The original baby bonus

by | Jul 21, 2019 | Essays, Previously published work

[First published in the Summer Edition, The King’s Tribune, 2014]

“The rights of property have always been more earnestly considered than the rights of the human being. The criminal who injures or appropriates another man’s property is more heavily punished by law than the man who brutally injures or thrashes his own wife or children.” [1]

These words from Rose Scott echo as strongly in 2014 as when she wrote them in 1904. In her paper Legislation Affecting Women and Children for the National Council of Women in NSW, Scott details the myriad ways the laws of the time impacted on women.

‘Now that women have a vote and a distinct power in regard to the laws of the land, we must hope that they will gradually awaken to the fact that election time, with all its false ideals, is the least important time in the work of legislation, and that the ever watchful organisations who keep knocking at the doors of all parties in Parliament with requests for better legislation, will at last be heard if only for their much speaking!”‘

And speak they did. Much Australian history has been recorded as though they didn’t. As though women’s voices were strangely silent, as though they were passive subjects to the mighty blokes who were forging their way across the continent, digging up gold and getting rid of those pesky blacks.

But they were there, in huge numbers; organising, educating, campaigning, writing, speaking. They agitated for legislation that specifically looked after women and children, they set up kindergartens and pushed for women in the police force. The laws they won, then defended from attack, underpin much of our current welfare system, a system now derided as propping up lazy dole bludging single mothers, instead of giving important security and recognition to the work women do and did.

The work of having babies and of raising children was central to their concerns and they wanted that recognised as work. As having economic as well as social value, not just to women but for the entire nation. Their activism fitted neatly into anxieties about what kind of nation Australia was building, and what kind of Australians were being made. Making white babies became a national obsession.

In 1919, Lilian Locke-Burns wrote:

“In no other part of the world is so much being done by the State in the way of providing for mothers and children as in the Australian Commonwealth. And yet how…little we realise the true position mothers of the community would occupy in a properly organised social system where the economic independence of women was fully recognised and assured!”[2]

Locke-Burns was right to point to the significant legislative agenda that she, and many other feminists had been able to achieve in the early days of the Commonwealth.

In 1912, the then Labor Government, has pass into law a radical new idea – a Maternity Allowance of five pounds (about five weeks wages) for women who had a child. The Allowance was paid to both married and unmarried mothers, leading to claims that the payment would “condone immorality, lead to an increase in illegitimacy, undermine marriage and destroy the family.” [3]

The payment was intended to recognise the work of having a baby as having value and to help pay for medical costs. High death rates for women were part of the arguments used in support of the legislation, as well as the anxiety about wanting more white babies. The 1904 Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald as finding that:

 “The commission speaks of the false and pernicious doctrine that personal interests and comfort are the essential aims of life, and a belief that this checking of the birth-rate is the panacea for the ills of life. Bad as these reasonings are they are in their essence selfish, and they strike at the welfare of the white race in Australia.” [SMH] [4]

Bad white ladies, selfishly not having white babies.

The Maternity Allowance, with no means test, and available to unmarried women was starkly different to other developing welfare systems that were usually based on a social insurance model. Australia’s baby bonus was paid directly to women, not given via their husbands and was funded through general revenue. And the payment was made even if the child died, as they far too often did. The allowance was for the mother, for her labour, to recognise the cost to her body.

But the payment was only available for some women – valuing only some mothers. The legislation spelt out the overt racism of the early Commonwealth’s commitment to a White Australia. Mothers who were ‘Asiatics’ and ‘Aboriginal natives of Australia, Papua or the islands of the Pacific’ were explicitly excluded. Their bodies and their labour were not to be included in this push to make the state recognise that having babies is hard work.

Given this early grounding in privileged motherhood, can anything really be gleaned from the political campaign to have the work of mothering given a financial value?

Australian feminists used their long campaign for the vote to argue for overtly maternalistic welfare measures. They used language of women’s innate nature to advocated that the state needed to recognised that their rights as citizens intersected with their rights as mothers.

Labour activists also took up this as an argument for women to be able to financially raise their own children. For working class women, jobs outside the home were hardly emancipatory when they had their work at home too. Locke-Burns issues a clarion call in 1919 calling for ‘One Woman, One Job’ where “a mother will not be expected to combine half a dozen occupations to the serious detriment of herself and the children.”[5]

 The Maternity Allowance, as it was in 1912, was seen as a way of entrenching the rights of women as citizens, with their motherhood of value to the state. Of course, this also just reinforced the exclusions from this citizenship even further – giving birth to white babies was of such national importance that the Prime Minister could stare down delegations from church groups predicting the end of the moral earth.

Australia’s approach to recognising some women’s work in legislation was remarked on around the world. A US Department of Labor study characterised Australia as ‘the first country to institute a system of national aid to relieve the financial burdens of childbirth without requiring some direct contribution on the part of the wage earner.’ The Philadelphia Enquirer commented in 1912 that the payment was even available to undeserving mothers. [6]

Australia did not go down the social insurance path of welfare provision as many other countries did. The insurance model was predicated on co-contributions and/or some link to employment. Instead, allowances were based on citizen attachment, for those that were granted this right. Feminists at the time made the argument that citizen mothers had the right to have their labour also recognised because it was work.

But the Maternity Allowance was only a small part of these women’s agenda. Believing that ‘women’s training tends to direct their interest to Social Welfare (which covers health, food, housing, care of children, care of sick, care of poor, preservation of family and home life.)’ groups also worked to advocate for an ongoing state income that would recognise the work of mothers, and allow independence from a husband. Arguments about the fundamental nature of Woman, as a nurturer or moral protector, seem quaintly old-fashioned, yet the radical idea that the work of care should have value is more relevant than ever. Jessie Street wrote in the 1930s that ‘just as working men appreciate the right to their own money, so should wives appreciate a similar right. How can we make it possible for a wife who is working in her own home to have the right to her own money?’ [7]

When the Maternity Allowance was challenged in the 1920s, as wasteful and expensive, representatives from over 120 women’s groups held a conference in Melbourne where they affirmed both their entitlement as mother citizens to the payment, but also used their considerable political white baby-making clout to make sure that the political consequences of any change was made clear.

The long campaign for an income that recognised raising children as work was ultimately unsuccessful, but the idea that it is work, and mostly women’s work, remains relevant. As does the anxiety of exactly who is having babies. This coming year will feature long debates about paid parental year that may benefit from listening to some of the women of Australia’s history.


[1]    Scott, Rose: Lecture on Legislation Affecting Women and Children, 1904. From Reason in Revolt – http://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/objects/pdf/a000079.pdf

[2]    Lake, Marilyn: Andrew Fisher’s Radical Maternalism, Labour History 102, May 2012 p66

[3]    Lake, Marilyn: Andrew Fisher’s Radical Maternalism, Labour History 102, May 2012 p57

[4]    SMH 5 March 1904, page 10. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/14604259

[5]    Locke-Burns, Lilian ‘State Provision for Mother and Child’ Labor Call, 19 June 1919. Cited in Lake, Marilyn:  Getting equal: The history of Australian feminism p74

[6]    Lake, Marilyn: Andrew Fisher’s Radical Maternalism, Labour History 102, May 2012 p56

[7]    Cited in Lake, Marilyn: Getting equal: The history of Australian feminism p107

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