Singularly engaged: how and why unmarried, Protestant Christian women in Australia engaged in activism outside the church in the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century
This thesis examines how and why unmarried, Protestant Christian women in Australia engaged in social activism outside the church in the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century. The thesis focuses on the relationship between faith and gender to ask why religious – and particularly evangelical – histories have ignored the agency and activism of unmarried women. The ideology of ‘separate spheres’ that emerged from the Great Awakening and the evangelical reformers of the eighteenth century profoundly shaped relationships between the sexes in the Victorian era. This ideology, with its understanding that men were ideally suited to the public, political world, and women to the private, domestic sphere, curtailed women’s freedom legally, politically and socially. Although the notion of separate spheres no longer holds sway in Australian society, this thesis argues that its effects can still be felt in religious historiography, which recognises women only when they act in specific roles that can be understood within a maternalist paradigm. Feminist scholars from Mary Beard to Tanya Evans have demonstrated the importance of biography for bringing to light the lives of women who have previously been ignored or marginalised in historical accounts. Therefore, this thesis uses a biographical approach based on case studies of two unmarried, Christian women involved in social activism from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century: animal rights activist Frances Deborah Levvy (1831-1924) and internationalist Ada Constance Duncan (1896-1970). Both women were involved in activism that helped shape Australian society, and were recognised by their contemporaries as public intellectuals and women of sincere Christian faith. The particular focus of this thesis is how and why they engaged in activism outside the church, and why they remain unrecognised in religious history despite the significance of their work and the depth of their faith.
What emerges through an examination of the lives of Levvy and Duncan is a picture of two women who did all that was required of them to fit the gendered expectations of their time, yet have been erased from religious histories that continue to ignore women acting outside of specific roles and contexts. The ideology of separate spheres continues to effect evangelical culture – and through it, evangelical histories – in the form of contemporary ‘complementarian’ and ‘male headship’ understandings of marriage and gender roles, which privilege patriarchal, heteronormative leadership. This functions as a lens through which historical Australian Christian women are viewed, and has implications for the exclusion of others who do not fit this narrow paradigm – including Indigenous Australians, LBGTQ+ people, and people of colour. More biographical studies are needed to bring to light those who have previously been erased through attempts to fit women and minorities into an existing patriarchal narrative. Such an approach will centre groups that have previously been erased and allow them to speak on their own terms.