The Suffragettes

Ever heard of the Suffragettes? They were a pretty awesome bunch of women who campaigned for women’s rights to vote in elections around the world between the 1880s and 1920s. They were successful in advancing women’s right to participate in democracy. Basically, these women are the reason you can vote in state and federal elections when you’re 18. That’s kind of a big deal.

Throughout the history of the world, women have been denied the right to vote and to participate in politics. It was only a a little more than a century ago that New Zealand became the very first nation to grant women the right to vote in 1893. Back then the idea of women having a say in political affairs was laughable to many. Now, with female leaders and parliamentarians playing a key role in democratic life, the joke’s on them. But these changes would never have happened without women’s activism for political and civil rights.

The suffragette movement developed out of the first wave of feminism in the 19th century, when women began to fight for women’s rights and equality in public life. They argued for political and civil rights equal to those of men and for the emancipation of women from traditional roles that placed restrictions on their lives. Women began movements throughout the world promoting the advancement of women’s rights and began lobbying for the right to vote, becoming known as the ‘Suffragettes’.

The Australian Suffragettes

In Australia, the Suffragette movement began with the determination of women’s groups and organisations who advocated for women’s right to vote. The Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society was the first women’s suffrage society, formed in 1884 largely due to efforts of Henrietta Dugdale, a key activist in the suffrage movement. The suffragettes began to organise across different states, publishing leaflets, running debates and public meetings and engaging with members of parliament to push for women’s suffrage.

These ladies didn’t have the advantages of Facebook and Twitter to promote their message. Nope, they literally traveled from place to place and knocked on every door to spread the word and gain support for women’s rights to vote.

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Gaining suffrage in Australia – a brief history

It’s hard to imagine now, but it was only a bit over a century ago that the idea of women being able to vote in Australia was considered ridiculous. Women’s role in society was confined to the home and to domestic and family duties. Sexist notions that saw women as weak, emotional and incapable of much more than catering to the needs of her children or husband were widely held in society.

The space of politics was a men’s only club, and many feared that allowing women to enter political debate could result in the introduction of ‘feminine’ attitudes and ‘weakness’ to public life. Yep, it was a pretty tough world for women, and those fighting for change faced many battles.

So how on earth did we get to where we are now, to a place where the right of women to vote is fundamental to our democracy and political discussion?

Women suffrage campaigners traveled around the nation, literally knocking from door to door to gather signatures on support of women’s suffrage on two important petitions. Gathering over 40,000 signatures, these women’s efforts resulted in around 1% of the entire population of Australia signing, which was a huge achievement at a time when the idea of women being involved in politics was widely ridiculed.

The Monster Petition

The first petition was gathered in 1891 and sought to gain support for the claim that Victorian women should be able to vote on equal terms with men. It is known as the Monster Petition’ because of its enormous size. At 260 metres long it takes three people three hours to unroll it from end to end!

Determined in their fight to secure voting rights for women, the suffragettes went door to door with their petition to gain voting rights for Victorian women.  Key figures in the suffragette movement including Vida Goldstein, Marie Kirk and Annette Bear-Crawford, played a hugely influential role in distributing the petition, which gained over 30,000 signatures in less than six months!

With the support of tens of thousands of Victorians, the petition was presented to Parliament in September 1981. But still, the Victorian Upper House refused to give women equal voting rights to men. Despite the disappointment faced by the women who had fought tirelessly to petition the Victorian Government, the Monster Petition was a momentous achievement for the suffragette movement and another step closer toward gaining voting rights.

Success for suffragettes in South Australia!

The second iconic petition was gathered in South Australia in 1894. Women’s rights groups and key suffragette figures such as Mary Lee, reignited their efforts after three failed attempts to grant women’s suffrage. The recent enfranchisement (the right to vote) of women in New Zealand – the very first country in the world to grant women the right to vote – encouraged the suffragette movement in Australia and the determination of women in S.A to travel across the state in order to collect as many signatures as possible in support of granting women the right to vote.

The petition was presented to the South Australian Parliament on August 23, 1984, with 11,600 signatures and a whopping 120 metres in length. Finally, the efforts of the suffragette women were a success, and on 18 December, 1984 South Australian women were granted the right to vote AND to stand for Parliament. This included Aboriginal women, who along with Aboriginal men were not given the right to vote in Federal Elections until 1962.

At the Ngarrindjeri mission at Point McLeay, Aboriginal women insisted on enrolling on the electoral roll and voting in the 1896 election, despite being firmly discouraged by the white manager of the mission.

The South Australian legislation was a momentous achievement on both the national and international level as the legislation was the first in the world to grant women’s suffrage as well as the right to stand for Parliament.

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Suffrage Australia-wide

The success for suffrage in different state elections was the result of the determination of suffrage and women’s rights groups and a long, difficult fight to challenge resistance from governments and those in society who opposed women’s enfranchisement. After the success of South Australia’s suffrage movement, Western Australia granted women’s suffrage in 1899, followed by NSW in 1902. Tasmania and Queensland followed, and then in 1908, Victoria finally granted women the right to vote.

In 1902, as an outcome of the relentless lobbying of Australian suffragettes and women’s groups, Australia granted women – except for Indigenous women – the right to vote in federal elections passing the Commonwealth Franchise Act. Along with suffrage, the Australian Government also gave women the right to be elected to federal parliament.

While this was a landmark achievement for the suffragette movement and for white women, Indigenous women (and men) were specifically excluded from the Act which included a clause banning all “non-whites” from voting. It was not until 1962 following increasing pressure to end the racial discrimination against Indigenous Australians, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were given the right to vote in federal elections.

What this means for us today

Crazy as it seems, women weren’t always guaranteed the right to vote. It took a lot of hard work and determination for women to gain this fundamental right and be allowed a democratic voice.

The Suffragettes did more than winning the right for women to vote, they also helped encourage women’s fight for reproductive and social rights and advance women’s empowerment. It’s because of their efforts women can cast their vote on election day and make their democratic voice heard – that’s pretty darn cool.