Women’s Organisation in Western Australia in the 1890s

Robin Joyce

 Part 1



We are enthroned in the hearts of men; that is why men use us and pay us half the wages, but we don’t want to be enthroned in men’s hearts under these conditions.


A woman speaking in the 2000s?

It is Jean Beadle, Labor activist speaking in 1909.

The only reason we know it is not a feminist in 2000 is because of the phraseology. However, these sentiments enunciated by Jean Beadle in 1909 still resonate. Their history lies in the organisation of women in Western Australia in the 1890s in fighting for the vote from 1892 and their organisation after it was won in 1899 in western Australia and federally in 1901. Women had organised as early as in the 1870s forming the Mothers’ Union, the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Ministering Children’s League and St George’s Reading Circle. Members of these groups joined the most important women’s groups in the 1890s, the Women’s Temperance Union (WCTU), the Karrakatta Club (KC) and, in the 1900s, The Women’s Political and Suffrage League (WPSL), the Labor Women’s Organisations, the Women’s Service Guild, and the National Council of Women. The movement was homogenous as although members came from a variety of backgrounds they had a common commitment to women’s eligibility in political affairs. [1] Women won the vote in 1899, but continued their activity through various organisations, women’s, party political and temperance.

Whether these women were feminist, supported some elements of feminist ideology, or had a female consciousness it can be contended that their arguments on women’s behalf certainly established a foundation for the modern women’s movement and feminist debate.

The Karrakatta Club  was founded in 1894 as a cultural club for well-educated ladies amongst the colonial elite, such as Lady Forrest, Lady Onslow and Dr Roberta Jull. Their debates served to popularise the idea of women’s suffrage at an influential level. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) moved more directly into political agitation. It was formed in 1892 when Jessie Ackerman, an American missionary, visited Western Australia. She reached a wide audience and eleven groups and a state union were formed. [2] At the 1893 Convention resolutions related to women’s suffrage were passed, with two aims: to educate public opinion and to agitate for women’s suffrage. However, public meetings and a deputation to the Premier that year and a petition sent from the 1894 Convention were unsuccessful. In 1895 the women decided to concentrate on education rather than direct action to gain women’s suffrage. The women established a special Suffrage Department to publicise the issue and to question parliamentary and municipal candidates. [3] [4]

Mrs Jeanette Foulkes, head of the Suffrage Department, refused to accept sex as a criterion of a person’s capabilities. She said:

…there is no greater incongruity in the most frivolous of my sex being entitled to vote than in a drunken reprobate…[5]

She argued that women were conditioned to accept a limited role in society because they lacked responsibility and intellectual interests. She believed that by acquiring the vote women would become politically responsible.

In 1893, 1896, 1897 and 1899 Parliamentary advocates of women’s suffrage presented their case. The original Amendment to the Constitutional Amendment Bill introduced by Joseph Cockworthy included two qualifications: women to be enfranchised by the Bill were to be propertied and single. The Amendment therefore did not cut across class, nor did it question the notion that a husband should make his wife’s political decisions. The Bill presented in 1896 was similarly restrictive. The successful Bill was first presented as a motion by Walter James in 1897. James, unlike the former advocates, was a Liberal who sought general reforms.

Possibly the women’s continuing agitation and arguments to parliamentary candidates also had a part. In 1896 the WCTU re-emphasized its decision to educate public opinion: ‘…by quiet and persistent and unobtrusive influence…’ [6] However, another group, the Women’s Political and Suffrage League was formed later that year to agitate directly for the women’s vote. It is entirely possible, although not recorded, that the women objected strongly to the sentiments expressed by the WCTU. The membership of this fierier group included women from the WCTU, the KC, women from establishment and working-class backgrounds and active Labor women. Many country members of the WCTU joined the WPSL and in 1897 the WCTU reversed its decision.

The arguments for women’s suffrage were influenced by the prevailing mores and conditions in which they sought justice. The WCTU argument was two stranded: political justice and moral improvement of the community. Generally, women activists had a high opinion of motherhood, arguing that society was like a family in which good legislation could play the part a woman too in the home.  For these women, the moral presence of women in the political sphere would raise community standards. Women’s domestic role was used to bolster her right to a public role but was defined in moral terms. This idea was used to mythologize motherhood. Women could use the myth to emphasise the need for women to extend their influence outside the home. On the other hand, the myth separated women’s occupations from men’s on the grounds of sex. Women’s domestic role was admired in theory but denigrated in economic terms and real social status. This discrimination then flowed over into women’s occupations outside the home. The problems engendered by this anomaly carried over into the women’s organisations that were established after the vote was won.

Despite the serious some shortcomings established through mythologizing women’s domestic role these early women and their organisations were not only strong advocates of women’s cause but challenged the status quo. By demanding and winning the vote for married women they defied the assumption that a male was the head of the household and should be the single repository of political opinion and power at the ballot box. Although women differed on their right to sit in Parliament, they questioned men’s ability to choose legislators wisely.

The women’s success in winning the vote in 1899 in Western Australia was a happy conjunction of women’s demand and political agitation and political expediency on the part of the Government. Many activists realised that winning the vote was but the first step. In the years following they established themselves as politically influential pressure groups committed to a general feminist position. They attempted to change women’s low status in economic terms, in part by seeking participation in positions hitherto the exclusive property of men.  Eventually some of the women became aligned with political parties, at the same time remaining members of women’s groups.

[1] Kate White,’Towards a Women’s Movement: 1900-1908′, Typescript, 1976 provides much of the historical detail for this early movement unless another author is cited. The source for the Labor Women’s Organisations is The Evelyn Wood papers, Battye Library, Perth Western Australia.

[2] Jessie Ackerman (1913) Australia from a Woman’s Point of View, London.

[3] Williamina Ross (1952) ‘Votes for Women in Western Australia’, The Western Australian Historical Society, Vol. 4, p.47.

[4] Questioning candidates was an early activity of the Women’s Electoral Lobby established in the 1970s.

[5] Kate White.

[6] Kate White.