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Chapter 11 - ‘The Ladies’ Contribution’

Women and the Mechanics’ Institute on the Goldfields of Victoria

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 June 2022

Jon Mee
Affiliation:
University of York
Matthew Sangster
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
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Summary

During a soirée commemorating the third anniversary of the Beechworth Athenaeum in the colony of Victoria in 1859, the society’s secretary acknowledged the ‘immense influence exercised by the ladies in the success or decline of an institution of this nature’. Mechanics’ Institutes emerged in nineteenth-century Britain before proliferating in the colonies to become thriving social, literary, and cultural hubs. While they were ostensibly male-focused institutions, women were critical in securing the mechanics’ institutes’ social and financial success, especially on the Victorian goldfields. Although they were originally unable to serve on the committees and only allowed ‘associate’ or ‘lady’ membership rights through their husbands or fathers, women attended lectures, participated in soirées, bazaars and popular readings and were frequently encouraged to do so by the institutes. Through its analysis of surviving committee minute books, institutional correspondence, and gold-rush era newspaper reports, this chapter demonstrates how the social respectability of colonial women and the Mechanics’ Institutes could be mutually constitutive, providing women with opportunities and platforms for public and political engagement, while also revealing the acts of resistance to institutional forms of surveillance and moral policing.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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