Date of Award

Spring 5-27-2018

Document Type

Undergraduate Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts in History




Dr. Michael Gonzalez


Historians have often portrayed female convicts transported to the Australian colonies as victims of circumstance, exploited by Britain's outdated legal system, colonial authorities, and even their male counterparts. This research paper will seek to move away from the victimhood narrative that plagues the historical record of convict women and instead analyze female convict agency. Contrary to the current research on the subject, convict women in the Australian penal colonies had agency to improve their lives given their unique circumstances. Despite poor conditions, discrimination, and their image as unredeemable “fallen women” among English society, convict women were resourceful, resilient, and able to utilize the gender imbalance in the colonies and relaxed social, moral, and proprietary laws, to carve out a life for themselves that would have otherwise been impossible in traditional English society. While seen as “innately bad” by England’s proper middle class, traditional moral prejudices that would have otherwise ruined a woman in England were largely ignored in the convict colonies, already full of “ruined” women. Australia’s convict colonies needed women, and the gender imbalance provided convict women with power they would not have had in England, allowing the founding mothers of Australia to create better futures for themselves and their children. This paper will examine the agency of convict women in several facets of colonial life, including sex, marriage, property, labor, and motherhood, and how they transformed themselves from “fallen women” to the mothers of modern Australia.