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Women's Suffrage in Australia

Women’s suffrage was achieved in Australia after decades of peaceful yet determined campaigning by thousands of women. The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 granted most Australian and men women the right to vote and to stand in federal elections.

Australia was the first nation in the world to grant women these dual rights. Enfranchisement promised progress, opportunity and self-determination. Proud of its achievement, Australia supported women’s activists in other countries in their quest to follow Australia’s radical example. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men had to fight until 1962 to be granted the option to enrol and vote.

Time for a change

Calls for women’s political citizenship were first voiced in the 1850s, after Britain granted the beginnings of representative government to the colonies. Influenced by overseas campaigns for democratic reform, many free settlers saw Australia as a ‘social laboratory’ in which progressive rights, enshrined in law, would improve the human condition. Rising levels of education and opportunities for women led to growing pressure for political equality.

By the 1880s each colony had suffrage societies and temperance leagues, which supported suffrage as a way of addressing Social issues associated with alcohol abuse. These groups published leaflets and newspapers; organised debates, rallies, letter-writing campaigns and fundraisers; and lobbied male parliamentarians to act on their behalf. Their primary tools were petitions, always tabled by men.

In South Australia there were seven attempts to legislate for women between 1886 and 1894. A key petition tabled in the South Australian House of Assembly during the debate of the Adult Suffrage Bill 1894 featured 11,600 signatures. They had been collected mostly by the Women’s Suffrage League and Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, led by Mary Lee and Elizabeth Webb Nicholls respectively. After heated debate, the Bill passed. In 1895 South Australian women, of all races, became the most enfranchised in the world.

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK)

This achievement of women's suffrage in South Australia had a profound influence on the framing of the Constitution. At the 1897–98 Federal Convention, South Australian delegates including Premier Charles Kingston and Treasurer Frederick Holder worked to ensure their female constituents would not be deprived of their rights.

I do not believe giving the vote to a woman makes her less of a woman …
I hope this Convention … will do itself the honour and do one half
of the population of Australia the justice, which I am asking.

Frederick Holder, Federal Convention Debates,15 April 1897

The outcome of their negotiations, recorded as Section 41 of the Constitution, allowed women who could already vote in their colony to retain their right to vote in their State after Federation. It also meant that after Federation, the Australian Parliament had to enact legislation granting women the right to vote in federal elections (even if they did not yet have this right in their State) to ensure national uniformity. Consistent with the provisions of the Constitution, anyone who could vote in a federal election could also stand for election to the Australian Parliament. Section 41 created a legislative pathway to unprecedented rights for women.

Australians and the British suffrage campaign

Vida Goldstein selling newspapers, State Library of Victoria

Australian suffragists supported the British women’s struggle with a constant flow of advice and campaign media. One prominent Australian campaigner was Vida Goldstein. Her newspapers Woman’s Sphere (1900–05) and Woman Voter (1909–19) reached British audiences keen to learn from Australia’s experience. She also contributed articles to Votes for Women, the journal of Britain’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). 

In 1911 the WSPU invited Goldstein to Britain, where she leveraged support from parliamentarians. She also helped lead the Australian contingent in the Women’s Coronation Procession, a spectacular 40,000-strong march through London five days before the coronation of King George V. The contingent included artist Dora Meeson, whose banner implored 'mother' Britannia to grant women’s suffrage as Australia had done with the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902.

Australia’s Parliament also attempted to influence Britain. For example, in 1910 a Senate resolution cabled to the British Prime Minister Herbert  Asquith: ‘we respectfully urge that all nations enjoying representative government would be well advised in granting votes to women.’ (A similar resolution from the House of Representatives was cabled shortly after.) Asquith acknowledged receipt of the message but concealed it from the British Parliament for six months.

Every voice counts

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 granted people the right to vote in federal elections for both Houses of Parliament irrespective of gender, marital status or property ownership. The Franchise Act was fundamental to the establishment of Australia’s representative parliament and its global reputation as a champion of equality. Nevertheless, the Act excluded certain offenders and people of 'unsound mind' from voting. It also excluded 'aboriginal native[s] of Australia Asia Africa and Pacific Islanders except Maori unless they were eligible to vote under State law. All Aboriginal people could vote in South Australia, and some Aboriginal men could vote in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. However, few eligible voters could actually vote due to their social disadvantage or distance from a polling booth. Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia were excluded until the 1960s.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists campaigned for decades against this discrimination. In 1949, the Commonwealth Electoral Act enfranchised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military personnel otherwise excluded by State laws. In 1962 the Australian Parliament granted all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the option to enrol and vote. However, they remained politically unequal to other Australians until the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1983 made their enrolment compulsory.

Champions of the chambers

During World War II increasing numbers of Australian women entered the paid workforce and began to contribute to public life. Like the earlier suffragists, they fought hard to get their voices heard by Parliament. They won great advances in civil and economic rights, and some more actively sought political office. Here is a selection of some of the trailblazers who forged new pathways for women’s political participation.

1943 - Senator Dorothy Tangney (Australian Labor Party) and Dame Enid Lyons (United Australia Party): first women elected to federal Parliament
1949 - Dame Enid Lyons (Liberal Party of Australia): first woman to be a member of the Executive Council
1966 - Senator Dame Annabelle Rankin (Liberal Party of Australia): first female federal minister
1975 - Dame Margaret Guilfoyle (Liberal Party of Australia): first female Cabinet minister
1983 - Senator Susan Ryan (Australian Labor Party): first female federal Labor minister
1986 - Joan Child (Australian Labor Party): first female Speaker of the House of Representatives
1986 - Senator Janine Haines (Australian Democrats): first woman to lead an Australian political party in the federal Parliament
1996 - Senator Margaret Reid (Liberal Party of Australia): first woman elected President of the Senate
2008 - Dame Quentin Bryce first female Governor-General
2010 - Julia Gillard (Australian Labor Party): first female Prime Minister
2013 - Senator Nova Peris (Australian Labor Party): first Aboriginal woman elected to federal Parliament
2016 - Linda Burney (Australian Labor Party): first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives
2022 - Linda Burney (Australian Labor Party): first Aboriginal woman Cabinet minister 

An inclusive process

The rights to vote and to stand for Parliament underpin Australia’s democracy. In 1902 Parliament legislated for the delivery of fair, efficient and professional electoral practices with the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Originally a companion to the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, the Electoral Act has been amended several times in response to political concerns and changes in our society, technology and ways of life. Australia is now one of the few nations in the world where enrolment and voting are compulsory. These rules contribute to the achievement of a relatively accurate record of the wishes of the electorate. 

Numerous initiatives ensure voters can use their power to elect their parliamentary representatives. Australians far from home can vote early or use overseas and interstate voting centres. Mobile polling teams visit voters in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and remote areas. Voters with disability can vote by telephone, post or vote with assistance at a polling place. These provisions help give Australians a say in the laws that govern them, and a stake in the nation’s future.

Still interested:

Franchise Act and the Right to Vote

Australian Parliament. Parliamentary debates about women’s suffrage
Australian Parliament. Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 [pdf]
Australian Parliament. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 [pdf]
Australian Parliament. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924
Australian Electoral Commission. A brief history of voting in Australia
AIATSIS. A history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voting rights

Women in Parliament

Australian Parliament. Women in the Senate
Inter-Parliamentary Union. Global data on women in national parliaments 

Suffrage movements in Australia and the United Kingdom

Australia Parliament. ‘Australian feminism and the British militant suffragettes’ by Barbara Caine [pdf]
Australian Parliament. Resolution on women’s suffrage, sent to British Prime Minister Henry Asquith
Museum of Australian Democracy. Woman wrecker: a suffragette’s story
The Museum of London. Suffrage collection
Photographs of Christina Broom documenting the British suffrage campaign 

George Rose, The Rose Stereograph Company (1861–1942), Great Suffragette Demonstration in London: Mrs Andrew Fisher (centre), Mrs McGowen (right) and Miss Vida Goldstein (far right), 1911. Image courtesy National Library of Australia PIC6941.

T. Humphrey & Co. (c.1985-c.1922), 'Vida Goldstein selling the Women’s Social and Political Union newspaper Votes for Women in Melbourne', 1912. Image courtesy State Library of Victoria MS11749/PHO1.

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