03/07/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated May 07, 2012

Iron Petticoats and Darwin's Blunder

March 8 is International Women's Day. This year's theme focuses on ending hunger and poverty so it's especially fitting to consider the legacy of the 25,000 convict maids shipped from Great Britain to Australia, the vast majority sentenced for crimes born from hunger and desperation.

Today an estimated one in five Australians share convict ancestry, many only recently aware of their heritage. For nearly a century, Australia's convict past was considered a stain, inciting a cover-up so extreme that convict records were systematically destroyed for decades. It took several generations for the truth to finally surface about Australia's convict women.

The voices that resonate in recorded history are typically educated and elite, and in the 19th century, were predominantly male. Charles Darwin was among those who wrote about Australia's convicts. He was a brilliant naturalist, but when it came to judging the convicts, and the women in particular, he made a huge mistake. During his visit to Australia in 1836, he declared that the 162,000 women, men, and children, transported from Great Britain against their will, would surely contaminate the continent's gene pool. Most of the transports had been convicted of petty theft, their only means to survive abject poverty. In an era without social services, children who pilfered small items routinely received a sentence of seven to ten years indentured servitude and exile for life to the "land beyond the seas."

After being served dinner by the convicts who ran the homes and minded the children of wealthy Australian settlers, Darwin expressed his deep disdain toward the convict maids: "The female servants are of course, much worse: hence children learn the vilest expressions, and... if not equally vile ideas." Victorian double standard sensibilities deemed a male convict capable of reform and redemption but a woman was bad forever, regardless of how she turned her life around. Atop his ivory tower, Darwin lost sight of what it takes for human beings to survive.

Time, however, has proved that the transported female convicts were not at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, but poised on the top rung. Most were ordinary women who lived outside the boundaries of where history has traditionally been recorded -- women like Ludlow Tedder, a widow and mother of four, who pilfered spoons and a breadbasket after falling on hard times. Many were children, like twelve-year-old Agnes McMillan who stole food and clothing as the only alternative to living another day, other than prostitution.

Agnes and Ludlow received punishments and suffered abuse that far exceeded the scope of their crimes. A rough-cut stone in the ruins of Tasmania's Cascades Female Factory today honors their sisterhood of sorrow with the inscription "more sinned against than sinning." Miraculously, in spite of everything they had to endure, these iron-willed survivors did not evolve into hardened human beings. Instead, they became loving mothers and grandmothers. Ludlow's proud descendants, sisters Glad and Joy, suggest: "You read in history about people in the public focus but the convicts were the bigger part of history. They were the backbone who made modern Australia."

What in their character transformed them from victim to victor?

Imprisoned in the Cascades Female Factory in Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania), convict maids like Agnes and Ludlow danced and sang, and dared to dream of a future. Ingenious renegades, who refused to be silenced, communicated with their paramours by smuggling love letters inside chickens delivered to corrupt wardens.

By the time Ludlow was freed and ready to migrate to mainland Australia, her first husband had died and her second deserted her. Determined to make a fresh start on the goldfields, the indomitable widow was courted by an ambitious "hawker" whom she would marry and spend the rest of her full life. Trading hope for hopelessness, the convict maids celebrated solidarity over submission. Tempering injustice with ingenuity, they substituted defiance for despair.

After serving her seven-year sentence for pilfering stockings, Agnes McMillan, the ever-adaptable ballad singer and street waif from Glasgow, quickly learned how to skin a "roo" as she raised her family in the wilderness of the Huon Valley. Like Ludlow, she sought escape from the smothering prejudice against freed convicts in Van Diemen's Land, and migrated across Bass Strait to the goldfields in Victoria. Mindful of marauding bandits in an untamed land, Agnes cleverly tucked the nuggets her husband had mined inside the nappies of their youngest children.

These tough-as-nails females, who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and led productive lives, exhibited strength of character that far exceeded Darwinian notions about survival of the fittest. Once freed, they led their lives with grace, dignity, and forgiveness. With resilience of steel, Australia's convict women faced down and defeated the darkest recesses of humanity, and showcased the magnificent capacity for nobility that exists within us all.