A group of Hobart women, 1890 (AOT, PH30/1/2055)

The gender relations of the original Tasmanians, the Aborigines, are described in the article 'Aboriginal life pre-invasion'. The Aborigines declined drastically in numbers after the arrival of Europeans, and survived mainly on the Bass Strait islands. Their gender relations were apart from those of the mainland Tasmanian population, which form the subject of this essay.

As well as their law, politics and capitalist economics, the British brought their gender relations to Tasmania. In this system, men dominated public life, and women's place was in the home. Public achievement was seen as a male endowment.1 Over the next two centuries women gradually gained more equality, by their own action, by the assistance by sympathetic men, and because of changing social values throughout the western world generally. This occurred despite of, or perhaps helped by, the fact that Tasmanian women were less radical than those on the mainland or in Britain : until about 1914 changed occurred just as fast as elsewhere, but it was slower at the end of the twentieth century. When women did resort to radical action they received little support, especially before the 1970s. But change did come, and gender relations in 2004 were far more equal than in 1803.

In 1803 the spheres for each gender were distinct. Men were expected to establish a livelihood, marry, and as head of the household, control and support their wives and children, providing interaction between them and the outside, public world. Women married, bore and cared for children, and ran the household, remaining in the private domain. As Queen Victoria herself said, 'We women are not made for governing – and if we are good women we must dislike these masculine occupations".2 If this stereotype failed and a woman had to earn a living, it was by extending to the public sphere services usually provided to the family: cooking, housework, sewing, childcare or sexual services, usually for a low wage.3 Most women aimed to marry, which was the most common way for a woman to support herself. Most unions were marriages, but the working class had a tradition of de facto unions, which meant either partner could leave more easily, a deserted partner could find a replacement, and women had more control of their children and property, though not the security or respectability marriage could provide.4 Reality in Tasmania did soften this situation. Building a new society meant hard work, and unreliable convict servants and a general absence of wealth meant virtually all men and women were faced with much physical labour.5 Perhaps as a corollary, many women were strong-minded, sometimes dominating their families, but still they did not enter the public sphere.6

In Britain the gender ratio was roughly equal, but in Tasmania, until the 1850s there was an average of 39 adult women to every 100 men,7 due to the overwhelming numerical dominance of male convicts. As Oxley comments, the result is hard to assess8 – was women's status higher or lower? A clear result is that many men could not find a female partner. Single men lacked the advantages a wife could bring: domestic comforts, sexual services, children and their labour, assistance in the family enterprise, and support in the difficulties of establishing a new life. Tasmania saw no apparent glorification of the single male, as happened later in mainland Australia when Lawson and the Bulletin school praised the bushman, the single man of the outback: rough, brave and resourceful.9 Most historians assume men enjoyed this relentless masculinity, but Reid presents the opposite view: in colonial Tasmania, many men desired the advantages of domesticity. Demographers point to the fact that men who marry tend to live longer and engage in fewer high-risk activities.10 The advantages of marriage were recognised at the time, and single men were criticised by contemporaries for their drinking, roughness and petty crime. Contemporaries wrote of the 'want of happiness' suffered by single men without 'domestic attachment'. Most men who succeeded in Tasmania were married.11

The gender imbalance meant it was easy for women to fulfil their expected role, 'that destiny for which nature designed them', as John West wrote. While in a strongly masculine society it was difficult for women to succeed outside marriage, wives or at least female partners were in such demand that girls married as young as twelve.12 Statistics do not show the whole picture as many women were in de facto relationships, but there were few women without partners in Tasmania before the 1850s. Since this was what society expected of women, they could succeed in the eyes of themselves and their contemporaries. Once married, they were legally under their husbands' control just as in Britain, though colonial conditions made marriage apparently more of a partnership than a union of superior and dependent.13 There was ample employment for women as servants, but while scarcity of servants meant wages rose to a certain extent, domestic service remained menial. A general problem for women was domestic violence, widespread in Australia generally, almost certainly just as common in Tasmania, and migrant women without family to protect them were particularly vulnerable.14

Women were valued as civilising influences; as Elliston wrote in 1837, when women arrived in the colony, 'that improved tone was given to the community at large which the influence of the softer sex and well regulated home circles are sure to confer'. Even widely-criticised convict women were welcomed, as authorities believed that marriage with any woman reformed a man. This did sometimes happen, and the Quaker missionary Backhouse wrote approvingly of an ex-marine transformed by marriage from a slovenly drinker to a sober, industrious farmer. Not all women were so respectable, some sharing the characteristics of single men: Honoria Sheen was sentenced for having sexual intercourse in a public street, being drunk and using indecent language, drunk and disorderly, and disturbing the peace. On the whole, however, the responsibilities of marriage did force men to settle down, and Oxley claims that women's presence raised living standards, perhaps meaning somewhat the same as the nineteenth-century 'civilising influence'.15

The 1850s transformed Tasmanian society. Gold discovered on the mainland meant a third of the population went to try their luck. Most were men, often those rough single men: 'we got rid of our worst criminals'. Many did not return, and the gender ratio became more balanced, assisted by the end of convict transportation. The ratio of women to men jumped to 60:100, and became more equal as new population came increasingly through births. By the end of the century the ratio was 89:100.16

With independence in 1856, Tasmania's citizens were determined to leave the bad old convict days behind. One method pf demonstrating this was by good behaviour. Domestic virtues spread, and Tasmanian society became less 'masculine' – with drinking, swearing, violence, petty crime – and more 'feminine' – law-abiding, non-violent, 'decent'. But men still dominated public affairs, and women had no public role. On the rare occasions when women's place was discussed, it was described as housekeeping, family training, personal piety and good works. Any public activity by women could result in masculine criticism; in 1857 the suggestion of a female public speaker brought the response that this would mean destruction of 'the whole fabric of social life'. There are examples of women acting independently: some girls in 1857 who refused to allow a clergyman to dictate to them, prostitutes who refused to be saved, a woman who wrote in 1860 in defence of spinsters.17 But generally, the primacy of women's domestic role was unquestioned, as was men's dominance of public life.

In Britain, women's legal position was gradually improving, and without a great deal of local agitation, the Tasmanian parliament enacted similar laws, mainly because that they had already been passed in Britain. Many politicians were willing to pass laws seen as fair to women; Braddon, for example, supported 'any measure which proposed to raise the state of women and her position'. There was some opposition, particularly in the conservative Legislative Council, and notably with laws lessening men's control of money and parliament, but most laws were passed with little debate. Divorce and separation were made more equal between the sexes in 1860 and 1864; in 1862 the age of consent was raised from ten to twelve, and to fourteen in 1885 (despite many petitions asking for it to be sixteen); in 1873 deserted wives were assisted; in 1874 and 1887 women were given more child custody rights; and the 1879 Contagious Diseases Act, which some women protested against, was not as severe as its British counterpart. Married women were given more control over their property in 1882.18 This reasonably enlightened series of laws gave Tasmanian women many rights, in a similar way to other western societies.

From the 1880s, the period of first-wave feminism saw women's lives change considerably, though with a minimum of upset. The reason is unknown, but again it was probably outside influence, as there were no local originators of policies. There was no radical women's group like those of mainland states, probably because of Tasmania 's small size.

Education improved markedly, for both boys and girls. Until the 1880s, most children attended school, but learnt only basic literacy and numeracy. Expansion and reforms in both government and private schools meant that by 1914, boys and girls in equal numbers received an improved primary education, with 10 percent continuing to secondary school, and a few to the university. Both men and women could use this education to gain better employment, as industry, business and the retail sector developed. Opportunities increased for women, with a number of respectable careers established. Professions included nursing and teaching, with some women doctors, pharmacists, journalists and artists. Other careers were in office work, postal work and industry. The most common career was still domestic service, however, and in no area did women challenge men's dominance; either their jobs were in an entirely female zone such as nursing or cleaning, or women were not allowed to challenge men – women teachers in government schools had no chance of rising to senior levels. Women's wages were much lower: in 1907 the national Harvester Judgement saw women as dependent, and set their wages at 54 percent of men's. Nevertheless, there was more and better-paid employment, and women could support themselves by their own efforts, as an alternative to marriage. The percentage of women married fell.19

Women left the house for other reasons than work. There was a huge increase in women's clubs, formed for many reasons, such as philanthropy, intellectual interest, social activity and church work. Few were radical – no one could object if a woman left the home to attend a meeting of the Church of England Mothers ' Union – but they were run by women for women, and women showed that they were capable of organisation, public speaking and independent action. Women started playing sport, such as cricket, hockey, golf and tennis.20 Again, this took them out of the house, in a non-radical manner to which few objected.

Two societies tried to bring about major change. The Women's Sanitary Association (1891) tried, with little success, to bring about sanitary reform after a similar male association failed. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1892) tried, also unsuccessfully, to have temperance legalised, and, more successfully, to achieve the vote for women. It presented huge petitions to parliament, and in 1895, 1896 and 1898 the House of Assembly passed women's suffrage, but it was defeated in the Legislative Council. Finally, in 1903, more because women had won the vote federally than because of local efforts, Tasmanian women gained the vote.21

At the same time individual women, and men, were becoming more active. Transport improved, with public transport such as trains and trams, and private transport in bicycles, one female journalist commenting that Tasmanian women preferred to be liberated by the bicycle rather than the vote. Infant mortality and the birth rate were declining, mortality was improving slowly, and education was improving rapidly, factors which led to women's status generally rising. Women were far more visible, and newspapers spoke of 'these advanced days, when women are absolutely refusing to be dictated to by “mere man”', 'the peculiar age of women, who is now coming into her own'. A description of the country town of Parattah showed that women were responsible for most community activity: school, Sunday School, building the church and hall, establishing a croquet lawn, running the annual show. One man helped run the shop.22 Such activity can be overstated, however: women were not equal to men in status, most women still aimed to marry, domesticity was the major part of most women's lives, and no woman challenged men's public dominance.

Perhaps this was responsible for the lack of recorded complaint from men. Even when the Legislative Council failed to pass women's suffrage, it was more because, members said, they did not want to drag pure women into the rough and tumble of political life, than from any overt misogynism. Even if members felt this, they apparently did not feel they could state it. The most obvious reason is the hard work put in by women in establishing Tasmanian society. A female Launceston newspaper correspondent remarked, after reporting suffragette outrages, that Tasmanian women were fortunate to live in a society where there was 'no need to fight in an unwomanly way for justice'.23

There is less information about men's role, but as in the earlier period, there was less glorification of the Australian single male, as swearing, drinking, gambling, valuing mateship and independence: separatist, non-domestic, misogynistic.24 The groups which encouraged these attitudes – radicals, socialists, militarists, unionists, bohemians, outback workers – were small in Tasmania, sometimes non-existent, and the major men's groups, such as football and cricket clubs, and the strong influence of evangelical churches, encouraged a less aggressive masculinity: still practical and independent, but not quite so rough, nor so averse from feminine company and influence. Women's role was still mainly in the home, but men's too was largely there, as head of a family he worked to support.

Change in women's position halted during the First World War, when all across Australia, male soldiers were heroes, forging the national identity, with a stereotype male identity building on the already-strong ideal of the bushman. Some women became nurses, a few moved into men's jobs, and many worked, as did many men, to support 'our boys', and to either bring about or defeat conscription, but this activity mostly meant women remained in their familiar supportive role.25

More direct feminist protest also occurred. From 1917 to 1924 a group of middle-class women headed by Edith Waterworth fought strongly for reforms – improved public morality, a stronger public voice for women and better protection for women and children. They achieved much. The age of consent was raised to eighteen; women could enter parliament; women police and justices of the peace were appointed; sexual offences gained harsher sentences. But this made only a certain amount of difference. Women did not win the right to sit on juries until 1939, men still dominated public life, and widespread resistance to the campaign showed a general acceptance of the inequalities the women protested against. The Premier, Lee, said that women's place was in the home, and when Waterworth stood for parliament in 1922, she obtained only 6.5 percent of the vote. There were some examples of those other contemporary women rebels, flappers, though those in Tasmania were described as 'not wild'. Another symptom of women acting outside their prescribed role was that the divorce rate climbed dramatically. There were on average 6 divorces a year before the First World War, but this rose to 33 in 1919 and 35 in 1920, though many were soldier husbands divorcing wives who had committed adultery during the war.26

In the mid-1920s, as all over Australia, women's demands died down, though Waterworth continued to fight for social improvements in health, welfare and justice. There was a handful of women doctors; the first woman graduated in Law in 1931; industrial employment increased at factories like Cadburys, and Kelsall and Kemp. But the largest women's clubs, such as the National Council of Women and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, supported the status quo, and those women who stood for parliament and local councils failed. There is some evidence of mild, even jovial anti-domesticity in an all-male environment, the Electrolytic Zinc Works, but this does not appear widespread or bitter.27

During the Second World War, women were again active, though with little change to gender relations. Labour was in short supply and more women entered employment. Women's services were established, Mabel Miller becoming second-in-command in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Army Force. Enid Lyons was the first Australian woman member of the House of Representatives (1943), though since she was largely elected as her husband's widow, appearing to contemporary women 'like Mother Earth' because of her huge family, this was not a strong vote for feminism.28

The retreat by women into marriage and home-making after the Second World War has been well documented in Australia generally. It also occurred in Tasmania, but despite this, and despite the lack of a strong women's movement, there were gains in gender equality. In the decade from 1948, five women, Labor, Liberal and Independent, were elected to parliament, and other women sat on local councils. The National Council of Women, which had faded during the war, was revived with younger, more dynamic membership, and continued Waterworth's work for improvements in health, welfare and justice. More women, including married women, entered employment.29 Women's pay was gradually rising. Even in the 1960s, however, men were almost totally in control of public life and for most women, marriage remained the main career.

Change came with second-wave feminism in the early 1970s. Radical women's groups appeared – the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), and the Hobart Women's Action Group. WEL had most impact, gaining change in a wide range of issues: women's shelters and neighbourhood houses, more childcare, more equal employment and education, law reform concerning rape and domestic violence, more women in parliament, more women's health services, and removal of much discrimination against women. Gender relations became more equal, not only in theory, but, gradually, in practice. There was some opposition from men, who as in the 1890s did not say, or like to say, that women should stay at home, but claimed other rationales, such as a lack of toilet facilities for women. But the period saw women active in a variety of fields, notably Green politics, where many women were involved in campaigns and there were leaders like Brenda Hean and, later, Christine Milne and Peg Putt.

Since the 1970s Tasmania has seen the same changes as the rest of Australia: equal opportunity legislation; a lower marriage rate and a higher divorce rate, so that a smaller percentage of both genders are married; more women in employment; women forming 56 percent of university students; more women in public positions – female mayors, a female Leader of the Opposition in Sue Napier – and, generally, more equality, both legally and in practice, with some instances of people being judged for their ability rather than their gender. Women's networks have grown up, similar to long-standing male networks.30

But change has not been total. In 2004, women made up 18 percent of senior university staff, 25 percent of parliamentarians, 25 percent of local government representatives, 29 percent of senior executives in the public service, and there are no major female business leaders (though women head a number of smaller businesses); so while women have gained much equality in everyday life, Tasmanian public life is still dominated by men. Tasmania lags behind the mainland in this.31 Obviously there are some common factors – many women, knowing they are the primary family carers, are wary of applying for positions which will make this double job overwhelming – but there must be local reasons. Is it that Tasmania remains more conservative, because of its strong rural element, its fewer migrants to introduce new ideas, its isolation and small population?

For women employees, childbirth can impede a career, childcare is often inadequate, workplaces are seldom family-friendly, and women earn on average 88 percent of men's salaries. Single mothers have high unemployment and low earnings,32 domestic violence is a problem. But, as all throughout Tasmania's European history, the situation is generally accepted in the community, and most of Tasmania's men and women seem outwardly content, or at least quiescent, about gender relations.

Alison Alexander

1. Michael Roper, 'Masculinity', in G Davison, J Hirst and S Macintyre (eds), Oxford Companion to Australian history, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp 414-15.
2. Quoted in EF Benson, Queen Victoria: an illustrated biography, London: Chatto and Windus, 1987, p 67.
3. A Alexander, 'The public role of women in Tasmania, 1803–1914', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania, 1989, p 183.
4. Martha Vicinus, Independent women, London: Virago, 1985, p. 4; FK Prochaska, Women and philanthropy in 19 th Century England, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980, pp 1, 3; M Sturma, '“Eye of the beholder”: the stereotype of women convicts, 1788–1852', Labour History, 34, pp 3-10.
5. Many family histories depict this: for example, Lois Nyman, The von Bibra story, South Hobart: the author, 1996.
6. For example, in Alison Alexander, Governors' ladies, Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1987: Martha Hayes, Mary Hayes, Hannah Power, Maria Lord, Jane Franklin, Charlotte Garrett.
7. Statistics of Tasmania 1804 to 1850, population figures annually.
8. D Oxley, Convict maids: the forced migration of women to Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p 181.
9. See Russel Ward, The Australian legend, Sydney: Oxford University Press, 1958, passim.
10. Kirsty Reid, 'Family matters: settler colonialism, domesticity and power', talk given to Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, Hobart, 23 July 2003: publication forthcoming; John R Weeks, Population: an introduction to concepts and issues, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co, 1999, p 394.
11. John West, The history of Tasmania, edited by AGL Shaw, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1981, p 517; Rev William Cowper, quoted in Oxley, p 182; A Alexander, The Eastern Shore: a history of Clarence, Rosny Park: Clarence City Council, 2003, p 30.
12. West, p 121; Nyman passim; A Alexander Obliged to submit: wives and mistresses of colonial governors, Hobart: Montpelier Press, 1999, p 15.
13. Statistics of Tasmania 1847 states that in 1847, when there were 38 adult women to 100 men, 70 percent of women were married, but this figure does not show those in de facto relationships nor those young women who would eventually marry. Statistics of Tasmania 1847, population figures; See Patricia Grimshaw, 'Women and the family in Australian history' in Elizabeth Windschuttle(ed), Women, class and history, Melbourne: Fontana/Collins, 1980, p 42.
14. See C Leakey, The Broad Arrow, London: R Bentley, 1887, passim, for the attitude to servants and their hard work. Advertisements for free immigrant women claimed that servants could obtain desirable positions and good wages (Oxley, p 180), but this does meant these conditions actually existed in Australia; Marian Aveling, 'Bending the bars: convict women and the state' in K Saunders and R Evans (eds), Gender Relations in Australia, Sydney: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1992, p 152.
15. WG Elliston, Elliston's Hobart Town almanack, and Ross's Van Diemen's Land annual, for 1837, Hobart Town: WG Elliston, 1837, p 64; see also Katrina Alford, Production or reproduction, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1984, p 7; James Backhouse, Extracts from the letters of James Backhouse, now engaged in a religious visit to Van Diemen's Land, and New South Wales, accompanied by George Washington Walker, London: Harvey and Darton, 1837, p 41; Peter MacFie 'From prize-fights, poker games & profanities to ploughing matches & other games: making pastimes respectable in 19th century Tasmania', in THRA P&P 49/2, pp 144-5; Oxley, pp 182-3, 238.
16. CE Walch, The story of the life of Charles Edward Walch, Hobart: privately printed, 1908, p 31; Statistics of Tasmania 1860; Census returns, 1881, 1891, 1901.
17. Ladies' Bazaar 1/1, 1857, Tasmaniana Library; Tasmanian Daily News, 11 November 1857; Alexander, 'The public role', pp 332, 335.
18. Alexander, 'The public role', p 310, 313; .Mercury, 11 July 1882.
19. Alexander, 'The public role', p 18.; Colin Forster, 'Aspects of Australian fertility, 1861–1901', Australian Economic History Review XIV, 1974, p 118.
20. Alexander, 'The public role', pp 192-224, 275-282.
21. Alexander, 'The public role', pp 225-241.
22. Tasmanian Mail, 19 September 1896, 28 July 1910, 7 December 1911; Tasmanian Year Book 2000, Hobart, 2000, p. 306; Daily Post 1 November 1912.
23. See debates reported in the Mercury, 1895 and 1903, for example 31 July 1895; Daily Post, 6 December 1913
24. Roper, pp 414-5.
25. Roper, p 414; Diary of Agnes Hanslow, 1917–19 passim, in the possession of Mrs Betty Marmion, Bellerive; Stefan Petrow, 'Boiling over: Edith Waterworth and criminal law reform in Tasmania 1917–1924', Tasmanian Historical Studies, 4/2, 1994, p 10.
26. Petrow passim; Interview with Cynthia Alexander 13 May 2004; she remembered female relations who were thin, glamorous and danced the Charleston; SC89, AOT. Of 34 examples between 1917 and 1922, 97 were men divorcing wives for adultery (27) and desertion (2), and 5 were women divorcing husbands, for cruelty and desertion.
27. Barbara Cameron, 'The Flappers and the feminists: a study of women's emancipation in the 1920s', in Margaret Bevege et al, Worth her salt: women at work in Australia, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982, p 265; Petrow, p17; A Alexander and S Petrow, Hobart 1846-2000, forthcoming publication; The Zinc Works' employees' journal, the Electrode, sometimes printed mildly anti-domestic jokes which assumed home was a place of nagging with strict control by the wife: but it is hard to know how much to read into this. Many jokes were obviously syndicated, possibly including the above; and they are not extremely misogynistic. Electrode, Tasmaniana Library.
28. Interview with Cynthia Alexander, 13 May 2004.
29. M Tipping, 'On war and reconstruction: a memoir', and P Rehak, 'Helen Harbour: housewife of the 1950s', in M Lake and F Kelly (eds), Double Time: women in Victoria, 150 years, Melbourne: Penguin, 1985; R Jordan, 'National Council of Women', in A Alexander (ed) , The Companion to Tasmanian History, Hobart: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, 2005; 'Milestones for Tasmanian Women', Women Tasmania website,
30.; A web search show up a huge number of organisations: Tasmanian Women's Health Network, Women's Opportunities Network, Womensport Network, Tasmanian Women in Agriculture, Women in Science, Tasmanian Women's Council, Labor Women's Network, and so on.
31. Information gained from Women Tasmania; University of Tasmania, Equal Opportunity Report, 2002, p 36 (statistics for 2003),; The University of Tasmania, for example, has the third lowest figure in the nation for women in senior position, out of 38 universities. Christine Goodacre, Director, Flexible Education Unit, 12 December 2003.
32. Information gained from Women Tasmania. In November 2003, men full-time employees earned an average of $868 a week, and women $765 a week; Maggie Walter, 'Working their way out of poverty?' 2002.