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Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia


This chapter will examine how rural women were positioned within elite discourse as the hope for the revitalisation or ‘rebirth’ of the nation vis-à-vis the problems of the city, and how this impacted on how rural life was promoted as an ideal in the early twentieth century.

In his Nine Australian Progressives, Michael Roe (1984 p. 12) referred to what he called the ‘embellishment’ of rural life by urban progressives in the earlier twentieth century. His repeated use of this term, ‘embellish’, with its connotations of adornment, of making beautiful and decorating, or of falsifying, dramatising or masking, captures well the response of urban elites to rural Australia in the early years of last century.

The idealisation of the Australian country by urban writers, or the ‘urban context for the Australian legend’ (Davison 1978) is hardly a historiographical novelty. That some early twentieth-century urban men tended to take a more romantic view of the country than rural dwellers themselves was amply illustrated, for example, in the evidence taken by the Select Committee on the Causes of the Drift from the Country Districts to the City, which was established in 1916. The rural witnesses examined were more concerned with establishing employment opportunities for their children than with any sentiment regarding the virtue of rural life, from which sprang, according to AA Billson and the other urban elites asking the questions, ‘the supply of independent and strong citizenship upon which the permanent greatness of the Nation must rest’.1

I am interested here in the gendered aspects of this embellishing of rural life, that is, how idealised images of rural life were informed by visions of model gender relations imagined to operate in Australian country districts, and in particular by the imagining of an ideal rural womanhood. This approach sidesteps the debates regarding the status of rural women, who have been variously portrayed as exploited, unpaid farm labour or as enjoying a position of esteem relative to her oppressed city counterpart (see for example Lake 1985; Dale 1991). This article is concerned not with the material conditions of life experienced by actual rural women, but the images drawn of them in official, public rhetoric, and the purposes these images might have served in the urban public sphere. It traces the ways in which rural womanhood was conceived in urban public-sphere examinations of social problems: the issue of the birth rate in the early post-Federation period, and the ‘girl problem’, the articulation of anxieties about women in Australian cities in the Great War and post-War periods. It argues that a shift occurred in the period, away from an image of the rural woman as the hardened ‘pioneer’ to a vision of a more ideal, ‘womanly’ rural woman. This shift represented a general impulse against urban modernity with its perceived negative effects on women, and also operated to make rural life seem more attractive, in a period obsessed with the advisability of rural settlement.

In 1902 rural womanhood could still be represented by the hard-working farm woman. The Argus (13 Jan 1902, cited in Teale 1978 p. 235), in an article entitled ‘Women Who Work: Hard Lot of Farmers’ Wives’, rhetorically posed the question:

Is it any wonder [these women] grow lean and bronzed and hard, prematurely old, and sad? ... If they cannot manage all their domestic duties, and assist their husbands as well, their farms must fail.

The loss of women’s ‘femininity’ as a result of their involvement in ‘unsexing’ farm work was a prominent contention of writers such as Henry Lawson. Marilyn Lake, among others, has suggested that while ‘Australianness’ was constructed as a masculine characteristic, ‘the bushwoman, while indubitably Australian, sacrificed her womanliness’ (Lake 1992 pp. 312–313). The bush was, famously, ‘no place for a woman.’

However, from as early as 1903 a shift in this imagery was taking place, emanating from elite public figures influenced by the stresses of urban modernity. Many of these ‘elites’ can be identified as members of the ‘new middle class’ as described by Desley Deacon (1989), the professional administering class, who were both products of modernity and its most strident critics, as associates of the progressive country-life ‘embellishers’ described by Roe. These (mainly) men were often joined by more conservative voices, the impulse against modernity tending to mobilise disparate members of the powerful and influential in early twentieth century urban society.2

Figure 2.1 The rural idyll: feeding time for a pet sheep and calf on Christmas Day, 1927.

Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

The city, as the locus of modernity, was thought to be debilitating to human health and morality as an unnatural way of life. It was felt to be a particularly bad environment for women, whose femininity was eroded by the immoral and physically taxing conditions of the cramped metropolis. It is my contention that as the city replaced the bush as the site of woman’s unsexing, efforts were made to impose a more ‘womanly’ counter-image of rural womanhood in line with the gendered aspects of the English rural idyll. As various scholars including Nead (1988), have observed, the rural idyll incorporated a vision of womanhood fulfilling her ‘natural’ domestic role as wife and mother within the ‘natural’ institution of the family in the ‘natural’ countryside.

A number of historians interested in gender in the rural setting, including most recently Richard Waterhouse,3 have argued that notions of ‘separate spheres’ were not strictly enforced in Australian rural areas. However, their accounts, in rejecting in reality this essentialist vision of rural women as more natural or maternal women, fail to acknowledge that such visions did exist and were promulgated, especially in urban imagery of Australian country life, but also in visions of rural gender relations emanating from the country itself. Heather Gunn’s work, for example, has observed the ‘prevailing beliefs about the proper role of women as mothers within the rural community’ (Gunn 1994 p. 41).

The shift in the imagery of rural womanhood to a more womanly version become apparent early in the century, with the imposition of a paradigm of maternal rural womanhood. The first Royal Commission in twentieth century Australia was established in 1903 to inquire into the problem of the decline of the birth rate and the mortality of infants in New South Wales. The principal historian of the Commission, Neville Hicks, was damning in his evaluation of its proceedings, observing that

In their desire to formulate a solution to population decline by reverting to the ‘norm’ of previous decades or to an idealised moral, rural and fecund state of existence, the Commissioners missed the opportunity to comment upon and illuminate a period of major social change in Australia’s history (Hicks 1978 p. xvii).

This preoccupation with an idealised past revealed the ‘modern’ character of these Commissioners and their agenda – if we understand the modern mentality as one paradoxically steeped in nostalgia. Accordingly, the commissioners were particularly insistent on the familiar themes of the evils of urban life and the advisability of rural settlement, in view of the (slightly) higher rural birth rate. However, Australian scholars including Hicks have glossed over this aspect of the Commission. This is not surprising, in a sense – the obsession with the notion of a more ‘[re]productive’ countryside could appear to be just another example of the characteristic populist theme of the sturdy population on the land supporting the parasitical city. However, a new and gendered reading of the Commission which emphasises this preoccupation with rural-urban differentials in the birth rate is strongly suggestive of the anxieties of these elite men regarding urban modernity. This was expressed through their implicit and explicit favouring of the rural woman for being more maternal and, by extension, more womanly than her city sister.

The Report of the Commission into the decline of the birth rate opened with a volley of statistics emphasising the fact of the more rapid decline in births in Sydney, as against the rest of the State. Evidence suggesting that the country birth rate was also falling was ignored by the Commissioners, however, who recommended that rural settlement should be encouraged to boost the national birth rate. The questions put to witnesses were geared to this effect, and their responses were tempered by this agenda. Dr Ralph Worrall was asked by the President of the Commission, Charles Mackellar: ‘in view of the fact that the birth-rate in the country districts is greater than in the town, and that there is an evident stimulus in the country among the agricultural population to have families, [do] you think it would be well that an effort should be made to send people... [to] settle there?’4 He agreed – and was joined by a great number of voices throughout the Commission, including Edward Riley, President of the Sydney Labour Council, who said

I believe that if the policy of the Government, or the statesmen of Australia, were concentrated upon opening up the land... you would establish a rural population... that would produce a healthy, strong race, and there would be no restriction of families.5

Another witness lamented, in a comment on the immoral practice of birth control, that he supposed the use of contraceptives was (quote) ‘inseparable from all large centres of population. I know you would not find that in the country districts...’6

Figure 2.2 Large country family, ca.1905.

Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

A particular concern of the Commission was the condition of womanhood, and specifically the selfish disregard of women for the future of the race. Characteristically of this period, much attention was also given to the problem of women’s employment in factories, those quintessentially urban workplaces, and the effects of this work on health and reproductive capacity. One of the reasons for encouraging rural settlement, listed in the report of the Commission, was to ‘counteract the tendency to the increased employment of women and girls in factories...’7

However, despite the preoccupation of the Commissioners with activities on the part of women which impaired their reproductive efficiency, the questions they asked betrayed anxieties that transcended these concerns for the purely physical condition of women. More fundamental questions regarding maternal instinct itself were prominent in the proceedings. This has gone largely unremarked upon. Although the less gender-specific term ‘altruistic instinct’ was also used, the question of the desire of women for children almost entirely crowded out any consideration of a ‘paternal’ instinct. In a discussion about the kinds of people who practice prevention, a former Salvation Army representative was asked by Mackellar, ‘Do you think that the instinct of motherhood is less developed amongst these people?’ She replied that this was the case, especially among the ‘better’ class.8

Maternal instinct was only under question, it seemed, in reference to the urban woman. The inferences that could have been drawn from the twin concerns with rural settlement and the focus on women as the bearers of the birth rate pathology, were made more explicit in the evidence of Mr JE Sawtell, Senior-Sergeant of Police, who blamed the declining birth rate on the reluctance of young men to marry, due to what he identified as the ‘unsuitability of the young women of the present day’. Asked to explain, Sawtell continued: ‘Especially in the cities. They do not seem to study that sense of economy that would ensure domestic happiness. I know numbers of young men who would not think of marrying because the average city girl on the whole is unsuitable for a life companion’. The problem was emphatically an urban one: Sawtell reported ‘When you come to compare them with the young women of the rural districts, you get an all-round wife there. She knows housework, she can do everything connected with domestic duties, and she makes a better wife’.9

Figure 2.3 Nurse Nell Shelton with three infants in her care, near Wedderburn, Victoria, 1917.

Photograph courtesy of Mavis Lockhart.

Sawtell hesitated, however, when he was asked if the conditions of urban life, specifically the employment of women in non-domestic work, ‘unfits them for the duty of motherhood’. He replied that he ‘doesn’t say that’, but that they would certainly make bad housewives.10 Sawtell’s reticence is telling. As Kerreen Reiger (1985) has suggested, the possibility that some women might have been ‘unfit’, or incapable, of fulfilling their most ‘natural’ function, represented rocky ground for the purveyors of the ideology of motherhood in this period.11 Programs instituted to educate and supervise mothers for the good of the race posed a paradoxical problem alongside the insistence that motherhood was the natural occupation of the (white) Australian woman, for which she was ‘naturally’ fitted and destined. If Sawtell was reluctant to acknowledge the possibility that some women were ‘unfit’ to fulfill this destiny, this was clearly the fear being expressed by the Commissioners, as evident in the questioning. When called back for further examination, Sawtell had changed his mind. He stated that ‘the average city women are not suitable for wives and mothers’.12

The Royal Commission into the declining birth rate was an early example of how rural women would be mobilised – both implicitly and explicitly – as a marker for the anxieties of urban modernity. The birth rate would be a crucial factor influencing this imposition of an imagery of womanly rural womanhood. The encouragement of women onto the land to boost the birth rate would be a continuing theme in the years following Federation. An increased emphasis on the importance of biological vigour or ‘vitality’ in the building of the new nation was aligned with the rural environment (Bacchi 1980). As the Countess of Dudley said of the bush nursing project, it was imperative to support the men and women on the land, who were ‘the progenitors of those splendid bush families who today are the bone and marrow of this country, her greatest asset, and the material on which her future must mainly depend’ (cited in Hyslop 1980).

Somewhat paradoxically, the requirement to preserve this ‘pioneering’ stuff would require rural settlement to appear more attractive and less arduous. Emergent images of a new womanly rural woman inhabiting a more sanitised bush transmitted a new vision of the country as a more comfortable place for women to live, and to breed. It also satisfied the contemporary desire to create a counter-image to the modern, urban woman who was apparently losing her maternal instinct and all that went with it.

This tendency was evident in a variety of spheres in the years before the war. Increasing anxiety surrounding the immoral influence of city life on women – especially those visible in its public space, notably factory girls – were evident in public discourse and official enquiry. The Victorian Royal Commission on the Housing Conditions of the People of the Metropolis, which undertook the bulk of its investigations in 1914–15, was a notable example: witnesses were preoccupied with those factory girls observed spending their nights on the streets, at picture shows, and walking in the parks, who were liable to fall into prostitution (McConville 1980) or, at best, become slovenly wives: the lack of discipline and domestic aptitude displayed by factory girls was held to be ‘one of the principal causes’ of misery in the homes of the metropolis, according to a minister, Charles Tregear.13 The female factory worker was presented as a giddy type, wayward, the girl ‘who will not settle down to domestic life’, a restless spirit.14

In the war and post-war period, a paradigm of rural womanhood emerged which was marked by new nuances: a discursive fixation on the ‘purity’ of women overrode the maternal emphasis that had accompanied the earlier pronatalist preoccupations of urban elites.15 This new, more overt focus on sexual morality as the overwhelming concern of elite discourse on the condition of womanhood was reflective of renewed wartime anxiety regarding the threat of venereal disease and the ‘problem’ of the urban woman, a prominent issue of concern in other industrialised countries at the time as documented in this wider context by Joanne Meyerowitz (1988) and Caroline Strange (1995). The depiction of female wage-earners in the city shifted from a dominant conception of the ‘woman adrift’ in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century city – passive, endangered and pure: a victim of the capitalist system – to a much less sympathetic image of a hardened and sexually predatory ‘working girl’ by the 1920s (Meyerowitz 1988 pp. xix, 124–125; Strange 1995 pp. 90, 144–145). By this time, the ‘woman adrift’ was transformed in popular and academic discourse into a symbol of modern urban individualism, reflecting a broader shift in understandings of femininity – from innocent victims to sexualised adults, as charted in the Australian context by Judith Allen (1990 pp. 87–88). This was facilitated by the blurring of boundaries between middle class and working class women, as increasing numbers of middle-class ‘flappers’ adopted the dress, make-up and behaviours of their less respectable sisters, having followed them into the city for work by the 1920s.

Figure 2.4 Five generations of country women: the Methvin descendents, Mary, Eliza, Mary, Ray and Ann, Baradine, New South Wales.

Photograph courtesy of Mavis Lockhart.

The ‘girl problem’, like the ‘boy problem’ of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century (Davison 1983) was a concept inseparable from the ‘challenge’ of the city. It reflected anxieties about the breakdown of clear boundaries between ‘good’ and bad’ women in the urban context. A particular anxiety emerging out of the war period concerned the ‘amateur prostitute’, who was increasingly difficult to distinguish from the fashionable flapper visible on the streets for work or play (Tisdale 1999). Amidst the increasing ‘sexualisation’ of young women, in which even the apparently respectable middle class girl in the city could no longer be portrayed within an unambiguous ‘woman adrift’ paradigm,16 a particular type of girl drew attention. This was the country girl of a ‘superior class’ as Reverend Samuel J. Hoban, Superintendent of the Central Mission, put it – the middle-class rural daughter arriving in the city, perhaps for the first time, to enter the workforce. Rural girls, removed from their families, were assumed to be unprepared to meet the moral challenges of the city. The 1920s may have been dominated by a less sympathetic vision of the urban working woman, as discussed above, but there were enough respectable rural innocents to maintain a strong ‘woman adrift’ imagery. The presence of newly-arrived country girls in the urban landscape presented the opportunity for middle-class reformers to indulge in a rhetoric about passive and innocent victims, within the wider and more murky, nuanced discourse surrounding the ‘girl problem’. In a period in which the purity or impurity of girls was a much more complex question than it had once been, rural women again became exemplars of, and markers for, a distinct and definite purity.

Accordingly, country girls needed to be protected first and foremost. One of the strategies adopted to this end, as Seamus O’Hanlon has detailed, was the superseding of morally-suspect (working class) inner-city boarding houses with hostels designed to house young middle class women (O’Hanlon 2002 ch. 5). With boarding houses and the unsupervised freedom of flat life ruled inappropriate forms of accommodation for the many ‘business girls’ moving to Melbourne, organisations which had long provided accommodation for girls, like the YWCA, the Anglican Girls’ Friendly Society, and the Salvation Army, set up larger hostels in the teens and early 1920s, (ch. 5) while other organisations, like the Traveller’s Aid Society (TAS), established them anew.

These hostels were aimed particularly at the ‘friendless’ country girl in the city. The Catholic Women’s Social Guild viewed their hostel, in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, very much as a haven for endangered (Catholic) country girls.17 A 1924 paper entitled ‘Our Hostels’, given to the CWSG annual conference by Miss Louise Barry, observed that hostels ‘answer a need definitely modern’ by catering for the army of women workers, the numbers of which were contributed to by ‘our deplorable passion for centralisation – the “drift to the city” which our daily press daily weeps to behold’.18 In July 1926 the Horizon remarked that:

we all admit the dire necessity of this ideas to safeguard the faith and morals of large numbers of our young women who are compelled to seek employment in Melbourne. Many come from the country, and are forced to shelter in non-Catholic hostels while waiting for positions.

It asked, therefore, for funds for the improvement of its hostel – for ‘the protection of our young women from the many dangers to which they are exposed in a large city’.19 Earlier, it had been hinted that ‘The country women must be vitally interested in the establishment of a Hostel, where country girls can board if they enter into employment in the city...’20 At an appeal for the hostel in 1926, a Miss Hoy ‘spoke of the dangers surrounding young girls coming to the metropolis from the country...She trusted that good support would be forthcoming from the country...’21 This funding drive, aimed at country residents, clearly delineated the kind of girls the hostel hoped to cater for. As O’Hanlon (2002) notes, organisations like the CWSG used tales of country girls meeting with various urban dangers to promote their hostels, inviting rural readers to imagine that their own daughters might one day find themselves in a similar position (pp. 86–87).

Another strategy adopted by (mainly) middle-class women to address the rural-urban exchange aspect of the ‘girl problem’, was the establishment of Traveller’s Aid Societies. Following the creation of societies in South Australia (1887) and New South Wales (1910–11), the Victorian branch was established by 1916, combining and organising the existing efforts of a number of disparate groups including the YWCA, the Central Mission, Girls’ Friendly Society, and the WCTU. In line with the English example, the Victorian TAS was founded under the auspices of the YWCA, whose members represented one fifth of the board (Heydon 2003 pp. 4–9, 15). The First Annual Report described the Society as a ‘forward movement’ developed from the ‘initial and experimental’ work of the YWCA of Melbourne, which in 1914 had employed an agent for six months to meet overseas and inter-state boats and country trains ‘in the interests of women and girls whom no society had been requested to befriend’.22 This experiment had glaringly exposed the need for a more sustained effort.

The policy of the TAS, as the First Annual Report outlined, was threefold: protection from evil, prevention of evil, and the detection of evil...

Through the eyes of its agents trained social workers aware of the dangers and difficulties which beset the path of our young girls and boys while travelling to and fro to their work in the town and in the country, between the states and overseas. It is calculated that 60 per cent of our girl workers in officers [sic] and factories are without the protection of a home.23

The emphasis of TAS efforts on girl-life, then, was undisguised, despite its stated object being to save both girls and boys ‘from the pitfalls of a great City’.24 It was noted that ‘organised evils’ seducing girls were an unfortunate fact of city life, ‘especially where ignorance, innocence or financial difficulties of the victims are contributing factors’. The Society aimed to ‘check these forces of evil, and thus save at least some of Australia’s budding womanhood’.25

The British TAS had begun as two separate organisations, both formed in 1885: the provisional Female Passenger’s Aid Society, and a department of the YWCA, both of which were dedicated to the protection of ‘respectable country girls’ arriving in London.26 The Victorian TAS retained this emphasis: the newly-arrived, and therefore unsullied, ‘respectable’ country girl with which it was chiefly concerned provided an appealing image that doubtless contributed to the rapid growth in support for the Society in the 1920s, described by Heydon 2003 (pp. 19, 40). The friendless girl hesitating on the train platform, eyed by men and potential procurers, embodied ‘purity’ in an uncomplicated, archetypal manner.

The first report of the Victorian branch included a report from one of the TAS helpers who had assisted a ‘delicate woman’ who was reported to have said,

if somebody had been at Spencer-Street Station to meet me 20 years ago, when I, a raw country girl, first came to Melbourne; if there had only been one who cared, my life story would have been a different one.27

This story was juxtaposed with a tale about a girl of ‘marked refinement’ who had come to the city for further training as a seamstress, only to unknowingly take lodging in a house of questionable character,28 which as Heydon (2003 p. 24) notes, may have meant anything from a brothel to a location in an unsavoury area.

The services offered by the TAS were advertised in the country newspapers and during ‘Country Week’ to attract the attention of rural visitors to the city. Like the Catholic Women’s Social Guild, the Society sought support from like-minded country dwellers for their efforts to make the urban environment safer for girls. This exchange reflected a wider trend among progressive, urban women’s groups who increasingly hoped to establish a dialogue with country women with similar ideas, and to address the problems associated with urban centralisation and the ‘girl problem’ by improving country life. The Australian Women’s National League (AWNL) was most vocal in its attention to the country districts: in a 1916 article entitled ‘The Relations of City and Country’ it asserted that

The first necessity is to place broadly-trained women as well as men in the country, for all progress depends on the ability and outlook of its men and women. City women and country women especially should work together on all great public questions...

Their call for ‘Every organisation of women [to] extend its branches and its influence into the country districts’29 was taken up enthusiastically by the YWCA, which noted that ‘More and more our thoughtful citizens... deplore the drift to the cities which is such a disturbing fact of our national life in this new continent’.30 In recognition of this, it was reported, organisations like the Girl Guides and the Country Women’s Association had established operations in the country districts. Wishing to do likewise, the Association made concerted efforts in the 1920s to spread their work into rural areas and to cultivate an increased understanding between city and country by appointing rural members to its national staff.31 It was hoped that these efforts would help stem the drift to the city caused by the disabilities of country life, a subject which, as the Woman noted, was

taking a strong hold on the minds of country members. It is manifest that Melbourne is growing at an abnormal rate – too fast and too far – and that the self-denials and hardship of country life, contrasted with town comforts and conveniences, are decidedly hostile to the due progress of the producing areas.32

Despite the requirement to recognise the hardships of country life in order to address them, organisations like the conservative AWNL sought to make country life more attractive, to women in particular. The Rural Industries Committee of the AWNL promoted, through the Woman, pleasant-sounding ‘womanly’ rural occupations like vegetable and poultry raising, canning and preserving, beekeeping, flower culture, and the cultivation of medicinal herbs and plants,33 declaring that ‘The saying “the woman on the land” should be as familiar as “the man on the land”’.34 To this end, increased attention was given to vocational education in rural industries, to ensure that women were properly fitted for a life on the land. As the Woman observed in 1918, this woman required ‘a quite different life preparation from her sister in business’.35 Miss Armstrong of the AWNL, writing of women’s work on the land that ‘In spite of its hard work, long hours and many disabilities, it is a life full of attraction and romance to many women’, regretted that ‘[b]roadly speaking’ there was no training in agricultural pursuits available to women in Victoria, though such training was undertaken in the US and England. Referring to recently published accounts of girls’ agricultural colleges at Reading and Studley Castle in Warwickshire and girls’ farms in Kent, Surrey and elsewhere, she asserted that ‘given the same opportunities, our girls can do as well if not better’.36

We have seen that middle-class women’s organisations like the TAS and the AWNL were responsible for maintaining and promoting a vision of the rural woman as an exemplar of ‘pure’ citizenship in the 1920s, through efforts aimed at the protection of their ‘innocence’ when they entered the urban environment. These groups encouraged a vision of rural woman as unambiguous markers of purity in a world where clear-cut distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls had ceased to hold true. The construction of rural womanhood along these lines provided a canvas onto which could be projected unrestrained notions of the enduringly passive, pure character of femininity in its untainted form, as a counter to the questionable purity of the urban girl, who was conceived, whether working-or middle-class, as a ‘problem’. The best thing for the rural girl was to keep her in the country, though even there she was not completely immune to the problems of modern life: hence the efforts to improve country life. Education could make even country people more fit for the country. As the YWCA conceded,

Among our boys and girls in the country are so many who do not know the right use of leisure time or the pleasures of further education. We know only too well how the lack of healthy occupation leads to immorality and ruined lives in many cases.37

While fostering efforts to stem the drift of young girls to the city by improving country life, these organisations were also part of a wider effort by Australia’s ruling classes to encourage citizens out of the cities and onto the land. This was inspired also by a conception of national greatness as being necessarily founded on the preponderance in national life of the (conservative) farmer: as the Woman noted,

The farmer of the future, if he develops in accordance with the needs of the nation, will be the leader of thought, the expounder of the true philosophy, and the conserver of wholesome politics for the people. He should see a land of peace, yet of positive action; and a land of plenty, and yet not one of luxury; a land of contentment, instead of a seething mass of strikes and turmoils.38

The desire to establish such a civilisation through increased rural settlement led the AWNL and other groups to present country life as more attractive, and less arduous, and to depict the rural woman, into the 1920s, as a contented, domestic-maternal figure rather than an overworked drudge. She was valued, furthermore, for her contribution to rural life beyond her breeding capabilities, as the Woman described as early as 1915: ‘The woman on the farm is no longer a nonentity. She is a force for better living, better methods, better thinking, and greater happiness’.39 She should be venerated not only in her own district, but universally: as the Woman put it, ‘[w]e should surely believe in the woman who lives in closest touch with nature, and who, other things being equal, will be the best woman...’40

In the period following the 1903-4 Royal Commission into the birth rate, the rural woman had indeed been understood as the ‘best woman’. The imagery associated with rural womanhood rapidly shifted in the early years of the twentieth century, away from the unsexed pioneer woman and towards a more maternal, womanly woman. This theme was strongly evident in public discourse by the 1920s, at a time when young rural women were under increasing pressure to conform to the domestic ideology, as suggested in a recent study by Kathryn Hunter and Pamela Riney-Kehrberg (2002). This ideology aligned womanliness with home and hearth, and emphatically not with productive work, at least not outdoors or beyond the bounds of the garden. As these authors suggested, the ideological work thus achieved was the presentation of rural women as leisured as a sign of prosperity, thus promoting the desirability of country life (Hunter and Riney-Kehrberg 2002). By the time of the Great War, the rural woman had came to embody the ‘pure citizenship’ that was espoused as the ideal under conditions of total war. She represented an uncomplicated form of purity, in a period when the concept was increasingly problematic. The embellishment of rural life along gendered lines in this period represented both an attempt to woo citizens onto the land, largely with the rationale of increasing the birth rate, as well as indicating the need for a counter to the dominant vision of the urban woman as straying from the path of proper femininity in her selfish, immoral, unnatural lifestyle.


Thanks to Marc Brodie, Nick Dyrenfurth and Marian Quartly for their invaluable suggestions in the writing of this paper.



Association News (National YWCA of Australia).

Evidence taken by the Royal Commission on the Housing Conditions of the People in the Metropolis, Victorian Parliamentary Papers II, part 1, 1917, paper no. 29, pp. 179–183.

The Horizon.

McGowan, Henrietta C.; Margaret G. Cuthbertson, Woman’s Work. Melbourne: Thomas C. Lothian; 1913.

Report of the Select Committee Upon the Causes of the Drift of Population from Country Districts to the City, Victorian Parliamentary Papers, 1918, vol. 1, pp. 641–647.

Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales, Volumes 1 and 2, Sydney: Government Printer; 1904.

Traveller’s Aid Society of Victoria, First Annual Report, 1917.

Traveller’s Aid Society of Victoria, Third Annual Report, 1919.

The Woman.


1     Report of the Select Committee upon the causes of the Drift of Population from Country Districts to the City. Victoria, Parliamentary Papers, 1918, Volume 1, pp. 4, 641–647.

2     I use the term ‘elite’ in this paper as shorthand for this influential grouping.

3     Waterhouse 2000 and Waterhouse 2005.

4     Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales, Volume 2, Sydney: Government Printer, 1904, p. 92.

5     RC on the Decline of the Birth Rate, vol. II, p. 196.

6     RC on the Decline of the Birth Rate, vol. I, pp. 95–96.

7     RC on the Decline of the Birth Rate, Report, vol. I, p. 36.

8     RC on the Decline of the Birth Rate, vol. II, p. 187.

9     RC on the Decline of the Birth Rate, vol. II, p. 76.

10    RC on the Decline of the Birth Rate, vol. II, p. 76.

11    Reiger argued that the efforts of middle-class technical ‘experts’ to ‘modernise’ and ‘rationalise’ the domestic sphere, as well as sexuality and the reproductive process, represented a structural contradiction within industrial capitalist societies that retained a vision of women as symbols of nature, and of the domestic sphere as a haven from the world of capitalist process. The bourgeois model of a womanhood defined by maternal feeling was particularly undermined by emergent efforts to ‘supervise’ mothering practice. See Reiger 1985.

12    RC on the Decline of the Birth Rate, p. 135.

13    Evidence taken by the Royal Commission on the Housing Conditions of the People in the Metropolis, Victoria, Parliamentary Papers II, Part 1, 1917, paper no. 29, p. 58.

14    Evidence, RC on the Housing Conditions, pp. 138–139.

15    Australian leaders, along with their overseas counterparts, shifted from negative pronatalist policies like the restriction of birth control literature, to an emphasis on maternal and infant welfare programs by the interwar period: see Reiger 1985.

16    Although the term strictly referred to those single working women who lived independently of their families, it has been used by Meyerowitz 1988 and Strange 1995 to refer to a particular paradigm of womanhood characterised by innocence and endangerment, a vision culturally relevant to the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and waning in the 1920s.

17    As O’Hanlon notes, hostels were usually religious-based and demarcated along denominational lines. It was hoped that the hostels would safeguard the faith of young women and encourage them, by way of ensuring they mixed with the ‘right kind’, to marry men of the same religion (O’Hanlon 2002 pp. 139–141).

18    The Horizon, 1 September 1924 p. 13.

19    The Horizon, 1 July 1926 p. 5.

20    The Horizon, 1 September 1925 p. 3.

21    The Horizon, 1 October 1926 p. 4.

22    Traveller’s Aid Society of Victoria, First Annual Report, 1917, p. 3.

23    TASV, First Annual Report, pp. 10–11.

24    Traveller’s Aid Society of Victoria, Third Annual Report, 1919, p. 1.

25    TASV, First Annual Report, p. 11.

26    TASV, First Annual Report, pp. 27–28.

27    TASV, First Annual Report, p. 12.

28    TASV, First Annual Report, pp. 12–14.

29    The Woman, 1 July 1916 p. 130.

30    Association News (National YWCA of Australia), 1 January 1929 p. 9.

31    See Association News (National YWCA of Australia), 1 January 1929 pp. 9–10.

32    The Woman, 1 September 1918 p. 297.

33    The Woman: reports of the Rural Industries Committee for period, and ‘Women’s Work in Rural Industries’, March 1914 p. 11. Also see Henrietta C. McGowan and Margaret G. Cuthbertson, Woman’s Work, Melbourne: Thomas C. Lothian; 1913, on rural pursuits recommended for women.

34    The Woman, March 1914 p. 11.

35    The Woman, November 1918 p. 377.

36    The Woman, November 1916 p. 261.

37    Association News (National YWCA of Australia), 1 January 1929 p. 10.

38    The Woman, 1 July 1916 p. 130.

39    The Woman, 1 May 1915 p. 378.

40    The Woman, 1 July 1916 p. 130.


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Cite this article as: Murphy, Kate. ‘Rural womanhood and the “embellishment” of rural life in urban Australia’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 02.1–02.15.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie