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A Woman's Work is Never Done? Exploring Housework in Interwar Queensland

  • Joanne Scott

Extract

The woman who demands assistance from her husband in her home is failing in her part of the marriage bargain, and the husband who gives it is losing his prestige as head of the house.

— Letter from ‘Mother’ of New Farm, Courier-Mail, 6 February 1939, p 14

The letter from ‘Mother’ in the Brisbane suburb of New Farm endorsed the assumed and actual centrality of unpaid work within the home for most white women in Queensland — especially for wives — in the interwar years. It accepted a division of labour in which men were defined primarily as breadwinners; by contrast, and despite female participation in the formal economy, the major role for women was that of wife and mother. This allocation of responsibilities was a fundamental component of the gender segregation which characterised work and the Queensland economy in this period.

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Notes

1 Frances, Raelene, ‘Shifting Barriers: Twentieth Century Women's Labour Patterns’, in Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans (eds), Gender Relations in Australia: Domination and Negotiation (Sydney: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 250–51.

2 The Queensland Mothers’ Book, rev. ed. (Brisbane: Home Secretary's Department, Brisbane, 1931), 14.

3 Australian Woman's Mirror, 23 February 1926: 21.

4 Fifty-fourth report of the Secretary of Public Instruction for the year 1929, Queensland Parliamentary Papers, vol. 1, 1930, 141.

5 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1921, vol. 1, 510–11 and 1933, vol. 2, 1122–23; Australian Women's Weekly, 4 June 1938: 21.

6 Annual reports of the Director, State Children Department for the years 1919–1939, Queensland Parliamentary Papers, 1920–1940.

7 Courier-Mail, 13 February 1939: 13.

8 Australian Women's Weekly, 10 June 1933: 7.

9 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1921, vol. 2, Statistician's Report, 346. The Census material on average numbers of children included only married women who were ‘enumerated with their husbands’, thus excluding wives whose husbands were absent on the date of the Census and mothers who did not conform to this category. The ABC of Queensland Statistics and Queensland Year Books indicate that about 5 per cent of births in interwar Queensland were ex-nuptial.

10 Queensland Bank Officer, September 1920: 18, Courier-Mail, 13 February 1939: 13. This letter was part of the debate over whether husbands should assist with housework.

11 Cilento, Raphael, ‘Observations on the White Working Population of Queensland’, Part 1, Health, 4(1) (1926): 10.

12 Cilento, ‘Observations’: 10.

13 Woman's Budget, 19 February 1921: 5.

14 Queensland Bank Officer, September 1920: 18.

15 Isbel, C.E., ‘Coorparoo Days Recalled’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 9(4) (1972–73): 119.

16 Probert, Belinda, Working Life: Arguments About Work in Australian Society (Ringwood: Penguin, 1990), 2.

17 Council Letter (Journal of the QCWA), March 1931.

18 Woman's Budget, 14 May 1921, 5; North Queensland Guardian, 21 August 1937: 2.

19 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1921, vol. 2, statistician's report, 355; and 1933, vol. 3, Statistician's Report, 84.

20 Australian Home Beautiful, 2 July 1928: 60.

21 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933, vol. 2, 1914–15.

22 Cilento, ‘Observations’: 11.

23 Courier-Mail, 13 February 1939: 13.

24 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1921, vol. 1, 482; vol. 2, 1350–51, 1358–59; and 1933, vol. 2, 1114. These figures do not include persons who listed their usual occupation as domestic service but who were unemployed at the time of the Census.

25 Everylady's Journal, 1 December 1930: 489–90.

26 Johnston, W. Ross, A New Province? The Closer Settlement of Monto (Brisbane: Boolarong, 1982), 127.

27 Everylady's Journal, 1 October 1926: 301.

28 Brydon, M.H., ‘Women's Life in North Queensland’, Health, 1(6) (1925): 167; Queensland Country Life, 19 September 1935: 6.

29 Brydon, ‘Women's Life in North Queensland’: 167.

30 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933, vol. 3, Statistician's Report, 186, 200.

31 Cilento, ‘Observations’: 39.

32 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1921, vol. 2, statistician's report, 285; Evidence presented to the Sugar Enquiry Board quoted in Council Letter, March 1931.

33 Council Letter, March 1931.

34 Game, Ann and Pringle, Rosemary, Gender at Work (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983), 120; Duncan Ironmonger and Evelyn Sonius, ‘Household Productive Activities’, in Duncan Ironmonger (ed.), Households Work: Productive Activities, Women and Income in the Household Economy (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989), 20.

35 Cilento, ‘Observations’: 8. A skillion kitchen was a kitchen located in a lean-to or a structure separate from the house.

36 Cilento, ‘Observations’: 1013.

A Woman's Work is Never Done? Exploring Housework in Interwar Queensland

  • Joanne Scott

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