On this day: women get the federal vote

By Emily Verdouw 7 November 2013
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On this day, in 1903, Australian women were given the right to vote in federal elections.

WEDNESDAY 16 DECEMBER 1903, the women of Australia, impassioned by a long journey, exercised their right to vote, joining New Zealand in leading a global shift to recognise women’s rights.

“The sun rose on the morning of the sixteenth upon the greatest day that ever dawned for woman in Australia,” wrote Louisa Lawson, prominent suffrage identity.

It wasn’t just the vote, Louisa said, but the fight to be seen as individuals and “not through the glasses of those interested in her suppression.” 

“Women didn’t have a lot of personal freedom,” says Dr Yvonne Corcoran-Nantes, expert in women studies at Flinders University in South Australia. “A lot of things they argued for were rights as workers, rights in marriage.”

Suffragettes handed out leaflets asking pointing out the hypocrisy of being considered citizens when paying taxes but not for voting, and why the law concerned them when they had to obey it, but not when they asked to have say in who represented them.

Fight for women’s rights

The long fight for Australian women began in 1884 when Henrietta Dugdale formed the first suffrage group; seven years later in 1891 they took 30,000 signatures to the Victorian government.

Women in South Australia and Western Australia were granted suffrage in 1895 and 1899 respectively. In 1902 women were finally granted the right to vote federally, exercising that right the following year. This Act excluded Aboriginal Australians in WA and QLD, as their state governments had refused their suffrage at that point.

Globally, the movement was a slow build. New Zealand was the first nation to grant the vote in 1893 (including Maori citizens); the U.K was 16 years behind Australia granting suffrage in 1918, the US not until 1920.

But the significance that Australia played was mostly granting the vote in conjunction with the ability for women to stand for parliament.

The anti-suffrage movement

Although four women stood at the 1903 election, none made it through; in fact, it wasn’t until 1921 that Edith Cowan, Australia’s first female MP, was elected – signifying that society was still uncomfortable with women being in power. Yvonne says men may have felt threatened.

“I think a lot of men thought they may lose something; for the most part, women really had to get out and fight in a way that we couldn’t be refused.”

As part of the anti-suffrage movement, the media portrayed women as weak and unintelligent. Most commonly cartoons depicted women disrupting parliament by jumping on chairs as a mouse crawled by, or being distracted by a missing button on a fellow MP’s shirt. 

Propaganda played on views that women would focus on trivial and domestic matters and would be too emotional, selfish and in turn be bad mothers.

Western nations rank poorly for women’s representation in parliament

Whilst Australia makes a point about being the leading nation in suffrage, it’s one of the worst nations in the world in terms of women being represented in parliament says Yvonne.

“Australia is ranked 38th in the world – and bear in mind the highest in the world is Rwanda, the UK fairs worse than Australia at 48th in the world, and the US is 69th.