19th Century concept of women as property feeds into ongoing domestic violence

“Equal before the law” tapestry created in 1994 for the centenary of women's suffrage in South Australia
Image courtesy South Australian Parliament 

South Australia remains part of the growing awareness of domestic violence and its increasing rates of death across Australia in the 21st Century.

This is an overhang from the 19th Century when the status of women as property was as dominant as suffrage in the women’s rights struggle.

Besides having no claim to property, married women had few rights if deserted by husbands or caught in violent relationships. It was lawful for husbands to beat their wives.

In 1858, South Australia followed Britain in giving women more ability to petition for divorce, with a balance still favouring men. The social costs of husbands deserting marriages (rising during the gold rush) and domestic violence put pressure on governments.

General meaningful reform only started with the 1883 act allowing married women to buy, hold and sell property. Another act in 1892 enabled magistrates to order that women and children deserted by the husband and father were to be maintained and protected.

But women trapped in poverty and violent marriages were still a core political debate at the end of the 19th Century. Women who fled such marriages were left destitute and often resorted to prostitution. The visibility of prostitutes in Adelaide streets spurred many women into joining the alliance of social action.

Changes, such as those to Justices Act in 1982, have given more legal protection to women.

Residential Tenancies Act amendments in 2016 help women leave violent relationships by making it easier to break rental agreements that might previously have prevented them from leaving an abusive partner.

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