Early colonial administrations were anxious to address the gender imbalance in the population brought about by the importation of large numbers of convict men. Between 1788 and 1792, around 3546 male to 766 female convicts were landed at Sydney. 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. 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.
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.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. 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. The Sisters of St Joseph were founded in South Australia by Saint Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods in 1867. 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.
Late 19th-century suffrage
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.
Women energetically participated in the war effort, with few signs of defeatism or resistance to government policies. 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.
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. In 1984, the Sex Discrimination Act became enforced, making sex-based discrimination and sexual harassment illegal.
Until the 1960s, the Australian national character was typically masculine. 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. Dixson concluded that there was deep contempt for women in the Australian ethos and that the only role for women was within the family.
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.
Abortion in Australia is governed by state law rather than on federal law. While legal in every state to protect the health and life of the woman, grounds for which abortions are permitted differ between states and territories.
Abortion was illegal under all circumstances until the 1969 case R v Davidson (also known as the Menhennitt ruling). In this case, Justice Clifford Menhennitt ruled abortion could be considered legal if the physical and/or mental health or the life of the woman was endangered. The ruling was adopted in principle in New South Wales and Queensland in 1971 and 1984 respectively. As of 2018, abortion is legal in all Australian states and territories except for New South Wales and Queensland where it is considered a criminal offence for doctors and women unless the woman's physical and/or mental health is endangered. It is estimated that a quarter to a third of Australian women will have an abortion in their lifetime, and it has strong popular support.
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. The maternal mortality rate in Australia is 5.5 deaths/100,000 live births as of 2015.
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. This TFR has a recorded low of 1.74 in 2001, and a record high of 3.55 in 1961. The TFA has been below the replacement level since 1976.
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)
Alford, Katrina. Production or reproduction?: an economic history of women in Australia, 1788-1850 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1984)