It’s hard to imagine today that you would have had to resign your job once you got married. But, after all, you do now have a man to provide for you and family duties pending. Off you go and live happily ever after.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the abolition of the Commonwealth Public Service’s marriage bar.
In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine a law that discriminated against half of the Australian population, amazingly, for six decades.
What was it? What did it mean? It was a legislation—passed as clauses in the Commonwealth Public Service Act one year after Federation in 1902—that barred the employment of married women public servants, either in permanent or temporary positions.
So once married, it was compulsory for women to retire from their permanent Public Service positions.
In practice, however, the Act was liberally interpreted by the upper echelons of the Public Service, resulting in the temporary employment of some married women, albeit without the benefits of promotion and superannuation. But these women were a rarity.
The roll on effects
In November 1966, the Public Service Act was amended allowing women public servants to retain their permanent status upon marriage and for the appointment of married women to permanent positions within the Public Service.
Within four years, Australian States lifted their marriage bars, greatly affecting the nursing and teaching professions which have traditionally employed women.
The effect of these legal restrictions and societal attitudes are apparent in 1960s Australia when around 18 per cent of married women worked and only one in every ten workers was a married woman.
Other countries—Britain, the United States, India, Ireland, Malaya, Switzerland and South Africa—also had marriage bars.
In Britain, the marriage bar was gradually lifted, starting with the teaching profession and the BBC in 1944 and the Home Civil Service in 1946. In the US, the marriage bar legislation was repealed nationally with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
When marriage was the ultimate goal in life
In the first half of the 20th century, marriage was considered a woman’s ultimate goal in life. Society expected her lifelong devotion to her family and feared that married women workers would take the jobs of men and neglect their husbands and children.
These concerns led to and maintained either formal marriage bars or powerful informal sanctions that prevented married women from working in government departments, statutory bodies and some private companies.
Australian women won the vote in 1902, but many decades elapsed before they started to gain equal opportunities in their working lives.
The battle continues
Even with the abolition of the marriage bar—an important landmark in the struggle for equal rights—the discrimination against women did not end.
It is easy to forget the fight sustained by previous generations of women for the benefits we have today.
The rights for equal pay for equal work and for equal promotional opportunities have yet to be won.
Julie Phillips is a Brisbane-based scientist—a biologist—who enjoys her science (the WOW factor has never diminished) and escaping into nature.
She has also a long term interest in equal rights for women.