On this day: SA gives women the vote

By Alyce Taylor 7 November 2013
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South Australia led the way, becoming the first colony to give women the vote.

ON TUESDAY MORNING, 18 December 1894, the division bells tolled 29, 30, 31… At 31, triumphant cries and applause echoed out of the South Australian parliament as tired campaigners celebrated. They had done it. South Australian women had won the right to vote by 31 votes to 14.

The bill had been debated until after midnight the previous evening. And, as with nearly every debate on the issue, women packed into the public gallery of SA’s parliament building to observe the proceedings.

South Australia among first in the world to grant women the vote

South Australia would be the first Australian colony to give women the vote, and only the fourth place in the world to do so, following New Zealand 18 months earlier. The bill that was passed also made South Australia the first place in the world where women could stand for elections. The right to stand for parliament and other liberal privileges was a clause that was attached to the Act by a councillor who had supposed that these additions would make the bill too radical for it to ever be passed. 

But the suffragists and sympathetic associates had been hard at work. They had produced before parliament a few months earlier a massive petition containing 11,600 signatures on a long series of pages pasted together. The final roll measured 122m. This lengthy petition had stirred up great interest across the colony and had made the suffragists impossible to ignore.

The bill that gave women the right to vote was officially enacted on 2 February 1895, when it was signed by Queen Victoria. Women would use their new rights for the first time in 1896 arriving in masses to vote.

Suffragette movement in Australia

“It was certainly a momentous occasion. But although women won the right to vote historically quite early compared to the rest of the world, the role that women had in really shaping politics came much later,” says Dr Kathy MacDermott from the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Australia.

“Feminism has been a continuous movement,” she says, rather than a series of single events. 

It was however not until 1959 that a woman was elected to South Australian state government, although Edith Cowan was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921.

Nonetheless, SA has remained at the forefront of political leaps for Australian women. Most recently in 2010, Julia Gillard who grew up in Adelaide, SA, became the first female Australian prime minister. 

NOTE: Indigenous Australians

While the right to vote in South Australia was extended to Indigenous men and women in 1895, they were not actively encouraged to enrol, and in 1902, under the Commonwealth Franchise Act, this right was revoked for any Aboriginal person not already enrolled.

In 1962, the Commonwealth Electoral Act gave Indigenous Australians the right to enrol and vote at federal elections, but enrolment was not compulsory. It was not until 1967 that Indigenous Australians were recognised as Australian citizens and given full citizenship rights.