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Australian suffragettes

The South Australia's Women's Suffrage Centenary celebrations. 1994

The South Australia's Women's Suffrage Centenary celebrations, 1994. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

Suffrage, or the right to vote, is something that Australians have not always been able to take for granted. In 1902, Australia was the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote in federal elections and also the right to be elected to parliament on a national basis. New Zealand granted women the right to vote in 1893.

Commonwealth women's suffrage in Australia reflected the rights of women to seek election in South Australia and to vote in Western Australia, rights granted in 1895 and 1899 respectively. Indigenous people as a group were not granted suffrage in federal elections until 1962, although South Australia granted suffrage to Aboriginal women as early as 1894, and the Commonwealth Constitution stated that anyone with a state vote was entitled to a Commonwealth vote.

'Suffragettes' was a term used around the world to describe all women who campaigned for the right to vote in elections. From the 1880s and through the 1890s each Australian colony had at least one suffragette society. These societies published leaflets; organised debates, public meetings and letter-writing campaigns; and arranged deputations to members of their colonial parliaments. In 1891, suffragettes including Vida Goldstein gathered 30,000 women's signatures and presented them as a petition to the Victorian Parliament. In 1894, Mary Lee and others presented a petition from 11,600 women in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The suffragettes argued that women should be able to vote and stand for election because the wishes of women should be reflected in parliament. They argued that a government 'by the people' should include government by women, because laws affect women as much as they do men.

Politics and Australian women in the nineteenth century

Men govern the world and the schemes upon which all our institutions are founded show men's thoughts only.
Louisa Lawson, writer, feminist and suffragist in her editorial in Dawn: a Journal for Australian women, October 1890.

Ladies Family Duties, 1887. Punch magazine. Parliament of Victoria.

'Some foolish people imagine our ladies will neglect their family duties. Quite a mistake. 3 am. That dear good old creature, Mr Speaker, is kind enough to take the blessed infant while the Hon. Member addresses the house', 1887. Punch magazine Melbourne. Courtesy of the Parliament of Victoria.

In the 19th century, a woman's place was still very firmly in the home. Although small numbers of women were attending university and seeking a career for themselves, most women's lives were restricted to the home and the exhausting physical work of maintaining a house and raising a family.

The thought that a woman was capable of focusing her attention on matters such as politics was incomprehensible to many men, and some women, who opposed the fight for female suffrage. They portrayed women as emotional, weak and unable to make decisions as well as being consumed with domestic and trivial matters.

Nineteenth century civilisation has accorded to women the same political status as to the idiot and the criminal. Such is the basis of our reverence for the person of women and of our estimate of her work.
Mary Lee, a leading South Australian suffragist and social reformer, writing in 1889.

It was men, not women who were involved in political debate and who participated in the running of the nation. Indeed, one of the objections raised to the prospect of women voting in elections would be that it would provide married men with double the vote as it was assumed their wives would simply vote for whomever their husbands told them to. The enfranchisement of women, it was argued, would give married men an unfair advantage over single men at the ballot box.

The Victorian 1864 Legislative Assembly elections are an excellent indicator of the attitude toward women and their involvement in politics at the time. It is a little known fact that women in Victoria were given the right to vote the previous year when the Electoral Act 1863 (Vic) was passed. This was not an early victory for suffragettes but an error as the phrase 'all persons' was used to refer to people on the municipal voting rolls which were based on property ownership. At the time, many women did own property and were therefore entitled to vote in local elections and, thanks to the new Electoral Act, state elections as well.

In the 1864 state elections some women dared to exercise that right under the new Act. The Argus commented that:

At one of the polling booths ... a novel sight was witnessed. A coach filled with ladies drove up, and the fair occupants alighted and recorded their votes ...
The Argus , 5 November 1864, p 4.

The Electoral Act was quickly amended (in 1865) on the grounds that it was not the original intention of the Act that women should obtain the vote, even though the phrase 'all persons' was used.

Participation in politics in any form was seen as a solely male responsibility; women were bound by laws but not able to influence them. It was in this context that the women's suffrage movement first evolved in different parts of Australia in the 1880s and 1890s.

Women such as Rose Scott in Sydney, Henrietta Dugdale in Melbourne and Edith Cowan in Western Australia began to organise themselves and agitate. Their goal was the education of men and women about women's rights and their right to vote, as well as effecting social and political change.

Australian women were vocal and forceful in delivering their message. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) of South Australia printed a leaflet in September 1895 entitled Sixteen Reasons for Supporting Women's Suffrage that was circulated around the community.

Its arguments included:

  • Because Parliament should be a reflection of the wishes of the people.
  • Because a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, should mean all the people and not one half.
  • Because most laws affect women as much as men.

The final point made on the leaflet was simple: 'Because, to sum up all reasons in one – it is just.'

'Deeds not words' - the global fight

Mrs Pankhurst being carried by a policeman, 1914.

Underwood & Underwood, Mrs Pankhurst being carried by a policeman, as two other men stride along beside, during her arrest, London, May 1914. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-133006.

In many nations, the fight for the right to vote and stand in elections was often a long, desperate and violent battle.

In the United Kingdom for example, many suffragettes were imprisoned and went on self-enforced hunger strikes which resulted in force-feeding and sometimes ended in death; others set fire to buildings and heckled politicians. In one particularly notable case, Emily Davison threw herself under the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 (and later died as a result) in a bid to draw attention to 'the cause'. Despite this sort of radical action, it was not for a further five years that women in the United Kingdom were given limited rights to vote and not until 1928 that women's voting rights there were equal to men's.

By comparison, Australian women used peaceful and legal means to make their case for political enfranchisement. They were granted equal status with men at the ballot box at a relatively early stage in the history of women's suffrage. Australian women didn't end the fight after they were enfranchised in 1902. Understanding the experience of other nations, in particular the United Kingdom (where women did not get equal voting rights with men until 1928), Australian women did what they could to effect change there, too.

The Women's Suffragette Banner: Trust the Women... Dora Meeson

Dora Meeson, The Women's Suffragette Banner: Trust the Women. Courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection.

The role of Australian women in the British debate is depicted in the suffrage banner, 'Trust the Women Mother, As I Have Done', which was painted by Dora Meeson.

This banner was painted in London and carried by Australians in a street rally held there on 17 June, 1911. Margaret Fisher (wife of Prime Minister Andrew Fisher), Emily McGowen (wife of the Premier of New South Wales), Lady Cockburn (wife of the South Australian Premier) and Vida Goldstein were just some of the Australians present.

In 1988 the banner was presented as a bicentennial gift to the women of Australia, and is now on display in Parliament House in Canberra. The image from the banner was also used in a commemorative one dollar coin, minted in 2003, to celebrate a century of women's suffrage in Australia.

The power of the petition

Laura Daniele, <em>Women's Suffrage Petition</em>, ('Monster Petition') 1891

Laura Daniele, Women's Suffrage Petition, ('Monster Petition') 1891. Courtesy of the Parliament of Victoria.

An example of the extraordinary efforts made by Australian women to win the vote is the efforts made to gather over 40,000 signatures in support of women's suffrage on two important petitions. Covering much of the nation, women suffrage campaigners travelled thousands of miles knocking on doors and eventually getting around 1% of the entire population of Australia to sign.

The first petition sought that 'Women should Vote on Equal terms with Men', and was gathered during 1891 when a few dedicated women including Marie Kirk, Vida Goldstein and Annette Bear-Crawford, literally went from door to door, eventually gathering almost 30,000 signatures from women all over Victoria and from all walks of life. It was presented to Parliament in September 1891.

Now one of Victoria's archival treasures, the document is known as the 'Monster Petition' because of its size. At 260 metres long it takes three people three hours to unroll it from one spool to another. Although this petition did not have an immediate effect on the voting rights of women in Victoria, it was an early and important stepping stone towards women's participation in politics, not just in Victoria but for all of Australia.

Miss Pat Lancaster casting her first vote in the 1970 Federal By-election in Canberra

Miss Pat Lancaster casting her first vote in the 1970 Federal By-election in Canberra, Ainslie Infants School Polling Booth, 30 May, 1970. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an24636594 PIC/8293.

The next petition was collected in 1894 in South Australia. After three failed attempts to have bills passed to grant women's suffrage, Mary Lee and a number of women's rights groups in the state redoubled their efforts, encouraged by the recent enfranchisement of women in New Zealand (the first country in the world to do so). Their aim was to travel all over the state (which included the Northern Territory at the time) collecting as many signatures as they could in support of granting women the vote.

On August 23, 1894 when the Adult Suffrage Bill was read in the South Australian Parliament the women presented a petition which had 11,600 signatures and was 122 metres long. It was a success. On 18 December, 1894 women were granted the right to vote and stand for Parliament - this was the first legislation in the world of its kind. South Australian women were able to participate in the general elections of 1896.

In 1902, as a result of the vigorous lobbying of Australian suffragettes, the Commonwealth of Australia became the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote in federal elections and the right to be elected to federal parliament when they passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Cth). Although liberating for white women, the Act specifically excluded aboriginal women (and men), who would have to wait for many more years until they were formally given the right to vote by the Commonwealth, in 1962.

Voting in the states

Voters outside a polling place Brisbane Queensland, 1907.

Voters outside a polling place, Brisbane, Queensland, 1907. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: picqld-2003-01-08-11-21.

A complicating factor in the Australia's move toward female suffrage was the fact that electoral laws varied between states. While most white women were granted equal status with men at a federal level in 1902, the same did not apply in state elections. It was not until 1924 that women in all states of Australia had the right to vote and stand in all elections.

The first women in Australia who were entitled to vote were given the right in 1861, when female land-owners in South Australia were able to participate by voting in local elections. This was a great step forward and was soon followed in other areas of the country, yet still meant that most women could not vote as the majority of land was owned by men. As female property ownership increased, however, so did their say in local elections.

Around thirty years later, in 1894, South Australia became just the second jurisdiction in the world (after New Zealand in 1893) to extend the vote and the first to also allow women to stand for parliament. This also included Aboriginal women.

At the Ngarrindjeri mission at Point McLeay, a number of Aboriginal women insisted on enrolling on the electoral roll and voting in the 1896 election, even though they were actively discouraged by the white manager of the mission. There were more than 100 people on the rolls, and more than 70 of them voted that year.
Aboriginal South Australians and Parliament

Other Australian states followed (PDF 15KB) however the struggle for suffrage in state elections was not an easy one and took a number of years in some states.

Interestingly though, South Australia was the last state to have the first woman elected. This happened in 1959, thirty-eight years after the first woman was elected to an Australian parliament, in Western Australia.

'Your vote is your voice' - The suffragette's legacy

Female Democrats gather next to the statue of suffragette Mary Lee, 2007.David Mariuz, Female Democrats gather next to the statue of suffragette Mary Lee in Adelaide: (from left) Aleisha Brown, Jen Williams, Natasha Stott Despoja, Ruth Russell and Lyn Allison, 2007. Image courtesy of Fairfax digital.

Over a century after the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Cth) was passed, women outnumber men in Australia making them the dominant group, by gender, in the electorate. Policies of major and minor parties are created with the view to winning the female vote, and as a result issues affecting women's lives are being addressed by government. The Office for Women was created to ensure that issues such as family, gender equality, women at work and women and the law are not just the concern of women, but of everyone.

Although Australia was the first country in the world to grant women the vote and the right to stand for election, it had the longest time span of all western democratic countries between the eligibility of women to stand and their actual election – a period of 41 years.

As in many countries today, women's representation in parliament does not correspond to their electoral power. The issue of women and politics in Australia has moved on from the issue of suffrage to the question of equal representation.

So my question to the women of Australia is this: where are you? Those of us who are here - whatever our politics - want more of you to join us.
Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, in the Centenary of Women's Suffrage Speech, 12 June 2002.

Useful links

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Australian suffragettes

Women and the vote in Australia

Last updated: 9 June 2015
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd

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