Women's suffrage in Australia

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Australia's first female political candidate, South Australian suffragette Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910). South Australian women won the vote in 1895 and Spence stood for office in 1897.
Edith Cowan (1861-1932) was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921 and was the first woman elected to any Australian Parliament.

Women's suffrage in Australia was one of the earliest objectives of the movement for gender equality in Australia. It began to be socially and politically accepted and legislated during the late 19th century, beginning with South Australia in 1895 and Western Australia in 1899. In 1902, the newly established Australian Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which set a uniform law enabling women to vote at federal elections and to stand for the federal Parliament. This removed gender discrimination in relation to electoral rights for federal elections in Australia. By 1911, the remaining Australian states had legislated for women's suffrage for state elections.


Traditional Aboriginal society had been governed by councils of elders and a corporate decision making process, but the first European-style governments established after 1788 were autocratic and run by appointed governors - although English law was transplanted into the Australian colonies by virtue of the doctrine of reception, thus notions of the rights and processes established by the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1689 were brought from Britain by the colonists. Agitation for representative government began soon after the settlement of the colonies.[1]

The oldest legislative body in Australia, the New South Wales Legislative Council, was created in 1825 as an appointed body to advise the Governor of New South Wales. In 1840 the Adelaide City Council and the Sydney City Council were established with limited male suffrage. Australia's first parliamentary elections were conducted for the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, again with voting rights (for males only) tied to property ownership or financial capacity. Voter rights were extended further in New South Wales in 1850 and elections for legislative councils were held in the colonies of Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania.[2]

By the mid-19th century, there was a strong desire for representative and responsible government in the colonies of Australia, fed by the democratic spirit of the goldfields evident at the Eureka Stockade and the ideas of the great reform movements sweeping Europe, the United States and the British Empire. The end of convict transportation accelerated reform in the 1840s and 1850s. The Australian Colonies Government Act, passed in 1850, was a landmark development that granted representative constitutions to New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and the colonies enthusiastically set about writing constitutions which produced democratically progressive parliaments - though the constitutions generally maintained the role of the colonial upper houses as representative of social and economic "interests" and all established Constitutional Monarchies with the British monarch as the symbolic head of state.[3] 1855 also saw the granting of the right to vote to all male British subjects 21 years or over in South Australia. This right was extended to Victoria in 1857 and New South Wales the following year. The other colonies followed until, in 1896, Tasmania became the last colony to grant universal male suffrage.[2]

Women's suffrage movement

Robert Menzies (left) walking with early woman parliamentarian Enid Lyons (to his immediate right) in 1946. Menzies appointed Lyons as the first woman to sit in an Australian Cabinet in 1949.

A movement for women's suffrage also gathered pace during the 19th century. The female descendants of the Bounty mutineers who lived on Pitcairn Islands could vote from 1838, and this right transferred with their resettlement to Norfolk Island (now an Australian external territory) in 1856.[4]

Propertied women in the colony of South Australia were granted the vote in local elections (but not parliamentary elections) in 1861. By a legislative mistake, Victoria had briefly allowed women to vote when the Electoral Act 1863 enfranchised all ratepayers listed on local municipal rolls. Women in Victoria voted in the 1864 general election. The legislative mistake was quickly repaired in 1865. In 1884, Henrietta Dugdale formed the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society, the first Australian women's suffrage society in Melbourne, Victoria. It took 19 private members' bills from 1889 until Victorian women gained the vote in 1908, and were able to exercise the vote in 1911.

The organisations involved in the suffrage movement varied across the colonies. In 1889, Rose Scott helped to found the Women's Literary Society, which grew into the Womanhood Suffrage League in 1891. In Queensland, the Women's Equal Franchise Association was formed in 1894. A unified body, the Australian Women's Suffrage Society was formed in 1889, with the aim of educating women and men about a woman's right to vote and stand for parliament. Key figures in the Australian suffrage movement included: from South Australia Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence; in Western Australia Edith Cowan; from New South Wales Maybanke Anderson, Louisa Lawson, Dora Montefiore and Rose Scott; from Tasmania Alicia O'Shea Petersen and Jessie Rooke; from Queensland Emma Miller; and from Victoria Annette Bear-Crawford, Henrietta Dugdale, Vida Goldstein, Alice Henry and Annie Lowe.

Suffrage petitions

The suffrage societies across the continent collected signatures for monster petitions to be tabled in Parliament. The results varied. Recently some of these petitions have been transcribed and can be searched digitally. The Parliament of South Australia endorsed the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1894 and the law received royal assent from Queen Victoria in 1895.[5] The law applied equally in the Northern Territory, which was then a part of South Australia. In 1897, Catherine Helen Spence became the first female political candidate for political office, unsuccessfully standing for election in South Australia as a delegate to Federal Convention on Australian Federation, which was held in Adelaide.[6] Western Australia granted voting rights to women in 1899.[7]

Queensland's Women's Equal Franchise Association collected two petitions in 1894 for women's suffrage.[8] The first Women's Suffrage Petition received 7781 signatures by women and the second received 3575 signatures by men. The petitions called for one vote and one vote only, as at that time men with property had plural votes.[9] A third petition was organized by the Women's Christian Temperance Movement of Queensland in 1897 and attracted 3869 signatures by men and women, and called for votes for women on the same basis as men.[10]

Towards voting rights

The first election for the Parliament of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was based on the electoral laws of the six federating colonies, so that women who had the vote and the right to stand for Parliament at state level (i.e., in South Australia and Western Australia) had the same rights for the 1901 Australian federal election. In 1902, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the uniform Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which enabled women to vote at elections for the federal Parliament. The States soon gave women over 21 the vote: New South Wales in 1902, Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905, and Victoria in 1908.

Female suffrage
Right to vote Right to stand
for Parliament
Commonwealth 1902 1902
South Australia 1895 1895
Western Australia 1899 1920
New South Wales[11] 1902 1918
Tasmania 1903 1921
Queensland 1905 1915
Victoria 1908 1923

Women in political office

In 1897, in South Australia, Catherine Helen Spence was the first woman to stand as a political candidate,[12] after standing (unsuccessfully) for the Federal Convention held in Adelaide.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which enabled women to vote at federal elections, also permitted women to stand for election for the Australian Parliament. Four women stood for election at the 1903 federal election.[7] They were Mary Moore-Bentley and Nellie Martel from New South Wales, and Vida Goldstein from Victoria, all of whom stood for the Senate, and Selina Anderson who contested the Sydney House of Representatives seat of Dalley. All failed to get major party endorsement and stood as independents, and all were unsuccessful. Goldstein stood for the Senate again in 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1917, all without success. Eva Seery contested Labor Party preselection for the Senate in 1916 but was unsuccessful. She and Henrietta Greville were endorsed Labor candidates at the 1917 federal election, though for safe conservative seats. Though unsuccessful they were the first women to stand for the Australian Parliament with major party endorsement.

The first woman elected to any Australian Parliament was Edith Cowan, elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921. Dame Enid Lyons, in the Australian House of Representatives and Senator Dorothy Tangney, became the first women in the federal Parliament in 1943. Lyons went on to be the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in the 1949 ministry of Robert Menzies. Menzies appointed her Minister without Portfolio, and given the role of Vice-President of the Executive Council, which gave her a seat in Cabinet but no departmental duties. She held the position between 19 December 1949 and 7 March 1951, and is the only woman to have occupied the position.

Rosemary Follett of the Australian Labor Party was elected Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory in 1989, becoming the first woman elected to lead a state or territory. The state parliamentary Labor Parties of Western Australia and Victoria selected women to replace their incumbent leaders in 1990: Carmen Lawrence was Premier of Western Australia between 12 February 1990 and 16 February 1993; and Joan Kirner was Premier of Victoria between 10 August 1990 and 6 October 1992. Both leaders suffered defeat at the subsequent state elections. Clare Martin became Labor Opposition Leader in the Northern Territory in 1999, and won a victory at the 2001 territory election, becoming the first ALP and first female Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. At the 2005 NT election, she led Territory Labor to the second-largest majority government in the history of the Territory, before resigning as Chief Minister on 26 November 2007. Anna Bligh became the leader of the Queensland Labor Party and Premier of Queensland on 12 September 2007 and then led the party to victory in the 2009 Queensland State Election.[13] After Bligh's loss at the 2012 Queensland State Election, Annastacia Palaszczuk succeeded her as party leader, and led the ALP to victory at the 2015 Queensland State Election, to become the second Labor Premier of Queensland on 14 February 2015, leading the party to victory from Opposition. Palaszczuk's ministry has a female majority of 8 of 14, a first in Australia.[14] Kristina Keneally was the Labor Premier of New South Wales between 4 December 2009 and 28 March 2011. Julia Gillard was the Labor Prime Minister of Australia between 24 June 2010 and 27 June 2013. Lara Giddings was Labor Premier of Tasmania from 24 January 2011 to 31 March 2014.

Marie Bashir was Governor of New South Wales from 1 March 2001 to 1 October 2014. Quentin Bryce was Governor-General of Australia from 5 September 2008 to 28 March 2014. Linda Dessau has been the first female Governor of Victoria since 1 July 2015.

The Coalition Abbott Ministry formed in September 2013 contained only one woman in cabinet — Julie Bishop, the Liberal Party deputy leader — to widespread criticism,[15] and Abbott added a second woman to his cabinet in Sussan Ley following a reshuffle in December 2014.[16][17][18][19] The Turnbull Ministry, announced on 20 September 2015, increased the number of female ministers to five, out of 21 Cabinet Ministers, including for the first time a female Assistant Treasurer in Kelly O'Dwyer and a Minister of Defence in Senator Marise Payne.[20] In a reshuffle on 13 February 2016, the number of women in cabinet became six, with the election by the National Party of Fiona Nash to the position of deputy leader, the first woman to hold the position, who was also brought into the cabinet.

In 2010 Sydney, Australia's oldest city, had female leaders occupying every major political office, with Clover Moore as Lord Mayor, Kristina Keneally as Premier of New South Wales, Marie Bashir as Governor of New South Wales, Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, Quentin Bryce as Governor-General of Australia, and Elizabeth II as Queen of Australia.

Other milestones

Since 1983, a married woman's application for an Australian passport does not need to be authorised by her husband.[21]

See also


  1. "Our Democracy: Democracy timeline — Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House". Moadoph.gov.au. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Australia's major electoral developments Timeline: 1788 - 1899 - Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 2010-06-11. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "The Right to Vote in Australia - Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 2007-11-26. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. EC (2005-04-13). "Votes for Women | Elections New Zealand". Elections.org.nz. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Women’s Suffrage Petition 1894: parliament.sa.gov.au
  6. "Documenting Democracy". Foundingdocs.gov.au. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Electoral Milestones for Women - Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 2008-12-17. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Oldfield, Audrey, Woman Suffrage in Australia: A Gift or a Struggle? Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 116, 119, 121.
  9. Centenary of Women's Suffrage 2005; D. Jordan 'Leading the Call for 'One Vote and No More': Emma Miller (1839-1917)' in Rosemary Francis, Patricia Grimshaw, Ann Standish (eds) "Seizing the Initiative"
  10. McCulloch, John E. S, "From suffragists to legislators", Central Queensland University Press, 2005.
  11. "About us". NSW Parliament. Retrieved 17 July 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Electoral Milestones for Women - Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 2011-01-28. Retrieved 2012-03-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Beaming Bligh: You can count on me - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Historic day for women in Queensland". Sunshince Coast Daily. 16 February 2015. Retrieved 27 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Crowe, David (17 September 2013). "Liberals' 'despair' at jobs for boys". The Australian. Retrieved 17 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Tony Abbott's revamped Ministry sworn in at Government House". news.com.au. News Corp Australia. 23 December 2014. Retrieved 23 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Cabinet reshuffle: Tony Abbott promotes Sussan Ley to Health, David Johnston axed". News.com.au. 21 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Chung, Frank (21 December 2014). "The shape of things to come: New Health Minister Sussan Ley's 'slush fund' speech shows she has fight". News.com.au. Retrieved 21 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Taylor, Lenore (21 December 2014). "Tony Abbott cabinet reshuffle moves Scott Morrison out of immigration". Guardian Australia. Retrieved 21 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. The Age, 20 September 2015: Malcolm Turnbull cabinet reshuffle: Women, young MPs the big winners in '21st century' team
  21. Passports.gov.au Passport History

External links