Greek Australians: Greek Australian women from the 1820s Part 2

In her own image

Creousa Argery (nee Levonis) in the kitchen at the Boonara Cafe, Goomeri, Qld, late 1930s. Women often undertook the hidden work of a family-run Greek cafe, particularly during the initial development of the business. Photo courtesy Kritharis family.

Many Greek men settling in Australia continued to marry women of British background – as was overwhelmingly the case during the gold rushes – but those more concerned with maintaining Greek values and tradition opted to either return to Greece, marry, and then re-migrate with their bride, or arrange marriage by proxy and subsequently organise for her passage out.

Sophocles Servetopoulos returned to Sydney from Greece in 1890 with his new bride, Eleni, and in 1909, Dr Konstantinos Kyriazopoulos (Krizos) re- migrated to Melbourne with his new wife, Antigone (nee Dimissa).

Some Greek women at this time are also known to have married men of British Australian background. Annie Higinis (Higenis) married William Bennett at Port Pirie, South Australia in 1918, and Evangelia Dioktitis married Robert Sidney Parker in 1924 in Darwin.

The start of this period also witnessed Australia’s first graduate of Greek background: a woman – Orea Emma Hellas Moustaka. Orea Emma, one of the five daughters of Tambaroora/Hill End Greek gold miner Dimitrios (Peter) Moustakas, was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sydney University in 1897.

The early twentieth century saw the growing but still limited number of Greek women in Australia’s major urban centres banding together and forming Hellenic social groups and organisations. Antigone Kyriazopoulos (nee Dimissa), for example, utilising her good education and middle class background, assisted in establishing the Melbourne Greek Women’s Society in 1916.

In the following year, 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). Dr Konstantinos Kyriazopoulos’ 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 women’s 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.

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.

For some of those in regional areas, the geographical and socio-cultural isolation, burdened with persistent toil and family responsibilities, at times inflicted deep despondency. Such a heavy sadness, driven by circumstance, has remained with Maria Sourrys, who settled with her husband, George, in Hughenden in north-eastern Queensland in 1939:

“I was the first Greek woman here for the first couple of years … had nothing … worked hard … I’ve never returned to Greece … eight (Greek) families here once … now they’ve all gone.” Maria had seven children and she and her husband operated Sourrys’ Café.

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

Their young daughters were also expected to help out in the family business, whilst ensuring their homework was completed and that time was spent gathering and making items for their prika (dowry).

This pattern of assisting with income-generating activities combined with family duties featured in the lives of most other Greek Australian women – be they on the Queensland sugarcane and cotton fields, or on the mining fields of Western Australia and New South Wales, or on the stone and dried fruit plantations in South Australia and Victoria, or in the fishing ports scattered around the continent.

Beyond the stereotype

Some Greek Australian women though, were able to look beyond routine.

Mary Dakas (nee Paspalis) became a pearl lugger operator on Australia’s north-western coast – most probably the only Greek female to have done so. A Dakas Street exists in Broome (Western Australia) today as a tribute to this unique Greek Australian pioneer pearler. She has been described as “a fascinating lady” of “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 ’40s and ’50s.

The Likiard (Likiardopolous) sisters became champion swimmers and divers during the late 1930s and 1940s. Stavroula Catherine Likiard 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”.

Thea Karofilis entered a regional charity competition in New South Wales and became the first Miss Wagga (Wagga Wagga) in 1948. Anna Gregory (Grigoriadis), who had arrived in Australia as a four-year-old in 1929, graduated from Sydney University with a medical degree in 1947 and established herself in general practice before becoming a psychiatrist. She is considered to be the first Greek woman to practise medicine in Australia. Fifi (Efthymia) Krizos (daughter of Dr Konstantinos and Antigone Kyriazopoulos) graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Melbourne University in 1938. Having majored in haematology, she entered employment as a biologist at Melbourne’s Prince Henry’s Hospital.

During World War II, Greek women in Australia became involved with the Allied war effort. Twenty-six Greek women served in the women’s services of the Australian armed forces. Polyxeni Lucas, Helen Metaxas and Rita Svokos served with the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service (WRANS). Anne Kaliopi Karofilis (Thea Karofilis’ sister) engaged in ‘home guard’ defence measures by undertaking semaphore training. Others took on nursing – such as Fifi Krizos, who became a medical assistant in a munitions plant and later served with the Red Cross in Greece.

Perhaps given the new bond forged between Greece and Australia during the global conflict, particularly following the Battle of Crete in 1941, Greeks in Australia seem to have acquired a greater public visibility immediately after the war (which continued when Greece and Australia signed their migration agreement in 1952). Pix magazine in 1946 offered readers a cover story titled ‘Greek Baptism’ which featured not only an insight into traditional Greek Orthodox customs as practised in Australia, but also the importance of the role of women (godmother and mother) in the ceremony and the ritual tasks.
Return migration

Understandably, Greek migration to Australia during the war practically ceased. However, some Greek Australian women had returned to Greece during the preceding decades of the twentieth century. This was the start of a tradition of Greek female return migration (resulting in either permanent re-settlement or a stay for an extensive period), which has ebbed and flowed with changing economic and socio-cultural conditions in both countries, together with specific personal considerations of the returnee and their family.

Amongst the young girls who returned prior to the 1950s, negative, and even sadly moving, personal stories have emerged. Born in Hamilton in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1914, Cassie Kostopoulos (nee Zavoyianny), returned to Ithaca with her parents in 1926. Unfortunately her parents re-migrated to Australia to acquire further finances for the family’s future in Greece, leaving Cassie in the care of a relative. Cassie never saw her father again (died 1945), and her mother did not return until 1961. She recalls:

“My parents … left me here, they were frightened that I would grow up the Australian way. They left me here in 1928 … I always had the hope that one day I would leave from here … I lost my hopes.”

Dora Megaloconomos (nee Comino) was born in Sydney in 1923. In 1936 she and her family left for Kythera. Dora remained in Greece for the next eleven years, witnessing both World War II and most of the Greek Civil War: “I wanted to come back like anything.” Panayiotitsa Yeryopoulou (nee Christianos) was born in Kempsey, NSW, in 1924. Although she returned with her family to Kythera when she was still quite young, Panayiotitsa considers that Greeks who were born in Australia should not return to Greece.

Attention should also be given to the stories of those women who were left behind in regions within Greece that had been heavily affected by male migration to Australia prior to the 1950s – Ithaca, Kythera and Kastellorizo. In some villages, the unenviable situation had developed where the women far outnumbered the men. Whilst not Greek Australians, these women should nonetheless be considered as part of the narrative of Greek female migration to Australia. Women like Ekaterina Karvouni in Ayia Saranta on Ithaca, who waited in the hope that someone amongst those men who had migrated from her village would remember her and propose marriage: “I wanted to go to Australia but no one offered to take me.”

Much of the early migration of Greek men to Australia was motivated by the responsibility to acquire suitable dowries for daughters and sisters. Some of these men, such as Kosmas Megaloconomos, still felt the weight of this duty later in life and returned to Greece, in part, to care for unmarried female family members.

Bride ships

In 1956, a program commenced to redress the imbalance between the numbers of Greek male and female. Single Greek women were trained in Athens for domestic work in Australia, as well as being taught English. They were contracted for two years to the Australian Government, which would find them suitable employment. Interestingly, the Australian Government’s scheme also provided a means 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 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’.

Occupations entered by post-World War II Greek female arrivals included: factory work; machinists; food catering; 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. Judith Durham – whose maternal great-grandfather, Antoni Dimitri Pannucca, was Cretan – acquired huge international success in the 1960s as the female vocalist with the popular Australian music group, ‘The Seekers’. While still in her teens, singer, Laurel Lee (Lorraine May Lianos) became a regular on Johnny O’Keefe’s late 1950s television show, ‘Six O’Clock Rock’. Elly Lukas, who had arrived in Australia in 1947, became an international model of considerable renown just seven years later when she modeled the Christian Dior gown of the year in Paris.

Disembarking in Australia in 1951, Vasso Kalamaras (nee Papayiannakis) persisted with her desire to be a writer and went on to win an array of literary grants and prizes – in 1990 she won the Western Australia Premier’s Award for Fiction for her book, The Same Light.

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 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 or through Greek women’s groups, and even acquire both food and entertainment items from Greek import shops.

By 1981 the ratio of Greek males to females had almost become even: 106 Greek men to every 100 Greek women.

The female offspring of post-World War II Greek settlers have generally benefited, along with the boys, from their parents’ 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.

*This article is an edited excerpt from the ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’ National Project Archives, by Leonard Janiszewski and Effie Alexakis. All the photos are part of the project.

source: Neos Kosmos

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