‘God’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia’ by Anne O’Brien

Reviewed by Jane Carey

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This is an ambitious work that gives prominence to an under-explored, but significant, aspect of Australian women’s history. As O’Brien notes at the outset, the importance of Christianity in women’s past lives, or indeed Australian society more broadly, has not been given the consideration it clearly deserves. While some scholarship on Australian women’s history has noted the significance of Christianity, and there have been some quite detailed studies of key groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, this book is the first to focus broadly on the topic and attempt to draw together all the diverse ways in which religion shaped Australian women’s lives. Simply through writing this book O’Brien gives religion the significance it demands.

O’Brien’s work emphasises the enormous influence of Christian religious belief on individual women, institutions and broader culture from the convict period until recent times. The book addresses the central question of ‘how women used a theology of equality and inclusion to empower themselves in an institution that depicted them as a secondary sex.’ [p. 13] O’Brien attempts to look at religion both in terms of women’s individual lives and also the numerous organisations and activities it inspired. It also documents the significant contributions which women have made to Christian churches, and the extent to which these institutions relied on women’s (largely voluntary) labour, as well as the key role women played in transmitting religious belief to the next generation as both mothers and teachers.

The basic premise for this study takes seriously the impact of religion on women’s lives in a way that has not previously been done. Indeed, it is surprising that something that has had such a powerful effect on Australian women’s lives has been so little examined. This is possibly due to currently secular nature of Australian society but also the anti-religious bent of second wave feminism. As O’Brien notes, religion has popularly been seen as repressive to women, a negative force in their lives and one that supported patriarchy and misogyny. But scholars have also noted the ways in which religion, contradictorily, could be an empowering force for some women in Australia from the late nineteenth century, for example in campaigns for suffrage and temperance. Organisations connected with Christian belief were one of the main ways in which white women could enter in some way into the public arena at least up to the mid-twentieth century, from the Mothers Union and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to local Ladies’ Guilds and benevolent societies. Even the Country Women’s Association, the largest Australian women’s organisation of the twentieth century, had a strong Christian backbone holding it together and religious observances were a key part of its meetings.

The book sets out to cover an enormous array off women’s activities and experiences. It explores the influence that Christian teachings had on women in terms of ‘sexuality, marriage and family, gender roles, work and education’ [p. 9]. That is, it addresses themes that have been central concerns of feminist scholars and historians. It also emphasises the key role women have played in sustaining religious practice and belief, particularly within the home but also through supporting religious institutions. The three main sections examine different aspects of women’s religious experiences from 1880-1960. There is also a short preliminary chapter, which gives somewhat of a lightening tour of the earlier period of white settlement, and a final chapter discussing more recent times. In the end, however, one feels that O’Brien tries to cover too much.

The first chapter, dealing with the period from 1788-1880, seeks mainly to challenge ‘the ‘irreligious’ image of the early white settlement, by separating the anti-clerical sentiments of many convicts from religious conviction. However, the chapter is too brief to more than point to some of these intriguing complexities. White women’s relations with Indigenous peoples, and the role that women and religion played in the colonial project, are also given only a cursory mention, thus skipping over a significant historical moment.

The second section deals with church attitudes towards domesticity (including marriage, divorce, sexuality and child-bearing) as well as a few of the numerous voluntary organisations women formed through Christian churches from 1880-1960. It focuses on how marriage and motherhood were promoted as women’s only role, while contradictorily churches relied on women’s labour. The activities of the Mothers Union, protestant missionary societies and Catholic women’s groups are also outlined, organisations over which women enjoyed a great deal of control and autonomy. The class dynamics of these organisations—which gave middle class women an opportunity for empowerment through reforming the working classes and, paradoxically, an avenue for escaping the domestic confinement they were espousing for other women—are particularly noted.  However, again only a few specific examples are provided.

Part III, looking at women missionaries, is probably the most successful. It includes deaconesses who did local outreach work, as well as women who worked in missions both in Australia and abroad. While again based on a few selected case studies, these are well chosen and integrated, and support the central contention that women were integral to these projects. O’Brien suggests missionary work offered women the greatest scope in this period, but that these opportunities were profoundly shaped by understandings of class and especially race. Furthermore, in the main, women remained content to give men precedence. As she observes ‘Evangelicalism simultaneously told women missionaries they were members of the second sex but belonged to a superior race’ [162].

Part IV turns to an examination of Catholic nuns—their backgrounds and motivations, the nature of monastic life and particularly their impact as teachers. While nuns may have had a great influence as teachers, however, their lives revolved around self-denial and hard work. Most were given little freedom to interpret God themselves. Rather, they were taught obedience. Thus the extent to which they were ’empowered’ by their faith is debatable.

The final chapter ranges over a variety of changes which have taken place since 1960. As one might expect, O’Brien deals mainly with the emergence of feminist groups within various denominations and the impact of Vatican II. Again one is left with the feeling that there was much more going on this period.

Thus, laudable though the aims of the book are, it falls short in some respects. While many significant issues are raised, they are rarely given the time and space they would seem to merit. The book seems to rush from one point to another, jumping between issues, trends and organisations, often without a clear narrative or linking threads. Indeed, overall, the book lacks a clear central focus. The key questions identified in the introduction are frequently lost from view. Moreover, the approach adopted probably overemphasises empowerment at the expense of repression.

The study is also premised on some broad assumptions which sit somewhat uncomfortably. The most obvious of these is the equation of the term ‘religion’ with Christianity. While this has undeniably been the predominant religion in Australia since British settlement, the title is suggestive of a broader focus. O’Brien focuses on how women negotiated a role for themselves within formal church structures. This seems to be a wasted opportunity in terms of assessing the broader social impact of religious belief. It also means that some of the largest and most influential Christian women’s organisations are omitted—particularly the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Young Women’s Christian Association—not to mention wider influences.

Moreover, even within these more limited parameters one is left with only scant information as to the extent and nature of the numerous women’s groups which were formed within the various denominations. This is precisely the type of information which readers might rightly expect to be included in a study of this type. The book is largely based on a few case studies, drawn mostly from New South Wales. Given the enormous regional variations in Australia, such a choice is somewhat unsatisfactory. For some of the broader changes concerning sexuality and fertility O’Brien is often only able to produce statistics rather than evidence linking these to religious beliefs. Thus, it often seemed that a few small case studies were being stretched to stand for national experience over the whole course of Australian history since white settlement.

Nevertheless, O’Brien presents some intriguing case studies and raises a wide range of issues that are deserving of further research. Accessibly written, while still engaging with recent trends in feminist scholarship, it will no doubt prove to be a useful work for those looking for a broad overview of women and Christianity in Australia.


God’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia was published by UNSW Press in 2005.


Jane Carey in an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History, University of Melbourne working on a project entitled ‘Promoting Whiteness: Race Science and the Making of the Middle-Class Woman in Australia , 1890-1940’.

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