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How Effective Are The Legal And Non-Legal Responses In Addressing The Changing Needs Of Women?

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How effective are the legal and non-legal responses in addressing the changing needs of women?

The road to equality for women in Australian society is long but not without merit. However have females after two hundred and eleven years reached their destination? This is debatable but it is clear that there have been changes, both legal and non-legal. The answer lies in the exploration of the effectiveness of the mechanisms in place to determine where women have been, where they are now and where they are going in the future.

Life at the beginning.....

The journey commences on the 26 of January in 1788 when 191 female convicts arrive on the first fleet at Sydney Cove. The attitude was that to be female you were immediately subservient to your male counterpart, be it a husband or father. Unmarried women were looked down upon by society and subsequently they sought to be betrothed as many times their future welfare was at stake. Single women relied on the support of relatives and were seen as recipients of charity rather than fulfilling any useful purpose. Generally Women were acclaimed to be less intelligent and hence destined to a life of domesticity and child rearing. Ironically lower class women had more rights as they could acquire a job but it was generally out of necessity and they were low paying and menial. Employment included; professions assigned to women such as teaching, nursing or piecework.

Society claimed and legally stated that women were not individuals and hence did not have the opportunity to vote and had no voice in the political direction of their country. Women had no economic rights and were "unito caro" or one entity with there husband. They did not even have the right for sexual consortium but were expected to meet the needs of their husband. Living in a male dominated society it was very difficult for women to express their opinions especially if they contradicted their husband beliefs. Consequently their education was restricted to subjects that prepared them to a life of domestic service and the majority experienced discrimination if they sought for a higher education. This is evident in the case Jex- Blake v Senatus of the University of Edinburgh (1893) where Jex-Blake a female student wished to study medicine but certain lecturers refused to teach female students and so she could not practise medicine. When she demanded equality, she was unsuccessful. The university declared that its charter referred to "students or persons" and over time this meant exclusively male students. It seemed to claim that women were not "persons".

The property woman took into a marriage, or acquired, was legally absorbed by their husbands. Furthermore, married women could not make wills or dispose of any property without their husbands' consent. Marital separation, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the women economically destitute, as the law offered them no rights to marital property. Widows often found themselves in a similar situation as they could not keep their spouse's property unless it was declared in a will but a husband was not legally obligated to provide support for his wife.

Loosening society's chokehold

"Her only method to produce release, redress, or change, is to ceaselessly agitate" as quoted by Louisa Lawson dawned the beginning of the change of society's perspective and characterised how the responsiveness of the legal system generally reflected the attitudes of the public; otherwise if individuals did not value the law they were less likely to abide by it. Over time social changes occurred because of catalysts such as the historic events of World war one, two, Vietnam and the feminist rallies of the sixties. It was these social changes that led to women receiving legal rights enjoyed by men for so long through legislation, precedent and non-legal mechanisms. These changes occurred in many areas but some of the most pronounced are: Political suffrage, Economic rights, Marriage and Property.

Political suffrage

Feminism shaped the beginning of a new political identity for women with legal and political advances and social liberation. A Non- legal organisation such as the Australian Women's Suffrage Society was formed in 1889. Their goal was to achieve the same rights for women as were possessed by male voters. The Society argued for equal justice, equal privileges in marriage and divorce, rights to property and the custody of children in divorce. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was another powerful force in the struggle for equal voting rights formed on the 16th November 1887. The Society sought social reforms which included establishing equal moral standards for both sexes.

Women argued for freedom from political subjugation on the basis of individual rights. They were focused on attaining equality for women in the community. They petitioned to gain attention of political and civil rights to those of men in comparison to women and were concerned with the general liberation and advancement of women. During this time period they were considered radicals and organised rallies, public meetings, undertook hunger strikes and disrupted government meetings in order to increase support for their cause. They were also concerned with the franchise, access to parliaments as voters and candidates. Challenging society's attitudes on the range of restrictions which were limiting their lives was important because it gave a voice to the oppression felt and was one of the first ways to spark change.

Through legislation women in South Australia were allowed to vote in 1894. Then in 1902 on 12 June the Commonwealth Franchise Act granted the right to vote and stand for election for the Australian parliament to women on the same basis as men. It was not until 1908 that all women in all states could vote in state elections. This was a milestone towards equality for women and it was one of the most effective means for women to have an opinion on public matters concerning Australia but it is not completely successful when women are still subject to social prejudice.


Along with the right to vote, the right to own property was one of the first inequalities addressed in legislation. The Married Women's Property Act 1893 gave women the right to enter contracts and therefore they could own property. Married Person's (Property and Tenants) Act 1901 gave women the right to sue and be sued. Another important legislation was the Family law Act 1975 (Cth) that recognised



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