Academic journal article Hecate

The Market for Marriage in Colonial Queensland

Academic journal article Hecate

The Market for Marriage in Colonial Queensland

Article excerpt

An old maid...[is] held up as a bad example to be avoided, an exception to be pitied, a something to be jeered at, whose weakness or peculiarities are to be condemned as leading to a misspent life; indicated as ill-favoured by nature; incapable of attracting, unable to keep, retain, or return affection, or over ambitious. The life of a spinster determined to remain such is resented by society as an insult.(1)

Thus wrote a woman correspondent to a popular Queensland newspaper in the late 1880s. Dispirited by prevailing pronouncements about single women, the writer revealed the extent to which available public identities and options for Queensland women were determined by marriage. In the colonial era, Queensland settler women(*) were indeed exceptional in their marital proclivities. Between 1859 and 1889 Queensland experienced the highest marriage rate of all the colonies.(2) More than three quarters of all adult women were married or widowed throughout the period. By 1891, only three per cent of women aged between 45 and 49 years had never married, compared with seven per cent of their Victorian sisters. The situation was reversed for males, as just over 25 per cent of Queensland men in this age group had never married.(3) Partly a function of the predominantly male population, this extraordinarily high proportion of married women, and associated low proportion of husbands, was even more noticeable in rural and undeveloped coastal regions of Queensland. These sharp distinctions merit the attention of both Queensland historians and practitioners of women's history in Australia.

Queensland was outstanding in its basic patterns of gender interaction. Marriage and birth rates, sexual imbalances, patterns of employment, legal codes, sexual and domestic violence, and feminist activism have taken on great distinctiveness in this colony. Yet such concerns have been relegated to subordinate status in recent historiography,(4) while feminist historians have rarely addressed regional particularities. With few exceptions, Queensland women's history has been subsumed by the familiar focus and drawing of evidence from the southern mainland colonies.(5) If scholars are better to understand the `gendered' history of Australia, an examination of aspects of the lives of colonial Queensland women calls for immediate regional refinement.

The near-universal experience of marriage for adult women, combined with a recurrent feature of contemporary discourse that marriage offered protection to women in the colonial environment, provides a compelling springboard for historical enquiry. What motives lay behind the almost compulsory character of marriage among Queensland settler women? Why was marriage constructed as a protective institution for women? These concerns invite analytical and speculative consideration of the construction of spinsterhood in late nineteenth century Queensland -- the systems of meaning associated with single women, their life options and public space.

The paper does not follow a chronological schema. A diverse range of statistical and literary sources are used to construct the case that marriage for Queensland women in the colonial period appeared to offer some protection against the hazards attendant upon spinsterhood. The discussion begins with a study of the economic prospects for Queensland women in the paid workforce. To assemble a more conceptually complex picture of the demand for marriage than Australian historians have offered, the remaining sections consider in turn the prevailing images of masculinity and femininity. The postulates raised here are not final, but they do provide an opening for analyses of Queensland gender relations.

Working Women

In modern western culture, paid work increasingly exists as a viable alternative to marriage for women. For the single woman to achieve economic self-protection, sufficient opportunities, wages and working conditions are pivotal considerations. …

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