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Women's Movement Page 2

Married Women's Property Act


Suffrage was not the only issue that concerned women in colonial South Australia. Married women could not own property and had few rights if they were deserted by husbands or fathers, or found themselves in violent relationships. Along with the suffrage movement the struggle to overcome the status of women as property would dominate moves for women's rights in the 19th century.

Eliza Davies' description of her two and a half year marriage to the violent William Davies demonstrates the plight of married women at the time. Her only escape was to return to Sydney in September 1842, and eventually to settle in the United States where she wrote her biography, The story of an earnest life, in 1880.

The separation from extended family in England meant that if married women were deserted or widowed, they often found themselves destitute and dependent on the colonial government for their welfare and that of their children.

In 1858 the South Australian Parliament followed Britain's lead and passed the Matrimonial Causes Act giving women extended ability to petition for divorce - although it continued to maintain a balance in favour of men and the social norms of the day failed to protect wives and children from violent retribution.

The social costs of desertion and domestic violence placed pressure on successive governments to legislate for reform. Small gains such as the Savings Bank Act of 1875 enabled married women to operate bank accounts in their own name, but did not stop husbands claiming the capital as well as any interest earned.

Real reform came with the Married Women's Property Act of 1883. For the first time, married women could acquire, hold and dispose of property, with legal avenues to sue and be sued. The legislation attracted criticism, one politician declaring, 'If we are going to give women power over property, and make them into women of business, politicians and doctors, we should in a very short time alter the entire course of family life'.

The circumstances of women trapped in poverty and violent marriages would continue to cause political debate to the end of the 19th century. In 1892 the Supreme Court ruled against the common practice of seeking a maintenance order against husbands, when the woman had left the family home to escape violence. The court ruled that maintenance orders could only be enforced when the husband deserted his wife. In response, the government introduced the Married Women's Protection Act of 1896, enabling a magistrate to make orders for the protection, custody and maintenance of married women and their children.

As these reforms progressed, so did the suffrage movement, but it was in response to the often commented upon visibility of prostitution in the city that many future suffragists came to social action.

"Suitcase Parade" of women opposed to changes to six o'
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"Votes for women" more in the air than ever
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Abortion in SA legalised
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Candidate for Parliament
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Catherine Helen Spence
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Catherine Helen Spence and Helen Brodie Spence
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Catherine Helen Spence, 1825-1905 : this for rememberan
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Certificate of Membership
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Certificate of membership, verso
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Eliza Davies
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Elizabeth Scarce and members of the International Women
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Feminist governor
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