Women’s Suffrage in Australia

 

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In 1908 the Woman Suffrage Alliance published Woman Suffrage in Australia by Vida Goldstein.  The document was found in the Baillieu Library by Karen Buczynski Lee who recognised that it could easily be the only copy and needed to be reprinted so that it could be widely available. It is because there are women who recognise the value of such documents – and as importantly do something to ensure the safety of the information they impart – that the walls around  ‘hidden from history’ begin to crumble. The Victorian Women’s Trust then republished the document in March 2008.[1] It is from that publication that most of the information related to Vida Goldstein’s suffrage story below is derived.

At the time she wrote the document Vida Goldstein was President of the Women’s Political Association of Australia. The Association was one of many that eschewed affiliation with any political party. In the early 1990s there were the Australian Labor Party (formed from the state Labor Parties founded in the 1890s by the trade unions), The Protectionist Party and the Free Trade Party (whose titles are self-explanatory).  By 1909 a fusion group of conservatives provided an alternative to Labor. Women’s organisations such as the Women’s Service Guild in Western Australia held spirited debates about the advantages of being non-party political, and today the Women’s Electoral Lobby maintains a non-party stance which allows its members to question prospective members of parliament from all parties. Women have often stood as candidates as Independents or representatives of a women’s group, usually unsuccessfully. However, as did Vida Goldstein when she stood for the Federal Parliament in 1913, enduring publicity was given to the value of the women’s vote and candidacy. Her campaign director, Doris Blackburn later became a member of the ALP, but later resigned. She was a successful Independent Labor candidate in her husband’s former seat in 1946. Goldstein did not win but presented Blackburn with the opportunity to increase her political involvement. She, as well as women representing political parties have become members of parliament, state and federally.

It has been stated that in the early period in the fight for women’s suffrage women wanted the right to vote for worthy men. Is this really likely to have been their only motive? Women in the early 1900s were forming organisations, organising branches of political parties for women and general branches and speaking on platforms during elections, enrolling people to vote and joining their unions or forming women’s branches of unions. [2] Why would not such women aspire to speak in the parliament? It seems very unlikely – they were articulate, politically aware and policy conscious – of course they would want to make themselves heard and their contributions to policy making at the highest levels.

 

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However, firstly women had to be enfranchised and they went about it with gusto. Vida Goldstein is one woman whose thoughts on the subject remain available through her exposition of the movement that took place in Victoria from 1869. Goldstein rightly refers to the role women with land had accomplished in school suffrage and municipal suffrage – important areas of influence which, with the legitimate passion for becoming Members of Parliament are sometimes forgotten. Goldstein, however, suggests that women were most interested in the state sphere, because of the social and domestic issues with which they grappled.[3] Even a woman with her vision for Australian women could not foresee their most recent roles in Australia – as Party leaders and Premiers and a Prime Minister, and ministers of defence, finance, immigration and foreign affairs.

In 1873, George Higginbotham, then MLA and later Chief Justice raised the matter of woman suffrage in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Women Suffrage Leagues were formed in the Australian states and in 1895 South Australian women were enfranchised, followed in 1899 by Western Australian women. When the states federated the Federal Parliament granted adult suffrage – women were able to vote in federal elections, but still not in some states. They followed, with some argument [4] with New South Wales later in 1902, Tasmania in 1903 and Queensland in 1905.

Woman Suffrage in Australia follows the story of enfranchising women in Victoria through education, protests, petitions, enumerating the benefits that had been enacted in state parliaments through the women’s vote, and responses to letters from Goldstein (as president of the Women’s Political Association) to members of state and federal parliaments from the Prime Minister, state premiers, Post Master General, Attorney General, Department of the Treasury. One letter was sent from a former president to the Bishop of Tasmania. The latter’s response enumerates the benefits that he believes have arisen from the women’s votes federally and in the states with the women’s vote:

The position of women has undoubtedly been improved since the new political force has had to be seriously reckoned with.

Women themselves are gainers by having to face the responsibilities of full citizenship.

There is a growing conviction that the moral functions of the State will secure more proportionate emphasis.

Legislation on behalf of Children, girls, and women, will be more speedy and more adequate.

Australia is thus reaping the reward of having responded to the unanswerable appeal of justice.[5]

Goldstein is more explicit in her reflections on the improvements she suggests were won through changes to the law accomplished through the women’s vote in state and federal parliaments: improved education laws; naturalization laws that do not treat women as appendages; promises to introduce marriage and  divorce laws to ‘wipe out the present state laws with their glaring inequalities’; increased protection for women and children from domestic assault; improvements in the married Women’s Property Act; appointment of women as inspectors of government institutions; fathers of ‘illegitimate’ children to assist in confinement expenses; protection of girls out of work and new arrivals; raising the age of consent and the establishment of a children’s court. In some of the improvements she lists the moral issues of the time are readily apparent: laws to deal with alcohol; protection of children from indecent literature; laws about gambling; prohibition on smoking under 16 years; prohibition of the sale of opium; legitimation of children upon their parents marrying; remedies against men trading in prostitution. And further, some laws to regulate employment: regulation of hours for wage earning children; improvements in rates of pay for workers by establishing Wages Boards and the principle of equal pay for equal work in government service.[6]

Some of these aims have remained just that for women who continue fighting for justice. However, the early 1900s in Australia did achieve the vote for women, their voice was heard in public places and they were articulating the justice in women’s goals. Some, such as Vida Goldstein chose the non-party way of working towards those goals. Other women, such as Jean Beadle from Western Australia chose to join and change the Labor Party. Still others became active in their unions. At times they worked willingly together; at others they were in conflict. Whatever the case, their stories deserve to be heard and in republishing this paper the Victorian Women’s Trust has contributed to women’s history.

th74NTZQOB[1] Vida Goldstein Woman Suffrage in Australia International Suffrage Alliance, 1908, Foreword to Re-published edition, Victorian Women’s Trust, March 2008.

[2] Robin Joyce ‘Labor Women: Political Housekeepers or Politicians’, (1984) Australian Women and the Political System, ed. Marian Simms, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

[3] Goldstein, p.3.

[4] In Victoria Goldstein writes of the way in which women were fobbed off by the power of the upper house to veto legislation, pp. 4-6.

[5] Goldstein, p. 23.

[6] Goldstein, pp. 7-9.