Australia Extends Suffrage to Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1902, newly independent Australia became the second modern nation, after New Zealand, to extend suffrage to women, an example soon followed by many Western democracies.

Summary of Event

In 1902, Australia’s Commonwealth Franchise Act gave all women the right to vote in elections for the two houses of the new Commonwealth Parliament, the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the right to stand for election to Parliament (although the latter would not happen for another forty-one years). The act excluded “aboriginal natives of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand” unless they already had the right to vote at the state level. Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Australia Women;suffrage Australia;woman suffrage Commonwealth Franchise Act (1902) [kw]Australia Extends Suffrage to Women (June 12, 1902) [kw]Suffrage to Women, Australia Extends (June 12, 1902) [kw]Women, Australia Extends Suffrage to (June 12, 1902) Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Australia Women;suffrage Australia;woman suffrage Commonwealth Franchise Act (1902) [g]Australia;June 12, 1902: Australia Extends Suffrage to Women[00510] [c]Social issues and reform;June 12, 1902: Australia Extends Suffrage to Women[00510] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 12, 1902: Australia Extends Suffrage to Women[00510] [c]Women’s issues;June 12, 1902: Australia Extends Suffrage to Women[00510] O’Connor, Richard Lyne, Sir William Goldstein, Vida

Across Australia, women had campaigned for the right to vote for years. Strong campaigns for woman suffrage had begun in the early 1880’s and were supported by a wide variety of organizations and movements, including the temperance movement and the Social Purity League.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act, passed by Australia’s Parliament and signed into law by the governor-general on June 12, 1902, was intended to remedy the fact that Australia had no uniform system for voting. Any person who was enrolled and eligible to vote in a state election could also vote in a federal election, but all the states had different systems, using different criteria to determine who could vote. The act was first introduced in the Senate by Senator Richard O’Connor of New South Wales. It was one of the few pieces of major legislation ever introduced in the Senate before being introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill was debated in the Senate for three days before it was passed.

The act was introduced into the House on April 23 by Sir William Lyne, the minister for home affairs, who said he had not always been in favor of votes for women but that “some ten or twelve years ago I formed the conclusion that not only was it just to accord women the vote, but that it was in the best interests of the entire community.” The public was highly interested in the fate of the act, and women thronged the galleries and public seating areas on the floor of the House chamber to watch the proceedings. The act passed the House of Representatives on April 24, 1902.

There were many objections to the idea of giving women the right to vote. Some politicians, such as Sir Edward Braddon, Braddon, Edward were concerned that the act would weigh voting in favor of married men, as it was assumed that wives would vote the way their husbands wished. Braddon declared himself puzzled by “the craze . . . for female suffrage which exhibits itself in these southern seas.” William Sawers Sawers, William protested that because there was a higher percentage of women in the cities, rural areas would be underrepresented. Others worried that the distribution of seats among the states in the House of Representatives, originally determined by the percentages of male voters in the states, would be skewed, with the number of seats held by South Australia and Western Australia increasing. Thomas Glassey Glassey, Thomas of the Protectionist Party argued that “women would be influenced by the clergy, by good-looking candidates, and by young men” and that “the extension of suffrage to women would take away their beauty and their charm, and cause them to neglect their domestic affairs.” Despite such arguments, the act was approved by large majorities in both houses of Parliament.

The relatively short act (two pages) included five sections, the third of which gave the federal vote to anyone over the age of twenty-one who had lived in Australia for six months, was a natural-born or naturalized subject of the British Empire, and was on the electoral rolls in any federal electoral division. Because women in the states of South Australia and Western Australia could vote at the state level, the act gave them the right to vote at the federal level. Women in the states of New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, and Victoria achieved the right to vote at the federal level on December 16, 1903, under this act and won the right to vote at the state level in 1902, 1903, 1905, and 1908, respectively.

One implication of the act that had not been discussed before its passage was the fact that it made women eligible to stand for election to Parliament. When, in 1903, at the first federal election after passage of the act, four women received nominations, a public furor arose. Vida Goldstein of Victoria and Nellie Martel Martel, Nellie and Mary Ann Moore Bentley Bentley, Mary Ann Moore of New South Wales stood for Senate election, and Selina Anderson Anderson, Selina stood for the seat of Dalley (New South Wales) in the House of Representatives. These women, all four of whom were ultimately defeated, were the first women nominated for any national parliament in the British Empire.

Vida Goldstein.

(National Library of Australia)

At that time, the majority of Australian citizens felt that it was not respectable for a woman to have paid employment. Working women were concentrated in unskilled occupations and were expected to give up their jobs if they married. This may be one of the reasons that, although many Australian women exercised their right to vote, they were much slower to assume a place in Parliament. The major Australian political parties, which believed that neither male nor female voters would cast their ballots for female candidates, did not support any such candidates until World War II, when Enid Lyons Lyons, Enid of Tasmania was elected to the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney Tangney, Dorothy gathered enough votes to fill a vacancy caused by the death of a Western Australian senator. Tangney was the first woman to gain endorsement for the Senate from the Australian Labor Party.

Significance

Following the enfranchisement of Australian women, political parties and the press were eager to offer women voters advice. Several newspapers, such as the Melbourne Argus, provided guides for the new voters, and the electoral authorities of the Home Affairs Department published and distributed instructions on the voting process. Factories, offices, and shops employing women were urged to grant their employees time off on election days so that they could vote, and many did so.

Increasing numbers of women began attending political meetings, many of which reserved sections of seats for them, and women also began holding their own meetings, inviting approved candidates to address them and holding mock elections in order to educate themselves on the process of voting.

Although women exercised their new right to vote eagerly, they found limited opportunities as candidates, as the established political parties viewed men as being more likely to win votes. Many early woman suffragists in turn distrusted the major political parties, feeling that the parties were protective of men’s interests. Only twenty-six women in total were nominated to run for seats in the Australian parliament before 1943, when shifting attitudes about gender—caused in part by women’s changing participation in society during World War II—led to increased numbers of female candidates and successful elections.

Women fighting for voting rights in other countries were encouraged by the success of the Australian women to continue their struggle. Many Australian suffragists, such as Vida Goldstein and Alice Henry, emboldened by their success at home, traveled to England and became involved in the woman suffrage movement there.

In 1910, almost a decade after passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act, the Australian Senate passed a resolution regarding woman suffrage that was then cabled to the British prime minister. It concluded: “Because the reform has brought nothing but good, though disaster was freely prophesied, we respectfully urge that all nations enjoying representative government would be well advised in granting votes to women.” Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Australia Women;suffrage Australia;woman suffrage Commonwealth Franchise Act (1902)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irving, Helen. The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Provides a comprehensive overview and history of the federation in Australia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. To Constitute a Nation: A Cultural History of Australia’s Constitution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Thorough examination of the creation and development of Australia’s constitution. Includes information about women’s and minority issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oldfield, Audrey. Woman Suffrage in Australia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Overview of the history of suffrage movements in Australia compares the struggle with that of suffragists in England and the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woollacott, Angela. To Try Her Fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Discusses the migration of Australian women to London and their impact on the British Empire, including the English woman suffrage movement.

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