, many will think of the proxy brides — the Greek women who came to Australia as wives for Greek male migrants following World War II.

However, Greek women had actually been a part of Australian society for more than a century at that point.

The first Greek woman to come to Australia arrived in 1835.

Katherine Crummer — born Aikaterini Georgia Plessa — was the wife of British Army Officer Captain James Henry Crummer — who she met while he was stationed on the British occupied Ionian Islands.

She was followed by Countess Diamantina Roma, the wife of Queensland’s first Governor Sir George Bowen.

Far from being meek or submissive, Diamantina Roma was an active philanthropist in this frontier colony at the edge of the world.

Indeed, her activism was so widely appreciated that the town of Roma in south west Queensland — as well as Roma Street and Roma Street Station in Brisbane — were named in her honour.

The pioneering spirit of Greek women was not confined to the wives of British colonial officials.

Greek women were also participants in the 19th Century Gold Rushes. Colonial Victoria’s census from 1871 records twenty-five women who were members of the Greek Orthodox Church living on the goldfields.

In NSW, colonial records show there were more than forty Greek women living on the goldfields near Hill End.

Many of these women were the daughters of Greek migrants — and one of them — Orea Emma Hellas Moustaka — became the first graduate of Greek background (male or female) when she graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts in 1897.

The commitment of Greek-Australian women to education is an enduring theme throughout our history.

For example, in 1947 Anna Grigoriadis became the first Greek woman to practice medicine in Australia when she graduated from Sydney University with a medical degree.

She was followed by her younger sister Elizabeth, who also graduated with a medical degree in 1952.

The 1940s saw Hellenic women take up military service in defence of Australia during World War II.

At least twenty-six Hellenic women joined branches of Australia’s armed forces. Among them were:

  • Private Barbara Kollias, who served in the Australian Women’s Army Service;
  • Private Elma Mary Cannis, who served in the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service;
  • Martina Crithary, Betty Joyce Krokos, Joyce Lucas and Olga Agnes Politis who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force; and
  • Rita Joan Svokos, who served as a Stewardess of the HMAS Rushcutter in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service.

These exceptional women not only contributed to the Australian war effort, they also strengthened the enduring bond between Australia and Greece arising from our shared military histories — a bond which began on the Island of Lemnos in 1915 and continued through the Battle of Crete in 1941.

In the post-war years, we associate Greek women in Australia with the migration of the ‘proxy brides’ — women who came to this country betrothed to the Greek men who had arrived during Australia’s great post-war migration.

Perhaps this is where the stereotype of a meek and submissive Greek woman comes from, since cultural and language barriers left many of these women socially and economically isolated at home in their new country.

Yet when I think about these women — of whom my mother was one — I think about the enormous bravery and strength which they had.

These women took a great risk to come to Australia. They could not know what to expect, but they came anyway — hoping for a better life.

Once here, they the not only fulfilled the domestic responsibilities that were expected of them within the household, they also began building a vibrant Greek community within Australia.

Many Greek-Australians today would recognise the important role that their mothers played promoting the importance of education, as well as passing on our language and cultural traditions.

Similar, Greek women in the post-war years were active in building up organisations that now embody our community — such as the Hellenic Lyceum, which was founded in 1951.

In the post-war years, many Greek women also played an active role in making family businesses sucessful.

One woman — Mary Dakas — took over her husband’s business in the staunchly male pearl industry, and ended up operating four boats out of Broome and Port Hedland.

Just as the people of Brisbane named Roma Street to recognise the contribution made by Diamantina Roma, the people of Broome named Dakas Street after Mary Dakas to honour her strength and determination.

The history of strong and successful Greek women in Australia is a story which is continued today.

We can see it in Lydia Lassila who won a Gold Medal for Australia at 2010 Winter Olympics.

We can see the strength of Greek women in Antigone Kefala — one of Australia’s leading poets.

We can also see it in Mary Kalantzis — who came to Australia aged four with her two Greek parents.

While Mary was unable to speak English when she first went to school, she went on to become a leading expert in teaching English as a second language. She is now a world-leading academic as the Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois.

These are just some of the many, many stories of successful Greek women in Australia.

For almost 200 years, Greek women have been in Australia contributing to our nation.

Far from the stereotype of being meek and submissive — Greek women are leaders in fields as diverse as business, politics, media, sports and the arts.

In closing, I’d like to acknowledge the exceptional scholarship of Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis from Macquarie University.

Their outstanding research into the history of the Greek community in Australia provided much of the information which I have spoken about today — and I strongly recommend everyone check out their new book on the history of Greek Cafés and Milk Bars in Australia!

I am also indebted to Steve Kyritsis for his research on Greek Australians in the Australian Armed Forces.

It is clear that Greek women in Australia have a history which we can be proud of.

There are still challenges which confront women from diverse backgrounds today.

Women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are under-represented in management and boardroom positions within the corporate sector, as well as being under-represented in academia, the public sector and the judiciary.

We must continue to work together to increase the number of women from diverse backgrounds in these roles.

As we work together for a better future, we can take pride in the strength of those who came before us.

The Hellenic women who have can before us were strong, enterprising, resilient and determined — all qualities which Hellenic women continue to embody today.

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