2 MARCH 2018

A race fault-line ran through debates about women’s suffrage in the nations of the British Empire. The debate was first couched in terms which were common to all nations: the principle of whether women should get the vote. Secondarily there was an argument about which women should get the vote – would it be comparatively wealthy, property-owning women or all women? In many of the countries of the British Empire there was then a third question: what was a woman? An argument took place in legislatures to define womanhood in terms of white ancestry which involved sometimes complicated manoeuvres to deny native women the vote.

In New Zealand, the country most closely associated with Australia, women got the vote in 1893. In this case there was no major problem over Maori women’s being enfranchised. Maori men had been enfranchised (for a reserved number of Maori seats) in the 1860s as part of a number of measures aimed at ameliorating the discontents that had produced the Maori Wars.

By the late nineteenth century women’s suffrage was firmly on the agenda in Australia. Already committed suffragists were further motivated by a missionary visit from the American Mary Clement Leavett of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885. Within a decade WCTU branches were set up in all six Australian states.

For the WCTU women’s suffrage was a major issue though the Union never desired votes for women as anything more than a means to an end which was liquor prohibition, evidenced by the Victoria WCTU’s continued opposition to the idea that women should be allowed to stand as candidates in elections. The WCTU was contradictory in being protective of woman’s traditional role in the home, even while they were calling for her action in the public sphere.

The most important early activist in South Australia, the most progressive state, was Mary Lee (pictured left), an Irish immigrant to Australia who was 60 years old when she began public work. She became secretary to the Women’s Suffrage League which, under her direction moved away from suffrage as an issue of interest only to middle class ladies. Lee was concerned at the low pay and miserable conditions of women workers, she proposed the formation of a women’s trade union. It was set up in 1890 with support from the Trades and Labour Council, with Lee as secretary. She had now become a valuable cross-over into the world of organised labour, as she attended meetings of the Trades and Labour Council which endorsed Liberal candidates who shared their views. Mary Lee fulminated on the slow rate of progress, ‘in our own Parliament the Dog Licence Bill, the Sparrows Destruction Bill, a road or railway, a bridge or well, anything and everything is allowed precedence of the Women's Suffrage Bill and the women's petitions for suffrage.’

Lee, emboldened by the promise of help from the Trades and Labour Council, declared there would be no more support for half-measures, and only complete women’s suffrage would do. This was achieved for South Australia in 1894, the year after New Zealand woman gained the vote. Western Australia followed in 1899. It was taken in South Australia that these provisions included Aboriginals, as the manhood suffrage had, though no effort was made to enrol Aboriginals on voting registers or to inform them of their rights. In Western Australia Aboriginal men and women were excluded from the ballot.

Confederation and the problem of women's suffrage

The political objective of confederating the six states into one to create the nation of Australia ran into difficulties over women’s suffrage. By the time confederation was near, South Australia and Western Australia had enfranchised women, so they had a commensurately larger electorate than the four states where only men had the vote. One solution, it was suggested to them, was to disenfranchise women, which they were not prepared to do.

The next solution was to enfranchise all women but just for the national parliament of the federated nation. The race fault line running through women’s suffrage surfaced over the vote for Aboriginal women. The unamended enfranchisement would give the vote to all Aboriginals, male and female, as adult British subjects. This was going too far for delegates from Western Australia and Queensland who objected to votes being given to ‘savages’ and were rewarded with exemptions so no Aboriginals were given the vote there.

There was discussion whether ‘half-bloods’ should have the vote, but none about Maoris who were automatically accepted if they were citizens. When the point was mentioned a member countered ‘An aboriginal is not as intelligent as a Maori. There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all.’

Parliament discussed the ignorance of Aboriginal women, and the slight on white wives and daughters if the vote were given to these native Australians. In order to exclude them, parliament reverted to a formula in relation to Aboriginal women – not the federal enfranchisement of all, but the enfranchisement of Aboriginal women only when all women in the state in question had the franchise. This gave another reason to deny all women to vote: to ensure Aboriginal women did not get it. So white women got the vote in 1902 for national elections. In New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria they could not vote in their state elections. When women were admitted to the state franchise in the remaining states in the six years after 1902, Aboriginal women were also admitted to both the state and federal franchise in these three states.

Queensland and Western Australia held out, refusing to grant voting rights of Aboriginals. An Act of 1962 gave national voting rights to male and female Aboriginals in those last two states, and they finally conferred state voting rights. Australian women therefore received the vote in 1902, but all Australian women did not get the vote until the 1960s.

About author

Jad Adams is author of Women and the Vote: A World History (OUP). See more at www.jadadams.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @JadAdamsAuthor

Read more: Women's rights in Australia

Remember her name: Women's rights activists in Australia

Gladys Elphick (1904-1988) was a strong advocate for Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women alike. She is known as the founding member of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, which worked for the rights of Indigenous women. In 1984, she was named South Australian Aboriginal of the Year. Read about her here.

Marjorie Tripp joined the Navy in an era when Aboriginal people were yet to be recognised as Australian citizens. She was an influential Aboriginal rights campaigner, who passionately fought for greater recognition of indigenous servicemen and women. She passed away in 2016. Read her obituary here.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, formerly Kath Walker, was a prolific poet and Aboriginal activist. With her book of verse ‘We Are Going,’ Ms Noonuccal became the first Indigenous woman to publish a book – it quickly became one of Australia’s best-selling poetry books. Oodgeroo Noonuccal was a key figure in the campaign to grant Aboriginal people full citizenship, which ultimately succeeded with the referendum of 1967. See this wonderful resource to educate young people about her here.