In Australia, women were not allowed to become licensed jockeys and race against men until 1979
Wilhemena Smith lived her live as a man in order to follow her passion for horse racing
Until 1979 in Australia, women were forbidden from competing against men in horse racing.
In a small country town in Far North Queensland, however, was a woman who at an early age decided she wasn’t going to let gender get in the way of her passion.
Wilhemena Smith – otherwise known as Bill “Girlie” Smith – secretly lived her life as a man to pursue her dream of becoming a licensed jockey and trainer in the early 1900s.
She disguised her identity so well that no one knew that she was a woman until she died in 1975 – four years before women like Pam O’Neill and Linda Jones went down in Australian history as the first registered female jockeys to ride against men.
“Simply put, she’s an enigma,” Ivan Searston – who is editor of the book, Ghosts of a Mining Town, which details the little that’s known about Smith’s extraordinary life, told CNN.
“She carved out a life for herself and her life depended on her being male.”
For 70 years, Smith lived her life as a recluse in order to find employment easier and pursue her dreams. Orphaned at a young age, Smith was born in 1886 and grew up in Western Australia.
“At the grand age of 16 she decided she had enough and somehow got on a ship and ended up in North Queensland,” Searston said.
“When she came into North Queensland we’re uncertain but we have been able to trace her to working in a brewery in Cairns, she did some mining just to the west of Cairns and in probably around her 30s she became very interested in horses and that seemed to resonate with her so she became a licensed jockey and a licensed trainer.”
‘We didn’t have a clue’
Under the alias of Bill Smith, she found success on the racetrack in the 1940s and 1950s, competing in several Queensland towns such as Cairns, Mareeba, Mount Garnet, Innisfail and Herberton.
“At a region level, she was fairly successful. She wasn’t on the same level as say Michelle Payne, Australia’s leading woman jockey at the moment who won the 2015 Melbourne Cup, but she was in small country district racing,” said Searston – who is a Herberton local.
Eighty-seven-year-old Bill Jessop told CNN that he remembers when he was 12 years old how his parents and Bill Smith became friends.
“He used to come to our house as we lived behind the racecourse. He was very quiet,” he remembers.
“He raced at Mount Garnet and around the place and I can remember he had a big stallion that used to buck.
“We didn’t have a clue Bill was a woman, it didn’t come out until years after he died.
“She was very convincing. She wore a little gray hat and she always wore a suit when she came to visit us in the morning. She’d always wear a vest tight around her chest.”
‘A number of people had their suspicions’
However, not everyone was convinced. The softly spoken jockey earned the nickname Bill “Girlie” Smith as her fellow jockeys became suspicious of her behavior; Smith rarely used the change rooms and would arrive before each race in her racing colors underneath her clothes.
Her identity was almost revealed on several occasions – including when she and another jockey were thrown from their mounts and he tried to help her by undoing her trousers when she became winded.
There’s also stories, Searston says, of Smith being cornered in the changing rooms where her competitors tried stripping her. Jessop also remembers hearing that some jockeys tried to sneak behind the shower curtain to see whether she was male or female. However, Searston says there were some who looked out for her.
“The steward made sure all the other chastised, so she was protected,” Searston says.
“There were people who were suspicious and there were people who were protective enough.
“She was in a world where she was performing well and outing her would destroy her life. She didn’t upset people, she did her job confidently, rode confidently, trained confidently and that was it.
“People may have been suspicious but they just left it alone. She was a great person, she was working in a job she enjoyed, she was confident enough in it and that was it.”
Nurse kept Smith’s lifelong secret
Eventually, Smith retired and moved to a small town called Innot Hot Springs to live out her days quietly, and alone. She never married and had no known relatives in Australia, Searston says.
“She retired on an Australian government pension still as a man and that took her all the way through. Just a little house at this tiny little town and again was left to live her life as she wanted,” he said.
“My opinion is once she took on a persona of a male so entirely she had to be a loner because getting too close to someone would mean that her masquerade would be unearthed.”
At 88 years old Smith became ill and was admitted into hospital, and it was only then that medical staff quickly realized “Bill” was a woman.
“When she was in hospital in Herberton in her last days she became very good friends with a nursing sister there and they swapped yarns together.
“That nursing sister picked up a whole lot of information about Bill and one of the pictures that are in our collection is a painting that was painted by the nursing sister who looked after her.
“It was through that nursing sister that we got validation of some of her history, but unfortunately for us she was sworn to secrecy about what they were sharing and bless her soul, she stuck to her guns.”
After Smith died in 1975, she was buried in Herberton in an unmarked grave until Herberton Lions Club discovered her story and organized to put a tombstone on her grave.
“In loving memory, Wilhemena ‘Bill’ Smith, 1886 - 1975” it reads. “Australia’s first licensed female jockey.”
The tribute sought to finally give Smith the recognition she did not receive – or seek – 30 years after her death.