Single women and the law: crime and legislative change in colonial South Australia, 1836-1880

Author: Jade Hastings

Hastings, Jade, 2022 Single women and the law: crime and legislative change in colonial South Australia, 1836-1880, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Due to its status as the only successfully non-penal Australian colony, South Australia is often regarded as having been relatively crime-free compared to its penal counterparts. South Australian founders credited this apparent absence of crime not only to an absence of convicts, but with the relative balance between the numbers of male and female immigrants. Women were considered to be not only less prone to crime than men, but as a ‘moralising’ influence on colonial society, with their own passive femininity seen to temper the stereotypically violent masculinity of the Australian colonial frontier. Such assumptions framed women as experiencing crime only as the passive victims of male violence, rather than as active perpetrators of crime; however, this thesis argues that these stereotypes are incorrect, and that the experiences of single women in South Australian courtrooms, on both sides of the law, can shed necessary light on the experiences of South Australian women both within and outside of the colonial courtroom.

This thesis primarily utilises newspaper court reports which were published between 1836-1880 in order to highlight the ways in which the intersecting themes of gender, class, race, and marital status influenced the outcomes of court cases involving unmarried women as both perpetrators and victims of crime. This argument is presented across seven chapters—with one chapter providing context for specifically South Australian experiences of colonisation, followed by six thematic chapters which focus crimes relating to significant aspects of single women’s lives. These themes are: marriage, work, motherhood, pregnancy, and consensual and non-consensual sex. Through a consideration of these themes, this thesis demonstrates the bias which was directed towards unmarried women in South Australian courtrooms, on both sides of the law, and assesses the extent to which this courtroom bias reflected broader colonial opinions.

Keywords: colonial australia, south australia, crime, single women, infanticide, child maintenance, illegitimate children, sexual violence, seduction, slander, marriage, courtroom, breach of promise, masters and servants acts, systematic colonisation, single female immigration, 19th century

Subject: History thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Catherine Kevin