Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Humanities and Social Inquiry


Using the rich and largely unexplored archival records of the Deakin sisters, this thesis presents the first in-depth collective biography of their lives. While they were the daughters of Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin (1856-1919), the Deakin sisters, Ivy (1883-1970), Stella (1886-1976) and Vera (1891-1978), are not the subjects of this historical examination because of their connection to a powerful man. They are instead being studied because of the significant insights they provide into individual (elite) women’s experiences of the new opportunities which emerged for Australian women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Examining their lives reveals the impact of both the emancipating ideas and opportunities of the ‘new woman’ era as well as the continuing expectations for women to remain in the domestic sphere and be ‘angels in the house’.

The thesis reveals how the Deakin sisters took advantage of the liberating opportunities of the ‘new woman’ era to achieve both their individual ambitions and contribute to women’s advancement and social reform efforts throughout their lives. The sisters enjoyed substantially expanded opportunities compared to women of earlier generations. Stella completed a science degree at the University of Melbourne and travelled to Europe to pursue postgraduate studies. Ivy and Vera studied music, performed in public and later devoted themselves to philanthropic work where they enjoyed significant public prominence, influence and authority. They harnessed their influential positions to advocate for increased rights and freedoms for women and to champion the expansion of women’s involvement in society. They strongly believed that women, including themselves, should play an increased role in the nation’s decision-making processes. At the same time, while each of the Deakin sisters capitalised on new freedoms and opportunities for women, their lives were also curtailed by the obligations and societal expectations of their gender and class, particularly after marriage. Each married an influential man, became a mother, and fulfilled the domestic and social obligations associated with their class and position. They also subscribed to a maternal feminist vision that saw men and women as ‘equal but different’.

Due to their connection to a powerfully positioned father, privileged social standing, wealth, and personal ambition, each of the Deakin sisters were able to craft distinct life pathways that allow us to more fully understand the changing and varied conceptions of womanhood that existed between the more radical ‘waves’ of feminism. This examination of their lives thus extends our understandings of how Australian women negotiated their identities as females in this period and navigated patriarchal systems and norms to create a space for themselves in a male dominated public realm. The experiences of women like the Deakin sisters have often been rendered benign in previous scholarship due to their political conservatism and commitment to the ideal of ‘equal but different’. They have suffered by comparison to seemingly more ‘radical’ feminists and their significance has been under-appreciated. This thesis seeks to shift such views by recovering the lives, impact and at times ‘radicalism’ of Ivy, Stella, and Vera Deakin.

FoR codes (2008)




Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.