Women's suffrage in Australia

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Australia's first female political candidate, South Australian suffragette Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910). South Australian women won the parliamentary vote in 1894 and Spence stood for office in 1897.
Edith Cowan (1861–1932) was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921 and was the first woman elected to any Australian Parliament.

Women's suffrage in Australia was one of the earliest objectives of the movement for gender equality in Australia. It began to be socially and politically accepted and legislated during the late 19th century, beginning with South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899. In 1902, the newly established Australian Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which set a uniform law enabling women (except those who were "aboriginal natives" of Australia, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, unless excepted under section 41 of the constitution) to vote at federal elections and to stand for the federal Parliament. This removed gender discrimination in relation to electoral rights for federal elections in Australia. By 1911, the remaining Australian states had legislated for women's suffrage for state elections. It took longer before women could stand for parliament throughout Australia and even longer before they were actually elected.


Pre-19th century experiences[edit]

The female descendants of the Bounty mutineers who lived on Pitcairn Islands could vote from 1838, and this right transferred with their resettlement to Norfolk Island (now an Australian external territory) in 1856.[1]

Male suffrage[edit]

The first European-style governments established after 1788 were autocratic and run by appointed governors – although English law was transplanted into the Australian colonies by virtue of the doctrine of reception, thus notions of the rights and processes established by the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1689 were brought from Britain by the colonists. Agitation for representative government began soon after the settlement of the colonies.[2]

The oldest legislative body in Australia, the New South Wales Legislative Council, was created in 1825 as an appointed body to advise the Governor of New South Wales. In 1840 the Adelaide City Council and the Sydney City Council were established with limited male suffrage. Australia's first parliamentary elections were conducted for the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, again with voting rights (for males only) tied to property ownership or financial capacity. Voter rights were extended further in New South Wales in 1850 and elections for legislative councils were held in the colonies of Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania.[3]

By the mid-19th  century, there was a strong desire for representative and responsible government in the colonies of Australia, fed by the democratic spirit of the goldfields evident at the Eureka Stockade and the ideas of the great reform movements sweeping Europe, the United States and the British Empire, such as Chartism. The Australian Colonies Government Act, passed in 1850, was a landmark development that granted representative constitutions to New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania and the colonies enthusiastically set about writing constitutions which produced democratically progressive parliaments – through the constitutions generally maintained the role of the colonial upper houses as representative of social and economic "interests" and all established Constitutional Monarchies with the British monarch as the symbolic head of state.[4] 1855 also saw the granting of the right to vote to all male British subjects 21 years or over in South Australia. This right was extended to Victoria in 1857 and New South Wales the following year. The other colonies followed until, in 1896, Tasmania became the last colony to grant universal male suffrage.[3]

Women's suffrage movement[edit]

Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales, 1902

A movement for women's suffrage gathered pace during the 19th century. The experience and organizations involved in the suffrage movement varied across the colonies.

Propertied women in the colony of South Australia were granted the vote in local elections (but not parliamentary elections) in 1861. The Parliament of South Australia endorsed the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1894 and the law received royal assent in 1895.[5] The law applied equally in the Northern Territory, which was then a part of South Australia. Whilst the law was being debated, opponents struck a clause prohibiting women from sitting in parliament, thinking that it would scupper the bill. Instead, it had the opposite effect, and so on passing the Constitution (Female Suffrage) Bill South Australia quite accidentally also gave women the right to hold legislative office.[6] This was because Section 41 of the Australian Constitution holds that "no adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting at elections for either House of the Parliament of the Commonwealth". In 1897, Catherine Helen Spence became the first female political candidate for political office, unsuccessfully standing for election in South Australia as a delegate to Federal Convention on Australian Federation, which was held in Adelaide.[7]

Western Australia granted voting rights to women in 1899,[8] in time for women in the colony state voting in the first federal election.

In Victoria, one of the first known women to vote was Mrs Fanny Finch, a businesswoman, in 1856.[9] The first group of women are included in Helen Harris’s “The Right to stand, the right to vote”. The Electoral Act 1863 enfranchised all ratepayers listed on local municipal rolls. Some women ratepayers in Victoria were able to vote at the 1864 colony election. However, the all-male legislature regarded this as a legislative mistake and promptly modified the Act in 1865, in time for the 1866 election, to apply the vote only to male ratepayers. Henrietta Dugdale, who publicly advocated women's suffrage since 1868, and Annie Lowe formed the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society in 1884, the first Australian women's suffrage society.[10] The Society called for votes for women on the same basis as men.[11] It took 19 private members' bills from 1889 before Victorian women gained the vote in 1908, and were able to exercise the vote for the first time at the 1911 state election, the last state to do so.[12] The Victorian Society disbanded in 1908,[11] after women in the state gained the vote.

In 1889, Rose Scott and Mary Windeyer helped to found the Women's Literary Society in Sydney, which grew into the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales in 1891. Women from the Women's Christian Temperance Union in New South Wales were also active in suffrage activities. They founded the Franchise League in 1890. Eliza Pottie served as president before the league's disbanding. She later joined the Womanhood Suffrage League.[13]

In Queensland, the Women's Equal Franchise Association was formed in 1894, which collected two petitions in 1894 for women's suffrage.[14] The first petition received 7,781 signatures by women and the second received 3,575 signatures by men. The petitions called for one vote and one vote only, as at that time men with property had plural votes.[15]

A third petition was organized by the Women's Christian Temperance Movement of Queensland in 1897 and attracted 3,869 signatures by men and women, and called for votes for women on the same basis as men.[16] The Franchise Association disbanded in 1905 after women in the state gained the vote.

The Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales submitted a petition to the Australasian Federal Convention om 23 March 1897 calling for the right of women to vote in New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia to be enshrined in the constitution.[17]

A unified body, the Australian Women's Suffrage Society was formed in 1889, with the aim of educating women and men about a woman's right to vote and stand for parliament. Key figures in the Australian suffrage movement included: from South Australia Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence; in Western Australia Edith Cowan; from New South Wales Maybanke Anderson, Louisa Lawson, Dora Montefiore and Rose Scott; from Tasmania Alicia O'Shea Petersen and Jessie Rooke; from Queensland Emma Miller; and from Victoria Annette Bear-Crawford, Henrietta Dugdale, Vida Goldstein, Alice Henry, Annie Lowe and Mary Colton.

The various suffrage societies collected signatures for monster suffrage petitions to be tabled in Parliament. The results varied. Recently some of these petitions have been transcribed and can be searched digitally.

Towards voting rights[edit]

The first election for the Parliament of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was based on the electoral laws of the six federating colonies, so that women who had the vote and the right to stand for Parliament at a colony (now state) level (i.e., in South Australia including the Northern Territory and Western Australia) had the same rights for the 1901 Australian federal election. In 1902, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the uniform Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which enabled women 21 years of age and older to vote at elections for the federal Parliament. The States soon gave women over 21 the vote: New South Wales in 1902, Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905, and Victoria in 1908.

However, this franchise was excluded from women (and men) who were "aboriginal natives" of Australia, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, unless excepted under section 41 of the constitution. Most did not get the vote for federal elections until 1962, and in all States until 1967. This exclusion did not apply to Māori New Zealander women and men.[18]


White Female suffrage
Right to §vote Right to stand
for Parliament
Commonwealth 1902 1902
South Australia 1895 1895
Western Australia 1899 1920
New South Wales[19] 1902 1918
Tasmania 1903 1921
Queensland 1905 1915
Victoria 1908 1923

Women in political office[edit]

Robert Menzies (left) walking with early woman parliamentarian Enid Lyons (to his immediate right) in 1946. Menzies appointed Lyons as the first woman to sit in an Australian Cabinet in 1949.

In 1897, in South Australia, Catherine Helen Spence was the first woman to stand as a political candidate,[20] after standing (unsuccessfully) for the Federal Convention held in Adelaide.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which enabled women to vote at federal elections, also permitted women to stand for election for the Australian Parliament. Four women stood for election at the 1903 federal election.[8] They were Mary Moore-Bentley and Nellie Martel from New South Wales, and Vida Goldstein from Victoria, all of whom stood for the Senate, and Selina Anderson who contested the Sydney House of Representatives seat of Dalley. All failed to get major party endorsement and stood as independents, and all were unsuccessful. Goldstein stood for the Senate again in 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1917, all without success. Eva Seery contested Labor Party preselection for the Senate in 1916 but was unsuccessful. She and Henrietta Greville were endorsed Labor candidates at the 1917 federal election, though for safe conservative seats. Though unsuccessful they were the first women to stand for the Australian Parliament with major party endorsement.

The first woman elected to any Australian Parliament was Edith Cowan, elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921. Dame Enid Lyons, in the Australian House of Representatives and Senator Dorothy Tangney, became the first women in the federal Parliament in 1943. Lyons was in 1949 appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council by Robert Menzies. She was described as Minister without Portfolio, with no departmental duties, but the appointment gave her a seat in Cabinet. She held the position between 19 December 1949 and 7 March 1951 and is the only woman to have occupied the position.

Rosemary Follett of the Australian Labor Party was elected Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory in 1989, becoming the first woman elected to lead a state or territory. The state parliamentary Labor Parties of Western Australia and Victoria selected women to replace their incumbent leaders in 1990: Carmen Lawrence was Premier of Western Australia between 12 February 1990 and 16 February 1993, and Joan Kirner was Premier of Victoria between 10 August 1990 and 6 October 1992. Both leaders suffered defeat at the subsequent state elections. Clare Martin became Labor Opposition Leader in the Northern Territory in 1999, and won a victory at the 2001 territory election, becoming the first ALP and first female Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. At the 2005 NT election, she led Territory Labor to the second-largest majority government in the history of the Territory, before resigning as Chief Minister on 26 November 2007. Anna Bligh became the leader of the Queensland Labor Party and Premier of Queensland on 12 September 2007 and then led the party to victory in the 2009 Queensland State Election.[21] After Bligh's loss at the 2012 Queensland State Election, Annastacia Palaszczuk succeeded her as party leader, and led the ALP to victory at the 2015 Queensland State Election, to become the second Labor Premier of Queensland on 14 February 2015, leading the party to victory from Opposition. Palaszczuk's ministry has a female majority of 8 of 14, a first in Australia.[22] Kristina Keneally was the Labor Premier of New South Wales between 4 December 2009 and 28 March 2011. Julia Gillard was the Labor Prime Minister of Australia between 24 June 2010 and 27 June 2013. Lara Giddings was Labor Premier of Tasmania from 24 January 2011 to 31 March 2014. Gladys Berejiklian became Liberal Premier of New South Wales on 23 January 2017.

Marie Bashir was appointed Governor of New South Wales by Labor Premier Bob Carr from 1 March 2001 and continued in the office until 1 October 2014. Quentin Bryce was appointed Governor of Queensland by the Labor Premier Peter Beattie from 29 July 2003 and continued to 29 July 2008, and was appointed Governor-General of Australia by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd from 5 September 2008 and continued to 28 March 2014. Kerry Sanderson was appointed Governor of Western Australia by the Liberal Premier Colin Barnett from 20 October 2014. Kate Warner was appointed Governor of Tasmania by Liberal Premier Will Hodgman from 10 December 2014. Linda Dessau was appointed Governor of Victoria by Labor Premier Daniel Andrews from 1 July 2015.

The Coalition Abbott Ministry formed in September 2013 contained only one woman in cabinet — Julie Bishop, the Liberal Party deputy leader — to widespread criticism,[23] and Abbott added a second woman to his cabinet in Sussan Ley following a reshuffle in December 2014.[24][25][26][27] The First Turnbull Ministry, announced on 20 September 2015, increased the number of female ministers to five, out of 21 Cabinet Ministers, including for the first time a female Assistant Treasurer in Kelly O'Dwyer and a Minister of Defence in Senator Marise Payne.[28] In a reshuffle on 13 February 2016, the number of women in cabinet became six, with the election by the National Party of Fiona Nash to the position of deputy leader, the first woman to hold the position, who was also brought into the cabinet. Sussan Ley resigned from the Ministry on 13 January 2017. On 27 October 2017, the High Court ruled that Fiona Nash had been ineligible to have been elected to Parliament.[29] She was replaced by Bridget McKenzie as deputy leader of the Nationals.

On 3 March 2018, Australia passed another milestone when, at the 2018 Tasmanian election, Tasmanians elected a majority of women to the Tasmanian House of Assembly, with 13 women and 12 men.[30] Seven of the ten Labor members are women, four of the 13 Liberals and both of the Greens.

In 2010 Sydney, Australia's oldest city, had female leaders occupying every major political office, with Clover Moore as Lord Mayor, Kristina Keneally as Premier of New South Wales, Marie Bashir as Governor of New South Wales, Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, Quentin Bryce as Governor-General of Australia, and Elizabeth  II as Queen of Australia.

Other milestones[edit]

Since 1983, a married woman's application for an Australian passport does not need to be authorised by her husband.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ EC (13 April 2005). "Votes for Women | Elections New Zealand". Elections.org.nz. Archived from the original on 19 August 2012. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  2. ^ "Our Democracy: Democracy timeline — Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House". Moadoph.gov.au. Archived from the original on 29 September 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  3. ^ a b "Australia's major electoral developments Timeline: 1788–1899 – Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 11 June 2010. Archived from the original on 1 June 2011. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  4. ^ "The Right to Vote in Australia – Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 26 November 2007. Archived from the original on 12 March 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  5. ^ "Women's Suffrage Petition 1894: parliament.sa.gov.au" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 March 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  6. ^ Weatherford, Doris (2002), Women's Almanac, Oryx Press, p. 322, ISBN 1-57356-510-5
  7. ^ "Documenting Democracy". Foundingdocs.gov.au. Archived from the original on 3 December 2010. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  8. ^ a b "Electoral Milestones for Women – Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 17 December 2008. Archived from the original on 12 December 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  9. ^ Sinclair, Kacey. "Hidden women of history: Australia's first known female voter, the famous Mrs Fanny Finch". The Conversation. Retrieved 14 March 2019.
  10. ^ Audrey, Oldfield (1998). Caine, Barbara (ed.). Australian Feminism A Companion. Oxford University Press. p. 452. ISBN 0195538188.
  11. ^ a b "Victorian Women's Suffrage Society. (1884–1908) – People and organisations". Trove. Archived from the original on 16 May 2017. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 16 April 2017. Retrieved 15 April 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ Godden, Judith, "Pottie, Eliza (1837–1907)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 27 February 2021
  14. ^ Oldfield, Audrey, Woman Suffrage in Australia: A Gift or a Struggle? Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 116, 119, 121.
  15. ^ Jordan, Deborah (2012). "Leading the call for "one vote and no more": Emma Miller (1839–1917)" (PDF). eScholarship Research Centre, The University of Melbourne. Archived (PDF) from the original on 28 March 2016. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  16. ^ McCulloch, John E. S, "From suffragists to legislators", Central Queensland University Press, 2005.
  17. ^ Official report of the National Australasian Convention debates: Adelaide March 22 to May 5, 1897. Adelaide: C. E. Bristow. 1897. pp. 32-33. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  18. ^ "Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Cth)". Documenting a Democracy. Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. 12 June 1902. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
  19. ^ "About us". NSW Parliament. Archived from the original on 21 February 2011. Retrieved 17 July 2010.
  20. ^ "Electoral Milestones for Women – Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 28 January 2011. Archived from the original on 12 December 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
  21. ^ "Beaming Bligh: You can count on me – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)". Abc.net.au. Archived from the original on 23 February 2010. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  22. ^ "Historic day for women in Queensland". Sunshince Coast Daily. 16 February 2015. Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 27 April 2015.
  23. ^ Crowe, David (17 September 2013). "Liberals' 'despair' at jobs for boys". The Australian. Archived from the original on 17 September 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  24. ^ "Tony Abbott's revamped Ministry sworn in at Government House". news.com.au. News Corp Australia. 23 December 2014. Archived from the original on 23 December 2014. Retrieved 23 December 2014.
  25. ^ "Cabinet reshuffle: Tony Abbott promotes Sussan Ley to Health, David Johnston axed". News.com.au. 21 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014.
  26. ^ Chung, Frank (21 December 2014). "The shape of things to come: New Health Minister Sussan Ley's 'slush fund' speech shows she has fight". News.com.au. Archived from the original on 21 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014.
  27. ^ Taylor, Lenore (21 December 2014). "Tony Abbott cabinet reshuffle moves Scott Morrison out of immigration". Guardian Australia. Archived from the original on 23 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014.
  28. ^ The Age, 20 September 2015: Malcolm Turnbull cabinet reshuffle: Women, young MPs the big winners in '21st century' team Archived 20 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ "Barnaby Joyce disqualified by High Court". ABC News. 27 October 2017. Archived from the original on 2 November 2017. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  30. ^ ABC News, 16 March 2018, Tasmania leading the way on female representation in Parliament Archived 22 March 2018 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ "The History of Passports in Australia". 14 June 2006. Archived from the original on 14 June 2006. Retrieved 28 March 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dixson, Miriam. The Real Matilda: Woman and Identity in Australia, 1788 to the Present (UNSW Press, 1999).
  • Grieve, Norma, ed. Australian women: Feminist perspectives (Oxford University Press, 1981).
  • Grimshaw, Patricia. "Settler anxieties, indigenous peoples, and women's suffrage in the colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and Hawai'i, 1888 to 1902." Pacific Historical Review 69.4 (2000): 553–572. online
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, and Katherine Ellinghaus. "White women, Aboriginal women and the vote in Western Australia" in Women and Citizenship: Suffrage Centenary edited by Patricia Crawford, and Judy Skene.
  • Lovenduski, Joni, and Jill Hills, eds. The Politics of the Second Electorate: Women and Public Participation: Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, France, Spain, West Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Eastern Europe, USSR, Japan (Routledge, 2018).
  • McGrath, Ann, and Winona Stevenson. "Gender, race, and policy: Aboriginal women and the state in Canada and Australia." Labour/Le Travail (1996): 37–53. online
  • Oldfield, Audrey. Woman suffrage in Australia : a gift or a struggle? (1992) online
  • Sawer, Marian, and Jill Vickers. "Women's constitutional activism in Australia and Canada." Canadian Journal of Women and Law 13 (2001): 1+.
  • Tarrant, Stella. "The Woman Suffrage Movements in the United States and Australia: Concepts of Suffrage, Citizenship and Race." Adelaide Law Review 18 (1996): 47+. online

External links[edit]