Housekeepers of the state: Women and Citizenship in Australia, 1900-1930s

“There is much that women themselves can do to raise the status (of domestic service)…and so shall the whole domestic atmosphere of our country be better and brighter…”

The Australian Woman’s Sphere 10th July 1903

Nowadays we do not often have cause to think about our individual relationship to the Australian state.  We might, on occasions, feel wronged by the government, ignored and overtaxed.  We might disagree with the latest development in immigration policy or feel misrepresented by our government’s sluggish human rights record, but we rarely think of ourselves as citizens.  Voters, swing voters, or members of minority or lobby groups perhaps, but not citizens.  When we think of citizen’s organisations we picture a handful of earnest grey heads huddled over the latest proposal for graffiti removal at the local shops, the echoes of their eager suggestions bouncing off one another before landing in the dusty corners of the old church hall.

It has not always been this way.  Citizenship was a charged concept that carried much social significance in Australia in the first few decades of the twentieth century.   Despite the strong link between masculinity and the Australian national identity, the swaggering and independent bushman was not the only figure to vie for status on the Australian social and political stage.  Having gained the vote in the lead up to federation, women’s organisations of every political hue, conservative and radical alike turned their attentions to how the vote should be used.  In short, they began to enter into what might be usefully described as citizenship debates.  They were involved in local affairs, in school milk campaigns, in child endowment, contraception and equal wage campaigns, and helped to widen the base of female participation in the public sphere, and create an image for politically engaged women beyond that of the ‘shrieking’ suffragette.   The concept of maternal citizenship emerged at this time and became the basis from which women sought not only to be ‘let in’ but to bring about what historian Alison Holland (2001) has called the ‘feminisation’ of Australian public policy.


Breadwinners and bread losers

Social welfare and social reform were high on the agendas of women’s organisations.  Calls for female police and prison wardens, maternity hospitals and child health services, children’s courts, kindergartens, prison reform, the raising of the age of consent and wage parity, not only aimed to soothe the impact of specific disadvantages, such as child and family poverty, but also to lay bare the systemic injustice that caused social problems.  To redress the problematic dependency of women and children on men’s ‘good grace’, women argued for the introduction of a maternity or child endowment scheme ( similar to our present Family Tax Payment) and fought for equal wages.  In doing such they cast themselves as protectors of families and children, as mothers of a wayward society that needed maternal guidance to treat its members in a caring, equitable and civilised way.  It was also a demand for material affirmation of their citizenship status as women, for ‘economic citizenship’ as Alice Kessler-Harris calls it (2003).   Historian Marilyn Lake (1990) has argued that working class women developed the concept of maternal citizenship in order to topple the paradigm of the breadwinner citizen and the soldier citizen that had come to define Australian citizenship.  By appealing to the qualities that motherhood offered to the public sphere, women were insisting that they had an important role to play in the decision making and housekeeping of the state.  It was not only a matter of equal rights then, but a responsibility to ensure the ‘application of morality to politics’.

“Spiritual growth (emancipation?) through citizenship”

Women’s periodicals during this period reveal the level of engagement with political debates and the extent of women’s efforts to be involved in how their society was run.  It was not only the overtly political publications such as Woman Voter and Socialist Woman that contained discussions about citizenship though.  Citizenship themes popped up in unlikely places.  As avowedly political women were insisting that the state was in need of a feminine influence, women’s lifestyle magazines such as The Australian Women’s Mirror were asserting that motherhood was not a pastime, but a science.   In the Journal of the Progressive Housewives Association, editor Mrs Portia Geach declared in 1935 “Let us have spiritual growth through citizenship”.   Nor was it only the lifestyle magazines that valorised motherhood.   In the Woman Voter, amidst rousing articles about equal pay, equal marriage and divorce, political education, equal custody, analyses of war, parliamentary representation, juvenile street trading, fiercely and overtly political women regularly referred  to the importance of mothers and ‘enlightened motherhood’.   A diverse cross-section of women were involved, then, in elevating the status of women within the domestic and the public spheres, and there was considerable overlap between lifestyle and political periodicals at the time.

Of course there were limits to ‘maternal citizenship’.   There has been some historical debate about whether, in emphasising their maternity, women were writing the terms of their 1950’s entrapment within the gilded cage of the domestic sphere.   It is also clear that although the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Women’s Services Guild, as well as many individual women, campaigned during the 1930’s for the rights of Aboriginal women and their families, they were maternalistic and failed to critique the prevailing paternalism of government organisations like the Aborigines Protection Board.  The concept of citizenship was salient at the time and provided women with a way to frame their demands for public participation, and although theirs were deeply gendered and not always inclusive articulations of citizenship, the legacy of their social welfare emphasis remains in Australia’s comprehensive social security system.

Hearn, Mark.  ‘Making Liberal Citizens: Justice Higgins and His Witnesses’.  Labour History 93 (2007): 57-72. <;dn=884636983173065;res=IELHSS&gt; ISSN: 0023-6942.

Holland, Alison.  “Wives and Daughters Like Ourselves?: Exploring white women’s intervention in the politics of race, 1920s-1940s”.  Australian Historical Studies, 117 (2001): pp. 292-310.

Kessler-Harris, Alice.  “In Pursuit of Economic Citizenship”.  International Studies in Gender, State and Society 10 (2003): pp. 157-175

Lake, Marilyn.  “The Independence of Women and the Brotherhood of man:  Debates in the Labour movement over equal pay and motherhood endowment in the 1920’s”. In Same Difference: Feminism and sexual difference, ed. Carol Bacchi, Sydney: 1990, pp. 1-24.

The Woman Voter, Mitchel Library

The Journal of the Progressive Housewives Association, Mitchell Library

The Women’s Daily Mirror, Mitchell Library


One comment on “Housekeepers of the state: Women and Citizenship in Australia, 1900-1930s

  1. bejglover says:

    I often find it difficult to read articles concerning feminism as they tend to sway too far to one side. However, I really enjoyed your article. You did a really good job at capturing the reader in your first paragraph and relating to them. You used examples from a modern context before you took the reader back to the past where women fought for citizenship and how this came about. You also had a good balance between quotes and your own writing. Your tone in the article made it easy to read and because of this, I read it all the way through and actually learnt a few things along the way. I think this article could be easily read by people outside of the world of academia and even more easily enjoyed.

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