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HomeVolume 27Alice Springs women movers & shakers

Alice Springs women movers & shakers

By CATHERINE BISHOP

Alice Springs is a hotbed of female entrepreneurs, its history boasting more than 200 businesswomen.

I chose the town as a focus town for my Australian Research Council-funded project because I thought it would be a nice, small, contained group … but they are everywhere!

Some have entered local legend. Publican Mona Minahan kept a cricket bat behind the bar to keep her clientele under control.

Daisy Underdown was the REAL business brain behind the Underdown enterprises, and reputedly extremely tightfisted.

I wish I knew the story behind hairdresser Eleanor Drakeford, who appeared in town briefly with her husband but then vanished, to be replaced in his affections by a comely deserted wife, Ivy Watt?

Alice Springs does seem to have been a refuge for women escaping disappointing husbands – far enough away from everywhere else to be able to reinvent yourself even in the twentieth century.

But Alice was also a place of opportunity – a growing town, where women as well as men could have a go.

There were café proprietors, dressmakers, hairdressers, haberdashers, publicans, doctors, painters, tourism operators, pastoralists and even taxi drivers and a knitwear designer.

The twelfth woman to graduate in veterinary science in Australia, Peggy Christian, had her practice in Alice Springs and the first Indigenous female horse trainer, Emmy Wehr, was based in Alice Springs.

Some women had entrepreneurialism in every pore. Pat Govers (above right) was an ABC reporter and then businesswoman, owning the Gem Cave, dabbling in antiques and notoriously providing an unforgettable meal for Prince Charles when he visited in 1977.

Charles, now the King, was rumoured to have spent much of his flight back to the home country on the throne.

But Pat was also part of generations of businesswomen. Her mother Thirza Faulks was a dressmaker turned property developer near Tweed Heads in NSW and her granddaughter Michelle Bain (at left) is a businesswoman in Darwin.

Entrepreneurialism runs in families, it seems, especially in Alice. Annie Meyers ran the first boarding house in Alice, her granddaughter Heather Neck was a founder of the Jacaranda Frock Shop. Even the men in the family got the business bug!

Dawn Owen had Polka Dot dress shop from the 1960s, daughter Kerry joined her in the 1970s, while another daughter Dianne became the proprietor of Rag Doll (pictured at top and bottom), perhaps the biggest hairdressing salon in Alice Springs, with 18 staff in the late 1970s.

Meanwhile Marlene Brown had a bit of a business empire with her husband, including a gift shop, dress shop, pharmacy and coffee lounge. She was also the first female alderman on the Town Management Board, forerunner of the Town Council. I love that she managed to translate her economic power into political clout – something that in previous times was reserved for men!

I have just scratched the surface. Was your mother, aunt, grandmother in business? Does your family have a long (or short) line of entrepreneurial women? Can you tell me a tale of doing business with the entrepreneurial women of Alice?

I have a broad definition of a businesswoman. She is anyone who earns money through her own enterprise (not as an employee). So that includes a side-hustle selling eggs for a couple of years as well as something like the Gem Cave or Pat Holden Fashions.

Dr Catherine Bishop, Macquarie University.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Erwin,
    you barely scratched the surface. As far as thinking it would be a small group you certainly miscalculated.
    Good luck
    Hermann
    ED:-Hi Hermann, that’s what the author is saying: “I have just scratched the surface. Was your mother, aunt, grandmother in business? Does your family have a long (or short) line of entrepreneurial women? Can you tell me a tale of doing business with the entrepreneurial women of Alice?” It’s in the story.
    All the best, Erwin

  2. My mother, Monica Gordon, ran “The Blue Gum Cafe” in Todd Street during the WW II and fed hundreds of soldiers travelling through to Darwin. After the war, she did the catering for TAA airlines (I think it was TAA) arriving from Adelaide. She also did the catering for the Duke of Gloucester’s visit in the 1940s and received a medal from him for her service.
    After we moved to Adelaide in 1952 Mum worked at the Miller Anderson’s department store and for a number of years took a quantity of women’s clothes to Alice Springs to sell for Miller Andersons in a pop-up shop there.

  3. What a great town it was. Todd Street, horses, pubs. Stuart Arms Peter Doris Clark. Alice Hotel. Uncle’s Pub.
    I worked for them both before Westlau and Ansett Pioneer and my intro into tourism.
    Great intro to a lifetime in tourism with our family business, Tailormade Tours.
    NT Tourist Commission, NT Bureau. Ansett and TAA Airlines. Worked Hard Played Hard.
    A great lot of people who grew tourism here.

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