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Dawn of Australian domestic violence


Interviewed on the ABC's The Drum before the screening of Hitting Home, her scarifying program on domestic violence, Sarah Ferguson pointed out that the statistics arising from this home-front scourge had scarcely altered in a couple of decades.

Louisa Lawson The Dawn plaqueIs it just that we are paying more attention now that makes it seems so much worse than before?

For various reasons, including the courageous efforts of people like Rosie Batty and the brilliant investigative journalism of Ferguson, it has attained a visibility beyond denial.

But how far back into our history does this dismal phenomenon reach? Did it just appear suddenly 20-odd years ago, like a kind of social big bang, or is there a more profound provenance?

In January 1889, this editorial comment appeared in a recently launched Sydney journal: 'Is there a place in our town in which any homeless woman could shelter? And have we taken pains to have its location and purpose so well advertised that no one could fail to know of it?'

The writer followed up a little later with, 'We could quickly fill the largest building in Sydney with women and children who now, for the sake of food and shelter, but more for the sake of what is called their "good name", are bearing blows, insults, servitude and degradation.'

In 19th century Sydney this was heady stuff, and the author and her journal gained immediate notoriety. The writer was Louisa Lawson, Henry's mother, and the journal was her brainchild, The Dawn, launched on 15 May 1888. Written almost single-handedly by Louisa, it announced, in the words of Joseph Addison's drama, Cato, 'A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty/Is worth a whole eternity in bondage.'

What in our time has come to be called 'domestic violence' was certainly an important component of Louisa Lawson's campaigning for the rights and welfare of women, but she envisaged a bigger, more ambitious and visionary picture.

She saw the trials and sufferings of many women as originating in a role that male society had forced upon women and that women had acquiesced in, a role which assigned credit to meekness, subservience and exemplary unselfishness.

'We do not want to see women attempting to seize a mastership,' she wrote, 'or growing quarrelsome about imaginary rights, but we do want them to see that the unselfishness which seems a virtue is practically the abandonment of their position ...

'Women must learn that if they bear wrongs other women must bear the same, if they do not claim personal respect neither can their sisters. If they are weak or oppressed how can their children be strong or noble? This habitual self-effacement leads to all manner of weakness.'

Louisa identified the conditions and traditions of marriage as one source of the pains inflicted on many women. 'Our enquiries have exposed an amount of misery among wives that is incredible.' 'I married,' one woman reports, 'because it was the only way of getting a living recognised as respectable by the society in which I lived ...'

Though she did not use the term that would become common in the 1960s, Louisa was acutely aware of and roundly attacked repressive tolerance in marriage:

'The man who talks of women as darling angels offers this exaggerated verbiage, which no one believes, in lieu of fair recognition, just as he who talks of chivalry offers a temporary homage to hide a permanent robbery of individual liberty, doffing his hat to the sex in general but keeping his wife well under his thumb.'

And, of course, there were worse fates for some wives than being 'under the thumb'. 

'The strongest force of all which keeps a married woman quiet under cruelties, insults and abominations known to women, but which must not here be named, is the potent dread of stepping outside the conventionalities, for to the woman, far more than to the man, the edicts of society are weighty and cruel ... 'In time she does not know her own body or mind, and her only morality is to be faithful to the marriage contract.'

It is not marriage as such that is under fire. Far from it. Marriage based on love and mutual respect was no target for The Dawn. The campaign was 'not against men but against the customs that have given them the whip hand for too long'; not against marriage as an institution but against its use as an instrument of tyranny, repression or, we might add in 2015, violence.

All of this was a century and a half ago. Some of it now seems quaint, and Louisa Lawson, in envisaging the role women could play in a new order of things, was revolutionary, no doubt wildly utopian, and certainly defeated in the end. But there are aspects of this 19th century story that sound, as Ferguson implied in her Drum interview, depressingly familiar. Plus ça change ...


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

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Existing comments

Domestic violence is about the abuse of power. It happens in marriages, and it happens between people who are not married to each other. The dynamics of relationship in marriage are complex. More often than not, it's the one relationship where a huge emotional investment has been made. If a woman is happy to be a Stepford wife, or a trophy wife then it's a bit difficult to intervene. We all know that healthy relationships thrive in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect, but a loving marriage inevitably encounters difficult periods. Domestic violence is an area where the government needs to invest more money and more people to support women and men in troubled relationships.

Pam | 10 December 2015  

What a brilliant woman! Women gave been downtrodden for a hell of a long time. But bugger all was ever done about it.

Louw | 12 December 2015  

What a fantastic piece of writing Brian. I have only just discovered Louisa Lawson and It is very inspiring. I am endeavouring to create a memorial sculpture bust although I do not know when it will be finished.

Kirsty Collins | 05 April 2016  

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