Before 1901 only two colonies had granted women the right to vote: South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899. When Australia federated, the Constitution restricted voting rights in federal elections to women who held those same rights at a state level.
After lobbying by suffragists and some progressive politicians, the Commonwealth Franchise Act was enacted on 12 June 1902. Women in Australia over the age of 21 could now vote in national elections and stand for the Australian Parliament, despite many not possessing the right to do so in their home states.
Senator Richard O’Connor, 10 April 1902:
I see no reason in the world why we should continue to impose laws which have to be obeyed by the women of the community without giving them some voice in the election of the members who make those laws.
Fighting for women’s rights
Before Federation in 1901, Australia existed as separate colonies, each with their own system of governance. This meant that women had to petition separate colonial governments for the right to vote.
Female campaigners were known as suffragists and influential Australian figures included Vida Goldstein (Victoria), Catherine Helen Spence and Mary Lee (South Australia), Edith Cowan (Western Australia), Louisa Lawson (New South Wales) and Emma Miller (Queensland) among others.
Social convention dictated that women should not participate in politics, and female suffrage was widely opposed. Despite this, suffragists employed many methods to spread awareness of their cause. They held rallies and meetings, wrote letters and articles for newspapers, collated petitions, gave public speeches, sent deputations to politicians and attended sessions of parliament.
Prior to Federation, only two colonies had granted women the right to vote: South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899.
During an 1897 convention between colonies to determine the Constitution of federated Australia, the issue of female suffrage was hotly contested. The colonies that already allowed women to vote wanted their women to participate in federal elections. Those that had not established female voting did not want women involved at the federal level.
An agreement was reached whereby the new Constitution would allow an individual with an existing state vote to vote federally.
In the years between the 1897 convention and the official enactment of Federation in 1901, suffragists continued to petition politicians to amend the agreement and include the federal franchise of women in the Constitution. While this did not occur by Federation, on 9 April 1902 Senator Richard O’Connor introduced into the Senate the Commonwealth Franchise Bill that, if passed, would remedy this.
Senator O'Connor's Bill
The Bill created much debate, as it would allow both women and many non-European migrants from British colonies to vote. Many politicians from states that did not have universal suffrage felt the legislation aimed to pressure state governments into allowing excluded people to vote. There were also arguments that should it pass women would neglect their traditional family roles in favour of politics.
Despite this, most opponents made it known that they would agree to parts of the Bill dealing with women for the sake of political uniformity between the colonies. The same concession was not granted to non-European people and their inclusion was rejected.
Passing the Bill
By 12 June 1902, the legislation, with restrictive amendments, had passed through both the Senate and the House of Representatives and been given royal assent by the Governor General. Women in Australia over the age of 21 could now vote in elections and stand for the Australian Parliament, although many still did not have the right to do the same in their home states.
While women ran in elections from 1903, it was not until 1943 that the first of them won seats in the Australian Parliament — Enid Lyons in the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney in the Senate.
Setting a precedent
As Australia was one of the first places in the world to allow women the vote, Australian suffragists were called upon by women in other countries, especially England and the United States, to provide advice. Many, including the popular Vida Goldstein, travelled to the US and UK to speak at public forums and to attend rallies and marches for the British suffragists.
The banner pictured below was created by Australian artist Dora Meeson and was first carried by Vida and other Australian women in a march in London in 1908. The banner asks ‘Mother England’ to entrust women with the responsibility and the right to vote, as the Australian nation had done in 1902.
The legislation was ground-breaking but it is worth noting that it excluded not only non-European migrants but also Indigenous Australians of either sex, who did not receive the vote at the federal level until 1962.
1 The term ‘suffragist’ is distinct from ‘suffragette’. At the time, women who supported enfranchisement were called suffragists. Suffragettes referred to more militant suffragists, such as the Pankhursts and their supporters.
In our collection
Kirsten Lees, Votes for Women: The Australian Story, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1995
Audrey Oldfield, Woman Suffrage in Australia: A Gift or a Struggle?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992