Today marks the passing of the much celebrated 1893 Electoral Act, 126 years ago, which made New Zealand the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.
But it would take 26 years before the often twinned step of allowing women to stand for parliament happened. On October 29, it will be a century since the passing of the 1919 Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act, which opened the way for women to enter politics.
Women’s suffrage and women’s right to stand for parliament are natural companions, two sides of the same coin. It would be fair to assume both happened at the same time.
Early women’s suffrage bills included women standing for parliament. But, in the hope of success, the right was omitted from the third and successful 1893 bill. Suffragists didn’t want to risk women standing for parliament sinking the bill.
The leader of the suffrage movement, Kate Sheppard, reluctantly accepted the omission and expected that the right would follow soon afterwards. But that didn’t happen.
After women won suffrage, agitation for several egalitarian causes, including women in parliament, continued. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) and, from 1896, the National Council of Women (NCW) both called for the bar to be removed.
From 1894 to 1900, sympathetic male politicians from across the political spectrum presented eight separate bills. Supportive conservatives emphasised the “unique maternal influence” that women would bring to parliament. Conservative MP Alfred Newman argued that New Zealand must retain its world-leading reputation for social legislation, but he downplayed the significance. He predicted that even if women were allowed to stand for parliament, few would be interested and even fewer would be elected.
Left-leaning supportive MPs George Russell and Tommy Taylor saw the matter as one of extending women’s rights and the next logical step towards societal equality. But contemplating women in the House was a step too far and all attempts failed.
The failure in the pre-war years was largely because any support for women in parliament was outweighed by enduring prejudice against their direct participation in politics.
At the beginning of the new century, Prime Minister Richard Seddon was well aware of public opinion being either indifferent to or against women in parliament. A new generation of women with professional careers who might stand for parliament, if allowed, comprised a small minority.
Women in Finland were able to both vote and stand for election from 1906, as part of reforms following unrest. In 1907, 19 women were elected to the new Finnish parliament.
The game changer: the first world war
Importantly, during the first world war, women’s status improved rapidly and this overrode previous prejudices. Women became essential and valued citizens in the war effort. Most contributed from their homes, volunteering their domestic skills, while increasing numbers entered the public sphere as nurses, factory and public sector workers.
Ellen Melville became an Auckland city councillor in 1913. Ada Wells was elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1917. Women proved their worth in keeping the home fires burning while men were away fighting.
In 1918, British women, with some conditions, were enfranchised and allowed to stand for parliament. Canada’s federal government also gave most of its women both the right to vote and stand for parliament.
Late in 1918, MP James McCombs, the New Zealand Labour Party’s first president and long-time supporter of women’s rights, opportunistically included women standing for parliament in a legislative council amendment bill. It was unsuccessful, mostly due to technicalities, and Prime Minister Bill Massey promised to pursue the matter.
Disappointed feminist advocate Jessie Mackay pointed to women’s service during the war and the recent influenza epidemic and shamed New Zealand for failing to keep up with international developments.
Women’s wartime work, renewed feminist activism and male parliamentary support combined to make the 1919 act a foregone conclusion. Introducing the bill, Massey said he did not doubt it would pass because it was important to keep up with Britain. The opposition leader, Joseph Ward, thought war had changed what was due to women, and Labour Party leader Harry Holland pushed women’s role as moral citizens.
The Legislative Council (upper house) held out and women had to wait until 1941 for the right to be appointed there. It took until 1933 for the first woman, Elizabeth McCombs, to be elected to parliament. The belief that a woman’s place was in the home and not parliament, the bastion of masculine power, endured.
In the late 19th century, Aotearoa New Zealand was a volatile and rapidly changing contact zone where British settlers confidently introduced systematic colonisation, often at the expense of the indigenous Māori population. Settlers were keen to create a new world society that adapted the best of Britain and left behind behind the negative aspects of the industrial revolution – Britain’s dark satanic mills.
Many supported universal male suffrage and a less rigid class structure, enlightened race relations and humanitarianism that also extended to improving women’s lives. These liberal aspirations towards societal equality contributed to the 1893 women’s suffrage victory.
At the end of the 19th century, feminists in New Zealand had a long list of demands. It included equal pay, prevention of violence against women, economic independence for women, old age pensions and reform of marriage, divorce, health and education – and peace and justice for all.
The women’s suffrage cause captured widespread support and emerged as the uniting right for women’s equality in society. As suffragist Christina Henderson later summed up, 1893 captured “the mental and spiritual uplift” women experienced upon release “from their age-long inferiority complex”.
As a “colonial frontier”, New Zealand had a surplus of men, especially in resource towns. Pragmatically, this placed a premium on women for their part as wives, mothers and moral compasses.
There was a fear of a chaotic frontier full of marauding single men. This colonial context saw conservative men who supported family values supporting suffrage. During the 1880s, depression and its accompanying poverty, sexual licence and drunken disorder further enhanced women’s value as settling maternal figures. Women voters promised a stabilising effect on society.
New Zealand gained much strength from an international feminist movement. Women were riding a first feminist wave that, most often grounded in their biological difference as life givers and carers, cast them as moral citizens.
Local feminists eagerly drew upon and circulated the best knowledge from Britain, America and Europe. When Mary Leavitt, the leader of the US-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) visited New Zealand in 1885, her goal was to set up local branches. This had a direct impact, leading to the country’s first national women’s organisation and providing a platform for women to secure the vote in order to affect their colonial feminist concerns.
Other places early to grant women’s suffrage shared the presence of liberal and egalitarian beliefs, a surplus of men over women, and less entrenched conservatism. The four frontier US western mountain states led the way with Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1895). South Australia (1894) and Western Australia (1899) made the 19th century and, before the first world war, were joined by other western US states, Australia, Finland and Scandinavia.
New Zealand was fortunate to have many effective women leaders. Most prominent among them was Kate Sheppard. In 1887, Sheppard became head of the WCTU’s Christchurch branch and led the campaign for the vote.
The campaign leaders were well organised and hard working. Their tactics were petitions, pamphlets, letters, public talks and lobbying politicians – this was a peaceful era before the suffragette militancy during the early 20th century elsewhere.
The women were persistent and overcame setbacks. It took multiple attempts in parliament before the Electoral Act 1893 was passed. Importantly, the suffragists got public opinion behind the cause. Mass support was demonstrated through petitions between 1891 and 1893, in total garnering 31,872 signatures, amounting to a quarter of Aotearoa’s adult women.
Pragmatically, the women worked in allegiance with men in parliament who could introduce the bills. In particular, veteran conservative Sir John Hall viewed women’s suffrage as a way to a more moral and civil society.
The Suffrage 125 celebratory slogan “whakatū wāhine – women stand up!” captures the intention of continuing progressive and egalitarian traditions. Recognising diverse cultural backgrounds is now important. With hindsight, the feminist movement can be implicated as an agent of colonisation, but it did support votes for Māori women. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia presented a motion to the newly formed Māori parliament to allow women to vote and sit in it.
New Zealand remains a small country that can experience rapid social and economic change. Evoking its colonial past, however, it retains both a reputation as a tough and masculine place of beer-swilling, rugby-playing blokes and a tradition of staunch, tea drinking, domesticated women.
Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow
Maybe seven really is a magic number. 2017 certainly has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. And as we’ve heard in recent weeks, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the 25th anniversary of the Mabo ruling, the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report and the 10th anniversary of the Northern Territory intervention. These are all significant milestones in Australian history and the legal, political and cultural relationship between Australia’s colonisers and its colonised.
In May, we witnessed the historic coming together of 250 indigenous delegates at Uluru to determine what form of constitutional recognition to seek from the Australian parliament.
But this is not the first time that locally elected delegates have gathered in one location to thrash out the legal and moral framework for establishing the principles through which our nation should be constituted and our people counted.
This year is also the 120th anniversary of the Australasian Federal Convention. In April 1897, ten elected delegates from each of Australia’s colonies (except Queensland, which did not attend) gathered at Parliament House in Adelaide to map the route to nationhood, a Commonwealth of Australia.
Six years earlier, delegates appointed by the colonial parliaments met in Sydney to discuss a draft constitution for federating the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. But 1897 was the first time that members of the Constitutional Convention were appointed by popular vote. (New Zealand was no longer included, having decided that being part of a trans-Tasman Commonwealth was not in its best interests.) Here was a novel experiment in democracy: allow the people to elect representatives to draft a constitution that would be submitted to the people for their assent.
Much has been made of the lack of unity at the Uluru Convention. But surprise, surprise: the 1897 Convention was no chorus of harmonious hallelujahs either.
Democratic sentiment in the last decade of the 19th century — a mood for inclusivity and openness to progressive change — did not necessarily subvert the age-old mechanisms of power; in particular, the fact that those who have it want to keep it. According to historian John Hirst,
the constitutional conventions were horse-trading bazaars at which premiers and their cohorts worked to protect the interests of their colonies.
Commerce and finance also manoeuvred to secure their short and long term investments. Hirst argues that if Federation was a business deal, as is commonly averred, it was a shaky one, with issues such as tariffs more often “divisive and tricky” than designed to broker consensus.
One major point of discrepancy among delegates at the People’s Conventions is what became known as “the Braddon Clause” (named after then Premier of Tasmania, Edward Braddon) whereby three-quarters of customs and excise revenue acquired by the Commonwealth would be returned to the states. Critics of “the Braddon Claws” feared this would lead to smaller states pilfering the profits of the more populous states. While Braddon’s initiative became Section 87 of the Commonwealth Constitution, many other issues were determined provisionally, with the get-out-of-jail-free rider “until the parliament otherwise decides”.
“Votes for Women”
Perhaps the most significant of the Federal Convention’s sticking points was the issue that would eventually make Australia a global exemplar in democratic practice: women’s suffrage. “Votes for Women” was the international catch-cry of the day, but in Australia, on the precipice of nationhood, the matter turned on what could be termed the “constitutional recognition” of women.
At the 1897 Convention in Adelaide, “warm Federalist” Frederick Holder and Charles Kingston, South Australia’s premier, proposed that full voting rights for all white adults should be written into the Constitution. Three years earlier, South Australian women had become the first in the world to win equal political rights with men: the right to vote and to stand for parliament. (New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893, but eligibility to stand was withheld until 1919.) Playing with a home ground advantage, Holder moved to add a clause to the draft Constitution that read “no elector now possessing the right to vote shall be deprived of that right”.
Other delegates were left speechless. Edmund Barton, who would become Australia’s first prime minister, found words to express the horror:
As I understand the suggestion, it means that if the Federal Parliament chooses to legislate in respect of a uniform suffrage in the Commonwealth, it cannot do so unless it makes it include female suffrage.
If South Australian women could not lose their citizenship status — their right to be counted — then the rest of Australia’s women must achieve it.
Barton spelled out the inescapable conclusion: ‘It ties the hands of the federal parliament entirely.“
Holder and Kingston threatened that, should the new clause not be approved, South Australia would vote against joining the Commonwealth. Despite Barton’s protests, a poll was taken and the ayes won by three votes. Universal suffrage effectively became the precondition of a federated Australia.
However, the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which made Australian women “the freest of the free”, was the same legislation that stripped Aboriginal Australians of their citizenship rights – legal personhood – which they would not claw back until 1967.
If the founding fathers had one thing in common, it was that they were indeed all men. Monochrome photos of the Constitutional Conventions depict the monocultural make-up of the delegates, whether elected or appointed: white, bearded, suited.
But there were plenty of founding mothers in the wings. South Australian Catherine Helen Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate when she unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for the 1897 Convention. (Another 2017 anniversary, albeit one of apparent failure.) Spence’s proposal for political reform – what she termed “pure democracy” — did make it into the Constitution: the principle of one-man one-vote was not her idea exclusively, but she fought for it with ferocious tenacity.
According to her biographer, Susan Magarey, Spence also made proportional representation “the talk of the colony”, later developing a system for the fairest distribution of preferences (a system so unwieldy it has never been implemented). Though Spence was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in South Australia, her life’s major mission was to rectify the injustices of the electoral system to ensure “the elevation, educational and spiritual, as well as economic, of all humanity”.
Alfred Deakin concluded that Federation was achieved through a series of miracles. The road to nationhood was not always smooth, seamless or virtuous. Vested interests, entrenched prejudices, competing perspectives and outsized personalities meant that achieving “consensus” was a juggling act that required immense skill and determination. Balls fell. Some were picked up and thrown back in the ring. The nation that emerged was, and is, complex and conflicted.
Catherine Helen Spence’s system for electoral reform may not have been initiated, but let’s hope that the ongoing process of constitutional reform ultimately achieves her broader goal: the elevation of all humanity.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
Between 1894 and 1908 a wave of women’s enfranchisement swept across Australia. Beginning in South Australia in 1894 and ending 14 years later in Victoria, Australia’s six colonies allowed women to vote.
With the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act in 1902, Australia became just the second country in the world – after New Zealand in 1893 – to give women the vote. At the same time, the Commonwealth became the first country in which women could stand for parliament. It was this coincidence of voting and representation rights that made Australian women the “most fully enfranchised” in the world.
The development of voting rights for women was not a “gift”, as contemporary politicians and – later – historians framed it. Instead, it was the result of concerted activism led by a group of white, middle-class, urban women, with pockets of working-class support, and fortified by a Protestant temperance vision.
As severalhistorianshave shown, in the 1850s women contested the terms of the political citizenship conferred on male colonists after Britain conferred responsible government – the system whereby the colonies were given control of their domestic affairs through popularly elected parliaments.
However, feminism only came to the fore as a political force in the late 1880s. It was galvanised by the formation of local women’s groups, like literary and suffrage societies, as well as overseas imports like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the dissemination of British and American propaganda. With these institutional supports, organised suffrage movements emerged in all six colonies.
She urged readers to form franchise departments, join suffrage leagues, write to the press, hold public debates, circulate petitions, and relay news across the union’s hierarchy of colonial and global suffrage leaders.
What was its impact?
Winning the vote was not an end in itself. The suffragists believed that gaining the vote meant women had an obligation to reform society.
They hoped to improve the lives of Australian women and embody the virtues of political citizenship for the benefit of disenfranchised women across the world. This was especially true for the “sisters” from whom they had drawn inspiration in the UK and the US.
However, as the suffragists quickly discovered, enfranchisement was not a panacea for women’s economic, political and social disadvantages. Soon after winning the vote, their activist coalitions collapsed as women pursued an array of conflicting agendas, from prohibition to workers’ rights.
One of the chief divisions that arose in the ensuing decades was over the need for separatist organising. Socialist and working-class women, like Kate Dwyer, the Golding sisters and Lillian Locke believed women’s political future was with the Labor Party.
As their counterparts in New Zealand had already found, even when women reached consensus they faced stiff resistance when they attempted to “curb men’s sexual liberties”.
In particular, campaigns to raise the age of consent and repeal the infamous Contagious Diseases Acts led to a backlash against women exercising their political power.
What are its contemporary implications?
The struggle for voting rights did not end in 1908. As historians like Patricia Grimshaw have pointed out, the expansion of who was entitled to vote federally came at the expense of Indigenous peoples.
Whereas Indigenous Australians’ voting rights had been murky until Federation, the Commonwealth Franchise Act disqualified any “Aboriginal native of Australia Asia Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand” from enrolling to vote.
Women’s enfranchisement is celebrated as part of Australia’s democratic mythology. However, many of the suffragists’ more radical ideas – like pacifism, equal pay, and even their vision of a world where women could use the power of the state to protect themselves and their children from violence – remain unrealised.
Nevertheless, Australian suffragists were notable for their desire to use new-found national citizenship as a platform to promote progressive causes. Examples include Catherine Spence’s pursuit of “pure democracy” (a form of proportional representation) in the US, and Vida Goldstein’s role in founding the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance.
Historian Clare Wright argues the suffragists’ efforts offer Australia a founding myth distinct from the Anzac legend. However, much evidence suggests that women like Rose Scott resisted the appeal of nationalism altogether, and instead worked to realise their ambitions in the states.
Still, in their commitment to promoting peace, advocating for women’s rights, and fostering international understanding, the suffragists offer a model of Australia’s role in the world that remains as important as ever.
After five prime ministers in five years, many fear that Australia’s political system is irrevocably broken. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the problems surrounding, and solutions to, Australia’s current political malaise.
In February 1902 – just 13 months after the Australian colonies federated to become the world’s newest nation – a tall, slender woman from Portland, Victoria, was standing outside the door to the Oval Office in Washington DC. She had been summoned to the White House as somewhat of a curiosity.
Intelligent, inquisitive, and quite often irreverent, the young woman waited until she was bidden to enter. When the door opened she saw President Theodore Roosevelt, sitting with his feet up on the desk. He rushed to greet the elegantly attired woman, grabbing her hand and pumping it up and down in his vice-like grip. He shouted:
I am delighted to meet you. You’re from Australia; I’m delighted to hear that.
And with that enthusiastic embrace, Vida Goldstein became the first Australian to meet an American president at the White House. Goldstein was in Washington as Australia and New Zealand’s sole delegate to the International Woman Suffrage Conference. Goldstein addressed huge American audiences on one of the most controversial global issues of the day: Votes for Women.
Campaigning for women’s suffrage was what Goldstein termed “the policy of concentration”. The parliamentary vote was, in Goldstein’s words, “the right that covered all other rights”. She decried:
… the futility of working piecemeal for the emancipation of women, without the vote.
Only the vote, Goldstein argued, would ensure “the protection and prevention of degraded womanhood”. Only the vote would unravel the vast web of legal, economic and social disadvantage that ensnared women and girls the world over.
Furthermore, Goldstein ardently believed that women should enter parliament, as Australian women alone in the world were entitled to do. She argued:
I have always maintained that wherever there are women’s and children’s interests to be considered, women should be thereto consider them.
Such a simple premise; such a revolutionary idea.
Goldstein’s six-month US lecture tour was met with a diva’s reception. Though prim in fashion and chaste in manner, she was both enfant terrible to the established order and darling of the avant-garde. Daily newspapers across the country covered her sold-out lectures on the topic of “The Australian Woman in Politics”.
Goldstein held no doubt about her subject’s international importance and interest, or her country’s political superiority. But why, in that second northern winter of a new century, did the commander-in-chief of the United States of America seek an audience with a charismatic activist from the deep planetary south?
The simple answer is that Teddy Roosevelt was a political progressive. Goldstein was the most fully enfranchised woman he could yet hope to meet and he was keen to see what a member of this new breed looked like. While Roosevelt was a steadfast believer in votes for women, the American Congress would not abide it.
US congressmen put up the same arguments as conservative opponents to universal adult suffrage the world over, including numerous anti-suffrage women. In the words of one Australian politician, if women could vote, what would prevent them from seeking:
… to assume to themselves the functions of men?
Yet the woman now taking tea with the president was decidedly feminine, despite the fact that she came from the country where women had more political rights than anywhere else in the world.
In 1893, New Zealand had become the first country to give women the right to vote in national elections. But in 1902, the newly federated nation of Australia became the only country where white women could both vote and stand for election on a universal and equal basis with white men. This dual right – the complete electoral franchise and eligibility to sit in parliament – was what political philosopher John Stuart Mill termed:
… perfect equality, admitting no power of privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
In the very moment of its creation, Australia had instantly become a world leader. And Roosevelt, as he told Goldstein at their meeting, would be “keeping [his] eye on Australia”. He considered its experiment in equality “a great object lesson”.
Comparing Australia and America
Australia’s geopolitical claim as one of the oldest, most stable, and most inventive parliamentary and social democracies has been well established. The secret ballot, the eight-hour day and the wage arbitration system are regularly touted as democratic landmarks with Australian origins.
Yet Australia’s inimitability with regard to women’s political equality has barely entered conventional studies of political history. The women’s suffrage movement is more commonly treated as a discrete topic of investigation: a picturesque mainstay of the equally niche field of women’s and gender history, as if the achievements and legacy of the suffrage campaigners and their supporters are merely a quaint nook in the colossal edifice of nation-building.
But at the turn of the 20th century, Australia’s world-leading status as a democratic freedom fighter was no secret. In her opening address to the Washington Conference in 1902, American Suffrage League president Carrie Chapman Catt was unequivocal, if somewhat bemused, in locating Australia at the apex of women’s political liberation.
The little band of Americans who initiated the modern [suffrage] movement would never have predicted that…the island continent of Australia, then unexplored wilderness, would become a great democracy where self-government would be carried on with such enthusiasm, fervor and wisdom that they would give lessons in methods and principles to all the rest of the world.
Catt then specifically referred to Goldstein as the bearer of these unexpected lessons. Australia, said Catt, was “associated in our memory of childhood’s geography as the abode of strange beasts and barbarians”. Yet remarkably, this bizarre land now:
… sends us a full, up-to-date representative woman, widely alive to all the refinements of life, and fully cognisant of all the rights of her sex.
Goldstein was both the literal messenger and a representative of the feminist ideals that Catt associated with Australia. Goldstein was fully aware of the leadership role she had been asked to play. She told a packed house during her address to the 34th American National Suffrage Convention in Washington in March 1902 that:
Woman suffrage is with us to stay, and that our success may hasten the day when you American women will stand before the world as political equals of your menfolk is the earnest desire of the countries which have sent me here to represent them at this great conference.
But it was not always a relationship of mutual admiration. Goldstein was critical of her host country. She told Australian audiences:
Most of us regard America as the most democratic and advanced country politically in the world. Instead it’s as conservative as a country can well be. A democratic form of government does not necessarily mean that the people rule.
Goldstein offered an analysis of the root cause of the hypocrisy:
[America’s] written and hidebound constitution [has] played directly into the hands of moneyed and unscrupulous politicians.
What’s more, Goldstein argued:
… an abnormal material individual prosperity has contributed towards keeping [Americans] in that hypnotic state under the political machine.
In general, Goldstein was a fan of Roosevelt, but she was not a sycophant. Never one to be patronised, she cheekily parroted Roosevelt’s own words to her. She wrote:
The [Australian] Federal Franchise Bill is the greatest step in the direction of political equality that we have yet seen, and must be a splendid object lesson [her emphasis] to every civilised country in the world.
With this line, Goldstein managed both to cock a snook at the US president and highlight her own country’s political superiority.
Changes at home and abroad
If America was slow to take the Australasian lead, by 1908 Finland and Norway had joined Australia and New Zealand in enfranchising women. But imperialism connected British suffragists more closely to the Australian electoral experiment, providing inspiration and example.
In 1911, Emmeline Pankhurst, on behalf of the Women’s Social and Political Party, recruited Goldstein to address the legions of women who were engaging in mass demonstrations and participating in targeted acts of property destruction. Thousands filled lecture halls and theatres to hear Goldstein’s speeches in support of the militant British suffrage campaign.
By this time, unconvinced that gentle persuasion would make a jot of difference, the suffragists were bombing politicians’ residences, setting hedge fires, breaking windows, staging mass street protests, going on hunger strikes and being force fed through nasal tubes by prison guards. The British experience of suffrage advocacy could not have been more different from Australasia’s peaceful struggle for women’s rights.
While in England, Goldstein formed the Australian and New Zealand Women Voters Association (London):
… with the hope that women of enfranchised dominions would help the women of England in their fight for political freedom.
Goldstein also compiled a pamphlet, The Political Woman in Australia, widely circulated in the UK, Europe and the US for propaganda purposes. She was always at pains to point out that, lo, the sky had not fallen and women had not been unsexed by their new political identity as equal citizens.
By 1910, Australia had become known around the world as a “social laboratory” celebrated for its pioneering welfare legislation. Some commentators attributed Australia’s capacity for experimentation to “a new land like ours, with a restless go-ahead population”.
Suffragists, however, were keen to stress the gendered nature of Australian progressivism, and were quick to note how crucial votes for women had been in igniting the flame of social change. It was the “woman citizen”, claimed first-wave feminists, who mobilised trade union support for equal pay and other measures of social equity.
There were other concrete markers of the impact of female citizenship rights on women’s living conditions. Prior to winning the franchise, the infant mortality rate in Australia was 111 deaths per 1000 babies. A decade later, the rate had dropped to 77.
Goldstein attributed the decline in infant mortality to the introduction of pure food laws and raising the age of consent. South Australia, the first Australian colony to enfranchise women in 1894, was also the first legislature in the world to require an “illegitimate father” to recognise his financial obligation to the mother of his child through a law called the Affiliation Act, passed in 1898 after lobbying from women’s groups.
Further examples of progressive and protective actions initiated by women were pensions for invalids, pure milk laws, early closing hours for pubs and technical education for girls. Goldstein called these and other measures the “social reform legislation for which Australia is noted”.
Goldstein directly attributed the success of reformist legislation to the mobilisation of female voters – many of whom would sit in the galleries of the parliament when any bill affecting women and children was debated and then interview members of parliament to urge alterations and amendments.
Suffrage as part of a wider movement
In Australia, the suffrage dream was closely aligned with other utopian visions of social and political transformation.
Sparked by the gold rushes of the 1850s, a potent amalgam of socialists, spiritualists, dissenters, eclectics, theosophists, pacifists, feminists, unionists, Unitarians, vegetarians and garden-variety liberal democrats all converged on Australia in a remarkably non-volatile brew of ideas and optimism.
By the late 19th century, Australia’s utopian dreamers were not fringe-dwellers. They were bona fide members of Melbourne’s legal, political, religious and social establishment. Like future prime minister Alfred Deakin, most of this clique were civicleaders, sometimes referred to as “the honest doubters”.
As many women’s rights activists realised, federation was the ultimate test tube in which the experimental social and spiritual optimism of the honest doubters would be crystallised.
The birth of the Australian Commonwealth was channeled through a series of constitutional conventions held in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide from 1890 to 1897. The issue was never really whether the six Australian colonies would federate, but how. This would require diminishing the power of the colonies or expanding some of their laws to benefit all citizens across the new Commonwealth.
This jurisprudential reality meant that, just as the mobilisation of the international women’s movement was reaching its apex, there was suddenly a high-profile public platform on which activists could argue the case.
With spitfire efficiency, women’s suffrage organisations around the country lobbied delegates to the federal conventions. The Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales (WSL), an association founded by Australian newspaper editor Louisa Lawson, submitted a petition to the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897. It was one among the hundreds sent by women’s groups to convention delegates, lobbying for women’s voting rights to be enshrined in the new Australian Constitution.
Leveraging the precedent of South Australia, which had already given women the right to vote and to stand for parliament, the WSL’s petition urged delegates to:
… consider whether or not such franchise shall be uniform throughout all the colonies.
It was this question of uniformity – whether all women would now achieve federally what South Australian women had won locally in 1894 – that set Australia on its course to democratic distinction. The rampart was raised for a showdown between colonists’ rights versus federal rights, with woman suffrage as the battering ram.
Frederick Holder, a keen federalist and treasurer of South Australia when women won their historic victory in 1894, insisted that any agreement honour the existing rights of individual colonists. At the 1897 convention in Adelaide, Holder and Charles Kingston, South Australia’s premier, proposed that full voting rights for all white adults should be written into the Constitution.
Holder moved to add a clause that read:
No elector now possessing the right to vote shall be deprived of that right.
Other delegates were horrified. Edmund Barton, who would become Australia’s first prime minister, saw the writing on the wall. He railed:
As I understand the suggestion, it means that if the federal parliament chooses to legislate in respect of a uniform suffrage in the Commonwealth, it cannot do so unless it makes it include female suffrage.
If South Australian women could not be stripped of their hard-won electoral rights, then the rest of Australia’s women must perforce gain them. Barton’s conclusion was inexorable:
It ties the hands of the federal parliament entirely.
If the clause were not approved, Holder and Kingston threatened that South Australia would vote against joining the Commonwealth. Despite Barton’s protests, a poll was taken and the ayes won by three votes.
Two men from South Australia, backed by every progressive woman’s organisation on the continent, had effectively made white women’s suffrage the precondition of a federated Australia.
The racial qualifier is key. The earlier legislation that entrenched the White Australia Policy – the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 – was also the crucial prerequisite that made Goldstein the freest of the free when she visited America in 1902.
Further, in preserving the existing rights of colonists and extending them to all white adults, the Franchise Act of 1902 had stripped Indigenous Australians ofvoting rights. As historian Susan Magarey has argued:
Citizenship, as defined by the right to vote, could be sexually inclusive, because it had just been made racially and ethnically exclusive.
Race, not gender, defined the new Australian citizen. Historian Marilyn Lake has argued that in an international context, the federal female franchise ushered in an era of unprecedented political power for women. But what did people at the time make of the opportunistic alignment of feminism and federalism?
The majority of political pundits reckoned that the social laboratory had not spawned a monster. “Votes for Women: Australia Satisfied – Letting the Empire Know”, trumpeted a newspaper headline in 1910, following the Senate’s decision to communicate to the British prime minister that Australia had “found [the] experiment a success”.
Wrote another journalist:
The result has not produced either a heaven or a hell.
The Australian suffrage campaigners were correct to see federalism as their ticket to public influence on the grandest scale. Leaders like Goldstein readily adopted the role of international ambassador for the enlightened dawn of a new century.
On April 12, 1907, Goldstein wrote to members of the parliaments of Australia as President of the Women’s Political Association. “Dear Sir,” her letter began – for there were as yet no female parliamentarians, despite Goldstein’s own efforts to become a senator in 1903:
We Australian women who have had our right to political liberty granted by the national parliaments and by every state parliament save one [Victoria], have been appealed to by the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to help our less fortunate fellow women in other lands.
The appeal was most forthcoming from nations:
… where it is urged by those in authority that the enfranchisement of women means social and political disaster.
Goldstein pressed the statesmen to write testimonies to the successful workings of complete adult suffrage in Australian political life. She was obliged with an avalanche of letters, including responses from Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, as well as testimonies from the attorney-general, postmaster-general and state premiers.
Even former opponents to women’s suffrage like Thomas Waddel, the colonial secretary of NSW, testified that women:
… exercise the franchise wisely and I feel sure that their influence in public life will be all for good.
Goldstein was able to forward a thick stack of letters of endorsement from respectable and influential men to the campaign leaders of her “less fortunate fellow women” abroad.
On November 17, 1910, the Senate went one step better in touting Australia’s democratic credentials when it unanimously passed the Votes for Women Resolution – a confidence motion in its own first decade of nationhood. The motion read:
Because [universal suffrage] has brought nothing but good, though disaster was freely prophesised [sic], we respectfully urge that all nations enjoying representative government would be well advised in granting votes to women.
If this sounds fresh, there was more hubris to come.
Our young Australian nation is bound to achieve greatness.
Why such a glorious destiny? Because Australia was, in the words of the senators, “the first nation to make justice the foundation of its constitution”. And it was not just women who thought as much. The motion concluded:
Woman suffrage has done for Australia all and more than its leaders claimed for it. No self-governing country can prosper without the political aid of women. It is a necessary factor in securing the moral and spiritual progress of the individual and of the nation.
The senators were highly aware of the inherent role reversal in the colonies giving political tuition to the Empire. One claimed that Australia – though the child – had every right to give advice to Britain – the mother. His rationale?
We are, in politics, the pacemakers of the world.
Copies of the Senate’s bumptious resolution were circulated and published abroad.
Judging by the 1910 Senate’s vote of self-confidence in its own destiny, the auspicious occasion (if there must be just one) when Australia overcame its self-doubt and believed itself to be a nation, in fact occurred prior to any military battle on foreign soil.
Five years before Gallipoli, the Commonwealth of Australia asserted that it was “bound to achieve greatness” because of its democratic agility and proficiency, its sociopolitical courage and grace.
It might even be that the establishment of the Anzac legend and the trumpeting of a distinctive, world-leading constitutional equity were two sides of the same coin. “Both the feminist/reformist/federation story and the masculinist/digger/Gallipoli story” assumed that Australia could create a new imperial nation that would simultaneously embody racial superiority while rejecting the political inequalities and hierarchies of the old world.
Though not all first-wave feminists agreed, militarism and maternalism were not necessarily mutually exclusive. The belief that Australia had something valuable to contribute to the world continued beyond the disastrous landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.
In 1917, six years after Goldstein’s sold-out lecture tour of Britain and at the height of the Great War, the Australian Commonwealth once again agreed to send a message to the world. While ostensibly a message of hope to King George V, it was not a felicitation for his newly named House of Windsor, nor a pledge of solidarity for the war effort. It was, instead, an appeal for political reform, bordering on a taunt to keep up with the precocious Australians.
The parliamentary missive began:
Appreciating the blessings of self-government in Australia through adult suffrage, we are deeply interested in the welfare of the women of the Empire and we again humbly petition Your Majesty to endow them with that right of self-government for which they have petitioned for nearly three-quarters of a century.
Perhaps this can be read as the trademark tactic of an adolescent, cutting an arrogant parent down to size with evidence of her own incompetence. But more likely, Australians were deeply aware of the unique contribution they had made to the advancement of democratic principles and institutions – a profound sense of commitment to the international cause of political equality, spurred on by confidence in their own social experiment of change and reform.
Maturity was not simply tested by readiness for war. And “growth” was not measured in imperial pencil marks on a military doorframe, but by more psychosocial notions of human development. Australia was justly proud that its first success had been the peaceful negotiation of the transnational need for women’s political emancipation.
As Bishop JE Mercer argued in his contribution to Goldstein’s cache of support letters:
Australia was reaping the reward of having responded to the unanswerable appeal to justice.
Selling the campaign
In the decade that followed the Washington International Suffrage Convention, the Australian press was also keen to herald Australia’s landmark status on the American political landscape.
“American Suffragettes. Praise for Australia”, screamed one newspaper headline, when a deputation of American women’s rights activists appeared before the Home Rules Committee of the House of Representatives in December 1913. The Australian experience of women’s suffrage was “quoted in favour of the proposal” by the deputation.
The Melbourne Argus similarly reported American suffragists’ disappointment and disgust when Woodrow Wilson failed to mention the American women’s suffrage campaign in his Congressional Christmas address in December 1913.
Why would a Melbourne newspaper consider this seemingly immaterial aspect of American domestic policy relevant to its readers, other than as a tacit nod to Australia’s continued primacy in progressive legislation? Pride in Australia’s democratic superiority endured. Australian newspapers consistently reported Wilson’s inability to get a universal suffrage bill through Congress throughout the war years.
As historian Hilary Golder has argued, though many Australian feminists in the Federation era were strong nationalists (as well as pacifists), they leapt at the opportunity to become involved in international suffrage campaigns, lending guidance and advice as well as participating in “performative activism”.
It was possible to be both proud Australians and loyal “women of the Empire”. In June 1911, Australians Alice Henry, Dora Montefiore, Nellie Martel and Murial Matters joined with Goldstein and Margaret Fisher, wife of Australia’s then-prime minister Andrew Fisher, to march in the Great Suffrage Petition in London.
Goldstein and Fisher carried a banner on behalf of Australia and New Zealand imploring England to:
Trust the women, Mother, As I Have Done.
The banner, painted by the Australian expatriate artist Dora Meeson Coates, dripped with symbolism. It depicted a young woman bearing a shield of the Southern Cross, humbly petitioning a maternal Britannia to listen to her cause. Maiden Australia’s hand is upturned in supplication; Mother England stares diffidently into the distance.
The image is not one of cross-gender antagonism, but of intergenerational conflict and negotiation. In the mother–daughter dyad, the psychic health of the daughter requires that she go her own way, but not antagonise or hurt the resentful mother, who needs her to remain a beloved friend and comrade.
The antipodean suffrage banner can be read as a symbolic cutting of apron strings. Mother England gives her colonial daughter the cold shoulder; the nubile offspring must stand her ground. This feminised coming-of-age story, implicit in Australia’s critical role in the British suffrage campaigns, provides an alternative to the androcentric underpinnings of Gallipoli’s enduring “birth of a nation” mystique.
If the philosophical and practical leadership of women in stewarding Britain through a time of political upheaval focused on women’s transnational relationships, as Goldstein herself noted:
… one feature in the Suffrage Campaign in Australia makes it radically different from that in any country – the readiness of our men to admit that our cause was a just one, and entitled to immediate recognition.
Goldstein may be overstating her case, given that the Australian suffrage campaign began as early as 1869 and thus lasted 33 years. Also, other suffragists described Australian men as behaving like pompous benefactors or as surrendering reluctantly to the inevitable. In April 1902, Jessie Ackerman bemoaned the number of politicians who put themselves on a pedestal:
… halo in hand, to anoint himself high priest, and claim the glory touch of shepherding the women into the kingdom of federal citizenship.
Ackerman was quick to point out that the Commonwealth parliament enfranchised its women because it had no constitutional choice. She concluded:
There is, therefore, little credit due to an “unbounded generosity” on the part of men. There was no alternative.
Goldstein believed that in Australia, the political faultline lay not between men and women, but between conservatives and progressives. She also criticised Australia’s self-styled “new women” for their own failure to fulfil the promise of their early electoral equality.
Returning to Australia after the intense fellowship and purpose of London’s mass demonstrations and overflowing lecture theatres, Goldstein began to despair that after a decade of voting rights but no elected female representation, Australian women seemed to have lapsed into an apathetic status quo. “Enfranchised women of Australia,” she beseeched her sisters from street corners, copies of her Woman Voter journal in hand, “rise to your responsibilities, to your potentialities”.
Though the absolute numbers of female voters almost doubled between 1903 and 1910, Goldstein was not convinced that women were doing enough to prove that female political power was a force for good. Goldstein had an evangelical vision of Australia’s global mission that was not dissimilar to the male advocates of the federalist movement, who viewed Australia as a salve to old world ills.
The Brisbane Worker had declared in January 1901:
From the first to the last keynote of Australian provincial progress has been democracy, this is Australia’s manifest destiny if she is to fulfil any nobler destiny than the nations decayed and decaying.
Australian suffragists benefited from a timely alignment between the ideals of international feminism and the historical coincidence of federalism – a sense of providence about the role that a new country could play in the worn-out routines of global political housekeeping.
Where are we now?
So what has happened since then to shift the national conversation from Australia’s youthful, maverick mission as a global innovator to a country of politically timorous conformists?
One cultural trend stands out. Australia’s collective memory of the international achievements of its homegrown suffrage movement has faded in inverse proportion to the popularity of the Anzac legend. Militarism has won the public relations campaign for the “birth of a nation” mantle. Most Australian feminists believed as fervently in disarmament as suffrage. It was indeed the latter that should, in theory, have produced the former.
Yet Gallipoli also represented the heady, irresistible triumvirate of militarism, empire and race. But in the wake of a world war, any idea of Australian isolationism seemed increasingly untenable given, as the historian Audrey Oldfield has put it, “the historical imperatives of Australia’s geographical position”.
Most Australian suffragists, including Goldstein, believed whole-heartedly in the wisdom of a White Australia. As the British Empire crumbled under the weight of its own racial pecking orders, American global dominance took hold under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Underpinned by the same imperialist subservience that ultimately fuelled the Anzac legend, with its heroically active men and patriotically domestic women, the transnational potential for feminists to take a leading role on the world stage was impaired. Australia’s relevance as a youthful ambassador for change diminished as its acquiescent ties to Mother England remained stubbornly tangled.
In October 2011, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser expressed his anxiety at Australia’s lack of political pluck when he addressed an open letter from prominent Australians to Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the issue of the humane processing of refugees. Fraser exhorted:
Seize the opportunity to exhibit leadership, not just at home, but also on the world stage.
Fraser gave a concrete example of the form such moral courage might take: why not implement measures that would “serve as an incentive and an example for members of the UNHCR Working Group on Resettlement, which Australia currently chairs”.
Channelling the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, Fraser concluded:
Make no mistake, the world is watching. Australia has a chance to not only salvage our reputation but set an example for our friends and allies around the world.
In October 2012, Gillard took up the challenge, though not on the issue that Fraser pre-empted. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” Australia’s first female prime minister fairly roared at a smirking opposition leader, Tony Abbott. And the world was watching.
Via the internet, millions viewed “the misogyny speech” in a global fascination with Australia’s female pluck. World leaders rang Gillard to congratulate her on calling out the entrenched prejudice towards women in public and professional life. International journalists used the Australian precedent to focus attention on their domestic politics. As Amelia Lester wrote in The New Yorker:
After his performance last week, supporters of president Obama, watching Gillard cut through the disingenuousness and feigned moral outrage of her opponent to call him out for his own personal prejudice, hypocrisy, and aversion to facts, might be wishing their man would take a lesson from Australia.
Thus, more than a century on from Goldstein’s historic visit to the Oval Office, a hint of antipodean evangelism has recently re-entered the sphere of international politics.
Perhaps, with the global challenges of the 21st century, Australia can reassert its erstwhile youthful exuberance and once again be proud to call itself a trailblazing leader – a nation where justice serves as the foundation of its moral constitution.
A longer version of this essay was published in the Journal of Women’s History.
You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition here.