Theme Suffragists

Written by Patricia Grimshaw, The University of Melbourne

The suffragists who led the movement to pursue women's political rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Australia had significant impact on women's entitlement to participation in public life, specifically on their opportunities to enter local, state and federal governments. The impressive talents and resourceful strategies of the suffragists who campaigned for the vote and the right to representation in parliaments were crucial for the success of their cause at the national level, notably in advance of the United States of America, Britain and European countries where the rights of women had been debated since the American and French Revolutions. Calls by women and men for women's enfranchisement were heard in the Australian colonies from the 1850s, but the existence of a social movement dates from the formation of dedicated women's suffrage societies and the activism of suffrage leaders in the temperance movement in the 1880s and 1890s. The foremost colonial leaders emerged within dedicated suffrage organisations in the most populous states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, which had a small but critical mass of educated middle-class women living in or near the growing cities of Sydney and Melbourne. This advantage of location did not necessarily translate into swifter legislative success for suffrage, since such complex populations also sustained stronger anti-suffrage sentiment represented in the hostile stances of some parliamentarians to the 'woman question'.

Suffragists not only focused on the vote but also involved themselves in a wide range of other women's rights concerns. These ranged from some that were in general relatively acceptable to several that conservatives judged as potentially disturbing for social order and a challenge to the institution of the family. Colonial legislation relating to the civil status of women and family law often mirrored changes in British law, though in a few instances the Australian colonies moved in advance of Britain. Activists varied individually in their attachment to reforms but most were protagonists for: extended secondary and tertiary education for girls and women; the opening of diverse areas of waged employment to women, including male professions such as medicine and law; equal pay; and married women's right to ownership of property, to custody of their children and to divorce on equal terms with men. A few daring women were public advocates for fertility control.

Amidst this plethora of reforms, women's political rights-the right to vote and to stand for election to parliaments-appeared especially radical. Suffragists asserted that women's involvement in mainstream politics was not only an act of justice but, pragmatically, the most hopeful avenue for redressing the inequalities of gender and for removing all existing social disadvantages for women. While suffragists united around pressure for the vote, only a minority concerned themselves with the right to stand for parliament; their opponents, however, saw the vote as a step on the slippery slide to women parliamentarians. In retrospect, we can say they were correct but wildly inaccurate in their prediction of a swift flood of female parliamentarians once women gained political rights. It would be the 1920s before women received the right to stand for election to every parliament, and the 1990s before a critical mass of women actually sat in state and federal parliaments. This entry tracks the complex political background of the suffrage movement, and then considers, state by state, the individual women who emerged as leaders in the movement to make votes for women a reality.

The Politics of Women's Suffrage Activism

The colony of South Australia extended women full political citizenship in 1894 (including the right to stand for parliament), and the colony of Western Australian introduced the vote in 1899. The Constitution of the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 included a clause that stated electors in a state were also automatically electors in federal elections, so that women of South Australia and Western Australia voted in the first federal election in 1902. In that year, the Commonwealth Franchise Act extended federal political rights to vote and stand for parliament to all white women; an ambiguous clause, not by law but in practice, denied Indigenous women the same right. It took several years for voting rights to flow on to white women in all state parliaments, but the fact that the Commonwealth had extended political rights to women made a difference to the tenor of debate in the states where women remained disenfranchised at state level. The parliament of NSW enacted the vote later in 1902, followed by Tasmania and Queensland in 1903 and 1905 respectively, and finally Victoria in 1908. While all white women in Australia had representative rights in the Commonwealth from 1902, the state legislatures (except South Australia) delayed women's right to stand for parliament until after World War I.

There were several factors that shaped the comparatively early granting of political rights in Australia. These included the absence of a large minority of men and women of colour whom white settlers elsewhere, such as in the American southern states, considered threatening to their interests; the absence of deeply entrenched upper class political conservatism such as that represented by the Conservative Party in Britain; and the simultaneous rise of the labour movement whose male participants already possessed political rights. But we should not underestimate the effectiveness of the suffragists, the women who courageously entered public arenas as advocates of changes that only in retrospect would become unremarkable.

Against a long-held myth that women were granted the vote in the Antipodean colonies with little or no exertion on their part, the number and leadership qualities of women who pursued political rights were impressive, as Audrey Oldfield illustrates in her 1988 account, Woman Suffrage in Australia: A Gift or a Struggle? This entry draws on her valuable research, with a stronger emphasis perhaps on the role in suffrage campaigns of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in all colonies and states. The WCTU, a Christian evangelical organisation dedicated to restricting or eliminating the sale and use of alcohol, was aligned with women's rights; women of vision led the colonial branches and were crucial in the campaign for the vote. Historians have filled out our knowledge of the suffrage campaign through full biographies and biographical entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Australian Women's Register and other collections. These various sources illustrate that dedicated women in every colony and state generated energetic public campaigns for women's political rights in state and federal parliaments and pursued the right to stand for state parliaments through their post-suffrage organisations.

The suffrage organisations that simultaneously waged campaigns in the United States and Britain strongly influenced Australian suffragists. British suffrage literature and news of the British suffrage campaign were crucial, though it must be remembered that the extension to Australian women of federal political rights preceded the high-profile 'suffragette' campaign of the famous Pankhursts and other activists in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The majority of high-profile suffragists were progressive liberals, advocates of an extension of state intervention to improve the lives of all citizens. Women's participation in these transformations was vital. The British influence was increased through women who had experience of British campaigns and then settled in the colonies; in turn, some Australian suffragists continued their colonial activism within British organisations.

Two prominent women from the colonial movement who later joined the campaigns in the Mother Country were Dora Montefiore (Allen, ADB; Francis, 'Montefiore', AWR) and Muriel Lilah Matters (Gosse, ADB). The British-born Dora Montefiore worked for the women's suffrage cause in NSW before she became a notable British activist. The first meeting of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW took place in her home in March 1891. She was best known for her campaign for women's rights to guardianship of their children. On her return to England in 1905, she joined the WSPU and worked also for the Women's Freedom League, serving as a delegate to many international and socialist conferences. Muriel Matters was an Adelaide-born actress and journalist who, from 1905, similarly based herself in Britain. Matters' work on behalf of the Women's Freedom League brought her into prominence, though she kept close ties with the land of her birth. Both these women subsequently became active in political parties of the left.

Marion Phillips (Kingston, 'Phillips', ADB) was another Australian-born woman who contributed to the British suffrage movement after her shift to London in 1904 through her membership of the Labour Party. Eventually, in 1929, she was elected to a seat in the British parliament. Helen Hart (Harris, ADB; Harris, Founder) was a suffragist who had experience of the British movement before migrating in 1879 to New Zealand and then on to Australia. She worked for three decades-mainly outside the established suffrage organisations-speaking and writing on many issues that included women's right to the vote. Two further women who became internationally known as suffrage activists and contributed to campaigns abroad were the talented Alice Henry (Kirkby, ADB; Morrell & Hennningham, AWR; Kirkby, Power) of Victoria and Stella (Miles) Franklin (Roe, ADB; Francis, 'Franklin', AWR; Roe, Stella) of NSW. Henry had worked as a journalist and been involved in the Labor Party before she departed for the United States, where she worked for the National Women's Trade Union League for many years. Franklin, who had included reference to women's suffrage in her fiction, reached the United States in 1906; she spent time at Jane Addams' inner-city settlement, Hull House, in Chicago and assisted in Henry's work.

Outstanding amongst the organisations that pursued women's suffrage was the temperance and women's rights group, the WCTU, which had its inception in the American west in the 1870s. Under its charismatic leader, Frances Willard, the American WCTU negotiated in 1882 an alliance with British women temperance reformers to form the World's WCTU, that then turned its attention to global issues (Tyrrell, Woman's World). It was the World WCTU missionaries, the Americans Mary Leavitt and Jessie Ackermann (Tyrrell, ADB), who presided over the foundation of branches of the organisation in the Australasian colonies in the mid to late 1880s. Ackermann subsequently returned several times for lengthier periods, for long enough intervals to have a decided impact. The Australian colonial branches of the WCTU, as in the United States, included women's rights as a central plank in their pursuit of social reform, and campaigned through dedicated franchise units. The strong grounding of WCTU members in Protestant evangelical Christianity, along with their aim to encourage sobriety and lobby governments to control alcohol, lent particular determination and skills to the overall campaign.

The WCTU played a significant part in the suffragist campaign, in the first place because of its wide outreach through the temperance movement into Protestant churches, including in rural areas and, second, because it formed an Australia-wide network through which leaders could co-ordinate publicity and public debate. Given the strength of Methodism, Congregationalism, Baptists and Presbyterianism in the colonies and the frustration of some women with the limitations of parish work, the new organisation spread quickly. Ackermann brought the intercolonial WCTU into being in 1891. The alignment of women's suffrage with prohibition attracted the hostility of the alcohol trade, but the suffrage campaigners in the WCTU collaborated with non-temperance reformers through participation in-sometimes the inauguration of-separate women's suffrage organisations. The earliest gains in South Australia and Western Australia and in 1903 in the small state of Tasmania derived predominantly from the suffrage activists of the WCTU, and the impact of the WCTU's campaigning was significant in all states. It would be hard to envisage the relatively early passage of the franchise in Australia without the organisation's close involvement.

It is difficult to characterise suffragists socially or in terms of mainstream politics. Given that political parties were organising in modern form only around the turn of the century, we must infer suffragists' political tendencies from their attitudes to the labour movement and their backgrounds in waged work, businesses or philanthropic organisations. Suffragists might be generally described as middle class, but in fact they varied considerably according to their geographical and social origins, age, marital status and number of children, as well as in temperament. Many well-off suffragists believed they represented the best interests of all women and emphasised the social disadvantages women faced compared with men; temperance-aligned suffragists raised in addition the disadvantages women faced as a result of male alcohol abuse; and labour-aligned suffragists stressed that working-class women's disadvantages derived substantially from their poverty. Nevertheless, the different streams of the movement spoke as one on women's entitlement to participate in the country's political system on equal terms.

Some suffragists had links or sympathies with the developing labour movement and its new political wing, the Australian Labor Party. The relatively early extension of manhood suffrage and the rise of the labour movement in the late 19th century proved favourable for the success of women's suffrage. A complication of suffrage campaigns in Britain and Europe were the splits that emerged in suffrage ranks over the acceptance or otherwise of a partial suffrage for women; such divisions occurred in Australia only over the question of the plural vote in Queensland. Working-class women were happy to work alongside liberal women as long as there was no question that liberal suffragists would accept any partial vote of benefit only to women of the property-owning class. Advocates for working-class women, with the backing of male colleagues, pursued the suffrage alongside other issues to enhance the life chances of working women and their families. Some colonies witnessed the formation of separate labour women's progressive associations but most women leaders combined work for women and for labour.

Given their disenfranchised status, suffragists had to work with ingenuity to bring the issue of the vote into the public arena, to demonstrate that women wanted political rights and to keep the issue alive in the institutions that needed to pass the necessary legislation but from which they were excluded. In every colony there were resilient women who trialled the strategies of modern lobbying: convening public meetings, leafleting, gathering signatures to petitions, writing letters to newspapers, producing leaflets, editing pro-suffrage journals, and lobbying members of parliament. The outcomes of their combined endeavours were impressive.

Among the leading suffragists who were nationally and, in some cases, internationally recognised were Catherine Spence of South Australia (Eade, ADB; Land, AWR; Magarey, 1985), Edith Cowan of Western Australia (Brown, ADB; Francis, 'Cowan', AWR; Cowan), Rose Scott (Allen, ADB; Carter, AWR; Allen, Rose Scott) and Louisa Lawson (Radi, 'Lawson', ADB; Francis, 'Lawson', AWR) of NSW, Jessie Rooke of Tasmania (Gardam, ADB; Lemon, 'Rooke', AWR), Emma Miller of Queensland (Young, ADB; Heywood, 'Miller', AWR; Jordan) and Vida Goldstein (Brownfoot, 'Goldstein', ADB; Land & Carey, AWR; Bomford) and Bessie Harrison Lee (Mitchell, ADB; Grimshaw, 1985) of Victoria. There are, however, numbers of other suffrage activists who were very influential, even if less known. The suffrage campaigns were largely carried out on a colony or state level and, while sharing much ideologically, took somewhat different directions and emphases according to the prevailing local pre- and post-1902 political climates. This entry considers an all too selective group of suffragists in each state, starting with those in the first sites of suffrage success.

Leaders in the Early Victories: South Australia and Western Australia

South Australia was the first colony on the Australian continent to enfranchise women, just one year after the New Zealand suffragists' victory in 1893. Writer and social reformer Catherine Spence was the exceptional leader in public life and on women's issues generally. Born in Scotland in 1825, she migrated as a child to Adelaide in 1839, where, in her adult years over some decades of engagement, she significantly influenced major public debates. She is remarkable for the length of her involvement in reform circles, the range of her concerns and her marked capabilities. She advocated women's political rights among the many issues that she pursued through her fiction, journalism and public speaking, and became directly involved in the suffrage campaign in the early 1890s as a member of the Women's Suffrage League. After the granting of political rights in 1894, Spence ran unsuccessfully in 1897 as a South Australian delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention; she may have been the first woman political candidate in Australia. In her later years, she became active in the South Australian National Council of Women (NCW) founded in 1902, though she soon became disenchanted by its inaction. She died in 1910.

Among other important South Australian suffragists were Mary Lee (Jones, 'Lee', ADB; Heywood & Secomb, AWR), Augusta Zadow (Jones, 'Zadow', ADB; Heywood, 'Zadow', AWR) and Elizabeth Nicholls (Mune, ADB; Secomb, AWR). Mary Lee, was born Mary Walsh in Ireland in 1821. She married George Lee in 1844, bore seven children and, in 1879, travelled to Adelaide when her migrant son became ill; it became her permanent home. Her first activism centred on the ladies' committee of the Social Purity Society, which fought for improvements in laws relating to child labour, young women's employment and the age of consent. She served as secretary of the Working Women's Trade Union League from its foundation in 1890, and attended meetings of the Trades and Labour Council. She helped form the Women's Suffrage League of South Australia in 1888, serving as secretary. The president was Augusta Zadow, a German-born suffragist and trained tailoress who similarly linked her pressure for the vote to better conditions for working women. Invigorated by the New Zealand suffrage victory in 1893, Mary Lee, like many other WCTU activists, travelled all over the colony to obtain signatures for a suffrage petition. The petition, with 11,600 signatures, was presented to parliament before the Act granting the vote passed the colonial legislature in 1894. This was the sole Act at colonial/state level that included the right of women to stand for parliament. Lee died in 1909.

The WCTU suffragists were critical to the success of the campaign, among whom Elizabeth Nicholls was an outstanding figure, first in the campaign in South Australia and, eventually, nationally. Born in 1850 in Adelaide, she joined the WCTU in 1886, and was elected colonial president in 1889, a position she held until 1897. She joined the South Australian Women's Suffrage League on its formation and became a League councillor. In 1894, Nicholls assumed the position of colonial superintendent of the WCTU's Suffrage Department and from 1894 to 1903 she was the Union's Australasian president, a period when suffragists from every state fought for the federal vote. After Federation, she served as state president of the South Australian WCTU from 1906 to 1927. She served on the Board of the Adelaide Hospital from 1895 to 1922 and was a Justice of the Peace-one of the four first women to serve in this capacity-from 1915. Nicholls died in 1943.

In Western Australia, the second colony to pass the vote, the foremost advocates of the women's vote also emerged from the ranks of the WCTU. Their activism was discreetly reinforced by some (not all) members of the Karrakatta Club, a small but influential group of educated women from Perth's most prominent families who formed the Club in 1894 as a forum for disussing social issues, particularly those affecting women and children. Their concerns included equal pay, especially for women teachers, and reform of the divorce laws to create equal grounds for women and men. The Club's first president was the wife of the chief justice, Madeline Onslow (Francis, 'Onslow', AWR), who explicitly backed the franchise. WCTU activist Emily Hensman was the second president. While many if not most members supported the women's vote, the Club's membership included suffrage doubters. Some, like Lady Margaret Forrest, wife of the premier, had husbands who opposed the vote in parliament. Others had spouses who were firm protagonists, including Gwenyfred James, wife of Walter James, the main parliamentary spokesman for the cause and later premier. Gwenyfred James later helped found the NCW in Western Australia and served as an early president.

WCTU suffrage supporters were vocal and publicly visible: some suffragists were members of both organisations. The women who drove the WCTU campaign were Christine Clark (Francis, 'Clark', AWR), Janetta Griffiths Foulkes and Emily Hensman. The latter two were also members of the Karrakatta Club and were married to men prominent in public life: Hensman's husband was a prominent judge and Foulkes's husband a member of parliament. Together the three women filled the main leadership positions in the WCTU. Foulkes took up the post of suffrage superintendent at the WCTU's first colony-wide convention in 1892. Christine Clark was secretary of the WCTU from 1892 to 1897 and suffrage superintendent in the crucial last two years of the campaign from 1897 to 1899. As the president of the 1997 WCTU Annual Convention, Emily Hensman not only spoke favourably of suffrage in Western Australia but also urged federation of the colonies and the inclusion of full adult suffrage in the Australian Constitution.

Christine Clark was instrumental in the formation of the Western Australian Woman's Franchise League in April 1899 to make it easier for women who did not advocate temperance to become suffrage activists. Karrakatta Club members outside the WCTU joined and took leadership roles. The president and secretary were Hensman and Clark, Onslow was vice-president and James, the treasurer. The new organisation had a short existence since-somewhat to the suffragists' surprise-the vote for white women on the same terms as men was legislated later that year. The right to vote was restricted for Aboriginal women (and men) to property holders, a provision that in effect barred almost all Indigenous women except those few married to non-Indigenous men. The suffrage activists continued to work for women following the Act, including within the Women's Service Guild and the NCW. Christine Clark, however, moved to Sydney where she became secretary of the umbrella group, the Australian Temperance Alliance, though she resigned after four board members objected to a woman holding the position.

A foundation member of the Karrakatta Club, its first recording secretary and later its president was Edith Cowan. Born in rural Western Australia in 1861, she married a lawyer at the age of seventeen and subsequently had five children. She was an early suffrage supporter, though she maintained a low profile during the crucial campaign of the 1890s. In 1909, however, she helped found the Women's Service Guild and, in 1911, she assisted in the formation of the Western Australian NCW. Her strongest claim to leadership derived from her successful candidature for a seat in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921, when she became the first woman elected to any state or federal parliament. Cowan died in 1932.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act and New South Wales

The successful passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act in 1902 granting full political rights to non-Indigenous women was the outcome of the success of the suffragists in South Australia and Western Australia. When in the 1890s the writers of the new Australian Constitution considered the electoral provisions for Commonwealth elections, they framed clauses to permit federal political rights for those eligible to vote in state elections. As South Australian women already had that right, to be joined in 1899 by women in Western Australia, it was expected that, to make the electoral system equal, the new federal parliament would swiftly introduce a bill to enfranchise all other white women across the country. This occurred in 1902 with the Commonwealth Franchise Act. Observers anticipated a flow-on effect from the Commonwealth to the remaining states but, in fact, individual state political concerns drove the process and the legislatures of NSW, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria passed legislation in stages up to 1908.

The passage of the vote in New South Wales in late 1902 followed on some months after the Commonwealth legislation, making it the third state to enfranchise women for state elections. NSW was home to an interesting range of suffragists. Rose Scott had emerged as the woman who, above all others, promoted political rights in a sustained, effective and influential way. A vital contributor to a wealth of women's causes, Scott was instrumental in the formation of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW in 1891. Born in 1847 in rural NSW, Scott was one of the key figures in the turn-of-the-century movement committed to universal suffrage, as she was to all aspects of reform in the interests of female equality. Remaining unmarried, she devoted her very considerable talents and time to the women's movement and was a crucial player in agitation for women's political rights in both NSW and the new Commonwealth. She was a fine writer and speaker, taking all opportunities to keep arguments for women's enfranchisement before the eyes of politicians and the public. In 1896, she was international secretary of the newly constituted NCW of NSW. After the twin successes of the federal and state legislation in 1902, Scott formed the Women's Political Education League and continued working for women's causes until her death in 1925.

Louisa Lawson shares prominence with Rose Scott in NSW as a promoter of the vote and other women's issues, though she did so in a more independent style. Born in 1848 in rural NSW, she married Peter (Niels) Larsen, later Lawson, at eighteen years of age. During her first years of married life she farmed alongside him. She bore five children, including Henry Lawson, who became the well-known writer. She moved to Sydney in 1883, where she supported her family by undertaking washing and sewing and taking in boarders. In 1887, she bought the Republican and, with her son Henry, edited and wrote most of the paper's copy. In 1888, she established the Dawn, a journal devoted to women's concerns that continued publication until 1905. In May 1889, Louisa launched the NSW campaign for female suffrage and announced the formation of the Dawn Club, where women could meet to discuss reform questions and gain experience in public speaking. After the franchise was won, Lawson continued to promote law reform and the extension of women's work opportunities. She died in 1920.

Among Rose Scott's fellow founding members of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW was Maybanke Anderson (Kingston, 'Anderson', ADB; Lemon, 'Anderson', AWR; Roberts), who became vice president and served as president from 1893 to 1896. She wrote pamphlets and books and, most notably, in 1894, published and edited the Woman's Voice. Born in England in 1845, she had migrated to Australia and, in 1867, married Edmund Wolstenholme. After a divorce in 1892, she taught school before she remarried in 1899. Her second husband was Francis Anderson, professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney. Maybanke helped set up a free kindergarten at Woolloomooloo, the Kindergarten Union and the Playgrounds Association of NSW and worked with the state branch of the NCW for the right of women to be elected to councils. Anderson died in 1927.

As in the other states, the WCTU provided formidable suffrage leaders. Mary Windeyer, wife of a prominent Sydney judge, headed the ranks of the evangelical Protestant suffragists whose activism was associated primarily with the WCTU (Radi, 'Windeyer, Mary', ADB; Lemon, 'Windeyer', AWR). Mary Windeyer was born in England in 1837 and migrated with her family to Sydney in 1839. In 1857, she married William Windeyer; the couple had nine children. Mary Windeyer was actively involved in a number of causes promoting women's and children's welfare, including women's entry to higher education and paid employment, while also undertaking considerable philanthropic work. She served as foundation president of the Women's Suffrage League of New South Wales from 1891 to 1893. Windeyer effectively headed the WCTU's franchise department for several years, joining forces with Elizabeth Ward, mother of seven, evangelical preacher and a trained milliner (Godden, ADB; Lemon, 'Ward', AWR). Windeyer's librarian daughter, Margaret Windeyer, aligned herself with her mother's activism and became the founder of Australia's first NCW in NSW in 1896 (Radi, 'Windeyer, Margaret', ADB). Mary Windeyer died in 1912.

The leading labour movement suffragists were the three remarkable sisters, Annie, Belle and Kate Golding (later Dwyer), who grew up in Tambaroora in rural NSW. The oldest of the three, Annie Golding (Kingston, 'Golding', ADB; Lemon, 'Golding, Annie', AWR), born in 1855, was a devout Catholic, who lobbied for the vote, for equal pay for women, and for equal opportunity in the workforce. She served as president of the Women's Progressive Association in Sydney from 1904. She died in 1934. Kate Golding Dwyer (Gallego, ADB; Alafaci, AWR), the second born (in 1861) became one of the most prominent women in early 20th-century NSW. A suffragist embedded in labour activist politics, Dwyer stood unsuccessfully for election to the seat of Balmain in the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1925. She died in 1949. The youngest of the trio, Belle Golding (Radi, 'Golding, Belle', ADB; Lemon, 'Golding, Belle', AWR), born in 1864, was a member of the Women's Progressive Association in NSW. Like Annie, Belle began work in the public schools but, in May 1900, she became the first female inspector under the Early Closing Act of 1899. In December 1913, she was transferred to the inspectorate under the Factories and Shops Act as senior (woman) inspector, a pioneer in this work. She retired in 1926 and died in 1940.

The State Suffrage in Tasmania and Queensland

The Tasmanian legislature followed NSW with a state Act the next year, 1903. The leading women who drove the campaign were several activists in the WCTU, of whom Jessie Rooke was the most prominent. Born in 1845 in London, she migrated to Melbourne where, in 1867, she married for the first time; after her husband's death in 1883, she married a doctor, Charles Rooke, in Holbrook in NSW. In Sydney, Jessie Rooke became heavily involved with the British Women's Bible and Prayer Union and the WCTU. When she and her husband moved to Burnie in Tasmania in the early 1890s, she formed the Burnie branch of the WCTU and became president of the colony's WCTU in 1894. Rooke played a vital role in the development of the Tasmanian Women's Suffrage League and served as a speaker for the suffrage, travelling around Tasmania collecting signatures for petitions to parliament. She worked with Vida Goldstein in the campaign of the United Council of Women's Suffrage for the suffrage at federal level and, in 1902, attended the International Council of Women (ICW) conference in Washington as a WCTU delegate. Rooke became Australian president of the WCTU in 1903, the year that the vote passed into law in Tasmania. She became president of the Women's Political Association at Launceston in 1905 and died in 1906.

We should mention here in relation to avenues of women's political participation a formidable figure, Emily Dobson (Reynolds, ADB; Carey & Lemon, AWR). While her part in the suffrage campaign was curtailed by her conservatism as an advocate only of a partial franchise, she emerged as an organiser, and representative of Tasmanian women nationally and internationally. Born in 1842 in Port Arthur, she married Henry Dobson, later a state premier and senator for Tasmania, and played a central role in multiple political and charitable organisations. She was a founder and vice-president of the Tasmanian section of the NCW in 1899, and attended the first meeting of the ICW in London that year. Dobson became president of the NCW Tasmania in 1904 and held that position until her death. She led the Australian delegations to ICW conferences from 1904 to 1920 and was the first Australian to be elected vice- president of the ICW at the Rome meeting in 1914. She died in 1934.

It took three years from the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act for Queensland to legislate for the suffrage in 1905, the fifth state to do so. Here, the existence of plural voting, whereby men could vote in any electorate in which they owned property, caused a split in the allegiances of supporters of the women's vote. There were some suffragists who urged the passage of the women's vote under the conditions that held for male voting, while others wanted to remove the plural vote before, or at the same time as, women were enfranchised. In the end, the latter principle prevailed.

The best-known suffragist, Emma Miller, strongly opposed the plural vote. She was born in Derbyshire, England, in 1839. Her father supported the Chartists. Emma had four children during her first marriage and, as a widow, earned their living by sewing. With her children and her second husband, she migrated to Australia in 1879; after his death, she married Andrew Miller in Brisbane in 1886. She became a notable advocate for labour and equal pay for women workers. In 1890, she helped form a female workers' union; she also became the first woman to travel for the Australian Workers' Union and the first female member of the Brisbane Workers Political Organisation. A supporter of one person, one vote, Miller was foundation president of the Woman's Equal Franchise Association and served as president from 1894 to 1905, the year the vote for women in Queensland state elections was won (Jordan, 50-60). She was president of the Women Workers' Political Organisation and active in Labor Party politics; she also fought hard for free speech and civil liberties. Miller died in 1917.

Very influential, although she died two years before the vote was won in Queensland, was Léontine Cooper, the most important intellectual writing in Queensland about white women's rights (Butterworth, 'Cooper', AWR). She was born in Surrey, England in 1837, married a surveyor, Edward Cooper, in 1869 and migrated with him to Australia. A schoolteacher by profession and an advocate for improvements in girls' education, she also wrote short stories and articles for the Boomerang in the late 1880s on women's work and rights; later, she became involved in women's unions and edited a short-lived women's suffrage paper, the Star. In 1891, Cooper was a government appointee on the Royal Commission into Factories, Shops and Workshops, the first time a woman had been appointed to a commission. From 1894, she formed and became president of the Women's Suffrage League, a breakaway group from Woman's Equal Franchise Association; although a socialist, she believed in the need for an autonomous women's 'non-party' group. Cooper died in 1903.

In Queensland, as elsewhere, activists from the WCTU played the major role in the organised suffrage campaign. A prominent WCTU suffrage advocate was Elizabeth Brentnall, born in 1830 in Nottingham, England (Lawson, ADB; Butterworth, 'Brentnall', AWR). In 1867, she was headmistress of a Methodist school in Lancashire, a post she left to migrate to Sydney to marry Frederick Brentnall, a Methodist clergyman. The couple, who raised two daughters, shifted to Brisbane where Frederick Brentnall became a member of the Legislative Council in 1886; he supported the women's vote only with a limited franchise. Elizabeth Brentnall became president of the WCTU in Queensland in 1886 and served in that capacity till 1899; afterwards she was an honorary life president. She first called for women's suffrage in her presidential address to the WCTU annual convention in 1888 and, three years later, the WCTU formed a separate suffrage department that engaged in a vigorous campaign. She died in 1909, four years after the suffrage passed in the state. Elizabeth Brentnall's daughter, Flora, was also a suffragist and organiser for the youth (Y) section of the WCTU.

Also working within the WCTU was Margaret Ogg, born in Brisbane in 1863, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister (Crouchley, ADB; Butterworth, 'Ogg', AWR). She joined the WCTU and served as its missions superintendent, with a special concern for seamen; she later founded the Mission to Seamen as a separate organisation. Sub-editor of the Presbyterian Austral Star, she became an advocate of the suffrage and told in her reminiscences how she travelled around the outback on speaking tours on votes for women. If refused the use of public halls, she would speak outside standing on the top of her sulky. In 1903, she became secretary the Queensland Women's Electoral League, a position she held for thirty years, in which she maintained an anti-socialist stance. After the vote passed in 1905, she fought for many causes such as legislation to raise of the age of consent and to ensure widows' entitlement to a proportion of their husband's estate. Ogg died in 1953.

The Longest Campaign: Victoria

Victoria was notable for nurturing the first women's suffrage organisation in the Australian colonies in 1884, although it was, in 1908, the last state to pass the franchise. The first organisation was the initiative of Henrietta Dugdale (Brownfoot, 'Dugdale', ADB; Lemon, 'Dugdale', AWR; Priestley), who was born in London in 1826 and migrated to Victoria with her then husband in 1852. He died in 1859 and she then married William Dugdale, with whom she had three children. She was a member of the Eclectic Society and the Australasian Secular Association. In 1883, she published a booklet, A Few Hours in a Far Off Age, dedicated to the pro-suffrage parliamentarian in 1884, George Higinbotham. After a conversation with the like-minded Annie Lowe (Francis, 'Lowe', AWR), she and Annie formed the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society, of which Dugdale became president. A widow, mother of several children and a shop owner, Brettena Smyth (Kelly, ADB; Lemon, 'Smyth', AWR) became a committee member the next year, when the society had 195 members but, in 1888, Smyth formed the Australian Women's Suffrage Society, later enveloped by the Victorian Women's Franchise League. A radical and freethinker, Smyth was opposed to orthodox religion and strongly advocated the use of birth control, becoming a competent public speaker on these topics. In 1893, she became well known-and for some, notorious-when she published a pamphlet, The Limitation of Offspring.

In the 1890s, a third suffrage group surfaced when several Victorian WCTU suffrage activists formed the Victorian Women's Franchise League. The most prominent activist, Margaret McLean (Hyslop, ADB; Colwill, AWR), born in 1845 in Scotland, was a founding member of the WCTU of Victoria in 1887 and became Melbourne's foremost advocate of votes for women. An active and well-known feminist, McLean was the first person to sign the women's suffrage petition, and was a strong political force for women's rights in Melbourne then and throughout her life. She died in 1923. Until her death in 1899, her most stalwart colleague was Annette Bear-Crawford (Brownfoot, 'Bear-Crawford', ADB; Lemon, 'Bear-Crawford', AWR). Born in 1853 in East Melbourne, Bear-Crawford trained in social work in England where she became involved in the women's movement and the National Vigilance Committee, formed to oppose state control of prostitution and contagious diseases legislation. When Bear-Crawford returned to Melbourne in 1890, she joined the WCTU and fought for suffrage with great determination. Notably, she assisted the establishment of the United Council for Woman Suffrage, which pressed for women's political rights in the proposed Commonwealth of Australia as well as in Victoria. Bear-Crawford died in 1899.

A member of the WCTU and also a supporter of working-class women was Bessie Harrison Lee, who utilised as her middle name her husband's first name. Born in 1860 in Daylesford, Victoria, she was the daughter of a butcher and had little formal schooling; her mother died when she was young. Various subsequent unhappy experiences instilled an intense dislike of alcohol. At the age of nineteen, she married Harrison (Harry) Lee, a railway man, and moved to Richmond in inner city Melbourne. After hearing overseas temperance lecturers, she became an active prohibitionist. She helped to pioneer the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Victoria in 1887 but, because of her idiosyncratic beliefs about fertility control, stayed marginal. When she left the executive of the WCTU, she accepted the sponsorship of the powerful Victorian Alliance for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic in the years from 1890 to 1896 and fought district local option battles; she wrote copiously for daily newspapers and the temperance press. The year 1896 saw the first of her numerous trips abroad, principally to Britain, New Zealand and the United States of America. After her husband died, she married a New Zealand farmer in 1908 and thereafter lived in New Zealand, where she became a foundation member of the United Labour Party in 1912, representing women workers, and rejoined the WCTU. Her published works include Marriage and Heredity (Melbourne, 1893), One of Australia's Daughters: an Autobiography (London, 1906) and One of God's Lamplighters: Incidents in My Life Work (London, 1902). She died in Pasadena, California, in 1950, a temperance activist to the end (Grimshaw, 1985).

Lilian Locke (Andrews, ADB) was born in 1869 in Melbourne. A socialist and friend of Vida Goldstein, she was secretary of the United Council for Woman's Suffrage in the 1890s and, later, an organising secretary of the Political Labor Council of Victoria with responsibility for recruiting women to the cause (Oldfield, 152). An excellent speaker, she campaigned in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and wrote for the labour journal, Tocsin. And, as a committed Labor Party member, she opposed Goldstein's candiature for the Senate in 1903 (Oldfield, 152). The 'only lady member' (Andrews) of the Trades Hall Council, Melbourne, she was later a Tasmanian delegate to the 1905 Commonwealth Political Labor Conference. She also wrote verse. In 1906, at Christ Church, South Yarra, Lilian Locke married George Mason Burns, member of the lower house of the Tasmanian legislature from 1903 to 1906 and of the Commonwealth House of Representatives from 1913 to 1917. The couple worked for the intervening period as industrial organisers in Queensland. Locke died in Sydney in 1950.

Of the many significant leaders in the campaign Vida Goldstein was undoubtedly the most outstanding Victorian suffragist. Born in Portland, Victoria, in 1869, one of five children, Goldstein was educated at Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne. As a young woman, she worked with her mother in the anti-sweating movement. Later she became involved in the suffrage movement. She was a paid organiser for the United Council for Women's Suffrage, founded the Women's Federal Political Association (later the Women's Political Association) and, from 1900 to 1905, produced and edited a monthly feminist journal, Woman's Sphere; she helped found the NCW of Victoria in 1902 and was instrumental in persuading it to support the vote (Smart & Quartly). Goldstein travelled abroad to feminist meetings as a delegate, including the 1902 Washington conference that preceded the foundation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance two years later. Vida Goldstein was nominated by the Women's Federal Political Association as a candidate for the Senate in 1903, the first woman to nominate for an Australian legislature. A further four attempts to enter the federal parliament were also unsuccessful. After the award of state suffrage in 1908, Goldstein launched a new journal, Woman Voter. In 1915, she founded the Women's Peace Army alongside Cecilia John and former English suffragettes Adela Pankhurst and Jennie Baines. She died in 1949 (Bomford).

Unfinished Business in the Post-suffrage Decades

After the franchise passed, many suffragists continued remarkable work as members of women-only associations that both worked autonomously and sent delegates to the active and effective NCW. Many 'new women' entered fields from which women had previously been excluded or were barely tolerated. There was unfinished business even in the area of political rights. The right to stand for parliament had been granted for Commonwealth elections but the sole state parliament that allowed women as representatives was that South Australia. The right to representation was extended in 1918 in Queensland and, in the same year, for the Legislative Assembly in NSW, which delayed the right for the Legislative Council till 1926. It was extended in 1920 in Western Australia, in 1921 in Tasmania and in 1923 in Victoria. Several women stood for election to the Commonwealth legislature and, once permitted, to the separate state parliaments. The women who first attempted to gain representation were for the most part drawn from the ranks of the suffragists and post-suffrage women's organisations, rather than from the mainstream parties; until these parties selected women as candidates in winnable seats, few were successful. But they became active citizens and lobbyists through many other routes, not least within their own single-sex organisations and women's auxiliaries to the mainstream political parties.

Australian State and Federal Parliaments
ParliamentRight to VoteRight to StandFirst Woman Elected
South Australia189418941959
Western Australia189919201921
New South Wales19021918 (LA)1925
New South Wales19021926 (LC)1931

There was other unfinished business: the enfranchisement of Indigenous women. In 1902 in the Commonwealth parliament the women's vote was generally well received and was poised to pass easily on the supposition of many representatives that the clause would apply to white women only. Many did not even know that Aboriginal men had the vote in the south-eastern states under existing manhood suffrage and hence that this clause would also apply to Aboriginal women. The addition of women to the ranks of political citizenship initially passed. Suddenly the news spread that not only Aboriginal men but Aboriginal women also were now citizens. The reaction of Queensland and Western Australian senators in particular to the possible enfranchisement of their Indigenous populations was profoundly racist. A Western Australian senator argued that the bill would have little impact in states with small Indigenous populations but it was a different matter for Queensland and Western Australia, where Aboriginal voters might affect the outcome of elections. A number of parliamentarians spoke out strongly for the retention of the Aboriginal vote but, in the end, their view did not prevail. Provisions of the Commonwealth Franchise Act denied the franchise to any Aboriginal native of Asia, Africa, the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand, or Australia, unless the person was already permitted the vote under the Constitution. The 1902 Act should have protected the political rights at least of Aborigines in the south-eastern states, and of Aboriginal property holders in Western Australia and Queensland. But the Act was interpreted and bureaucratically implemented to exclude all Aborigines. Thus, as Australia became more democratic with the inclusion of white women, conversely the exclusion of Aborigines from citizenship became entrenched.

White suffragists largely ignored the exclusion (by implementation if not by law) of Indigenous women and men from political rights at the very time of their own enfranchisement. John Chesterman and Brian Galligan in their book Citizens Without Rights: Aborigines and Australian Citizenship present the complex course of the access to political rights of Indigenous women and men, state by state and federally. From the 1930s, white women reformers joined Aboriginal human rights activists to seek the end of existing legal and political disabilities, which culminated in the successful referendum to change clauses in the Australian Constitution in 1967. Their access to political rights came about through other legislative changes. Aborigines regained political citizenship federally and in the separate states progressively from 1949 to 1965. Equality of political rights for federal elections emerged in legislation passed in 1962; the last states to extend political rights were Queensland and Western Australia. We might say that the final step towards equality came with the extension of compulsory voting to Aborigines in 1982.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Allen, Judith, Rose Scott: Vision and Revision in Feminism, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details
  • Bomford, Janette, That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1993. Details
  • Chesterman, John and Galligan, Brian, Citizens Without Rights: Aborigines and Australian Citizenship, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1997. Details
  • Cowan, Peter, A Unique Position: A Biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861 - 1932, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 1978. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, Women's Suffrage in New Zealand, rev. edn, Auckland University Press, Auckland, New Zealand, 1987. Details
  • Harris, Helen, Helen Hart: Founder of Women's Suffrage in Australasia, Harriland Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2009. Details
  • Kirkby, Diane, Alice Henry: The Power of Pen and Voice. The Life of an Australian-American Labor Reformer, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1991. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999. Details
  • Magarey, Susan, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2001. Details
  • Margarey, Susan, Unbridling the Tongues of Women: a Biography of Catherine Helen Spence, University of Adelaide Press, Adelaide, South Australia, 1985. Details
  • Matthews, Brian, Louisa, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Fitzroy, Victoria, 1988. Details
  • McCulloch, John, From Suffragists to Legislators, Central Queensland University (CQU) Press, Rockhampton, Queensland, 2005. Details
  • Oldfield, Audrey, Woman Suffrage in Australia: A Gift or a Struggle?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1992. Details
  • Priestley, Susan, Henrietta Augusta Dugdale: Activist 1827-1918, Melbourne Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Roberts, Jan, Maybanke Anderson: Sex, Suffrage and Social Reform, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, New South Wales, 1993. Details
  • Roe, Jill, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, New South Wales, 2008. Details
  • Suffrage Collective, They Are But Women: The Road to Female Suffrage in Victoria, The University of Melbourne: Department of History: School of Historical Studies, Melbourne, Victoria, 2007. Details
  • Tyrrell, Ian, Woman's world/​Woman's empire : the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in international perspective, 1880-1930, University of North Carolina (UNC) Press, Chapel Hill, United States of America, 1991. Details

Book Sections

  • Ferrier, Carole and Jordan, Deborah, 'Women's Suffrage Struggles', in Evans, Ray and Ferrier, Carole (eds), Radical Brisbane, Vulgar Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004, pp. 102 - 109. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'Bessie Harrison Lee and the Fight for Birth Control', in Marilyn Lake and Kelly Farley (eds), Double Time: Women in Victoria, 150 Years, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1985, pp. 139 - 147. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'A White Woman's Suffrage', in Irving, Helen (ed.), A Women's Constitution? Gender and History in the Australian Commonwealth, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996, pp. 77 - 97. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'White Women as "Nation Builders": Gender, Colonialism and the Commonwealth Vote', in Race, Gender and Democracy: One Hundred Years of the Commonwealth Vote, 2003, pp. 1 - 20. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'Colonialism, Power and Women's Political Citizenship in Australia, 1894-1908', in Irma Sulkunen, Seija-Leena Nevala-Nurmi and Pirjo Markkola (eds), Suffrage, Gender and Citizenship: International Perspectives on Parliamentary Reforms, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle on Tyne, England, 2009, pp. 34 - 55. Details
  • Jordan, Deborah, 'Leading the Call for "One Vote and No More": Emma Miller (1839 - 1917)', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 50-60. Details

Journal Articles

  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'Comparative Perspectives on White and Indigenous Women's Political Citizenship in Queensland: The 1905 Act to Amend the Elections Acts, 1885 to 1899', Queensland Review, vol. 12, no. 2, 2005, pp. 9 - 22. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'White Men's Fears and White Women's Hopes: The Victorian Equal Suffrage Act', Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 79, no. 2, November 2008, pp. 185 - 209. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia and Ellinghaus, Katherine, 'White Women, Aboriginal Women and the Vote in Western Australia', Studies in Western Australian History, no. 20, 1999, pp. 1 - 19. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia and Low, Sharon, 'Looking Again at the Women's Vote in Tasmania', Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 9, 2004, pp. 21 - 33. Details
  • Smart, Judith and Quartly, Marian, 'The National Council of Women of Victoria: suffrage and political citizenship 1904-14', Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 79, no. 2, November 2008, pp. 224-236. Details

Resource Sections

  • Grimshaw, Patricia and Sowerwine, Charles, Women's Suffrage, The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy, Encyclopedia Entry, Isakhan, Ben and Stockwell Stephen (eds), Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2012, 337 - 347 pp. Details
  • Smart, Judith, Women's Suffrage Organisations, The Encyclopedia of Melbourne, Encyclopedia Entry, Brown-May, Andrew and Swain, Shurlee (eds), Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2005, 780 - 781 pp. Details
  • Swain, Shurlee, Suffrage, The Encyclopedia of Melbourne, Encyclopedia Entry, Brown-May, Andrew and Swain, Shurlee (eds), Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2005, 696 - 697 pp. Details

Online Resources