First New Zealand and then Australia

suffragettesThe vote for Australian women

In many nations, the fight for the right to vote and stand in elections was often a long, desperate and violent battle.

In the United Kingdom for example, many suffragettes were imprisoned and went on self-enforced hunger strikes which resulted in force-feeding and sometimes ended in death; others set fire to buildings and heckled politicians. In one particularly notable case, Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 (and later died as a result) in a bid to draw attention to ‘the cause’. Despite this sort of radical action, it was not for a further five years that women in the United Kingdom were given limited rights to vote and not until 1928 that women’s voting rights there were equal to men’s.

By comparison, Australian women used peaceful and legal means to make their case for political enfranchisement. They were granted equal status with men at the ballot box at a relatively early stage in the history of women’s suffrage. Australian women didn’t end the fight after they were enfranchised in 1902. Understanding the experience of other nations, in particular the United Kingdom (where women did not get equal voting rights with men until 1928), Australian women did what they could to effect change there, too.

n example of the extraordinary efforts made by Australian women to win the vote is the efforts made to gather over 40,000 signatures in support of women’s suffrage on two important petitions. Covering much of the nation, women suffrage campaigners travelled thousands of miles knocking on doors and eventually getting around 1% of the entire population of Australia to sign.

The first petition sought that ‘Women should Vote on Equal terms with Men’, and was gathered during 1891 when a few dedicated women including Marie Kirk, Vida Goldstein and Annette Bear-Crawford, literally went from door to door, eventually gathering almost 30,000 signatures from women all over Victoria and from all walks of life. It was presented to Parliament in September 1891.

Now one of Victoria’s archival treasures, the document is known as the ‘Monster Petition’ because of its size. At 260 metres long it takes three people three hours to unroll it from one spool to another. Although this petition did not have an immediate effect on the voting rights of women in Victoria, it was an early and important stepping stone towards women’s participation in politics, not just in Victoria but for all of Australia.

he next petition was collected in 1894 in South Australia. After three failed attempts to have bills passed to grant women’s suffrage, Mary Lee and a number of women’s rights groups in the state redoubled their efforts, encouraged by the recent enfranchisement of women in New Zealand (the first country in the world to do so). Their aim was to travel all over the state (which included the Northern Territory at the time) collecting as many signatures as they could in support of granting women the vote.

On August 23, 1894 when the Adult Suffrage Bill was read in the South Australian Parliament the women presented a petition which had 11,600 signatures and was 122 metres long. It was a success. On 18 December, 1894 women were granted the right to vote and stand for Parliament – this was the first legislation in the world of its kind. South Australian women were able to participate in the general elections of 1896.

In 1902, as a result of the vigorous lobbying of Australian suffragettes, the Commonwealth of Australia became the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote in federal elections and the right to be elected to federal parliament when they passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Cth). Although liberating for white women, the Act specifically excluded aboriginal women (and men), who would have to wait for many more years until they were formally given the right to vote by the Commonwealth, in 1962.

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