The Double Bind of Women in Nineteenth-Century Australia

Randall Bass PhD '91, Assistant Professor of English, Georgetown University

[From Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore]

OF T H E P E O P L E transported to the antipodes between 1788 and 1852, about twenty-four thousand were women: one person in seven. Many Australians still think their Founding Mothers were whores. Undoubtedly some were prostitutes in the real sense of the word--that is, they survived by selling their sexual services, casually or regularly, without sentimental attachments. A commonly quoted figure, though a somewhat impressionistic one, is one woman in five. When a woman at her trial described herself as a prostitute--"on the town" was the usual phrase--one can assume that she was telling the truth. In the mouths of Authority, the word "prostitute" was less a job description than a general term of abuse.

What is quite certain, however, is that no women were actually transported for whoring, because it was never a transportable offense. The vast majority of female convicts, more than 80 percent, were sent out for theft, usually of a fairly petty sort. Crimes of violence figured low among them, as one might expect--about I percent. Sentences of more than seven years were exceedingly rare. None of this, given the severity of the English laws, suggests at the outset a very high degree of moral profligacy.

And yet there was rarely a comment on colonial society, scarcely a passage of evidence to the various Select Committees on Transportation, hardly a tract or a diary or a letter home, that missed the chance to describe the degeneracy, incorrigibility and worthlessness of women convicts in Australia. Military officers believed this, and so did doctors, judges, parsons, governors and, of course, their respectable wives. Convict men might in the end redeem themselves through work and penance, but women almost never. It was as though women convicts had passed the ordinary bounds of class and become a fiction, not far from pornography: crude raucous Eve, sucking rum and mothering bastards in the exterior darkness, inviting contempt rather than pity from her socialsuperiors, rape rather than help from men.

Australian historians once swallowed this stereotype whole. "Even if these contemporaries exaggerated," wrote A. G. L. Shaw, "the picture [that women convicts] presented is a singularly unattractive one!" Later feminist historians, led by Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson, have striven to retain the picture while dismantling the biases, arguing that many or even most convict women became whores but that their fate was foisted on them by a tyrannous male power structure. The most influential statement of the case was made by Anne Summers:

It was deemed necessary by both the local and the British authorities to have a supply of whores to keep the men, both convict and free, quiescent. The Whore stereotype was devised as a calculated sexist means of social control and then . . . characterised as being the fault of the women who were damned by it.

The classic double-bind, in short. The problem is the quality of the contemporary opinions on which the Whore stereotype, accepted by Reverend Samuel Marsden and feminist historians alike Ithough for very different motives), was based.

Postcolonial Web Australia Victorian Web