Women in the Australian economy: Reconceptualising women’s place in the public sphere

Catherine Bishop, University of Sydney


The issue

There is a common understanding in Australia and much of the rest of the Western world that, before the advent of second-wave feminism in the late twentieth century, women were restricted to a ‘private’ sphere of home and family. Moreover, this restriction to the private sphere was held to be traditional – women’s place had always been in the home. The ‘public’ sphere, the broader world outside the home that included politics, economics, business, war, education and culture, was, on the other hand, predominantly the domain of men – and the topic of most historical work. Women were, therefore, often ignored by history.

Fast forward to 2017 and women are full participants in the public sphere – they too have the vote, stand for parliament, and rule. They go to university, fight in wars, and control their own money. They are business executives, professionals, politicians, and bankers. They are still paid less than men, are less well-represented on company boards, suffer sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace and are consistently reminded that their presence in the public sphere is a novelty. But they are there.

Feminist historians hoping to chart this move by women from the private to the public sphere have, however, complicated any clear binary between the public and private spheres. In the process they have redefined concepts such as ‘work’ and ‘politics’, revealing their gendered constructions and providing more inclusive histories. This reconceptualisation of women’s place in the public sphere is very clear in feminist work in economic history.


Feminist interventions

Feminist historians have played a large part in putting women’s stories into Australian history more generally, but also in telling the story of the ways in which women were once excluded from the public sphere and how they won the roles they fill today. The use of gender as a category of analysis has forced a recognition that ‘male’ does not equate to ‘normal’, that men’s experiences are gendered just as much as women’s, and that the structures that have shaped the public sphere have been structures of power based on class, race and gender.

Feminist historians in the 1970s worked on two tasks. The first was, in the word coined by Gerda Lerner, contributionist – to put women into Australian history. Historians such as Miriam Dixson, Beverly Kingston and Anne Summers found a place for women in a national history which had for a long time focused primarily on male lawmakers, warriors and merchants, pioneers, farmers and landowners – on politics, wars, and an economy built on wool and mining. The second was structural – to explain why women are still fighting for adequate childcare, equal pay and shared responsibility for household duties; why women are less likely to apply for a promotion, less likely to ‘grow’ their businesses, and more likely to attract vitriol when they reach positions of power. Feminist historians encouraged us to consider the gendered nature of female experience – that women’s histories were different from men’s – but equally valuable.

Putting women into an Australian history that focused so much on the public sphere was difficult: there were few women who had broken through barriers to ‘succeed’ in the male-dominated and defined public arena. Instead, historians in the 1980s and 1990s such as Ann Curthoys, Patricia Grimshaw and Marilyn Lake redefined what history should be about, emphasising the importance of women’s role in the domestic sphere. They highlighted the ways in which managing households, rearing children and creating social and cultural networks were as significant to the development of Australia as debating in parliament, shooting perceived enemies, and exporting wool. As Marilyn Lake said in 1996:

in the old days men used to say that women weren’t in history books because we hadn’t done anything. In response to this the standard feminist riposte was to insist that ‘we were there too’ – on the goldfields, in the Federation movement, on the farms, in the wars, in the Labour Party, in the Depression. But, I want to suggest, given half a chance, women in the past would retort, ‘No, we were somewhere else’ – we were in our families, in our bodies, in our self-sacrifice, in our emotions, in our communities, in our women’s friendships, in our relationships with the country and with people.

In the late nineteenth century women’s early forays into the public sphere were in charitable and church work, particularly around issues concerned with women and children. In these decades temperance became a popular cause among women and was a stepping-stone to the campaign for female suffrage. Importantly, early first-wave feminists exploited the idea of ‘separate spheres’ and the differences between men and women, emphasising the importance of women’s roles as wives and mothers.  They suggested that their special maternal qualities would be of benefit in the public realm, particularly as the state assumed new responsibilities in areas such as education and public health.

Feminist historians looking at this period sought to explain enduring inequalities by exploring the legal, social, cultural and economic discrimination faced by women. For example, within economic history – a field notorious for its abundant gendered assumptions and paucity of gendered analysis – they pointed out how women were barred either by law or lack of education or custom from many occupations, including the professions, other than teaching. They highlighted how women escaped the 24-hour drudgery of domestic service – the primary occupation available to them in the nineteenth century – by flocking to employment in the emerging factories, clerical work and department stores of the late nineteenth century. The feminist rewriting of Australian economic history, by historians such as Katrina Alford and Marilyn Lake, had been essentially a story of progress, of inch-by-inch gains in economic equality with men.

Recently, however, as part of a worldwide trend, feminist historians have begun questioning this teleological history of women’s participation in the public sphere. There has been a reconsideration of more conservative twentieth-century women’s groups and the influence they wielded and also a new interest in female missionaries and other groups of women who are perhaps less appealing as radical feminist heroines. Women’s activities in the interwar decades and in the 1950s, when the mythology of suburban domestic bliss was at its height, have been reconsidered. This work reveals that women have been present and active in the public sphere, albeit in different ways and facing distinct barriers, to a greater extent than previously understood.

In addition, following in the footsteps of British historian Amanda Vickery, historians are now questioning the very notion of separate spheres in the nineteenth century context. Private and public worlds were less discrete and more intertwined than we imagined. The digital archive has made women’s activities in the public sphere more visible. Through being able to search newspapers and connect lives across time and space, historians are now finding that women have been in the public sphere all along – that women’s place was not necessarily only in the home. In the nineteenth century, for example, in spite of legal, economic and (for those further up the social scale) social and cultural restrictions, women participated in the economy as more than employees. Women ran businesses, working alongside husbands, fathers, sons and daughters in workshops and retail outlets and hotels and boarding houses that were also kitchens and living rooms and homes. Domestic spaces were also work spaces.

If you were to stroll down Pitt Street, one of Sydney’s premier streets, in 1858 you would have passed 400 properties. Sand’s Directory, a listing of Sydney residents and their occupations, street-by-street and house by house, lists a handful of women’s names. But a careful examination of other sources – newspaper advertisements, bank ledgers and insolvency records for example – reveal more than a hundred individual women who were Pitt Street property owners, tenants and businesswomen. Women were active participants in the commercial life of colonial Sydney.

These women had been overlooked by traditional economic history because of the size and nature of their businesses: millinery and corsets were deemed less important than wool and mining. They had also been downplayed by earlier feminist historians who, on the one hand, emphasised the importance of women’s domestic roles in the domestic sphere and the way in which women’s experiences were different but equally valid, and, on the other hand, were concerned to highlight inherent and gendered structural inequalities that prevented women from participating fully in the public sphere



The impact of feminist perspectives on economic history has been profound. First, it has encouraged a rethinking of the way we do history. Reading sources against the grain has enriched our perceptions of the past. Understanding that women’s experience is different from men’s experience has created more inclusive histories where women and other marginal groups are no longer excluded from the ‘rich dead white male’ narrative. Second, it has brought recognition of the very real gendered power structures that presented barriers to women’s full participation in all aspects of public life.

Third, the latest wave of feminist history has directed our attention to groups of women not normally considered feminist heroines and away from labour history as the study of employer/employee relations. These moves follow in the footsteps of those earlier feminist historians who encouraged us to broaden definitions of economic activity and labour to encompass unpaid work, including domestic housekeeping and the social, cultural and family work often undertaken by women. This latest expansion of perspective has allowed us to recognise the presence of self-employed women, neither employees nor housewives, who had small, part-time, often hand-to-mouth businesses that might be run from the domestic space of the house.

Bringing the experiences of these women to the fore is significant for women in the public sphere today. It reinforces our understanding that the idea of separate spheres is based on something of a false dichotomy, that public and private worlds are inextricably intertwined. ‘Work/life balance’ is not an entirely new concept and more research is needed into the experiences of both women and men in the meshed worlds of home and work.

It also ensures that we understand that women’s participation in the public sphere is not a new phenomenon but has a long history. Establishing a tradition of women in business helps to legitimise female participation in all spheres of life. Despite the ubiquity of the phrase ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, the belief that women were once restricted to the private sphere can no longer stand unchallenged – women have always had many roles in the ‘public’ sphere, particularly in the world of commerce.


Key readings

Alford, K. (1984). Production or reproduction?: An economic history of women in Australia, 1788-1850. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 

Bishop, C. (2015). Minding her own business: Colonial businesswomen in Sydney. Sydney: NewSouth Press. 

Kingston, B. (1975). My wife, my daughter and poor Mary Ann: Women and work in Australia. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson. 

Lake, M. (1996). Feminist history as national history: Writing the political history of women. Australian Historical Studies, 27 (106), 154–169.

Vickery, A. (1993). Golden Age to separate spheres? A review of the category and chronology of English women’s history. Historical Journal, 36 (2), 283–414.


Image: Mrs. McDowall's Millinery Emporium (also dress and mantle making), Hill End: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales


Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute