Where are the women?

Yesterday on Twitter Jenny Symington asked the question, ‘Where are the women?’ in relation to The real face of White Australia:

This post is a quick attempt to answer that question.

Record series

The first thing to consider is where these photographs are taken from. They are from certificates exempting from the dictation test, which were issued to non-white residents of Australia who wanted to return to Australia after travelling overseas. The particular records we have used with Faces so far are from New South Wales.


The non-white, non-Aboriginal population of early 20th century Australia was predominantly male. Most of the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Malays (among others) who came to Australia in the 19th century did so to work and to earn money. Asian women as economic migrants were not unheard of (there were Chinese women who came to the colonies as domestic workers, for example), but generally a combination of economic, social, familial and legal factors meant that a much smaller number of ‘coloured’ women arrived on Australian shores. The Syrian community is a bit of an exception to this, as numbers of men and women were much more balanced.

Figures for ‘birthplace’ from the 1911 Commonwealth census (the first national census conducted in Australia) gives a picture of this:

  • Born in China: male 20,453 female 322
  • Born in India: male 5049 female 1595
  • Born in Japan: male 3260 female 214
  • Born in Syria: male 895 female 632
  • Born Java: male 535 female 43

In New South Wales (where the people shown in Faces mostly lived) Chinese, Indians and Syrians were the main non-white population groups.

The snapshot below has images of three women: Mary Saleba and Raja Basha, both Syrian, and Mary Hoe, who was Australian-born Chinese.

The nature of travel

Few of the men shown in Faces were travelling for leisure, as such. They were mostly either returning home to visit relatives (including wives and children), or for business reasons, or a combination of both. This, combined with the cost and logistics of travel, may have meant that women and families living in Australia did not accompany their men when they travelled.

The law and administrative processes

Travelling alongside some of the men whose images appear in Faces, though, were women and children who were not documented in the same way as their husbands and fathers. White wives of Chinese men, for example, who also travelled to Hong Kong and China, were not subjected to the indignities of photographing and handprinting, even though strictly they had become ‘Chinese’ on marriage and had officially lost their status as British subjects (their racial identity trumped their legal one). Often the only record of their travel is a name on a passenger list. Mixed-race Australians also travelled without being issued a certificate exempting from the dictation test—many Anglo-Chinese Australian women married migrant Chinese men, and accompanied their husbands to China, but they too may have avoided being photographed and handprinted, instead using their Australian birth certificates as proof of identity on their return to Australia.


  1. Evan says:

    This is a very interesting post (sorry for the late comment). I’d be interested to see whether more ‘coloured’ women arrived in subsequent years to join the men who had migrated earlier on.

    In my research on migrant women in Britain, men from the colonies came to the UK to fill labour shortages in the 1940s-50s and then women and children started to emigrating in the 1960s-70s to join the men who had come earlier. We have argued that most migrant women (particularly from South Asia) were let into the UK to form nuclear families with men in the same ethnic communities, rather than for work purposes.

    I wonder whether this was the case in Australia too.

    • Kate says:

      CY Choi’s classic work on Chinese Migration and Settlement in Australia (Sydney University Press, 1975) goes into this a little for the Chinese community of the 1950s and 60s. He notes (p. 96) that although there was a high proportion of men in the period befrore World War II, by the late 1960s ‘much of the discrepancy between males and females had disappeared’. From Choi’s work it seems that it was in the late 1950s that things started to change for the Chinese community, particularly after the relaxation of naturalisation restrictions from 1956. He says that those who arrived earlier tended to have longer periods of separation from their wives and that Chinese tended to be separated longer than Italian migrants, for example. Most Chinese women who arrived in the period after 1956 were wives of men already resident in Australia.

      There were still difficulties for Chinese in bringing their families from China in the 1950s and 60s though. Choi states (p. 97) that these were: saving up money for the passage out; the long period of residence required for naturalisation in Australia; the difficulty of obtaining an exit permit from China for their wives; and delays in obtaining an entry permit into Hong Kong.

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