The role of women in federation and the writing of the Australian Constitution

Here at CEFA we are getting very excited that stage 2 of the Australian Constitution Centre will soon be funded by the Australian Government. We will be delivering exciting new resources to support the Australian Curriculum Civics and Citizenship years 4 to 10. Our resources will be developed in collaboration with the Department of Education. Today’s CCF gives you a taste of some of the exciting constitutional topics our teaching and learning materials could explore.

In the 1880s Australian women did not have equal rights to men. It was difficult to attend university. In 1883 the first woman graduated from the University of Melbourne, Belle Guerin with a Bachelor of Arts and became a teacher. Women could not be lawyers or doctors or members of Parliament. It was common to pay women half the male rate for any job. When women married all their possessions were owned by their husband. Many women didn’t think their issues and problems would be taken seriously until they had the right to vote for who sat in the Parliament, the right to be MPs and make the laws.

Throughout the 1880’s women started forming rights groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Suffrage Society and the Women’s Suffrage League to push for women’s suffrage.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union wanted to restrict the drinking of alcohol in the Australian colonies. Domestic violence was common and in those days there were no women’s shelters or government support programs. A man could also abandon his wife and children and leave them in poverty.

Hopefully, most women were happy to be at home caring for their children and their husbands. However, some women did not choose the marriage path. As NSW suffragist Rose Scott said on numerous occasions ‘life is too short to waste it in the service of one man’. But refusing to get married was not an option for many women, especially working class women who did not get equal pay. Unless your family could afford to keep you, marriage was often the only option.

The women’s suffrage groups met in tea houses and other locations and formed campaign strategies. Some women were in support of federation, while others, like Rose Scott in New South Wales were against it. They would withhold support for federation until the colony they lived in gave them the right to vote.

Louisa Lawson started a newspaper for women in New South Wales in 1888. She employed only women and pushed for women’s rights. She was boycotted for employing an un-unionised workforce, however, her women employees were not allowed to join the union.

In Melbourne Vida Goldstein campaigned for women’s suffrage and 30,000 women signed what is known as the Monster Petition calling for women’s votes in 1891 (you can search for your own female forebears who may have signed the petition here). This alerted the people of Victoria that votes for women was not some niche issue. The petition was 260 metres long and was brought into the Parliament rolled onto a cardboard spindle.

Australia’s first Prime Minister Edmund Barton’s wife Jane was an active campaigner for federation through her work as the vice president of the Sydney Women’s Federal League. Throughout the 1890’s the Barton’s home in Sydney was an open house on Sunday evenings for federation supporters’ private gatherings.

The women’s groups in the other colonies of South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland were also campaigning. In the 1890s Catherine Helen Spence and Mary Lee from South Australia wrote letters and pamphlets and spoke at public meetings. They lobbied MPs and Ministers. In 1894 after two bills for women’s suffrage had already been defeated in the Parliament, women were given the right to vote in South Australia. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was working hard in Western Australia and in 1899 the Parliament granted women the right to vote.

In 1897 Catherine Helen Spence was the first women to run for election in Australia as a delegate at the second constitutional convention. She ran on a platform for proportional representation. She had travelled to London and met with Thomas Hare (and J.S. Mill) and had devised a proportional voting system called the Hare-Spence system.

I maintain now, as I maintained then, that the main object of my life is proportional representation, or, to use my brother John's term, effective voting.

Spence came 22nd out of 33 candidates at the election. The South Australian (all male) delegates at the 1897-98 Constitutional Conventions were aware that they would need to ensure that women were given the vote in the Commonwealth Parliament. Otherwise South Australian women may have voted against the Constitution at the referendum.

South Australian delegate Fredrick Holder took up the charge at the Constitutional Convention. His wife Julia Holder was involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and later went on to become the Australian President of the organisation. Section 41 of the Constitution was the solution. While the South Australians wanted to ensure that women in their colony (which would become a state at federation) could vote, they were careful not to tread on the toes of the delegates from the other colonies.

Section 41 Right of electors of States
No adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting at elections for either House of the Parliament of the Commonwealth.

There was a lot of discussion about whether section 41 would ensure that women in all the new states would be given the vote in the first federal electoral act. Or whether the electoral act could have different franchise in different states.

Some of the delegates thought that because the Constitution stated that federal law could not discriminate between the states and that the qualification of electors must be uniform across the States, all women would get the vote. However, there was still some ambiguity. Did this section provide uniform franchise? Could there be property or income qualification?

What was certain was that the women of South Australia and Western Australia already had the vote in their colony at federation and they could not be denied a vote in the Commonwealth Parliament. Some indigenous people also had the vote in their colony and could vote in federal elections due to section 41.

After the Yes vote at the NSW federation referendum held on 20 June 1899, the Bartons travelled to Hay in country NSW at the invitation of the Men’s and Women’s Federal Leagues. Barton acknowledged through a toast at the celebratory dinner at the Tattersall Hotel, the important work towards federation of the Women’s League and his wife.

The first Commonwealth electoral laws, The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 gave women the vote and the right to stand for Parliament. The other four states followed the lead and in NSW in 1902, Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905 and Victoria 1908 women were given the right to vote in their States as well as the federal parliament. Indigenous people who did not have the right to vote in their State before the 1902 electoral act was created were unenfranchised (explanation from Catherine Helen Spence in her 1910 autobiography: You can scarcely be disfranchised if you have never been enfranchised).

The first woman to be elected to the federal parliament was Dame Enid Lyons in 1943, the first woman to be appointed to the bench of the High Court was Mary Gaudron in 1987, the first woman to be appointed as Governor-General was Quentin Bryce in 2008, the first woman Prime Minister was Julia Gillard in 2010 and the first woman to obtain the role of Chief Justice of the High Court is Susan Kiefel in 2017.


Image source: State Library of South Australia.

SLSA B 56603 State Officers of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of South Australia. L - R: Maisie Hone; Mrs. Pengelley; Mrs. Edwards; Lady Julia Holder; Mary Lockwood; Elizabeth Nicholls.


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