A social laboratory
In 1913, Australia enjoyed an international reputation as the social laboratory of the world. Relatively free of the entrenched class divisions of the ‘old world’ and richly endowed with land and mineral resources, Australia’s population of ‘transplanted Britons’ lived in a democracy with progressive social policies. To many, the country offered ‘infinite potential’ for the improvement of the race.
Scientific research and new technologies transformed approaches to health, housing and nutrition. Traditionally disadvantaged groups looked for opportunities to shape the conditions of their lives. Women seized the vote in federal elections in Australia from 1902, and turned their attention to international suffrage and improving conditions for women to work and raise children. Trade unions sought to establish fairer conditions for workers.
Adoption of the White Australia policy, and the commonly held belief that Indigenous people were a ‘dying race’, allowed the misconception that Australia would soon be a purely white nation to flourish.
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Australians at work
Trade union banner for the New South Wales branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union of Australia, 1910, painted by Edgar Whitbread. Sydney Trades Hall.
THE LATEST IN UNIONISM
The latest unionistic scheme … provides for the amalgamation of such unions as the Australian Workers’ Union, the Australian Carriers’ Union, the Rural Workers’ Union, the Rabbit Trappers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Workers’ Association of Queensland … Many workers believe that a general union ... gives them greater power ... But it … is almost sure to be followed by a general union among employers, with the result that the relative powers of Capital and Labor remain as they were before.
Perth Daily News, 7 January 1913, p. 4. Read the full article in Trove
With high tariffs to keep out cheap goods, the ‘White Australia’ policy to keep out cheap workers, arbitration to establish industrial awards, invalid pensions, a minimum wage and an eight-hour day, Australia was a ‘working man’s paradise’, compared with other nations, in 1913. But much work was still casual, physically demanding and poorly paid.
Mechanisation was replacing skilled artisans and, as more women moved into traditionally male occupations, they pushed wage rates down. Not only did employers strongly resist raising women’s wages, concerns were also expressed that such a move would draw women away from the home and cause the birthrate to fall further. Unions – and Australia was highly unionised – pursued a ‘family wage’ sufficient for a man to support his whole family, but most resisted women’s calls for fair pay.
The Australian contingent at the Women's Suffrage Coronation Procession in London in 1911 was headed by Margaret Fisher (centre), wife of Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, Emily McGowen, wife of New South Wales premier James McGowen, and feminist and suffragist Vida Goldstein. National Library of Australia, AN2337178.
LADY CIVIL SERVANTS
Some time ago the [Public Service] association made a great point over the appointment ... of certain lady clerks,because it was intended to pay them a much smaller salary than a trousered person … The principle of equal pay for equal work was loudly affirmed ... Are they receiving a man’s salary? If not, what has the association to say for itself? In the commercial world the woman has … captured the position as presiding genius of the typewriter. And the commercial world has not suffered by the institution.
Adelaide Register, 31 January 1913, p. 6. Read the full article in Trove
From the very first days of Federation, Australia’s white women were accorded a stake in the nation’s destiny. Unlike their sisters in every other nation in the world, except New Zealand, they could vote for their representatives in the new federal parliament. By 1913, they had been exercising this right for over a decade and, in some states, even longer. Many Australian women saw the vote as an opportunity to shape the future of the new nation in a way that would improve the lot of women as well as society.
Australian and New Zealand women were valued guests at international women’s suffrage conferences in the first decades of the 20th century, providing practical and moral support to British and American women in their own long struggle to gain the vote.
Interior of a house in Daceyville, 1914. State Records of New South Wales.
In 1912 the New South Wales Housing Board began construction of a new suburb, Daceyville (originally Dacey Garden Suburb), built on Crown land in Sydney. Town planning was then emerging as a profession and, in response to concerns about 19th-century urban slums, high value was placed on space, aesthetics, functionality and public health.
Named after former New South Wales Treasurer John Dacey, the suburb included shops, parks, community buildings, a school and a police station. Every house had a space for a garden, and the design of the houses was influenced by the fashionable arts and crafts movement.
John Dacey campaigned for decades for low-cost housing for working-class people, a vision that was realised in Daceyville, although he did not live to see it. During a debate in the New South Wales parliament, he said: ‘The day is past when free Australians were content to be herded together in terraces of mere dog boxes. In some of the suburbs they are compelled to herd together like flies, and the time has come when we should create a garden city’.