• A scene from Australia in Colour. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The shift would lead to the sexual revolution and the women’s rights movement.
By
Nicola Heath

8 Mar 2021 - 8:55 AM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2021 - 12:42 PM

In 1961, the first oral contraceptive pill was released in Australia under the name Anovlar. 

It dropped like a bomb into the lives of Australian women, who celebrated their newfound freedom from childbearing by enrolling in university and entering the workforce.

“It’s a really significant event in women’s history in the twentieth century,” says Queensland University Associate Humanities Professor Dr Lisa Featherstone. The shift would lead to the sexual revolution and the women’s rights movement.

“For the first time,” she says, “women have a reasonable chance of being able to control their reproduction, and that empowers women in many ways.” 

It had been a long journey for Australian women. As host Hugo Weaving observes in Australia in Colour, the four-part SBS series that brings to life archival footage from the twentieth century, in the early 1900s, it was a widely held view that “a woman’s place is in the home caring for her husband and children.”

Women had limited control over their reproductive lives. A declining birth rate since the 1880s meant that “doctors and the government were increasingly concerned about women controlling their fertility.”

The anxiety surrounding contraception meant in 1903, the NSW state government established a royal commission into the declining birth rate. In a blog post on the topic, Dr Featherstone writes that “[t]he Report of the Royal Commission unequivocally linked the use of contraception and abortion to the deterioration of the nation. In particular, the Commissioners were vitriolic in their condemnation of women as ‘selfish’ in choosing to limit families.” 

"All key social, political and economic figures agreed that reproduction was central to the maintenance of white Australia," Dr Featherstone writes. 

At the time, the most common methods of birth control were abstinence, withdrawal and breastfeeding. “Not ideal,” acknowledges Dr Featherstone, “but if the option is no birth control or withdrawal, you’re better off to go with withdrawal if you’re trying to limit the family.”

Misinformation abounded. Dr Featherstone writes that other contraception methods were frequently recommended that “were simply incorrect and would have led inevitably to pregnancy,” such as coughing after sex and the miscalculation of ‘safe times’ to avoid conception.

Other options included rudimentary reusable condoms and, abortion. As Australia In Colour reveals, abortion-related deaths in the Victorian Women’s Hospital accounted for one-third of fatalities, many from botched backyard abortions.

Abortion-related deaths in the Victorian Women’s Hospital accounted for one-third of fatalities, many from botched backyard abortions.

Abortion was risky, says Dr Featherstone, but a lesser risk to the mother than a full-term pregnancy and one that women were often “desperate” to take on.

“Most historians think that abortion was common and pretty effective,” she says, recalling the story of a woman, in hospital with an infection after undergoing an abortion, who told a doctor she’d “done this 20 times before” with no complications.

“In fact, a woman was probably better off having a termination with a non-medical person, so a local midwife or a person down the road, because they’re just performing one surgery,” Dr Featherstone says.

In an era of poor hygiene practices, doctors performed a series of abortions in one day, in between other surgeries, increasing a woman’s risk of contracting infections. 

Unmarried mothers had little hope of keeping their baby, until the 1970s, when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam introduced the Single Mothers’ Pension

The only options for a single woman to keep a baby were marriage or if her family stepped in to help, with a grandmother raising an out-of-wedlock grandchild as her own. 

“There’s almost no ability for young women to raise a child on their own because there’s such a big gender pay gap,” says Dr Featherstone. 

"All key social, political and economic figures agreed that reproduction was central to the maintenance of white Australia," Dr Featherstone writes. 

Australia in Colour highlights the tragic plight of unmarried mothers who were coerced to give up their babies for adoption. One, Miss Joan Murray, went to the Supreme Court in 1953 to reclaim her baby, fostered out when he was 12 days old. In a sign of the times, the foster family ultimately retained custody of the little boy “on the grounds that once consent is given, adoption is forever.” 

Indigenous mothers possessed even fewer rights. Between 1910 and 1967, thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and put into the care of the state or white foster families in the name of assimilation, creating what is now known as the Stolen Generations. 

Indigenous people faced other injustices during this period: it wasn’t until 1962 that all had the right to vote in federal elections in Australia, and another five years until they were included in the census. 

The Great Depression saw unemployment reach 30 per cent in 1932. With many men out of work, women, who received lower wages, became the breadwinners of their families, shifting entrenched gender roles. The result was “an almost immediate” decline in the birth rate, says Dr Featherstone.  

The social upheaval continued with the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. As men enlisted in the armed forces, Australia in Colour shows women swapping their “aprons for overalls” and entering the workforce en masse. 

The war heralded a period of greater social freedom.

The 1940s saw the rise of mechanical methods of birth control such as condoms and cervical caps.

“[In the 1940's)] There are still a lot of taboos around premarital sex, and certainly for women who get pregnant, it is a disaster for them personally,” says Dr Featherstone, but there is an unspoken acknowledgement that people are having sex before marriage. 

Australia in Colour is a four-part weekly series narrated by Hugo Weaving that will premiere on Wednesday, March 10 at 8:30pm on SBS.