The Secret Life of Australia’s First Female Jockey
By Sam Squiers
History is full of impressive female sporting figures, their stories chaptered with tales of courage, sacrifice, strength and determination. Many have gone to extreme lengths to pursue their dreams, their love, which is often the only thing they ever wanted to do. But few would do what a young Wilhemena Smith did in the early 1900s.
Wilhemena Smith will go down in history as Australia’s first female jockey, but it was an achievement for which she never received any acknowledgement. You see, Wilhemena’s whole life she raced as Bill Smith.
Her gender was never known and only discovered in 1975 when she passed away.
It was her lifelong secret. Women weren’t allowed to be jockeys during her era and so determined to pursue her dream, she was prepared to live in hiding, as a recluse, in order to live her lie.
That’s how Bill Smith was born.
Born in 1886, ‘Bill’ raced in Far North Queensland throughout the twentieth century. There were suspicions of course, ‘Bill’ would arrive at the track with his silks already on under his garments and never changed in front of others. He also spoke softly and had feminine features. That may have given him the nickname of ‘Girlie’ but never gave him away.
Wilhemena never married, never had children and upon retirement still lived as a recluse.
Even when Wilhemena passed away aged 88, women still weren’t allowed to ride as jockeys – it would be another four years in 1979 before the first licenses were awarded to female jockeys.
Wilhemena wasn’t a grandstander, she wasn’t looking for any acknowledgement or to achieve the title of a trailblazer, a pioneer, or even to be a role model to other girls with the same dream. Wilhemena simply wanted to ride.
Wilhemena is now all those things and remains Australia’s first female jockey.