"The more things change": gender relations and married life across a time of transformation
This thesis explores major historical questions about marriage, the family and sex, by examining seven dysfunctional marriages exposed in the Divorce Court of NSW between 1883 and 1912. It is a considerable challenge to uncover intimate gender relations within a bygone era, but my thesis describes the pedestrian detail of intimate confrontation by using a micro-historical case study approach and interrogating transcripts created within the Supreme Court, Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction. The thesis combines these comprehensive legal case files with extensive press material and genealogical information to investigate gender relations and gendered conflict as these emerged in domestic contexts and the legal arena. Using each unravelling marriage to examine such issues as contraception, domestic violence, sexuality and parenting, the thesis humanises an historiography based predominantly on quantitative and statistical claims and the study of exceptional women. By doing so, it extends our knowledge and understanding of past intimate life and the pivotal role of gender and social class in determining individual circumstances. The thesis reveals the intensely gendered substance of marital conflict, the manner in which battles were waged, and the attitudes of a masculine and misogynistic legal system towards male versus female protagonists. It confirms that gender roles and responsibilities served as prime fodder for marital conflict, while male dominance persisted alongside continued structural disempowerment for women. Despite its promises, citizenship offered Australian women little benefit in their married lives. The thesis contends that despite a rhetoric of growing emancipation for women, men continued to dominate the domestic realm unless a wife had either an independent income or the capacity to earn one. Only through economic empowerment could women escape their subordinate position. Although there were definite changes to the feminine role, men resisted any threat of change to the dominant notion of male supremacy, and society remained intensely patriarchal. While women's position within the family and economic dependence ensured their ongoing oppression, the thesis explores how women nonetheless resisted masculine dominance, finding ways to assert their identities that included a rejection of the constraints of marriage through application for divorce. Uncovering numerous instances of women's agency and resistance, the thesis adds named individual women to an historiography that continues to be blighted by a dearth of feminine identities.