Anne O’Brien, God’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005.

Anne O’Brien, God’s Willing Workers:  Women and Religion in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005.  $49.95 AUD, ISBN 0 86840 575 2 (paperback), pp 314.


Reviewed by:  Helen M Delaney, Yarra Theological Union, May 2008.


Anne O’Brien, a lecturer in the School of History at the University of New South Wales who has written extensively on religion and gender states that the purpose of her study is to ‘cast new light on the complexities of Australian culture by examining what religion meant to women’ [9].  This she does ably in a comprehensive study of women’s responses to and interaction with the major religions of colonial Australia.

An introductory chapter looking at women, religion and colonial society in the early years (1788 – 1880) of this embryonic nation provides the context for the major area of her study, the period from 1880 to 1960.  This begins with a section dealing with women in general in the Church, followed by two detailed sections focussing on first Protestant women and then Catholic nuns. The concluding and much shorter section then looks at the period from 1960 to 2004.

Australia is generally considered by many of its inhabitants as a secular and relatively godless country.  Books such as this demonstrate that like all glib characterisations the reality is somewhat different and that women from the earliest years saw religion, its practice and its living out in a practical way as extremely important to society in general.

In the section on the contribution of Protestant women, O’Brien comments on the relatively high proportion of single women, a willing source of church workers who, however, were as much as possible kept firmly in their place as secondary helpers in both local and missionary endeavours.  Yet their contribution was significant. Anglican deaconesses, Methodist Sisters of the People and various missionary organisations who encouraged women to join them worked with the poor in slum areas of cities, with outback people including indigenous groups and in the foreign missions of Oceania.

A much longer section deals with Catholic nuns who were much more numerous that their single Protestant counterparts.  They were heavily involved in education but also in almost every other type of social endeavour as well as the foreign missions.  O’Brien analysed entrants to four different congregations and found many were from the lower middle class, often from the country whereas the Protestant women were often from well educated and professional homes.  However, she also examines the way in which schools run by religious orders assisted in the upward mobility of Catholics who suffered considerable religious discrimination for most of the period under consideration, and in particular how secondary schools for girls in many ways encouraged female independence.  Nevertheless, like their Protestant sisters, they suffered at times quite severely from the attitudes and actions of the male church hierarchy.

The final section, aptly titled:  The Revolution and After, 1906 – 2004,  deals with the tremendous changes which occurred in society and the general decline in church involvement experienced by the traditional churches.  One thinks of such factors as the rise of feminism which impacted upon all churches; the rise of new Pentecostal churches which appear to answer the spiritual needs of many people;  the renewal movement in the Catholic Church called for by the Second Vatican Council and still actively resisted in some quarters; the Catholic Church’s attitude towards birth control which became the impetus for many Catholic women to become politicised or to leave the church; and the debates and struggles over the ordination of women, to mention the most influential factors of change in women’s attitudes to and participation in church life however defined.

I have two minor quibbles.  Firstly the research particularly in relation to women in the Anglican and Catholic traditions is decidedly Sydney-centric.  For example the study of Anglican deaconesses is almost entirely confined to the Archdiocese of Sydney which is by far the most evangelical of all the Anglican dioceses.  Some comparisons with the situation in Melbourne or Perth may have provided interesting reading.  Similarly, the four Catholic religious orders studied are found either mainly in Sydney or have their central administration there. Orders based in Melbourne or Brisbane may have had something slightly different to offer.  Secondly, the author has read widely and perhaps a bibliography may have assisted the student interested in reading further to pursue his or her interests more conveniently.

Anne O’Brien has shed careful and considered light on an area of Australian history largely ignored until comparatively recently but fortunately now being studied by several mainly female historians and writers. Her work is well researched, well written and easy to read.  It considers Christian women only.  A parallel study of the role of Jewish women present in the country from the earliest time of white settlement would be an interesting companion piece and would also round out the picture of the contribution of women committed to their religion and willing and able to contribute to its influence and practical expression.