Why do you think Lindy did it?

The Chamberlain Case has divided the nation since the late 1980s. It is often thought that women were Lindy Chamberlain’s harshest critics and that they were convinced that she had murdered 9 week old Azaria at Ayers Rock  in 1980.

But were Australian women really against her and why?

Women’s perceptions of Lindy can be gauged through her representation in The Australian Women’s Weekly coverage and the private letters Australian women wrote to Lindy throughout her ordeal.

During the trials, Lindy’s bad reputation was established through her inappropriate fashion, obscure demeanour and unorthodox reactions which isolated her from public sympathy. However The Australian Women’s Weekly emphasised her role in the family as mother, house-keeper and wife as evidence of her innocence. In the interview that occurred after Lindy’s release from prison Michael is asked if he approves of her physical and behavioural changes which prove to be “much to [his] consternation”[1] , questioning whether she can remain a good wife and mother and innocent. The same interview also ties Lindy to her domestic role by suggesting “her first task when she got home was to clean out the cupboards” [2] because the messy house “obviously” [3] distressed her.  Goldsworthy and Middleweek argue that such representations are part of a broader trend of perpetuating sexist stereotypes of Lindy Chamberlain in the press and reflected broader anxieties about gender in the 1980s.[4]

Lindy’s appearance also became a central focus of The Weekly. The coverage traces her from the figure of a plump woman with a fringe and pageboy haircut[5] to her physical transformation after prison  Whereas her heterosexual attractiveness was seen as offensive and too sexy during the trial, after the trial it is acceptable for The Weekly to flaunt her looks. By 2000, the only time her appearance is mentioned is in a totally unrelated and inappropriately placed reference to her weight: “She is looking forward to the future, though she frets about her weight which has ballooned since her release from jail.”[6] This suggests that The Australian Women’s Weekly attempted to alleviate societal anxieties about the role of women in the 1980s and by representing her as a mother, housewife and attractive woman The Weekly assured the public that she was above suspicion.


The opening of the Chamberlain Archive at the National Museum shed light on women’s private thoughts and challenged the sexist assumption that women were Lindy’s harshest critics. In fact ninety percent of the letters in the Chamberlain Archive were composed by women who “passionately and devotedly” supported Lindy.[7]  A significant proportion of the women who wrote to Lindy characterised themselves as ordinary women and privately determined Lindy’s innocence through universal understandings of ideal motherhood. One “mother of three children, [who] related to [her] trauma” had spent “many silent hours distressed about [her] situation”[8] and others read her “as only another mother in trouble could.”[9] The letters reveal that despite the evidence for or against Lindy in court, women privately relied on their own personal understanding of maternity and called on their own experiences as mothers to determine their verdict which concluded that she was an innocent victim of the system.

Others responded to the injustice Lindy faced emotionally with one woman communicating that “some days the horror of your plight comes over me and I’m often on the verge of tears.”[10]Many of the letters demonstrate the trauma and collective grief that women experienced as a result of the Chamberlain’s ordeal.  Women also recognised and were critical of the media and society’s gender biases. One particular letter-writer recognised that Lindy was condemned because she was different[11] and another noted that her lack of emotion and performance of ‘natural’ reactions to trauma led to her conviction by the media.[12] Women admired this about her. One woman wrote that “you are … not given to hysterics of grief. You hid this shock of grief and were sent to jail.”[13] I would argue that women welcomed such a confident, modern female role model after the developments of 1970s women’s liberation and that her challenge to traditional stereotypes was increasingly accepted over time. Lindy Chamberlain became “a twentieth century heroine”[14] for Australian women.

So, Australian women understood and identified with Lindy Chamberlain as a mother and family woman and decided her guilt or innocence based on these features. The evidence takes a back seat. This is both interesting and unsettling. It begs the question, how do we judge more recent public women such as Joanne Lees and Schapelle Corby?


[1] Munday, Duncan & Goldie, “The Lindy Chamberlain Story”,he Australian Women’s Weekly, March 1986, p. 6.

[2] Munday, Duncan & Goldie, “The Lindy Chamberlain Story”, he Australian Women’s Weekly, March 1986, p. 11.

[3] Munday, Duncan &  Goldie, “The Lindy Chamberlain Story”,  The Australian Women’s Weekly, March 1986, p. 11.

[4] Middleweek, “Dingo Media?” R v Chamberlain as a model for an Australian Media Event (Honours Thesis, University of Sydney, 2000), p. 118.

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[5] Munday, Duncan & Goldie, “The Lindy Chamberlain Story”,  p. 11

[6]

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M. Sheather, “Lindy’s Pilgrimage: Rock of Tears,” The Australian Women’s Weekly, August 2000, p. 33.

[7] Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005, p. 36.

[8] Woman from Cairne, Western Australia quoted in Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005,  p. 27.

[9] NSW Mother (1989) quoted in Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005, p. 45.

[10] 67 year old great grandmother from South Australia quoted in Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005,  p. 43.

[11] Woman from Cairne, Western Australia quoted in Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005,  p. 27.

[12] Quoted in Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005, p.40.

[13] Grandmother (1996) quoted in Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005,  p. 65.

[14]

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Quoted in Howe, Lindy Chamberlain Revisited, 2005, p. 63.

 

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[1]


[1] Munday, Duncan & Goldie, “The Lindy Chamberlain Story”,  p. 6.

One comment on “Why do you think Lindy did it?

  1. Emma Cardwell says:

    Rhiannon,
    Your blog is great! I think the way you have used a combination of scholarly sources and general sources such as newspapers. I think this makes the article more accessible for the standard reader. The Lindy Camberlaine case was so relevant two decades ago but you have been able to make it more relevant for today’s readership by linking the case to the Joanne Lees & Shapelle Corby cases. This really made the story resonate with me and other readers. Rhiannon your article was concise and well written, good job!

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