Improving the Lives of Women and Children

Many of the women in this exhibition were the victims of poverty, and a harsh moral code that judged men and women differently. Few women, married or single, were paid a living wage at this time. But there were those who had a vision for a better future. Reformers like Vida Goldstein or the Reverend Charles Strong, and organisations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Social Improvement Society, argued for social welfare, the abolition of capital punishment and equal rights for women. They advocated on behalf of many of the women featured here and in time they succeeded.

In 1901 Australia saw itself as a young progressive nation and over the following decades the foundations of a social welfare system were established. Some reforms, like the creation of an old-age pension, were early radical moves. Others took a surprisingly long time to realise, and some, like equal pay, are still to be fully achieved. Below we list some of the social and legal reforms introduced over the twentieth century. They show just how forward-thinking those early reformers, like Vida Goldstein and Charles Strong, were for the times.


Infant Life Protection Act 1890 (Vic)

Required that nursing homes for infants be registered and inspected.


Marriage Act Amendment Act 1900 (Vic)

Allowed all women the right to claim confinement expenses and maintenance from the father of their child.


Old-age Pensions Act 1900 (Vic)

Provided a means-tested pension for white men or women aged over 65, subject to some conditions.


Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Commonwealth)

Enfranchised white women and allowed them to stand for election to Parliament.


Children’s Court Act 1906 (Vic)

Established a separate closed court to hear charges against children.


Invalid and Old-Age Pensions Act 1908 (Commonwealth))

Provided a means-tested pension to white men and women over 65 subject to some conditions.


Adult Suffrage Act 1908 (Vic)

Enfranchised white women to vote in Victorian elections on the same terms as men, but not to stand for election. Victoria was the last state in Australia to enfranchise women.


Maternity Allowance Act 1912 (Commonwealth)

Established a one-off payment of £5 to be paid to any white woman (married or single) on the birth of a child.


Parliamentary Elections (Women Candidates) Act 1924 (Vic)

Allowed enfranchised women to stand for election to Parliament.


Adoption of Children Act 1928 (Vic)

Created a legal mechanism for children to be adopted replacing former informal arrangements.


Child Endowment Act 1941 (Commonwealth)

Established an allowance paid directly to the mother of a child born in Australia.


Widows’ Pension Act 1942 (Commonwealth)

Entitled a white woman ‘of good character’ to a pension if she was widowed, divorced or deserted.


Juries (Women Jurors) Act 1964 (Vic)

Theoretically made women eligible to serve on juries. Victoria was the last state to do so. In practice many impediments were put in the way until the 1970s.


Menhennitt Ruling 1969, Victorian Supreme Court

Ruling by Justice Menhennitt in R v Davidson that abortion might be performed legally by a medical practitioner to protect the physical or mental health of the woman.


Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 (Commonwealth)

Abolished the death penalty under the law of the Commonwealth and Territories.


Social Services Act (No. 3) 1973 (Commonwealth)

Introduced a ‘supporting mother’s benefit’ for married or unmarried women without a supporting partner.


Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission 1974

Extended the adult minimum wage to women.


Crimes (Capital Offences) Act 1975 (Vic)

Abolished the death penalty in Victoria.


Equal Opportunity Act 1977 (Vic)

Made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex or marital status.