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Office for Women

Life in 1894

In England during the Victorian era, women were idealised as being morally superior to men, considered to be always cheerful, dutiful and good, providing a strong moral base for her family. This continued into life outside the home, with some women becoming involved in social movements in their communities such as campaigns to abolish slavery. Industrialisation brought women into contact with poverty, alcoholism and disease however their will to bring about positive change was stalled by their lack of political agency.

Poorer women worked as a temporary means of supporting themselves until they could depend on a husband however the 1840s brought the opportunity for young men to emigrate to colonies or join armies leaving many women without this chance of support.

Being an unmarried woman, or 'spinster', was unthinkable for women of all backgrounds given the prevailing social attitudes at the time, which viewed marriage as the only legitimate place for women, where they could be a 'helpmeet' or 'complement' to their husband. By not being married, a middle-class woman lived in shame and was prevented from working as this would have been out of the question. A working-class woman would have taken up factory or domestic work to scrape out a living.

At this time, many women took advantage of the opportunity to emigrate to colonies where marriage prospects were better than at home in England. This was an extremely brave thing for a young woman to do at the time, as it was unlikely that she would return from this long, difficult journey.

Following its colonisation in 1836, South Australian settlers lived under British common law which made women subordinate to men. This meant that they were subject first to their fathers, and then when they got married, subject to their husbands. Their property, income and children were the legal property of their husbands.

As the nineteenth century rolled on however, certain progressive legislative changes began to occur that separated women's legal identity from this archaic system, such as the 1858 Matrimonial Causes Act that allowed divorce, and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1861 that allowed owner/occupiers of property (including women) to vote in local government elections.

A nationwide depression in the early 1890s meant that many women had to seek work to assist in supporting their families, and by 1891, 19% of breadwinners were women (although at considerably lower wages than men). This, coupled with the fact that the only work women could get was menial labour, prompted some to band together, leading Mary Lee, Agnes Milne and Augusta Zadow to form the Working Women's Trade Union in 1890. This was the beginning of a movement for the rights of women in the workplace, home and society, culminating in many ways in the push for women's suffrage.


Meredith McLean (1981) 'Votes for Women, 1894-1928', Constitutional Museum Exhibition 20 February - 24 July 1981 and

Bonnie Ramsay (1994) 'The Enfranchisement of Women in South Australia', essay in 'Cabbages and kings: selected essays in history and Australian studies', Department of History and Australian Studies, Murray Park College of Advanced Education, 1973-1996.

Page last updated : 15 Jan 2020

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Last Updated:
06 Nov 2023
Printed on:
08 Dec 2023
The Office for Women website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Australia Licence. © 2016