Social change and post-war unmarried mothers: Topic 1

You are here

Topic 1: Family values

Learning intention: to explore values regarding family in Australian society post-World War II.
Focus on emerging teenage culture and changes in young people’s sexual behaviour at the time.

Some ideas to build upon

Conservatism dominated Australia throughout the mid-20th century. Young women faced a moral and social code of behaviour that today is considered very strict. In 1950s Australia, the nuclear family was the preferred family unit, and young women were expected to grow up and fulfill their role as housewives. Married women were often not offered further career opportunities and many were required to resign from their jobs completely.

Watch Australian's birthright: A home of their own

  • In what ways does this video portray the importance of the family unit in post-World War II Australia?
  • What does the film suggest about the role of women within the family and broader society?
  • How was the relationship between family life and Australia's prosperity perceived?


Use Trove to access copies of The Australian Women’s Weekly during the 1950s. Discuss the gender stereotypes that existed in Australia at this time and identify how they were reflected in popular culture.

Despite the dominant conservatism in post-World War II Australia, there were many social changes including the emergence of teenage culture. Teenagers were discovering new music as well as new ideas and expectations through the advent of television. Part-time jobs gave them freedom to spend their own money. There was rebellion against the austerity of their parents who had experienced the war. Teenagers had more privacy than ever before. The dating or ‘going out’ culture became increasingly free of any parental supervision and pre-marital sex was increasing.

Read & watch Popular culture in post-war Australia

  • In what ways did teenage behaviour change through this time?
  • How did this challenge the prevailing values of Australian society?
  • What were the implications of these changes for young women?


Compare and contrast students’ own lives today with those of the teenagers portrayed in the video.

Despite broad social changes, sex mostly remained a taboo topic. The contraceptive pill became available in 1961. Many doctors would only prescribe the pill to married women and others refused completely, based on religious beliefs. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that sex education programs began in schools. Abortion wasn’t legalised in every Australian state until 1985.

Watch Impact of the contraceptive pill on Australia

  • What does the video suggest about attitudes towards and knowledge about sex at the time?
  • What were the obstacles in obtaining the contraceptive pill as explored in this 1970 video?
  • What songs were used in this video? What messages did they convey? Why do you think they were used?


Use the Australian Bureau of Statistics website to identify changes in religious affiliations in Australia over the past 60 years. Consider what these changes imply about the influence of religious institutions in the community at different times.


Identify conflicts between the values of different generations in post-World War II Australia. Do these conflicts exist today? If so, in what ways are they similar or different?

1. Describe the role of young people as catalysts for change in Australian society.
2. Define popular culture. Consider whether it reflects attitudes in the community or acts as a catalyst for change.

Go to topic 2: Unmarried mothers and forced adoptions