SOUTH AUSTRALIA'S EARLY COLONISTS WERE CONCERNED MAINLY about who might perform the marriage ceremony – not about the rights of women within marriage.
Marriage and a bourgeois model of family life were central to Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s plan for the colony but so too was denominational equality.
Initially, only the Church of England could perform marriage ceremonies in the colony. This was an affront to the Dissenter Nonconformist (Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptists etc) sects that were so vital to the founding of the colony.
The colony’s first Marriage Act 1842 extended authority to perform marriages to clergy of the Church of Scotland, to other Protestant ministers and to rabbis, who were required to seek a licence for each marriage performed. Priests of the Roman Catholic Church were given the same right in 1844.
The scarcity of clergy prompted Marriage Acts in 1852 and 1867 that allowed for civil marriage.
When a non-Aboriginal woman married in the nineteenth century, she delivered herself, any property or earnings (present or future) and any children into the control of her husband. Paradoxically, this was her best chance of ensuring economic survival and social adulthood.
With no minimum age specified, minors could marry with the permission of their parents.
The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act 1870, permitting a widower to marry his sister-in-law, was an ongoing controversy. The crown in Britain had disallowed the four bills passed by the South Australian parliament on this matter from 1857.
Marriage to a person’s deceased husband’s brother or deceased wife’s sister was legalised finally in 1925.