The legal status of women in the 19th (and, to a lesser extent, 20th) centuries was consistent with the attitudes of the thoroughly patriarchal British society from which it emerged; this is to say that they were disadvantaged in almost every pursuit or circumstance, for no other reason that that of gender. It would be remiss, of course, to simply cite the terminology under the auspices of which this prejudice remained prevalent, as opposed to relating the manner in which this was broadly applied.
Laws (and accepted social values) were not, for instance, conducive to the notion of women leading active, economically productive lives. It was considered improper for any woman to work, insofar as employers would indulge even this – almost without exception, women were employed only in domestic jobs or those unclaimed by men for reasons of monotony or meagre wages (additionally, even utterly abysmal pay rates would be reduced – again based solely on the notion that women could not or would not possess the same abilities or capacity for work as would a man). A woman’s property was acknowledged as the property of her male guardian (usually a husband or father, but siblings could assume this role if circumstances forced such) – indeed, the woman herself was considered chattel. Even within marriage there was usually no legal constraint which enforced the provision of maintenance and support for a wife.
It is also interesting to note that women of the upper economic stratum of society tended to have less freedom than those considered socially lower. Where society typically cared little for the practices of lower-class citizens, the supposedly privileged were often used as political bargaining pieces in marriages of expediency. Women of any social status were disdained if they were unmarried, for it was deemed improper that a woman should exist without a male guardian. Perhaps the most repellent notion to the contemporary individual is that men were permitted to ‘discipline’ a disobedient spouse, often with little restriction on the extremity of action which could be taken (short, of course, of grievous bodily harm).
For a long time (until 1902 in national matters in Australia, and even then subject to limiting conditions), women were denied the right to vote or run for election to governmental representation, although there was a wide divergence between the dates at which such was endorsed at the state level. The official term which enforced this constraint, unito caro (or ‘one flesh’, which naturally assumed that, ultimately, a woman would marry and subjugate herself and any property to her husband), dictated that such rights were denied them because – due to their union – women were not, legally speaking, ‘persons’, but rather the property of the man. In essence, the only electoral capacity that a woman could possess would be in attempting to persuade her husband (or other male guardian) to act as her agent, using his voting power.
In Great Britain the cause for the expansion of women’s rights began to attract attention when the philosopher John Stuart Mill presented a petition in Parliament calling for inclusion of women's suffrage in the Reform Bill of 1867. In the same year Lydia Becker (1827-90) founded the first women's suffrage committee, in Manchester. Other committees were quickly formed, and in 1897 they united as the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, with Millicent Garret Fawcett (1847-1929) as president. These movements often diversified so as to petition for women’s rights in general (including employment, legal parity and similar goals). Correspondingly, numerous organisations devoted to a similar purpose arose in Australia (which was, at the time, almost entirely reliant on British social trends).
If anything, though, the (initial) conditions under which deported women suffered were by far worse than those endured by their British counterparts; it is known that women were convicted and sentenced to deportation for crimes far less extreme than those committed by men. This practice, though without legal precedent, was quietly endorsed for the purposes of maintaining population balance within the colony and as such forced prostitution (and a subsequent disdain for colonial women in general) became prolific. In summation, colonial women theoretically possessed the same legal rights as British nationals, save with less equality of circumstance and far less consideration. They were relegated to a similar status as children, save with greater obligations and fewer explicit rights.
It is not overly difficult to deduce the origin of these legal and social practices; it was considered that a woman’s primary purposes were the roles of wife and mother, segregated from active society. Indeed, despite (ponderous) societal trends, it may be said that diluted forms of such discrimination persevere today.