Women in Australia before World War II
The evolution of the rights of women in Australia owes much to successive waves of feminism, or the women's movement. The first of these took place in the late 19th Century and was concerned largely with gaining the right to vote and to stand for election into parliament. The second wave, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s, focused on gaining equality with men in other areas such as work, the law and general social standing. The second wave, because it targeted so many different aspects of life, presented a broader challenge to traditional ideas of women's rights. It therefore led to more fundamental changes in the daily lives of mainstream Australian women.
This chapter focuses on how things were for women in Australia before these changes, brought on by the second wave of feminism, took place. It summarises the nature of Australian women's lives and therefore does not discuss the specific circumstances of Aboriginal women, migrant women or those from other defined minority groups.
At the beginning of the 20th Century the Commonwealth of Australia had just been created through Federation, bringing with it the right to vote for Australian women. Some women could not vote in state elections, but because the new federal constitution allowed them to vote in federal elections, the States soon followed suit. By 1910 most Australian women over 21 could vote in both State and federal elections.
Many of the women's groups that had campaigned for women's suffrage had done so out of a desire to improve the lot of women and children. They felt that only through political representation could they really change laws that affected women and children. Some sought to do this by supporting sympathetic male parliamentarians with their vote. Others hoped to get women themselves into parliament in order to affect change.
The latter group would have had cause to be disappointed for a long time. No woman was elected to an Australian parliament until 1921. The first federal female parliamentarians were not elected until 1943. See image 1
This is just one example of how enfranchisement fell short of really improving the lives of Australian women or changing attitudes about them. Women being allowed to vote did not convince society that they were fit to take part in public life in other ways, not even in the sphere of paid work.
It was generally accepted that women's roles were as nurturers and home-makers. It was considered their destiny to get married, have children and devote their lives to the needs of their husbands and offspring. This was reinforced by beliefs that women were incapable of leading any other sort of life. Those who did, whether through choice or circumstance, were looked upon as immoral.
It was believed that if women chose not to marry or to work while married they were lax in their duty to their husbands and children, which in turn translated to being lax in their duty to the nation. This was particularly strong in Australia where the early decades of the century saw much concern about the size of the new nation's population. Women were expected to populate the country for its economic wellbeing and security.
Women were also seen as the guardians of morality who would be a good influence on future generations through their children. They were not, however, given the legal status as guardians of their children. Marriage and divorce laws favoured men in terms of custody of children and rights to property. It was these sorts of inequalities that had driven many women to take part in the first wave of feminism.
For these reasons it was often only unmarried women who had jobs and, early in the 20th Century at least, usually only poorer women. A working married woman was considered to be taking a man's job, especially since she was paid less than a man.
Middle and upper class women were able to be supported by their husbands and families. These women were able to take part in public life, in a sense, through philanthropic work. Some of them became quite active in the community through these means, particularly during World War I. Not only did they have more time to do so because they were not working, they were also free of the burden of domestic duties because they were able to employ domestic servants and nannies.
Poorer women had to do both paid and domestic work, which was far more arduous at that time because labour-saving devices such as hot water systems and appliances were only available to a select few. It was not uncommon for these women to have to support their families due to missing husbands, many of whom had to work elsewhere or simply deserted. Poor working conditions also meant many men died or were injured in work-related accidents so no longer brought in an income.
The burden this placed on women was greater than that on men for two main reasons. One was that women were paid very low wages, much lower than those paid to men. The other was that the jobs women were given were very prescribed. The attitude that women were primarily nurturers influenced the work they were allowed to undertake. Many women worked in domestic service, nursing, teaching and other 'nurturing' roles.
Job opportunities for women expanded slightly during World War I when a shortage of available men meant women were required in other positions. Many took up work that usually would have been denied them. Most were expected to give up their jobs when the War ended. The experience had changed many people's attitudes towards what type of work women were capable of taking on. See image 2
Standard of living
Between the wars, in the 1930s, standards of living changed. Technology was modernising people's lifestyles and domestic roles were altered by the introduction of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, electricity and so on. For some women this saved much time in housework, although increased expectations about cleanliness and food quality often filled the gap.
Overall, women were not particularly involved in public life, certainly not through politics or other institutions that would have allowed them to shape society. Not all women finished secondary school and few went to university, so their representation in the professions was also small. See animation