The lives women led in 19th century Australia were similar in some ways and very different in others to those experienced by women in this country today. Much has changed for Australian women in the last 170 years from clothes to hairstyles, average life expectancy and experiences of motherhood.
Over three blogposts we will explore what life was like for women on Victoria’s goldfields between 1851 to 1861. This blogpost will focus on the common characteristics of the women who lived in Ballarat during this era, the second will explain the opportunities goldrush women had to work outside their homes, and the final blogpost will examine domestic life on the goldfields for European women in Australia.
The Aboriginal Women of the Ballarat Region
The first women of Ballarat were Wadawurrung women. They have been living in this region for tens of thousands of years and many continue to practice culture on Country (their traditional homeland) today. The lifestyles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people changed dramatically when Europeans began colonising Australia (starting in 1788). The changes took place rapidly in goldrush communities like Ballarat because of the speed at which immigrants – both human and animal – arrived from across the seas to live in such places. These new arrivals changed local ecosystems and cut off access to important Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural and food production sites.
While many Wadawurrung women adapted quickly to the changing conditions and played a variety of roles in the new European economy and culture that was brought to Australia, others died from introduced diseases/alcohol and at the hands of violent settler-colonisers. By the late 1860s, most were forced off Country to live on reserves and missions in different parts of Victoria. Despite the damage this caused Aboriginal communities, many Wadawurrung women passed their language and culture onto their children, which is one of the reasons why it lives on today.
The Arrival of Non-Aboriginal Women in Ballarat
In the early years of Australia’s gold rushes, most of the non-Aboriginal women on Ballarat’s diggings came from Europe, specifically the British Isles. Female goldrush immigrants took huge risks to get to Australia by ship and hoped to become wealthy through hard work and/or a good marriage. Social mobility was nearly impossible back in Europe, but in Australia, anyone willing to work could strike it rich on a goldfield which is why around half a million new Australians arrived in Victoria during the 1850s.
As most of these new arrivals were men, the colonial government (on advice from people like Caroline Chisholm) made many attempts to attract female immigrants because they were considered to be a ‘civilising influence’ on male-dominated goldrush communities like Ballarat. Gold seeking was thought to bring out poor behaviour in some men, and it was believed by many that just the presence of women could restore their more gentlemanly qualities.
Women were in such high demand on the early diggings – not only were they a ‘civilising influence’ but also companions, cooks and cleaners – that ships arriving in the ports of Melbourne or Geelong were often met by miners ready to propose marriage to the first female they clapped eyes on!
Typical 19th Century European Womanhood
Religion, culture and tradition have always influenced the way in which people behave and dress. A model mid-19th century European woman was likely to be a Christian who obeyed the social norms that came with this identity. This included being quiet and calm, a loving mother/wife, a dutiful homemaker, and good at following the instructions of men. Such women believed that the Bible should guide their behaviour in addition to their clothing choices. During the daytime, European women wore dresses that covered every part of their body except their faces and hands because a polite Christian woman was expected to be modest and hide her body. This is part of the reason you see costumed women at Sovereign Hill wearing day caps.
Ideally, a European woman would only marry a man who could already afford to house, clothe and feed her and the family they would likely make together. On their wedding day, the bride would wear the best dress she owned in whatever colour she liked. White wedding dresses were popularised by Queen Victoria – but only very wealthy families could afford to dress brides in what was ultimately a one-use dress. Back then it was considered quite normal for European women to be married before the end of their teens, as was having ten or more children. In comparison, 21st century Australian women who choose to get married (which is far less common today than it was in the past) are on average aged 30 and will typically only have one or two children.
Womanhood on Australia’s Goldfields
Some historians suggest that immigrant women on Australia’s 1850s goldfields experienced a different kind of womanhood compared to women back in Europe. This was arguably due to the relative youth of the immigrant population and the opportunities that existed for European women in Australia to work outside their homes.
Many of the European women on the goldfields were in their late teens/early twenties. Their youth helped them survive the tough living and working conditions – raising a family in a tent and having to trudge through deep mud in a Ballarat winter to buy food or harvest it from a vegetable garden was hard work. On average, Australian women at this time in history would only live until they were about 40 years old, while life expectancy for Australian women today is about 80 years old. Their shorter (on average) lives is one of the reasons that 19th century women tended to marry and start families at a younger age than women today.
In Europe, if a woman had a job, perhaps as a seamstress, housemaid, or governess (tutor) at this time in history, she would be fired as soon as she got married (unless she was very poor). From her wedding day onwards, she was expected to be busy managing a household and having children, leaving no time for other work. If poverty forced her to work outside the home, it would be a source of shame for the whole family (you can read more about this here). In Australia, and especially in places like 1850s Ballarat, living conditions changed these social norms.
Women on Australia’s goldfields could ‘bend’ social norms somewhat because they filled essential roles that the community needed in order to function while men focused on mining. They could leave the house (to go shopping, visit friends etc.) once they were visibly pregnant, which in Europe was considered bad manners. Put simply, there were many vital jobs that needed doing, so Ballarat’s women rolled up their sleeves and got to work, whether they were already married or not. You can learn more about this topic in our next blogpost.
Once Ballarat became a more permanent community from about the 1860s, the European social norms of the era resumed and women became focussed on life in the private sphere once more.
The lives of Australian women have changed significantly since the 1850s. What social norms do you think have changed for the better and which ones have changed for the worse?
Links and References:
Sovereign Hill Education’s student research notes about women on the Ballarat goldfields: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-women-notes-ss1.pdf
A Crash Course video which summarises how women’s lives have changed in the last 150 years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meC5Zl5PC1U&feature=youtu.be&utm_source=hootsuite&utm_medium=&utm_term=&utm_content=&utm_campaign=
A State Library of Victoria blogpost on women on the goldfields: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/golden-victoria/life-fields/women-goldfields
An SBS blogpost about women on the goldfields: https://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=27#94
Two Sovereign Hill Education blogposts on 1850s women’s fashion: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2012/02/28/gold-rush-belles-womens-fashion-in-the-1850s/ https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/09/06/gold-rush-undies-womens-fashionable-underwear-in-the-1850s/
A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on general clothing in the 1850s: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2018/06/19/1850s-fashions-in-australia/
A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost about Queen Victoria: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2015/05/13/queen-victoria/
Dr. Claire Wright wrote a book called “The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka” about the women involved in the Eureka Rebellion: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/the-forgotten-rebels-of-eureka