Wonderful Winifred

When  I first considered creating this blog, I thought about the many stories I had read over the years about incredible women who faced insurmountable odds in their lives and yet had gone on to such great achievements and rich experiences.

One such woman, Winifred Steger (1882-1981) hailed from my native Australia, and whose desperate circumstances and life as a single mother led her to the most unbelievable adventures in a time when these kinds of exploits by a woman were practically unthinkable .

An account of  Winifred’s incredible and fantastic life , written by Hilarie Lindsay, called “The Washerwomans Dream: The Extraordinary Life of Winifred Steger, 1882-1981“, is highly recommended reading if you can lay your hands on a copy.  I literally couldn’t put this book down.

After emigrating from England at ten years old, to the remainder of a deprived childhood spent in rural Australia eking out an impoverished existence from the land with her settler father, to her first abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, then becoming a single mother to four young children by her mid-twenties, to finding work in remote outback Australia, going on to marry two camel drivers in succession and running a camel team, to traveling the world, being presented to royalty , to making the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, to becoming a published author, and living to nearly 100 years old, Winifred Steger was indeed a Can-Do Woman.

Running a camel team?

Australia is a vast country, with mostly unpopulated desert making up a good portion of the land mass.  Up until the early twentieth century, before roads and railways connected the cities with outback areas, the transportation of mail and other goods, was the responsibility of teams of camel drivers, many of whom hailed from Pakistan and Afghanistan, then part of the British Empire.

As a resident of the Australian outback in her twenties, and a single mother of four children,  Winifred had found  work at an isolated outback hotel where she came into regular contact with the visiting camel drivers.  She  ended up marrying two of the camel drivers in fairly quick succession, and became the first, and perhaps the only, white woman to own and run a camel team in outback Australia.

If you’re interested to read a little more about this phase of Winifred’s life, please see this article: THINKING ALOUD: From rural Punjab to outback Australia —Razi Azmi

Have you read an incredible story of  a pioneer woman? Or a story of an improbable and adventurous life of a seemingly ordinary extraordinary woman?  Please share.

Camel Team outside of Cloncurry, Queensland circa 1904

Example of Australian Early Settlers House


The Quest for a Better Life

Jacob A. Riis (b. 1849 – d.1914) was a social reformer, journalist and photographer who documented life in the slums of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.   His photos are incredible, and show with a gritty raw honesty, the abject filth and poverty that residents of the city’s tenements and streets dealt with everyday.  By today’s standards of Western living, it’s unimaginable, how people survived in such crowded and dirty conditions.  But survive they did.  Raising families, working in sweatshops, battling to put food on the table, with either determination or resignation.

Many of the area’s residents were immigrants who came through New York’s Ellis Island with dreams of a better life in America.  For the immigrants who found themselves trapped in slum-life and this cycle of grinding poverty, I wonder if they ever questioned their decision to emigrate?

On perusing Riis’s book, “How The Other Half Lives”, I was particularly moved by the photos of  the women and children.  What a terribly hard-knock life it must have been for these Can-Do Women and their families.  Here is a selection of some of Riis’s photos which I think speak for themselves.


Family at home in one room tenement, 1910

Old Mrs Benoir, and Indian woman, in her Hudson Street attic



Family making artificial flowers

In the home of an Italian rag-picker, Jersey Street


If you’d like to know more about  Jacob Riis and his work, click here for an excellent anthology including photo galleries by National Public Radio. And,  if you are ever in New York City, I highly recommend a visit to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, to get a feel for what life must have been like for the area’s residents at the time Riis took these photographs.

What are your immediate thoughts when you look at these photos?  Did any of your family come through New York’s Ellis Island?


Don’t Call Your Sisters’ Names

Today’s post comes courtesy of my friend Deidra, who grew up the 1960’s and 70’s, in a heavily Italian-American neighborhood in coastal New Jersey, along with her two younger sisters Toni and Susan. On the street they grew up on, Deidra and her sisters were surrounded by relatives fostering a very strong sense of family and community which has stayed with her to this day.

Deidra had often regaled me with the stories of the childish adventures she and her sisters shared, but what I found really interesting, was that she and her sisters had actually written down these stories of everyday life so that they would be preserved for posterity and able to be shared with generations to come. In fact they have enough material for an entire book.

I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of preserving these kinds of memories, because they are a window into a different time and they are an intriguing reminder of how our lives were shaped. In fact just today, a friend and fellow blogger wondered if she should keep writing her blog, fearing that she had nothing interesting left to say and that no one would want to read about, what she considered, the boring details of her life.

But the thing is, history is being written today in the virtual world. And what a wonderful record it is going to be for those next generations, to read about the Can-Do Women of today. For them to be able to read about their grandparents or parents lives from these wonderful online journals is a gift that we can’t quite yet fully appreciate. Think about the thrill of finding some old piece of memorabilia in your attic from your family’s past. A photograph, a letter, a treasured family heirloom, a diary, or whatever the trigger may be, the thrill of remembering another time and place reminds us that these written records of everyday life need to be thought of as valuable time capsules worth preserving and most certainly worth writing.

Here is just one of Deidra’s stories which speaks really well to the bond between sisters and perhaps how child-rearing practices have changed from when Deidra was a child.

My sisters…Miss Baloney and Pee-u-san. Those were two of my favorite nicknames for Toni and Susan. They were my two wards on most days after school and on weekends. Everything bad that they did was always my fault and well, since I had to watch over them and take the heat, I could at least call them pet names once in a while. It’s a sib thing. Quite frankly, Pee-U-san was an under-the-skin kind of name for Susan to bear, especially in front of other people, due to the explanation (bathroom-related). However, perpetually pleasant Toni wore the Miss Baloney name with pride. It was sort of like her alter ego given her love of all things baloney – or bologna as is the proper spelling. She would take a baloney sandwich on Wonder Bread over a PBJ any day, without question. It seemed like every kid would back then, and did, but no one would admit to it now, years later. Baloney lost is luster over the years. I’m sure during the 1980’s baloney was linked to some illness or to ADHD or because parents today look at labels and now know what is in the baloney product. Today, parent refuse to serve their kids what the kids in my neighborhood thought was a delicacy.

Anyway, my mother was an advocate especially when we were going elsewhere for this mystery meat. “Go to Schmidts” was all we needed to hear before the three of us, with me in the lead, headed out our door, left at the driveway, right after three houses into the “alley” headed for Schmidts. Schmidts — the lone brick building situated in the alley way that connected our street with the street behind us. We thought the alley was haunted even in the middle of a sunny day. The alley was the spot that all the boys in the hood went to hide during hide and seek although they never got found because no one would go into the alley to look for them. But Schmidts – and the promise of free baloney slices – was too much to handle. On a Saturday especially, how could there be anything but opportunity?

So there we went, me and my two sisters heading off to visit Mr. Schmidt and his six brothers – all similarly named Mr. Schmidt – at the meat place to ask for a piece of baloney. We’d walk in, the smell of cold meat on concrete floors on a summer day attacking us at once, and wait until we saw one of the Mr. Schmidts. “Hi Mr. Schmidts,” in unison announced the three of us. “Can we have a piece of baloney?” Mr. Schmidt (they were almost undistinguishable given their similar bloody aprons, white hair and Germanic, weathered faces) would head over to the meat case, take the biggest piece of baloney from it and slice us up three pieces that he would roll up for us. You would think we hadn’t eaten in days the way we watched him approach us with the baloney rolls, Toni getting dizzy at the site of her favorite food. We savored it, we sure did, monitoring our intake and making it last (we’re talking baloney, not ice cream here).

Ahhhhh....The Stuff Memories Are Made Of.

We would linger around Schmidts after our snack but would never ask for another piece. Actually, Toni would since it was equivalent to her “fix” for the day. On top of that, if my mother didn’t have baloney in the fridge, Toni would be very disappointed that she didn’t ask when she had the chance. I wouldn’t take it; I wouldn’t let Susie either for fear that we would overstay our welcome and not feel comfortable going back the next day to restart the entire process.


But we would go everyday. It was just our thing. Our mother loved getting us out of the house so she could smoke and gossip on the phone, we got fed and the Schmidt brothers seemed happy to have us there. But here’s the thing, fast forward to today…what mother would let her three daughters walk alone from their home into a possibly haunted alleyway to visit seven identical old men who ran a slaughterhouse? Are there even places called slaughterhouses anymore? I know there are no kids who like baloney anymore.


How do you preserve your memories? Are you a blogger, do you keep a diary, are you the family photographer or archivist ? Tell us what you’re doing with your stories.

Can-Do Equality

Today I’d like to spotlight an amazing little cookbook that I found on e-Bay several months ago.  It’s called “The Working Couple’s Cookbook”, by Peggy Treadwell, published in 1971.  Aside from having incredible 1970’s graphical illustrations by Craig Torlucci, the book is even more interesting, in that it was published right in the heart of the Second Wave of the American Women’s Movement which was primarily concerned with gender inequities in law and culture, and the sexist structure which was deeply entrenched in the society of that time.   At the heart of the feminist consciousness of this era,  was Betty Frieden’s 1963 tome, The Feminine Mystique, which questioned  women’s traditional roles as subservient housewives and plotted a new course for women as equal contributing members of a gender-neutral society.

Indeed this little cookbook seeks to provide practical ways for women to realize this goal of gender-equality in the home, and the back cover sets the tone:

The introduction of the book, seems to clearly suggest an acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships as a normal state, which is apparently a radical concept by today’s politics, but is entirely appropriate when you consider the the milestones of the Gay Liberation Movement during the the same era.  The struggle for gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights and civil rights as a whole were inextricably linked during the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  And so this little book does its bit for the cause by pointing out that:

“…the “his” and “hers” divisions of culinary duties are, of course, interchangeable and could easily be desginated his and his or hers and hers.”

I love the thought of "cooperative meal preparation"

And now for an actual recipe.  Be sure to read this right through.  It says a lot about the times; our need for convenience, but most importantly, equality.

Fantastic illustration don't you think ?

It sounds almost exotic.....

I love #4.

It still seems like the "Hers" instructions are more than the "His"

What kind of household did you grow up in ? Was there an equal division of household duties ? Is there now ?

One Family Name

Welcome to the Can-Do Women blog !  A place to share and pay homage to the everyday lives of extraordinary ordinary women, both past and present.  For my inaugural post to the Can-Do Women blog, I felt it important to acquaint you with a Can-Do Woman from my own family tree.

I would like to introduce you to Hannah Hewling, from whom I am descended through my mother’s side of our family.   Hannah was born in mid 17th-century England, to Benjamin, a wealthy merchant of London, and his wife , Hannah Hewling (nee Kiffin), also from a rich merchant family.  Hannah had two younger brothers, Benjamin and William, as well as a sister Elizabeth.

Benjamin Hewling

Following the death of Hannah’s father in 1684, the brothers were sent to Holland to complete their education, only to be interrupted when the Duke of Monmouth invaded England.  Benjamin aged 21 and William aged 18 went to fight on the side of the Duke,  in what became known as the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, in an attempt to overthrow England’s reigning papist monarch, King James II.  At the Battle of Sedgmoor on July 6, 1685, Monmouth’s forces were defeated, and the Duke himself was executed for treason.

In the aftermath of the failed rebellion, the brothers were captured, charged with treason against King James II, and brought before the courts in a series of trials presided over by Judge Jeffreys, which became known as the “Bloody Assizes“. Both brothers were sentenced to a gruesome death to be carried out by hanging, drawing and quartering.

It is at this point in the story, that we learn more of Hannah Hewling’s character.  According to the book “Memorable Women of the Puritan Times“, by James Anderson;

“Hannah was now a young woman of admirable qualities.  Trained up by her parents in the fear of God, she gave early proofs of sincere and enlightened piety.  Her sisterly affection, evinced in her tenderness towards her two brothers whilst in prison and under the sentence of death, forms one of the lovely traits of her character.”

Despite Hannah Hewling’s protracted pleas for clemency and offers of large sums of money  to both Judge Jeffreys and King James II to spare the lives of her brothers, William and Benjamin were summarily executed in September, 1685.  Finally in act, to spare her brothers the final indignity of their bodies being “quartered”, Hannah paid a thousand pounds, for which she was permitted to take her brother’s bodies after they were executed.

Hannah Hewling, later married a grandson of Oliver Cromwell, and her younger sister Elizabeth, married William Luson.  Since that time all the Luson’s in my family have called their sons Hewling or Benjamin, in memory of the two lost rebel brothers.  Indeed, my own grandfather  was a Hewling Luson.

And yet despite the heroic and courageous acts of Hannah Hewling, whose story is preserved in the annals of time,  her name has not been similarly carried on in the female lineage of our family tree.  This seems a shame to me because she is certainly someone who seems worthy of being remembered and honored by a namesake

I can only hope that a little bit of Hannah Hewling’s spirit and courage lives on in me, if not in name, but in character. And by sharing Hannah’s story with you, I hope you’ll agree that she seems to embody the spirit of the kind of Can-Do Women for whom this blog pays homage.  I trust that Hannah would be pleased that I have honored her memory in this 21st-century manner.

Is there a woman’s name passed down through your family tree ? Will you share the story of this special Can-Do Woman from your family  ?

Copyright © 2011 by Can-Do Women. Images on this site are used for the express purposes of commentary and criticism under the fair use doctrine.