The 120th anniversary of women's suffrage in Australia

Sunday 12 June 2022 marked 120 years since Australian women gained the right to vote in federal elections, following the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Franchise Act). The Act extended the franchise to ‘persons not under twenty-one years of age whether male or female, married or unmarried’. The Act also gave women the right to stand as candidates in federal elections. With its passage, Australia became the first country in the world to give most women both the right to vote and the right to run for parliament. New Zealand women had gained the right to vote in 1893, but not the right to stand as candidates.

However, the Act also denied the right to vote to some groups, notably people of non-European backgrounds. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, both women and men, were excluded from the franchise, unless they were eligible to vote under state legislation in accordance with Section 41 of the Australian Constitution. The Franchise Bill, introduced in April 1902 by the Vice President of the Executive Council, Senator Richard O’Connor, was debated extensively by the parliament and by the media. While the Bill had aimed to extend the franchise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to those who were then referred to as ‘coloured people’ from overseas, it was amended to exclude ‘aboriginal natives of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific’ from being placed on the electoral roll, unless entitled under Section 41 of the Constitution. It would be another 60 years before all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were able to enrol and vote at federal elections, following the 1962 amendment of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (which replaced the Franchise Act).

By June 1902, women were already eligible to vote in two states: South Australia (since 1894), and Western Australia (since 1899). The New South Wales (NSW) Legislative Assembly followed in August 1902, then the Tasmanian House of Assembly in 1903, Queensland in 1905, and Victoria in 1908.

The first federal election at which women in Australia were able to exercise their rights to vote and to stand as candidates was held on 16 December 1903. Four women contested that election: Selina Anderson (later Siggins), who ran for the House of Representatives in NSW; and Senate candidates Vida Goldstein in Victoria (for whom the electoral division of Goldstein is named), and Nellie Martel and Mary Moore-Bentley (later Ling) in NSW. They were the first women nominated for election to any national parliament in what was then the British Empire. All four women ran as independent candidates. None were elected.

Selina Anderson, the first woman to run for the Australian House of Representatives, had originally intended to run for the Senate. In 1904, she sued a shopkeeper for defamation, claiming that remarks he had made about her had prevented her from standing for the Senate. In a case that may sound somewhat familiar in the wake of more recent revelations about the treatment of women in politics, including those detailed in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2021 report Set the Standard, she alleged that the man had described her as a woman of 'libidinous and licentious nature and disposition'. Her case was unsuccessful.

The first woman elected to an Australian state parliament, Edith Cowan, was elected to Western Australia’s Legislative Assembly in 1921. However, it was not until 1943, 40 years after the 1903 federal election, that the first women, Enid Lyons in the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney in the Senate, were elected to Australia’s federal parliament. Enid Lyons was also the first woman appointed to the ministry, becoming Vice President of the Executive Council in 1949. The first woman to administer a Commonwealth department was Annabelle Rankin, as Minister for Housing from 1966.

The first Indigenous member of any Australian parliament, Neville Bonner, was appointed to the Senate in 1971. The first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt, was elected in 2010. He was also the first Indigenous person to hold assistant ministerial, ministerial, and Cabinet roles in the Australian Government (from 2015, 2017, and 2019, respectively). The first Indigenous woman, Nova Peris, was elected to the Senate in 2013. In 2016, Linda Burney was the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives. In 2022 she became the first Indigenous woman to hold a federal ministry and to be elevated to Cabinet.

In 2014 the 100th woman in the House of Representatives, Terri Butler, entered parliament, 71 years after Enid Lyons. In 2018 the 100th woman in the Senate (and the first female Muslim senator), Mehreen Faruqi, entered parliament, 75 years after Dorothy Tangney. In 2019 women and men were, for the first time, equally represented in the Senate, a milestone that is yet to be reached in the House of Representatives. While subject to final confirmation, indications are that in the 47th Parliament, 57 per cent of senators and 38 per cent of members of the House of Representatives will be women.

Further reading

Over the years the Parliamentary Library has produced several research papers relevant to the Franchise Act:


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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