Virgin, Number, Whore: Satire and the Surplus Women Problem, 1790-1840

Seminar:

Women’s History Seminar (IHR), 2013-4

Date:

31 January 2014

Location:

Room G21A, Senate House, University of London, London

Abstract:

Over the past forty years, historians of colonial Australia have acknowledged the somewhat peculiar role British women played during its first sixty years; compared to their sisters in British North America, the Australian colonies experienced a relatively long-lasting gender imbalance within it settler population. Despite the transportation of female convicts alongside their male counterparts, and the significant encouragement offered to free female labourers by the British government, the ratio remained uneven throughout the Victorian period. This dearth of female companionship was consequently a frequent topic of discussion in both British and colonial periodicals. Yet, whereas Australian periodicals found this imbalance a cause for concern, and were frequently dismayed with metropolitan approaches to correcting it, Scottish newspapers found it a fertile ground for satire.

Between 1790 and 1840, roughly five per cent of all Scottish newspaper commentaries relating to Australia made a direct reference to its paucity of women. However, whereas male or family migration was often thematically linked to the colonial economy, single-female migration focused narrowly on marital prospects. Moreover, through the use of hyperbole, literary allusion and outright satire, editors largely depicted their plight as comedic, situating them more readily within long-standing tropes of marital strife, such as the wife auction, rather than as a straightforward description of colonial demography.

This paper will, therefore, examine the language used by the Scottish press to describe female migration to Australia, and elsewhere in the Empire, and its use of quantitative data, to demonstrate the nature of these commentaries as literary devices, meant to entertain and fill copy, and only secondarily to educate and inform readers.

**Image Courtesy of stevecadman

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