I uncovered a family scandal recently. Looking through records to do with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, I found she had prosecuted her husband for violence and physical abuse, and obtained a separation from him. It was 1911, in Australia, and things like that were not done here then. She came up against a lot of sexism during the trial, for women were just not expected to act like she did.
In 1911, in Australia at least, a woman was expected to obey her husband, accept ‘discipline’ from him even if it took the form of a few slaps or punches, and always be on hand to cook his meals and look after him. They were the wifely duties, and my grandmother would have none of them. She attracted a lot of scorn during the trial.
Her name was Elsie May Douzans, daughter of a Frenchman, Alphonse, who came to Australia after a period in Noumea in New Caledonia, where his father Alexandre was involved in mining operations. Elsie was one of three surviving children of Alphonse’s marriage to Maria Agnes Conway, a miner’s daughter, whose father had bought his family to Australia from Wicklow during the Hunger in 1850. Elsie had a sister Isabella, who married into the Priestly family from the Wollombra River district, and a brother, Alphonse John, who married a Mudiman, whose father was a Salvation Army man from London.
Unfortunately Elsie’s father died aged 28, from Scarlet Fever to which he must have had no resistance, in 1888, the year after Elsie was born. I regret I have no photograph of her, nor of any member of the Douzans family, who originated in Banyuls in France near the Spanish border on the Mediterranean coast.
The first thing I know about Elsie is that she married my grandfather, Vincent Joseph Gammell, on 31 May 1910 in Enmore, an inner Sydney NSW suburb. Vincent’s family came from Tipperary, and both bride and groom were Catholics. The couple had a daughter, Sylvia Elsie, born 31 October 1910, which meant of course Elsie was four months pregnant when she married. Perhaps Sylvia was the result of a New Years celebration that got out of hand. At any rate it seems possible the couple felt they ought to get married rather than marrying for love as they say.
Two months after the marriage, six months pregnant, Elsie reported during the court hearing of 1911, she first suffered a violent attack from her husband Vincent, whom she said hit her several times about the head and dragged her about. It seems possible Vincent didn’t want to be married, at least to Elsie, though he might have just been bad tempered. By 31 March 1911 Elsie was pregnant again, with Edna May, my mother, and she decided that matters had gone far enough. On 1 May Elsie separated from Vincent, after 11 months of marriage. She decided it had been a mistake, a bad one.
The court hearing was set for the start of June 1911 at Paddington courthouse,and was reported by the Truth newspaper, one that made its living from scandal and sport. The headline showed the tone of the article: “A Kicker Kicks at her Vincent Joe”. In the midst of an account of how she was kicked and hit by her husband, Elsie was asked by the attorney who represented her husband Vincent if it was true she had kicked back. Elsie admitted that on one occasion she had tried, and been fended off as a result. No matter: she had actually kicked back. It was scandalous.
During the hearing Elsie described the kind of treatment she was receiving. On one occasion, she said, “he (Vincent) punched her on the head with his open hand five or six times. Moreover, he knocked her head against the child’s, which left a mark on the little one’s head and made it cry. Then he got the baby and laid it down on the bare floor, and hit her again”. Both mother and baby seemed to be at risk from Vincent’s violent proclivities. Vincent had also verbally abused her, Elsie said, threatened her, locked her out of the house and sometimes locked her inside the house, and forbidden her to speak to a neighbour with whom she was friendly.
The response to this was “Now, haven’t you provoked your husband?” The defence was that it was all Elsie’s fault for provoking her husband. Similarly, at that time and for long after, rape victims were charged with dressing provocatively: it was all their fault too. Legal and court officials were of course at that time always men.
Elsie’s neighbour corroborated her story, and told of the bruises, scratches and marks on Elsie’s body she had seen. Vincent when questioned made little of the incidents Elsie had recounted, but admitted using violence to discipline his wife. The court found against him, and bound him to pay £1.00 a week maintenance for 12 months.
The reported also mentioned that Vincent had a bad stammer, which made it difficult to understand what he said.
The rest of the story
In September 1913 Newtown police issued a warrant for Vincent’s arrest for non payment of maintenance, which must have been extended from the original 12 month period. In 1915 the charges were withdrawn, so some settlement must have been made.
On 27 November 1923 Vincent in turn charged Elsie with desertion, after he had previously applied for a ruling on alienation of marital rights and requested her to return to the marriage. This of course meant he no longer was liable for maintenance. It is to be noted that Vincent’s younger brother, John Norbert Gammell, was a prominent solicitor and may have advised this course of action. The court granted Vincent a divorce on 30 November 1923 on the grounds of desertion, apparently without looking at the parties’ previous legal history. A month later Vincent married Ethel May Durrant, with whom he had two children. Vincent died 28 January 1937, aged 50, while on holiday in Goondiwindi, from the effects of sunstroke.
Elsie never remarried, but she formed a close bond with her elder daughter Sylvia. Sylvia started a career as an actor in musical comedy shows, received good reviews, toured around Australia, but by the 1930s had settled down in Sydney and worked as a dance instructor. She married a Swiss Italian called Joshua Battaini, moved to Queensland where she managed a pub in Mackay for a few years, and finally settled in Brisbane. Throughout her life she was never far from her mother Elsie, who lived nearby and even moved with Sylvia to Mackay. Elsie died in 1961.
On the other hand the other daughter of that marriage of Elsie and Vincent, Edna May, my mother, was the real casualty. She never spoke of her sister and mother. I never realised she had a sister till long after she had died. But she worshipped her father Vincent. Vincent for his part, when he divorced Elsie, applied for custody of his two children, obtained custody for Edna, and promptly placed her in a boarding school. Later she was allowed to return home where she helped look after Vincent’s two children of his second marriage. My mother was devastated by her father’s death, but it seems doubtful if he ever gave her much thought.
Reading about the court case of 1911 where Elsie was treated so disrespectfully made me realise how insidious sexism is. It seems apparent that Elsie at first accepted such unacceptable behaviour because it was not ‘feminine’ to object to it. Women are the helpmate of their husbands. It’s in the bible.
All of us are the result of social conditioning. We have a sense of identity based on the information from our senses, but after that comes our gender. First question our parents answer after our birth is always “Is it a boy or a girl?”, and we are treated as such for the rest of our lives. So standing up to sexism requires a good deal of confidence, a sense of being an integrated human being. Of course we can act like a man or like a woman, and enjoy it, but underneath we are a human being.
Sexism attacks that perception, and says that our social role as male or female is more important than our sense of self. So I admire Elsie. No matter what were the rights and wrongs within her marriage, she knew it was wrong for a husband to strike his wife, at a time when many men, some of them attorneys and court officials, didn’t know that. And she spoke out. Times were changing. Not that this was revolutionary. I have another ancestor who spoke out against her husband’s violence in January 1878. But it was part of a trend. It boils down to the right women have to be feminine, which is not a value that should be imposed on them.
Gender roles are meant to be fun after all. But we seem to need to enforce them, turn sexual relationships into power politics. Just as the faithful don’t simply believe, but force others to follow their own beliefs on pain of persecution, power politics again. I suppose because most of us are pretty insecure. I’m sure all this has been said before by feminist writers.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.