By Siena White.
Change takes time. Change will more than likely face resistance. Change requires patience, perseverance, determination, and commitment. Looking historically at the Suffragist and Suffragette movement we can see the crucial role that patience, determination, perseverance and commitment play in effecting change.
The Suffragists were making noise mid-19th century, only to be politically acknowledged decades later at the turn of the 20th century. Small victories were achieved but not without strong, harsh and cruel resistance from the majority, both men and women. The women’s suffrage movement began at different points globally, the UK had its first petition requesting the right for ‘Spinsters’ to vote in 1832i, New York had its first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848ii, and in 1856 Australia opened the Protestant Female Refuge.iii New Zealand was the first nation to achieve the right for women to vote in 1893, nine years later they were followed by Australia in 1902.iv
Make Some Noise
South Australia was the most progressive colony in Australia. In 1858, South Australia’s women were given the right to divorce, in 1879 they opened Australia’s first public high- school for girls, the University of Adelaide admitted women into academic courses in 1881,v and in 1882 the Social Purity Society began lobbying government to stop the exploitation of girls as young as ten who worked as servants, factory workers and street sellers.vi SA gave female rate payers the right to vote in 1861. 27 years later in 1888 women over 25 were approved to vote, despite men aged 21 being enfranchised.vii The South Australian Women’s Suffrage League argued that the age restriction wasn’t fulfilling the rightful equality of suffrage.
Between 1885 and 1893 six bills were presented to South Australia’s parliament all to be unsuccessful. In 1885 Dr Edward Stirling introduced women’s suffrage to the SA parliament. It was to allow single and widowed property owners to vote. It passed but was unsuccessfully made legislative. The following year Dr Stirling proposed a bill which was again made unsuccessful. Three further bills to enfranchise women were introduced by Robert Caldwell in 1888, 1889 and 1890, and all unsuccessful. In 1891, John Warren MLC introduced a bill which was also unsuccessful, and again in 1893 a bill introduced by J Cockburn was denied.
The Social Purity Society was later formed into the Women’s Suffrage League in 1888 which was established by Mary Lee and Mary Colton.viii The league advocated and agitated for women’s rights to vote by writing letters to magazines and newspapers, held rallies, visited politicians, and organised petitions.ix The largest petition collected by the league had 11,600 signatures and was presented to Parliament on 23 August 1894.x The pages of the petition were glued end to end reaching 400 feet.xi SA became the first electorate in the world to give equal political rights to both men and women in 1894 when the Constitutional Amendment (Adult Suffrage) Act was passed.xii This act became law in 1895 when Queen Victoria signed the bill.xiii Despite allowing for South Australia’s bill to pass, the Queen maintained a sexist position reflecting the opinions of the 19th century. She states if women were to “‘unsex’ themselves by claiming equality with men they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings.”xiv It wasn’t until 1918 that the UK enfranchised women over the age of 30 who met property qualifications, and 10 years later in 1928 when all women over the age of 21 were given equal voting rights.xv Australia was much more progressive. The colony of
Western Australia followed SA’s lead, giving women the right to vote in 1899, followed by New South Wales in 1902, Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905, and Victoria in 1908.xvi
In 1902 a second reading was made by Sir William Lyn in the House of Representatives to move for the Commonwealth Franchise Bill.xvii In his argument to enfranchise Australia’s women for federal elections, he was met with disapproving comments illustrating the strong resistance faced by suffragists. Thomas Skene argued that a woman’s role was not political – “I, and many others, believe that woman has higher and more sacred functions to fulfil than those presented in political life.”xviii Sir Edward Braddon argued that women were not capable – “the objection is that women are apt to decide on instinct rather than reason.”xix Despite NSW, Tasmania, QLD and Victoria maintaining the disenfranchisement of women in state elections, the Commonwealth Franchise Act passed. The Act allowed Australia’s women who were considered British subjects to vote. xx Passing the act also made Australia the first country to permit women to stand for parliament. Despite the accomplishment in law, it was 19 years before Edith Cowan was elected to Western Australia’s Legislative Assembly in 1921, becoming the first female member of parliament, and another 23 years until Dame Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney became the first women in Australia’s federal parliament in 1943.
Never Give Up
Australian women achieved the right to vote after decades of self-organisation, persistence, commitment, and patience. The suffragists perseverance carried them through decades of resistance from both men and women in and out of politics. Suffragists are recorded to have maintained peaceful and constitutional campaign methods, entailing petitions, rallies, letters, and lobbying.xxi However, women in the UK faced stronger resistance, and failed to make significant progress as suffragists. A second wave of women’s groups referred to as the Suffragettes emerged at the turn of the 20th century, were prepared to take militant action to ignite the change.xxii The UK suffragettes set fire to politicians’ mail boxes, blew up a canal in Birmingham in attempt to drain the whole British canal system, went on hunger strikes and slashed paintings in galleries.xxiii Militant suffragette Emily Davison died after stepping out in front of King George V’s horse during a Derby race in 1913, arguably to raise awareness of the suffragette movement.xxiv By 1918 the UK Representation of the People Act was passed which enfranchised women over the age of 30 who met property qualifications. It wasn’t until 1928 that the Equal Franchise Act was introducedxxv – 26 years after the same milestone was reached in Australia.
i British Library Learning, “Women’s suffrage timeline,” British Library, Feb 6, 2018, https://www.bl.uk/votes-for-women/articles/womens-suffrage-timeline
ii “The Woman Suffrage Movement,” National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/resources/general/woman-suffrage- movement#:~:text=The%20woman%20suffrage%20movement%20actually,in%20Seneca%20Falls% 2C%20New%20York.&text=Anthony%2C%20Elizabeth%20Cady%20Stanton%2C%20and,constitut ional%20amendment%20to%20enfranchise%20women.
iii “South Australian Women: Women’s Suffrage,” State Library South Australia, Nov 6, 2019, https://guides.slsa.sa.gov.au/c.php?g=410266&p=2794681
iv “Women’s Electoral Rights – Selected Countries, Parliament of Australia, https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/womens- suffragehttps://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Librar y/Publications_Archive/archive/women/Internationaltable
v “South Australian Women: Women’s Suffrage,” State Library South Australia
vi “Women’s Suffrage,” National Museum Australia, June 15, 2020, https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/womens-suffrage
vii “Women’s Suffrage,” National Museum Australia
viii “Women’s Suffrage,” National Museum Australia
ix “Women’s Suffrage,” National Museum Australia
x “The South Australian women’s suffrage campaign,” Government of South Australia: Office for Women, https://officeforwomen.sa.gov.au/womens-policy/125th-anniversary-of-suffrage/the-south- australian-womens-suffrage-campaign
xi “Women’s Suffrage,” National Museum Australia
xii “Women’s Suffrage,” National Museum Australia
xiii “South Australian Women: Women’s Suffrage,” State Library South Australia
xiv Bren O’Callaghan, “Those who can’t, teach Dorothea Beale & Cheltenham Ladies’ College,” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/work/england/gloucestershire/article_1.shtml
xv “Women get the vote,” Parliament UK, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living- heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/overview/thevote/
xvi “Australian Women: Eligibility to Vote, to Sit, and First Women Elected to Australian Parliaments,” Parliament of Australia, https://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/library/intguide/pol/women/austwomenvote.pdf
xvii “Commonwealth Franchise Bill,” Parliament of Australia,” https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Public ations_Archive/archive/women/Lynespeech
xviii “Parliamentary Quotes,” Parliament of Australia, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Public ations_Archive/archive/women/Parlquotes
xix “Parliamentary Quotes,” Parliament of Australia
xx “Votes for Women,” Parliament of Australia, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Public ations_Archive/archive/women
xxi “Suffragist/Suffragette – What’s the difference?,” Government of South Australia: Office for Women,https://officeforwomen.sa.gov.au/womens-policy/125th-anniversary-of- suffrage/suffragistsuffragette-whats-the-difference
xxii “Suffragist/Suffragette – What’s the difference?,” Government of South Australia: Office for Women
xxiii “The Lost World of the Suffragettes,” BBC, Feb 24, 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3cswqkp
xxiv “Emily Davison Biography,” Biography, April 2, 2014, https://www.biography.com/activist/emily-davison
xxv “Women get the vote,” Parliament UK