Marriage between women in post-war Australia

Rebecca Jennings reflects on same-sex marriage and relationships between women since the post-war period in Australia.

Debates about same-sex marriage in Australia are often seen as a recent phenomenon, dating from the mid-1990s, at the earliest, when Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative family values ideology reinforced the ‘otherness’ of the growing number of non-traditional family structures. However, as Shirleene Robinson’s recent blog in this series has highlighted, calls for state recognition of same-sex relationships were being publicly articulated as early as the 1970s. This activism built on a much longer history of the practice of same-sex marriage in Australia, dating back a century or more. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, female husbands such as Marion-Bill Edwards and Eugenia Falleni-Harry Crawford passed as men and married women, while throughout the second half of the 20th century, there is growing evidence of women formal marital relationships with other women.

From at least the 1950s, Australian women used both the language and concept of marriage to refer to their same-sex relationships. Sandra Willson, who formed two committed relationships with other young women in 1950s Sydney, recorded her relationships in a diary which she described as ‘a history of my marriages’ and, in so doing, reflected a practice which was not uncommon in same-sex relationships of this period. In at least one of her marriages, Sandra also attempted to structure the relationship on a marital model, claiming: ‘I was living out the role of husband with Barbara as wife.’ The model she utilised was based on a domestic partnership embodying two distinct roles in which Barbara cooked for them both and Sandra brought back flowers and chocolates for Barbara after work.

For other women, use of the term ‘marriage’ indicated an expectation of longevity and commitment in the relationship. Eileen, who moved in lesbian circles in Sydney and Melbourne from the 1950s onwards, used the word to describe her longest relationship, with Vivienne, which lasted from 1961 until Vivienne’s death in 1976. The sense of permanence and life-long commitment inherent in mainstream understandings of marriage was central to its appeal to many women in same-sex relationships in this period. This was particularly the case in the immediate post-war decades, when cultural and medical representations of lesbian relationships typically constructed them as unstable, short-lived and prone to jealousy, in contrast to heterosexual marriages which continued to be regarded as enduring and stable. Envisaging their relationships in terms of marriage provided women in these circumstances with a framework in which they could declare love and commitment as well as affording a sense of security in the permanence of their relationship.

Wedding ceremonies provided women with an opportunity to express their commitment to a monogamous, life-long partnership, and make a declaration of romantic love for one another. In 1950s Western Australia, Paddy and Robbie Byrnes used traditional forms in the celebration of their wedding. Paddy recalled: ‘I had my name changed to Robbie’s. On 17 March 1956 we became as one in a wee church, after lighting two candles and exchanging wedding rings inscribed “Keep Faith”’.

Same Sex Marriage Rally, Melbourne, 2009. Image via State Library Victoria.

Calls for state recognition of same-sex relationships and officially sanctioned gay marriage began to be articulated in the early 1970s, but others also noted the desire of some same-sex couples for their marriages to be recognised by the Church. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the issue of religious wedding ceremonies was at the forefront of the debate. The previous decade had seen a gradual liberalisation of attitudes toward homosexuality in different religious denominations. With the formation of homophile groups in the late 1950s and lesbian and gay activism in the early 1970s, a dialogue was established between some individual members of the clergy and homosexual groups, which enabled the discussion of homosexual relationships among other issues. When CAMP New South Wales was established in 1970, its church group, Cross+Section initiated an extensive outreach campaign, sending letters and materials to clergymen of all denominations across the State and seeking their views on homosexuality. In this context, the possibility of religious ceremonies recognising same-sex relationships was increasingly discussed and Christian homosexuals came to be seen as having a particular need for weddings. Responding to a letter of inquiry about marriage ceremonies, a CAMP New South Wales member wrote: ‘Religious people have special needs in this context. They want to express the spiritual basis of their relationship and to make their promises before God as well as in front of their friends.’ Directing the letter-writer to a sympathetic pastor who could conduct such a ceremony, he continued: ‘If you are a devout person you will feel the promises you make in this ceremony are as binding as they are in a marriage ceremony but remember, legally they have no status.’

Religious wedding ceremonies between same-sex couples received press coverage in the 1970s. In 1973, Western Australian newspapers reported that the Reverend Mario Schoenmaker, a Congregational minister, had conducted a marriage ceremony between two women at the CAMP clubrooms in West Perth. The Covenant of Love ceremony involved the exchange of rings and Elizabeth and Agnes ‘took vows to love, comfort, honor and keep one another in sickness and in health. They also promised to be faithful to one another.’ Rev Schoenmaker told the Age newspaper that ‘although the ceremony took a different form from the normal wedding … It was still a church-sanctioned marriage, and was binding in conscience on the women.’ Emphasising the importance of love as the basis of the union, Rev Schoenmaker commented: ‘Theirs was a love I have rarely come across … theirs was a devotion to one another which to my way of thinking is purely divine … for LOVE, any love must always have a divine origin.’

Both religious and private wedding ceremonies have played a crucial role in enabling women in same-sex relationships to express their love for each other since at least the 1950s. The language and concept of marriage has been important for many women in post-war Australia as a powerful symbol of commitment and longevity in their relationships. However, marriage is not just a private statement of love and commitment but also a public declaration about the meaning of a relationship to wider support networks and society. Dennis Altman noted the psychological benefits of relationship recognition in his 1971 classic Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, claiming: ‘It is impossible to know to what extent love is strengthened by being public, yet romantic ideals of secret love not-withstanding, I suspect that after a time lovers have a psychological need for the support that comes from being recognised as such.’ The long history of the practice of same-sex marriage in Australia demonstrates that many lesbians identified this advantage, seeking through marriage to make both a private and public statement about the importance of their relationships.


Rebecca Jennings teaches the history of gender and sexuality in modern Britain in the Department of History at University College London. She has published widely on Australian and British lesbian history and her most recent book, Unnamed Desires: A Sydney Lesbian History was published by Monash University Publishing in 2015. She is currently working on a new monograph, Sisters, Lovers, Wives and Mothers: Lesbian Intimacy in Britain and Australia, 1945-2000, based on her Australian Research Council-funded research into post-war British and Australian lesbian relationships and parenting.  

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