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Women in the City

Although writers have often characterised Melbourne as a stately woman, the city has always been gendered in far more complex ways. The Kulin people recognised in their land male and female sacred places, knowledge of which was passed down both the maternal and paternal lines, but for Europeans, power over land was concentrated in male hands. The imbalance in the sex ratio in the early immigrant population ensured that public space in the new city was coded male. Women unaccompanied on city streets were seen as disruptive or disorderly. They were often understood to be prostitutes, and much early philanthropic effort was directed to providing female refuges for the penitent and safe lodgings for the respectable. The Lonsdale Street shelter established in 1852 by Caroline Chisholm's Family Colonization Loan Society catered only for women and children, leaving men and boys to sleep in tents in the grounds, and the Melbourne Home provided accommodation for governesses and domestic servants between positions.

As the city became more settled its gendered nature was more pronounced. The men who continued to command the public space argued that women controlled the domestic, a sphere despised by the bohemian writers who were so influential in constructing the national identity. 'The suburb exists for the villa, and the villa for the drawing-room. The drawing-room exists for the lady of the house', declared playwright, Louis Esson.

It is here that she expresses herself, holds her court, wears curious costumes, dispenses gossip and afternoon tea. She is a good woman, intensely disagreeable, the bourgeois ideal of a wife and mother - the high priestess of the decadent cult of the purity of the home.

Suburban women, such writers believed, were in the vanguard of the forces of respectability intent on domesticating the Australian male. To escape such domestication men constructed a male-only world in the independent schools, university colleges, clubs, lodges, self-improvement, sporting and business organisations which together made up the sex-segregated social world of genteel Melbourne in which mixed bathing was banned and railway stations provided separate waiting rooms for ladies.

Genteel women lived within a parallel but far less powerful world. Girls' schools placed their primary emphasis on feminine accomplishments and the domestic arts. When in 1880 women were finally admitted to the University of Melbourne, they were allocated separate rooms in order to avoid undue socialising with the males, with separate university colleges established for those who needed to live away from home. The first women graduates were influential in the development of clubs in the city like the Alexandra Club, and in the foundation of the Queen Victoria Medical Centre, the city's only hospital staffed by women for women. Genteel women also controlled the ladies' benevolent societies that administered outdoor relief across the city and were influential in many of the organisations providing charitable assistance for women and children. However, their right to be elected to the controlling committees of such high-status institutions as the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, the Immigrants' Aid Society and the major orphanages was resisted until the end of the 19th century.

The bulk of the people that such organisations assisted lived in a very different social world in which the lines of gender were both more rigid and more easily transgressed. While working-class homes have been depicted in literature as matriarchies in which the wife's power rendered the husband an intruder, such women were struggling to maintain the semblance of the haven which suburban homes were meant to represent. The haven for men was a work site for women who, in addition to their domestic and child care duties, often contributed to the family income, taking in boarders, washing or outwork. Women without male breadwinners were even more vulnerable. They accounted for the over-representation of women in the inner city and its immediate surrounds, cleaning city buildings by night or going to work in the factories to support their dependants.

Working-class children entered the workforce at an early age but again their participation was gendered. Work, constructed as a necessity for men was seen as a danger to women, threatening their health and fertility and depriving them of the joys of motherhood. While boys had access to positions that offered some prospect of advancement their sisters were forced to choose between domestic service and factory work. In the industrial workforce Wages Boards functioned to legitimate sex segregation, excluding women from the elite trades. Although the proportion of women in factories increased dramatically in the last quarter of the 19th century, these workplaces operated on a gendered family model, the male factory owner positioned as the patriarchal father, the foremen as his sons controlling and protecting the female employees as they would their sisters. As employment for women was seen as temporary, trade unions functioned to protect male conditions promoting a family wage, designed to free women from the necessity to work, over an improvement in female working conditions. The Victorian Tailoresses Union formed in 1882 was the first to upset such gendered assumptions, engaging in strike action, picketing factories and threatening would-be strike-breakers.

The movement of educated women into the workforce extended this gendering beyond the factory. In teaching and nursing, where women provided the bulk of the labour force, they worked within a segregated hierarchy answerable to the male at its peak. New technology brought women into offices as telegraph and telephone operators, clerks and typists, while the expansion of retailing provided opportunities for shop assistants. Concerned by the risks involved in the growth of such non-residential employment the Young Women's Christian Association and many city churches opened hostels designed to provide safe living spaces for 'business girls'. The increase in female employment created opportunities for more mature women as well, with women police and prison warders and female factory inspectors introduced to preserve femininity within the public sphere.

Arcades and department stores provided protected spaces in which women could respectably pursue their rapidly expanding consumer role. The Myer Emporium took this development to new extremes with its elegant Mural Hall and its secluded ladies lounge catering for the needs of the respectable female shopper. Religious orders, initially within the Catholic church but later established in the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches as well, provided another form of separate space for women but fears of a feminisation of religion led churches to resist vigorously any move to widen women's authority within the churches, despite their increasing predominance in the pews. Conservative organisations for lay women in most denominations emphasised the importance of their role in maintaining home and family, roles which they could extend into the churches by polishing the brass, doing the flowers and pouring the tea rather than seeking a role in church government.

Most of the organisations which came to make up the women's movement from the last quarter of the 19th century accepted this world view. They argued for women's suffrage on the grounds of their moral superiority rather than a claim for equality with men. As mothers, they claimed a responsibility to elevate the world outside the home and sought to use their power to curtail masculine privilege and practices that were injurious to women. Focusing on alcohol and vice they lent their support to the temperance cause and fought for a change in legislation and practice which would protect women from the excesses of male sexuality. In the female rescue homes which they established inmates were seen as victims who needed to be transformed, through prayer and domestic work, into good wives and mothers. While the Women's Political Association encouraged its members to question some elements of the accepted female role, conservative organisations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Australian Women's National League had a far greater impact.

Through the National Council of Women a diverse collection of women's organisations sought to have their voices heard on gender-related issues, but more commonly in ways that would reinforce rather than overturn the existing gender order. A campaign to combat maternal mortality brought pregnancy and childbirth under male supervision by the 1920s. The introduction of Infant Welfare Centres and kindergartens provided new opportunities for female socialising but they also brought mothering under increasing surveillance. Fears that girls were not being properly prepared for their future roles saw the school curriculum gendered so that boys learnt technical skills while their sisters were educated in homemaking and child care. Drawing on their domestic skills women cooked, sewed and cleaned in order to support the auxiliaries and mothers' clubs that provided the 'extras', and sometimes the basics, in the city's hospitals, schools and charitable institutions. In their campaign to have pioneer women recognised as part of Victoria's centenary celebrations with the construction of the Pioneer Women's Memorial Garden it was such supportive roles that women's organisations sought to commemorate.

Women who, by choice or necessity, challenged the existing gender order were seen as threatening. The 'new woman' who emerged at the end of the 19th century was accused of abandoning her femininity in order to compete with men. The women able to find work during the depression were accused of taking men's jobs, reversing the 'natural' order. The greater freedom available to women when men were absent on active service during World War II was characterised as danger, the absence of male protectors believed to render the browned-out streets unsafe. Albert Tucker's Victory Girls paintings angrily personify wartime moral degeneracy as young and female, attacking women at a time when they were more visible in the public sphere than ever before. Yet the barriers broken down during the war could not be completely reinstated. While the most prominent female artistic creation in the postwar era, Barry Humphries' Moonee Ponds housewife, Edna Everage, emerged from the female suburban domain, she is instantly recognisable as a satirical rather than a realistic representation.

The gendering of the city was beginning to erode well before the challenge of 1970s feminism. The calls for equal opportunity which characterised the campaigns of the Women's Electoral Lobby were adopted by the increasing number of women in government and the bureaucracy. Many schools, university colleges were desegregated as were the members' enclosures at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Flemington racecourse. The institutionalised barriers to women's advancement in the workforce were gradually dismantled following the acceptance of the principle of equal pay for work of equal value in 1972. Service clubs and masonic lodges struggled for members as mixed gender gatherings replaced Melbourne's older homosocial world. Women contested the decision to demolish the Queen Victoria Hospital buildings, and were successful in saving the central towers, one of which now functions as the Victorian Women's Centre. Included among the government's celebration of the State's sesquicentenary was the establishment of the Victorian Women's Trust, a philanthropic foundation designed to serve the interests and needs of women.

With the suburbs depleted of daytime populations as both women and men left for work, the burden of maintaining community organisations had, by the end of the 20th century, fallen increasingly on retired people of both genders. In such an environment the call, emerging from the women's liberation movement's suburban consciousness-raising groups, for gender specific services for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault struck a jarring note. Yet, as the annual Reclaim the Night marches demonstrate, women's freedom of movement in the city is still more limited than men's. In addition, as the older barriers against women's full participation in the life of the city break down, new gendered spaces are being created. Women with dependent children, still over-represented among the city's poor, are increasingly concentrated in public housing estates, while in older suburbs, retirement communities and nursing homes, widows and single women predominate, for it is they who are more likely to live on into old age.

Shurlee Swain