Elite women of nineteenth century south-east Queensland : their role, independence, status and power within the family

Davies, Hilary Joan. (1996). Elite women of nineteenth century south-east Queensland : their role, independence, status and power within the family M.A. Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Davies, Hilary Joan.
Thesis Title Elite women of nineteenth century south-east Queensland : their role, independence, status and power within the family
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1996
Thesis type M.A. Thesis
Total pages 210
Language eng
Subjects 210303 Australian History (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History)
Formatted abstract
      Much has been written about the low status of women in Australia in the late twentieth century. In attempting to explain this phenomenon, historians looked to the pioneering phase of Australia's settlement for the possible origins. It has been stated that the status and power of women was diminished by their dependence upon men during this period of development.

      After the initial attempts by feminist writers to provide generalised analysis of the experiences of women in Australia in the nineteenth century, the belief arose that class, age, race, region and time of settlement (regional development) were all factors which influenced their experiences.

      Before an overall picture can be formed of the commonality of women's experiences in Australia, studies of identifiable groups of women within cogent regions must be undertaken.

      Sufficient evidence remains of the lives of upper middle-class or elite women in south-east Queensland, comprising the Moreton Bay and Darling Downs pastoral districts, for just such a study to be conducted. Letters, diaries and reminiscences of this literate stratum of women cover the period 1843 to 1900. The settlement and development of south-east Queensland up to the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia coincided with the lengthy Victorian period which was a time of change for women's aspirations and lifestyles.

      To discern whether upper middle-class women gained, retained or lost status, independence and power because of the pioneering experience within south-east Queensland, it is necessary to compare their models (lifestyle aspirations) and modes (actual style) of life with those of their contemporary British equivalents.

      It was from Victorian Britain that these upper middle-class women drew their roles, attitudes and behaviour. These models of life for women underwent significant change in Britain during this period as the burgeoning middle-classes looked to those above them for ideals and patterns of behaviour. When the ideals of marriage, family and home could not be fulfilled in practice, single women began to seek independent lives outside domestic patriarchy.

      The changing models of life of Victorian British middle-class women as well as the region's development influenced the lives of women in southeast Queensland.

      Upper middle-class women in Britain moved from the 'perfect wife' mode of life to that of the 'perfect lady' in the first part of the Victorian era. The 'perfect wife' was actively involved in housework and childcare as part of her role of helpmeet to her husband, assisting in the economic progress of the family. In contrast, the 'perfect lady' was supervisor of the servants who performed the housework and cared for the children. She carried out social duties in the form of entertaining, calling on suitable middle-class acquaintances and friends and generally maintaining or enhancing the family's status in this manner.

      Single women were prepared for marriage by learning the skills necessary to run a home. The emphasis changed from performing the tasks to supervising those who did as the 'perfect lady' ideal was adopted. However, as the century progressed the percentage of women in Britain who married decreased. As marriage became a less likely option, single women began to pursue education and employment, living independently outside the home - the so-called 'new woman' mode of life.

      In south-east Queensland, the physical independence of women was limited during the pioneering phase of development increasing as the region developed over the next fifty years until it equalled that possessed by women of similar rank in Britain.

      The status of elite married women in south-east Queensland was high for most of the period because of women's involvement in the early phases of settlement. It declined as the perfect lady mode which separated the spheres of employment of men and women became not only the aspiration but the achievement of upper middle-class women.

      For unmarried elite women, residence in south-east Queensland, particularly during the early period of settlement, allowed them relatively independent lives removed from the strictures of Victorian society and promoted their status within their families as they assisted in achieving the goal of economic success.

      Married and single elite women possessed delegated or influential power rather than real power derived from economic independence and legal rights. For both groups influential power was dependent upon the status of the women and the quality of the personal relationship each held with the patriarch of the family.

      The conclusion can be made that upper middle-class women in south-east Queensland did not lose independence, status or power in comparison with their British counterparts over the period 1840 to 1900 despite the rigours of the pioneering experience. Rather than isolation reducing women's status it was the growing uselessness prescribed by the perfect lady mode which de-skilled them and made work beneath their rank, leaving them vulnerable to a changing view of productive work whereby value became ascribed to paid employment only.

Keyword Upper class -- Queensland -- History -- 19th century
Women -- Queensland -- History -- 19th century
Queensland -- History -- 1824-1900

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (non-RHD) - UQ staff and students only
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Created: Thu, 14 Jan 2010, 11:10:49 EST by Ms Christine Heslehurst on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service