Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

History revisited – the women’s revolution

One of Australia’s best known paintings is Frederick McCubbin’s On the Wallaby Track (189McCubbin_wallaby6). It’s a bush scene. The man lights a fire to boil the billy. His young wife leans back against a tree, eyes shut, exhausted. A strapping baby rests upon her lap.

That painting is in the NSW Art Gallery. I always focus on the woman. Each time, I wonder how she coped on the track with a long and apparently heavy dress like that, with shoes or boots that appear quite uncomfortable.

In my last column, I suggested that being a wife and mother in the nineteenth century was hard and sometimes dangerous work, especially for the ordinary woman without access to domestic help to do the really hard work.

Consider an example. Older Armidale residents will remember laundries often to be found in a separate room at the back of the house with their coppers. Fires had to be lit, the water in the copper heated, the clothes washed in the hot water stirred with an old broomstick. Then the water was squeezed out using a mangle and clothes hung on long lines stretched across the back yard.

This was, in fact, relative luxury. Fifty years earlier, clothes were often boiled in a kerosene tin set on bars across an open fire. In both cases, the time and effort involved was substantial.

Once clean, those clothes requiring ironing were ironed with heavy metal irons heated on the stove. There were different types of irons depending on the clothes, but in all cases the irons cooled quite quickly and had to be reheated. Is it any wonder that washing day was an ordeal?

If you look at the time and effort involved in all this, you might see why I rank labour saving devices as the first and most important advance supporting the changing role of women. Many women did do paid work while married, but the time to do so was just so limited.

I rank improvements in health care as the second most important factor in supporting the changing role of women. It meant that fewer women died in child birth, something obviously important from a personal and family perspective. But it also meant that fewer children died.

Infant death was one key reason for the big families of the past. It meant that you needed more children to ensure family survival. You could not choose to have a particular family size, to stop having children to achieve that, because infant and child mortality made such a choice impossible.

I doubt that the women’s revolution could have happened without these two things, labour saving devices plus improvements in health care. Labour saving devices gave women extra time while still maintaining family responsibilities. Improvements in health care meant that women had to spend less time in child rearing. The combination led to a social revolution.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 2 July 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

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