HerStory

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Bertha Gwendoline Alexandra STREHLOW

Also known as: née James

Born: 1911

Died: 1984

Special Achievements:

Bertha is often remembered as the first wife of Ted Strehlow, an anthropologist and linguist who worked primarily with the Arrernte People of Central Australia.  She helped her husband and edited his works, in addition to publishing her own material.

She was an accomplished poet, teacher and feminist. 

"If a feminist is someone who furthers the lives and well-being of other women, then definitely, that's what she was."

Leni Shilton, 2016

Additional Information:


EARLY LIFE IN ADELAIDE

Bertha attended St Peter's Girls School in Adelaide and, in her final year, was head prefect.

1932: commenced a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Adelaide, where she met Ted Strehlow.

1934: Completed her degree and began teaching at the Walford Girls School in Adelaide thereafter.

1935: Married Ted Strehlow 

TERRITORY LIFE

1936: The newly married Strehlows arrived in Alice Springs on 18 February on The Ghan railway, and immediately travelled to Hermannsburg, where Ted had grown up.  During this time, despite Bertha being pregnant they started preparations for their honeymoon, a 2,300 km camel trek through the Petermann Ranges, as part of Ted's role as a Patrol Officer for the Central Australian region. 

Their journey commenced on 5 June 1936. During this journey, Bertha suffered a miscarriage and almost died; she was saved due to the intervention of  Aboriginal women. It is possible, during this trip, Strehlow was the first white woman to see Kata Tjuta and Uluru before arriving back in Hermannsgurg on 25 September 1936.

1937: The couple moved into a tent at the Jay Creek Settlement, and in early 1938 Bertha had another miscarriage. 

1939: Strehlow miscarried again, and faced additional pressure with the outbreak of World War II when her husband Ted was accused in parliament of being a Nazi and, as he put it, 'the most hated man in Central Australia'. 

WWII

1942: Gave birth to Theo Strehlow before Ted was called up for military service. She then moved in with her parents in Adelaide while Ted was away.

1944: Gave birth to a daughter, Shirley.

1947: Gave birth to a son, John. 

POST WAR

The family remained in Adelaide, where Ted lectured in English and Linguistics at University of Adelaide and Bertha resumed teaching at the Walford Girls School.

Between 1950 and 1952, Ted took an extended study tour of Europe and Bertha rented out rooms in their house for additional income as she struggled financially

1951: Bertha began teaching at the Wilderness School and, in November, became Vice President of Tatlers, a women’s literary club, founded by long term friend Roma Mitchell

1956: Became  President of Tatlers.

In 1972, Bertha filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion after Ted had abandoned her four years earlier. At the trial, presided over by her friend Roma Mitchell, she did not seek maintenance and said that her salary was ample for her need. Shes did not ask for a clause in the divorce about Ted's will; this ultimately led to both her and her children being disinherited.

She died after suffering a heart attack in 1984.

LEGACY

In 2015 the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame presented a temporary exhibition Desert Honeymoon, Bertha Strehlow and the Petermann Ranges Expedition.

PhD researcher and poet Leni Shilton was intrigued by this story and felt Ms Strehlow's life had been overshadowed by the success of her husband.

Ms Shilton said the pioneer's story was one of silence, despite the important role she played in her husband's successful career; he left her for his research assistant after 33 years of marriage.

"I think that Bertha was a woman of her time, in that she was born and raised in the early 20th century so she had a very strong sense that once she married, her marriage was everything," Ms Shilton said.

"Saying that, she was also incredibly modern in the way she worked her whole married life, she brought up her children on her own, she had almost no money, and she was very practical and involved in women's issues the whole time.

"She already had a broader world view, and then she broadened it even more and was able to give a lot of that back to the girls she worked with, and to her children.

"If a feminist is someone who furthers the lives and well-being of other women, then definitely, that's what she was."


Resources

  • References

    Finnane, Kieran.  Strehlow takes back seat.  Alice Springs News.  October 20, 1999:7, 17.

    King, Gavin.  Strehlow’s wife Bertha recognised.  Centralian Advocate.  June 6, 2006:4.

    Moldovan, Alice and King, Jennifer, Meet the feminist pioneers who helped shape Central Australia.  ABC News. July 2016 accessed 10/12/19

    Shilton, Leni.  Looking for Bertha Strehlow.  Centralian Advocate.  August 3, 2012: page numbers unknown.

    Wilson, John.  Sleeping in a swag on the ground was a skill she was still acquiring.  Alice Springs News.  January 26-27, 2006:7, 11.