Five things you never knew about 19th century women

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

A scene from the 2011 film 'Hysteria'.

A scene from the 2011 film 'Hysteria'.

Nineteenth Century women get a bad rap. The more we imagine ourselves as sexually liberated and modern, the more we imagine Victorian ladies as monolithically serious and boring.

We have painted a picture of our forebears that looks something like a drawing room of murmuring fainters who do little more than exchange knowing glances and tear-soaked letters while Queen Victoria barks at them to lie back and think of England; or sniffs that lesbians don’t exist. While men go out whoring, inventing and exploring, women govern a world of prudish fundamentalism where suggestive piano legs are covered in pantalettes and nobody, particularly Queen Victoria, is amused.

Of course, in every stereotype there is an element of truth. The nineteenth century did elevate white middle class women to the position of moral guardians of the home – paragons of sexual virtue and religious piety. But not all women conformed to this, and more obviously, not all women were white and middle class. In fact, many women in nineteenth century Australia were rebellious, raunchy, defiant and naughty– the kinds of ladies you’d wish were your friends. Here are five facts that turn the tea-party of tedium into a hellfire club of hilarity...

1) Convict women engaged in awesome protests:  Unlike we modern ladies who pass our days lazily clicking ‘like’ on pictures of endangered whales or hurling abuse at Tony Abbott via our friends’ facebook walls, convict women protested. In 1839 according to the Colonial Times women at the Parramatta female prison armed themselves with pick-axes, iron crow bars and axes and ‘broke out in open rebellion’. Charles Mundy described them as ‘Amazonian inmates…headed by a ferocious giantess’ who in their ‘unladylike ebullition...had created the most formidable outbreak that ever occurred in the colony.’

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And then there’s the famous mooning moment in the Tasmanian prison when three hundred female convicts collectively spun around, lifted their skirts and slapped their bottoms at the Governor, his wife and the Parson ‘making a not very musical noise.’

2) Not all women were sexually repressed: Let’s start with Queen Victoria. According to her biographer, Dr Arnstein, Queen Victoria’s ‘modesty did not extend to the marriage bed,’ in fact, she gave her husband paintings of female nudes for his birthday. And her statement that lesbians did not exist is now said to be apocryphal.  In a world of sex segregation not only were romantic friendships between women very common, there’s abundant evidence of lesbian delights on the part of our convict ancestors. Superintendent Reverend Hutchinson describes peering through a crack in the washtub wall to spy five convict women ‘perfectly naked and making obscene attitudes towards each other, they were also singing and shouting and making use of the most obscene language …[acting] in imitation of women and men together.’

3) Victorian women had sticky fingers: Not just in reference to the above, but in reference to their well-documented kleptomaniac tendencies.  Jane Austen’s aunt went to Court for stealing a lovely piece of lace and middle-class women were constantly stuffing their bustles with jewels and silk and then swanning out of department stores in a swish of crinoline. In the 1880s the New York Times declared that shoplifting on the part of middle class ladies had reached epidemic proportions. In fact, the entire crime of shoplifting was invented to ensure that middle class women didn’t have to go to gaol (like their working class counterparts). If caught stealing you could be charged with larceny – which carried a serious penalty of prison – or shoplifting which gave you a rap over the knuckles. To argue for shoplifting you had to prove the absence of need (as in you had to prove you were rich enough not to need the item) and disordered nerves. Perfect for wealthy ladies!

4) Victorian Women Could Wee Standing Up: The belief that people in the nineteenth century covered their piano legs with pantalettes is unfounded. But it’s true that pantalettes were much in vogue and allowed women to wee like men. According to Victorian clothing revivalist Sarah Chrisman, pantalettes were a bloomer-like undergarment split down the middle so women could wee in tricky outdoor situations and didn’t get the kind of yeast infections that we suffer today with our own tight synthetic undies.

5) Women resisted white male authority: And what better example of this than Barangaroo. Barangaroo was a feisty Cammeregal woman who in the 1790s gave the two-ups to Governor Philip. Well, she didn’t precisely stick her fingers up but she did a range of equivalent activities. Where other Eora women acceded to English demands to wear clothes, Barangaroo refused. According to historian Grace Karskens, the only thing she would wear to dinner at Government House was a ‘slim bone through her nose’. She was constantly quarrelling with her partner Bennelong and their fights would involve Barangaroo breaking Bennelong’s fishing rod or beating each other up. ‘When Bennelong hit her, she hit him back.’ When Governor Philip asked her to give birth at Government House she refused and instead gave birth alone across the river, cutting her umbilical cord with a shell. That her name is in any way associated with a Packer casino is one of our more tragic historical ironies.

All this is not to say that the nineteenth century was a pervy, bawdy anarchist rebellion for women. It was a time of patriarchal control; when women’s life-choices were constrained by political and social repression to disastrous and often violent effect. But in spite of this there were women who rebelled, spoke back and laughed in the face of authority. We’d do well to remember them too.