Votes for Women

A Matter of Public Importance: Votes for Women

E-Brief: Online Only issued 27 May 2002, re-issued 24 November 2003

Janet Wilson and Deirdre McKeown, Information /E-links
Politics and Public Administration Group

Tonight's telegrams report that your House proposes to grant the right to vote without the right to be a candidate. That was the mistake in New Zealand. That, as Bebel says, "is the knife without the blade". For the sake of other countries as well as your own, fight for the whole loaf.
Rose Scott's papers, Mitchell Library

In the politics of a democracy there should be no sex. A woman without a vote is an inferior, and thereby liable to be so regarded.
Maybanke Anderson, The Sun, 6 July 1912.

On 12 June 2002 it will be a hundred years since Australia became the first country in the world to give most women the right to vote and the right to stand for the Commonwealth Parliament. New Zealand was the first nation to give women the right to vote, but not to stand, in 1893. Although Australia was seen as a pioneer of women's political rights, it had the greatest time lag of all western democratic countries between the eligibility of women to stand for the national legislature and their actual election to it 41 years.

Section 4 of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 stated that "No aboriginal native of Australia Asia Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand shall be entitled to have his name placed on an Electoral Roll unless so entitled under section 41 of the Constitution", i.e. unless he/she was already entitled to be enrolled for State elections, as was the case, in theory, in all the States except Western Australia and Queensland. It is believed that a narrow interpretation of section 41 of the Constitution was used by electoral officials to bar federal enrolment to any individual not entitled to a State vote before 1902.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 was a significant piece of legislation yet it is interesting that it contained only five sections and was only two pages long. In 1918 the Act was repealed and its provisions re-enacted in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.


This table shows Australia's place in the achievement of women's suffrage in the international context.

This table shows the dates for women's franchise in each of the Australian parliaments and the names and dates elected of the first women. The ACT and the Northern Territory achieved self-government more recently; women were elected to these bodies at the first elections in 1989 and 1978 respectively.

Before Federation

From the 1880s each colony had at least one suffrage society, publishing leaflets, organising debates, public meetings and letter-writing campaigns, arranging deputations to members of their colonial parliaments. The suffrage organisations in some colonies were supported by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; although their primary objectives were different, they had similar views on the role they wanted women to play in political life, and both saw franchise as the symbol of freedom.

Women already had the right to vote and to stand for parliament in South Australia (since 1895) and the right to vote in Western Australia (since 1900), and the subject of universal suffrage was debated at the Constitutional Conventions (Adelaide Convention, 15 April 1897, pp 715-731). Having been defeated in their attempts to have female suffrage written into the Constitution, women then had to ensure that men who were in favour were elected to the first Commonwealth Parliament.

This resource guide concentrates on the passage of the Commonwealth legislation, but provides links to the steps leading to the achievement of female suffrage in each of the colonies, whether this occurred before or after 1902, and provides links to some of the key players.

The debates

There was still some opposition to the extension of the franchise to women when the Commonwealth Franchise Bill was debated in 1902. The Bill was debated in the Senate from 9 to 11 April 1902 (having been introduced there through pressure of other business in the House of Representatives) and passed its second reading without division. The Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives on 23 April 1902 by Sir William Lyne, the Minister for Home Affairs (Protectionist). His second reading speech outlines the arguments for supporting the measure. The bill passed the House of Representatives on 24 April 1902. It was considered again by the Senate on 29 May and the House of Representatives on 30 May. The Act received Royal Assent on 12 June 1902.

The debate produced some views we would now consider to be extreme and reports from contemporary newspapers provide an interesting insight to the period.

State campaigns

Women in all the Australian colonies had campaigned for the right to vote for many years. Each colonial suffrage movement had its own distinct style, based on the political climate and controversies within its own legislature. In Western Australia, for example, it was felt that enfranchising women would counter a perceived rise of radicalism from the goldfields. In some States, such as New South Wales, relations between the factions led to fragmentation of the campaign effort. In some States, where franchise at the State level was considerably delayed, legislation had passed the lower house but had been blocked by the upper house. Accounts of the campaigns for each colony or state, timelines and lists of women in each State parliament can be found at the following:

New South Wales

NSW Parliament site

Women in Parliament


Queensland Parliament site

Women in the Queensland Parliament 1860-present

Women Members of the Queensland Parliament 1929-1994

South Australia

State Library of South Australia - Women’s suffrage

State Library of South Australia chronology
Newspaper clipping from The Observer 2 May, 1896

SA Parliament site
Women and politics in South Australia


Milestones for Tasmanian women
Significant Tasmanian Women

Tasmanian Parliament site
Women members of Tasmanian State Parliament
Female franchise


Women shaping the nation

Victorian Parliament site
Women in Parliament

Western Australia

Franchise: electoral opportunity and political power
'A vote of her own'

WA Parliament site
Women Members of the Western Australian Parliament

Main women involved

The campaigns were fought by disparate groups of activists; the individuals involved came from different backgrounds but they were unified in the pursuit of the cause. These are some of the main women involved:

Maybanke Anderson (NSW)
Edith Cowan (WA)
Henrietta Dugdale (Vic)
Vida Goldstein (Vic)
Alice Henry (Vic)
Louisa Lawson (NSW)
Mary Lee (SA)
Emma Miller (Qld)
Alicia O'Shea Petersen (Tas)
Jessie Rooke (Tas)
Rose Scott (NSW)
Catherine Helen Spence (SA)


Australian Electoral Commission: women in the political arena
Woman's Christian Temperance Union (Tas)
Women's Federal Leagues (NSW)
Women's Suffrage League (SA)

First speeches

Dorothy Tangney (Senate, WA, ALP) and Enid Lyons (House of Representatives, Tas, UAP) were the first women elected to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1943.

Electronic sources

Australian Electoral Commission, Australian electoral history
Marian Sawer, 'Women and government in Australia', Year Book Australia, 2001
Marian Sawer, 'Cartoons for the cause: cartooning for equality in Australia', paper delivered at the Australian Media Traditions Conference 2001.
Trust the women: women in parliament, Papers on Parliament No. 17, Department of the Senate
State Library of South Australia: women and politics in South Australia
WEL Women in Australian Politics
'Women in the Senate', Senate Brief No 3, September 1999


Australian Electoral Commission
Australian National University, Research School of Social Sciences
Women's Constitutional Convention
World chronology of women's suffrage

Parliamentary Library publications

Janet Wilson and Consie Larmour, 'First women in Australian parliaments', Research Note 55 1996-97
Consie Larmour, 'Women in the parliaments of the world: 1997', Research Note 41 1996-97
Parliamentary Handbook, Department of the Parliamentary Library
Jennifer Curtin, 'Women in Australian Federal Cabinet', Research Note 40 1996-97
Jennifer Curtin, 'The 1998 Women's Constitutional Convention', Research Note 21 1997-98
Jennifer Curtin, 'Gender and political leadership in New Zealand', Research Note 14 1997-98
Jennifer Curtin, 'The gender gap in Australian elections', Research Paper 3 1997-98
Jennifer Curtin, 'The 1998 Tasmanian election: women and Proportional Representation', Research Note 5 1998-99
Jennifer Norberry and George Williams, 'Voters and the franchise: the Federal story', Research Paper 17 2001-02

Other sources

Helen Irving (ed), A Woman's constitution?, Hale & Iremonger, 1996
Marilyn Lake, Getting equal: the history of Australian feminism, Allen & Unwin, 1999
Kirsten Lees, Votes for women: the Australian story, Allen & Unwin, 1995
Ann Millar, Trust the women: women in the Federal Parliament, Department of the Senate, 1993
Ann Millar (ed), The Biographical dictionary of the Australian Senate, Volume 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, 2000
Audrey Oldfield, Woman suffrage in Australia: a gift or a struggle?, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Marian Sawer & Marian Simms, A Woman's place: women and politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1993
Anne Summers, Damned whores and God's police, Penguin, 2002

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.