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Women in Australia

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Women in Australia
Australian women having tea on a verandah in 1910
General Statistics
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)6 (2015)
Women in parliament30.5% (2015)
Women over 25 with secondary education91.4% (2015)
Women in labour force58.6% (2015)
Gender Inequality Index[1]
Value0.073 (2021)
Rank19th out of 191
Global Gender Gap Index[2]
Value0.738 (2022)
Rank43rd out of 146

Women in Australia refers to women's demographic and cultural presence in Australia. Australian women have contributed greatly to the country's development, in many areas. Historically, a masculine bias has dominated Australian culture.[3] Since 1984, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) has prohibited sex discrimination throughout Australia in a range of areas of public life, including work, accommodation, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services, the activities of clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs, though some residual inequalities still persist.

In 2017, Australia was ranked the world's safest country for women by the New World Wealth research group.[4]


Colonial New South Wales[edit]

Year Males Females Total
1788[5] 529 188 717
1790[5] 297 70 367
1800[5] 1,230 328 1,558
1805[5] 1,561 516 2,077
1819[5] 8,920 1,066 9,986
1828[5] 16,442 1,544 17,986
1836[5] 25,254 2,577 27,831
1841[5] 23,844 3,133 26,977

Australia was established in 1788 as a penal colony. The population was predominantly male, with between 1788 and 1792, around 3546 male and 766 female convicts being landed at Sydney.[6] This severe gender imbalance created a lot of social problems. Some of the women engaged in prostitution due to their economic circumstances, and because of the gender imbalance.[7] The colonial administrations were anxious to address the gender imbalance. The first attempt to redress this imbalance was the voyage of the Lady Juliana, a ship chartered to carry only female convicts to New South Wales, but which became notorious on the trip and was nicknamed "the floating brothel".[8] European men would also exchange European goods for sexual services from Aboriginal women.[9]

Women came to play an important role in education and welfare during colonial times. Governor Macquarie's wife, Elizabeth Macquarie took an interest in convict women's welfare.[10] Her contemporary Elizabeth Macarthur was noted for her 'feminine strength' in assisting the establishment of the Australian merino wool industry during her husband John Macarthur's enforced absence from the colony following the Rum Rebellion.[11] The Catholic Sisters of Charity arrived in 1838 and set about providing pastoral care in a women's prison, visiting hospitals and schools and establishing employment for convict women. They established hospitals in four of the eastern states, beginning with St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney in 1857 as a free hospital for all people, but especially for the poor.[12] Many other Irish nuns established hospitals and schools.[13] Caroline Chisholm (1808–1877) established a migrant women's shelter and worked for women's welfare in the colonies in the 1840s. Her humanitarian efforts later won her fame in England and great influence in achieving support for families in the colony.[14] Sydney's first Catholic bishop, John Bede Polding founded an Australian order of nuns—the Sisters of the Good Samaritan—in 1857 to work in education and social work.[15] The Sisters of St Joseph were founded in South Australia by Saint Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods in 1867.[16][17] MacKillop travelled throughout Australasia and established schools, convents and charitable institutions. She was canonised by Benedict XVI in 2010, becoming the first Australian to be so honoured by the Catholic Church.[18]

The humanitarian, Caroline Chisholm was a leading advocate for women's issues and family friendly colonial policy.

Late 19th-century suffrage[edit]

South Australian suffragette Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910). In 1895 women in South Australia were among the first in the world to attain the vote and were the first to be able to stand for parliament.

Australia had led the world in bringing women's suffrage rights during the late 19th century. Propertied women in the colony of South Australia were granted the vote in local elections (but not parliamentary elections) in 1861. Henrietta Dugdale formed the first Australian women's suffrage society in Melbourne in 1884. Women became eligible to vote for the Parliament of South Australia in 1895. This was the first legislation in the world permitting women also to stand for election to political office and, in 1897, Catherine Helen Spence became the first female political candidate for political office, unsuccessfully standing for election as a delegate to the Federal Convention on Australian Federation. Western Australia granted voting rights to qualified non-aboriginal women in 1899.[19][20]


Women energetically participated in the war effort, with few signs of defeatism or resistance to government policies.[21] In 1922, the Country Women's Association was formed with the intention to improve the lives of women in rural Australia. It has since expanded to become the largest women's organisation in the country.[citation needed]

Since 1945[edit]

In the Second World War, government propaganda encouraged women to contribute to the war effort by joining one of the female branches of the armed forces or joining the labour force

In 1974, the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration granted women the full adult wage. However, resistance to women being employed in certain industries remained until well into the 1970s. Because of obstruction from elements of the Unions movement, it would take until 1975 for women to be admitted as drivers on Melbourne's trams, and Sir Reginald Ansett refused to allow women to train as pilots as late as 1979.[22] In 1984, the Sex Discrimination Act became enforced, making sex-based discrimination and sexual harassment illegal.[23] Criminalization of marital rape in Australia began with the state of New South Wales in 1981, followed by all other states from 1985 to 1992.[24]

Analytical writings[edit]

Until the 1960s, the Australian national character was typically masculine.[3][25] Only in more recent decades has attention been paid to the role and marginal status of women and minority groups. One of the earliest studies on the role of women in Australian culture was conducted by Miriam Dixson in her 1975 study, The Real Matilda.[3] Dixson concluded that there was deep contempt for women in the Australian ethos and that the only role for women was within the family.[3]

Marilyn Lake argues that the first stage of women's history in the 1970s demonstrated an angry tone, with a revolutionary critique that reflected its close connections with the women's liberation movement. By the late 20th century, women's history was less strident and more thoroughly integrated into social history and labour history. In the 21st century, the emphasis has turned to a broader horizon of "gender relations", which includes such concepts as femininity and masculinity.[26]

Reproductive rights and health[edit]

Abortion in Australia was illegal in all circumstances until 1969, when the Menhennitt ruling in the R v Davidson case held that an abortion was legal if the physical or mental health or the life of the woman was endangered.[27] That principle has become accepted throughout Australia. As of 2019, abortion on demand was legal (up to certain limits) in all Australian states and territories except for South Australia.[28][29] It is estimated that a quarter to a third of Australian women will have an abortion in their lifetime,[30] and the right to an abortion has strong popular support.[31]

According to a 2017 study, abortions in Australia have an average cost of $560 after receiving the Medicare rebate, with some women also incurring extra costs from travel, accommodation, GP referrals, lost wages, childcare and medical tests. 34% of women surveyed reported they found payment for abortions difficult or very difficult.[32] The maternal mortality rate in Australia is 5.5 deaths/100,000 live births as of 2015.[33]

Australia, as of 2014, had a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.8 babies born/woman, reflecting a sub-replacement fertility rate; the replacement rate is 2.1 children born/woman.[34] This TFR has a recorded low of 1.74 in 2001, and a record high of 3.55 in 1961.[35] The TFA has been below the replacement level since 1976.[34]

Women in politics[edit]

Despite being given the right to stand for federal election in 1902,[36] women were not present for the first 20 years of Australian politics until the 1921 election of Edith Cowan to the West Australian Legislative Assembly,[37] and were not represented federally until the 1943 federal election when Dorothy Tangney and Enid Lyons were elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively.[38][39] Lyons would go on to become the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in Robert Menzies' 1949 ministry.[40] Women would not go on to lead a state or territory until Rosemary Follett was elected Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory in 1989.[36] Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was appointed in 2010.[41][42]

Since the 1970s, women have received increasing representation in the parliament. Despite examples such as in 2010 females holding every position above them in Sydney, (Clover Moore as Lord Mayor, Kristina Keneally as Premier of New South Wales, Marie Bashir as Governor of New South Wales, Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, Quentin Bryce as Governor-General of Australia and Elizabeth II as Queen of Australia)[36] they still remain a minority in federal parliament, and as of 2021 number 37.9% (31.1% in the House of Representatives and 51.3% in the Senate),[43] an increase of 5.9% from the previous election.[44]

Dame Roma Mitchell was made the first female Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia in 1965, at the recommendation of Don Dunstan, South Australia's 38th Attorney-General.[45] She was still the only female judge in South Australia when she retired 18 years later in 1983 although Justices Elizabeth Evatt and Mary Gaudron had been appointed to federal courts by the Whitlam Government. It was not until 1993 that the second woman was appointed to the court, Mitchell's former student, Margaret Nyland.

Gender equality[edit]

Towards the end of the 19th century, married women first acquired the rights to hold property of their own, sue and be sued, enter into contracts, be subject to bankruptcy laws, be liable for the debts contracted before their marriage, and for the maintenance of their children. They acquired the same rights as held by unmarried women. Victoria passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1884, New South Wales in 1879, and the remaining states between 1890–97.

A marriage bar had applied to employment of women in a large number of industries. The Commonwealth Public Service Act 1902 provided that every female officer was "deemed to have retired from the Commonwealth service upon her marriage".[46][47] The very great majority of women were effectively blocked from non-secretarial positions in the Commonwealth Public Service. In 1949 women were allowed into the clerical division of the service. In November 1966, Australia was the last democratic country to lift the legislated marriage bar which had prevented married women from holding permanent positions in the public service.[46]

The immunity for marital rape, whereby a spouse (typically the husband) could insist on sexual intercourse with the other spouse without their consent, was removed in all states and territories, either by statute or judicial decision, between late 1970s and early 1990s. The first Australian state to deal with marital rape was South Australia, under the progressive initiatives of Premier Don Dunstan, which in 1976 partially removed the exemption. Section 73 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act Amendment Act 1976 (SA) read: "No person shall, by reason only of the fact that he is married to some other person, be presumed to have consented to sexual intercourse with that other person".[48]

Since 1983, a married woman has been able to apply for an Australian passport without needing an authorisation from her husband.[49]

Since 1984, the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984 has prohibited discrimination throughout Australia on the basis of mainly sexism, homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, as well as sex, marital or relationship status, actual or potential pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status or breastfeeding in a range of areas of public life, including work, accommodation, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services, the activities of clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs.

In 1991, the marriage age in Australia of females was increased from 16 to 18, the age that had applied to males.[50]

At November 2020, Australia’s national gender pay gap was 13.4%, with women’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings across all industries and occupations being $1,562.00 compared to $1,804.20 for men.[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Human Development Report 2021/2022" (PDF). HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORTS. Retrieved 6 October 2022.
  2. ^ "Global Gender Gap Report 2022" (PDF). World Economic Forum. Retrieved 15 February 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d Schaffer, Kay (1988). Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition. Cambridge University Press. pp. 5–7. ISBN 978-0521368162. Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  4. ^ Australia, Chris Pash, Business Insider. "The 10 safest countries in the world for women". Business Insider. Retrieved 2019-03-23. {{cite web}}: |first= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Summers, Anne. Damned Whores and God's Police. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.
  6. ^ Fletcher, B. H. "Biography – Arthur Phillip – Australian Dictionary of Biography". Adbonline.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  7. ^ Perkins, Roberta (1991). Working girls: prostitutes, their life and social control. Australian studies in law, crime and justice. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. ISBN 0-642-15877-0.
  8. ^ "Australia's tragic beginnings: The grotesque story of the Second fleet". www.news.com.au. Retrieved 2019-03-29.
  9. ^ Frances, Raelene (2007). Selling Sex: A Hidden History of Prostitution. UNSW Press. ISBN 978-0-86840-901-6.
  10. ^ Barnard, Marjorie. "Macquarie, Elizabeth Henrietta (1778–1835)". Biography – Elizabeth Henrietta Macquarie – Australian Dictionary of Biography. Adbonline.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  11. ^ Conway, Jill. "Macarthur, Elizabeth (1766–1850)". Biography – Elizabeth Macarthur – Australian Dictionary of Biography. Adbonline.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  12. ^ "Facility heritage". St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  13. ^ "Women in the Australian Church". Australian Catholic Historical Society. 2020. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  14. ^ Iltis, Judith. "Chisholm, Caroline (1808–1877)". Biography – Caroline Chisholm – Australian Dictionary of Biography. Adbonline.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  15. ^ "Sisters of The Good Samaritans". Goodsams.org.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  16. ^ "Brothers in Australia". Cfc.edu.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  17. ^ "Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia – Who We Are". Mercy.org.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  18. ^ Thorpe, Osmund. "Biography – Mary Helen MacKillop – Australian Dictionary of Biography". Adbonline.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  19. ^ "Constitution Acts Amendment Act 1899 (WA)". Museum of Australian Democracy. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  20. ^ Constitution Acts Amendment Act 1899 (WA), p.5 et seq at Museum of Australian Democracy
  21. ^ Adam-Smith, Patsy. Australian Women at War (Thomas Nelson Australia, 1984)
  22. ^ Bolton, Geoffrey, ed. (1990). 1942–1995: The Middle Way. The Oxford history of Australia. Vol. 5 (2nd ed.). p. 229.
  23. ^ "Face the facts: Gender Equality 2018". Australian Human Rights Commission. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  24. ^ Temkin, Jennifer (2002). "Defining and redefining rape". In Temkin, Jennifer (ed.). Rape and the legal process (2nd ed.). Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. p. 86. ISBN 9780198763543.:Citing:"Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, 1990, section 5". irishstatutebook.ie. Irish Statute Book. Archived from the original on 29 April 2017. Retrieved 21 December 2017.
  25. ^ Summers, Anne (1975-01-01). Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140218329.
  26. ^ Lake, Marilyn. "Women's And Gender History In Australia" Journal of Women's History (2013) 25#4 pp 190–211
  27. ^ "Australian Abortion Law". Children by Choice. 18 January 2018. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  28. ^ "Abortion decriminalised in NSW after marathon debate". The Guardian. Australian Associated Press. 2019-09-26. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
  29. ^ "Adelaidenow.com.au | Subscribe to The Advertiser for exclusive stories". www.adelaidenow.com.au. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  30. ^ Willis, Olivia (26 May 2018). "Is abortion legal in Australia? It's complicated". ABC News. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  31. ^ de Crespigny, Lachlan J; Wilkinson, Dominic J; Douglas, Thomas; Textor, Mark; Savulescu, Julian (5 July 2010). "Australian attitudes to early and late abortion". The Medical Journal of Australia. 193 (1): 9–12. doi:10.5694/j.1326-5377.2010.tb03732.x. PMID 20618106. S2CID 39714985.
  32. ^ Shankar, Mridula; Black, Kirsten I; Goldstone, Philip; Hussainy, Safeera; Mazza, Danielle; Petersen, Kerry; Lucke, Jayne; Taft, Angela (22 January 2017). "Access, equity and costs of induced abortion services in Australia: a cross-sectional study". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. 41 (3): 309–314. doi:10.1111/1753-6405.12641. PMID 28110510.
  33. ^ Global, regional, and national levels of maternal mortality, 1990–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. October 8, 2016. The Lancet. Volume 388. 1775–1812. See table of countries on page 1784 of the PDF.
  34. ^ a b "Fertility Rates 2014". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2014. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  35. ^ "Number of births and fertility rate". Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  36. ^ a b c "Women in Political Arena". Australian Electoral Commission. 4 December 2007. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  37. ^ "Edith Cowan (1861–1932)". Reserve Bank of Australia Banknotes. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  38. ^ "Senator Dorothy Tangney 24 September 1943". Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  39. ^ "Enid Lyons 29 September 1943". Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  40. ^ Maley, Jacqueline (19 May 2018). "'They only wanted me to pour tea': Enid Lyons and the Liberals' women problem". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  41. ^ Kerr, Christian; Franklin, Matthew (24 June 2010). "Julia Gillard 'honoured' to become prime minister as Kevin Rudd stands aside". The Australian. News Limited. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  42. ^ Coorey, Phillip; Lester, Tim (24 June 2010). "Gillard becomes Australia's first female prime minister as tearful Rudd stands aside". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 25 June 2010. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  43. ^ Hough, Anna (2021-06-08). "Composition of Australian parliaments by party and gender: a quick guide" (PDF). Australian Parliament House. Retrieved 2021-07-19.
  44. ^ Hough, Anna (25 August 2016). "The gender composition of the 45th parliament". Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  45. ^ Margarey, Susan (1 April 2008). "Dame Roma Mitchell's Unmentionables: Sex, Politics and Religion". History Australia: 12.1–12.20 – via Research Gate.
  46. ^ a b Sawer, Marian (2004). "Women and Government in Australia". Australian Bureau of Statistics. Archived from the original on 12 May 2013.
  47. ^ Australian Public Service Commission, The Appendixes: Salary, severance benefits and miscellaneous leave, Australian Public Service Commission, archived from the original on 15 May 2013
  48. ^ "An Act to amend the Criminal Consolidation Act, 1936-1975". Dspace.flinders.edu.au. Retrieved 26 November 2021.
  49. ^ "The History of Passports in Australia". 14 June 2006. Archived from the original on 14 June 2006. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  50. ^ "ComLaw Acts - Attachment - Sex Discrimination Amendment Act 1991". Scaleplus.law.gov.au. Archived from the original on 16 February 2012.
  51. ^ Australia's Gender Pay Gap Statistics 2021

Primary sources[edit]

  • Daniels, Kay, ed. Australia's women, a documentary history: from a selection of personal letters, diary entries, pamphlets, official records, government and police reports, speeches, and radio talks (2nd ed. U of Queensland Press, 1989) 335pp. The first edition was entitled Uphill all the way : a documentary history of women in Australia (1980).
  • Teale, Ruth, ed. Colonial Eve: sources on women in Australia, 1788–1914 (Melbourne : Oxford University Press, 1978)

Further reading[edit]

  • Alford, Katrina. Production or reproduction?: an economic history of women in Australia, 1788–1850 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1984)
  • Cunneen, Chris; Stubbs, Julie (January 2000). "Male violence, male fantasy and the commodification of women through the internet". International Review of Victimology. 7 (1–3). SAGE: 5–28. doi:10.1177/026975800000700302. S2CID 145573602. Filipino women in Australia
  • Damousi, Joy. Women Come Rally: Socialism, Communism and Gender in Australia 1890–1955 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994)
  • Damousi, Joy, and Marilyn Lake, eds. Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Daniels, Kay, So Much Hard Work: Women and Prostitution in Australian History (Sydney: Fontana Collins, 1984)
  • Dixson, Miriam. The Real Matilda: Woman and Identity in Australia, 1788 to the Present (Penguin Books Australia, 1984)
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly. Creating a Nation (Ringwood: Penguin, 1994); a general history of Australia with emphasis on social history and gender
  • Grimshaw, Patricia. “The Australian Family: An Historical Interpretation,” in The Family on the Modern World ed. Alisa Burns, Gill Bottomley, and Penny Jools (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1983), pp 31–48.
  • Hercus, Cheryl. Stepping out of line: Becoming and being feminist (Psychology Press, 2005) excerpt
  • Lake, Marilyn. Getting equal: The history of Australian feminism (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999)
  • Lake, Marilyn (Winter 2013). "Women's and gender history In Australia". Journal of Women's History. 25 (4). Johns Hopkins University Press: 190–211. doi:10.1353/jowh.2013.0043. S2CID 143515435.
  • McMurchy, Megan, Margot Oliver, and Jeni Thornley. For love or money: a pictorial history of women and work in Australia (Penguin Books, 1983)
  • Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. Talkin'up to the white woman: Aboriginal women and feminism (Univ. of Queensland Press, 2000)
  • Ryan, Edna and Anne Conlon. Gentle Invaders: Australian Women at Work (Melbourne: Penguin, 1975).
  • Saunders, Kay, and Raymond Evans, eds. Gender relations in Australia: Domination and negotiation (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992)
  • Sheridan, Susan. Along the Faultlines: Sex, Race and nation in Australian Women’s Writing 1880s–1930s (St Leonard, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1995).
  • Smith, Michelle J., Clare Bradford, et al. From Colonial to Modern: Transnational Girlhood in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literature, 1840–1940 (2018) excerpt