At the turn of the 20th century, Australia was considered one of the most progressive democratic nations in the world. In 1902, we became the second country to grant women the vote and the first to permit women to stand for parliament. Always one step ahead, women in New Zealand had been given the vote in 1893 but they had to wait until 1919 for the right to enter government themselves.
Four-part SBS series Australia In Colour, explores Australia's colourful history, including our fight for women's voting rights which started pre-Federation. Calls for women’s suffrage had become increasingly clamorous as the 19th century drew to a close. In 1894, women in South Australia won the vote following a campaign led by members of a group called the Women’s Suffrage League, among them Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence, who became Australia’s first female political candidate when she ran – unsuccessfully – for a seat in the South Australian parliament in 1897. It was the fourth attempt to pass female suffrage in South Australia and in 1899, Western Australia followed suit.
When Federation passed in 1901, it was a push from these progressive states that resulted in female enfranchisement with the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act in 1902, which granted the right to vote to British subjects over the age of 21.
Notably, universal suffrage was not accorded to Indigenous women, who had to wait until 1962 for enfranchisement. Indigenous women who could vote in South Australia before Federation were effectively disenfranchised by the Commonwealth Franchise Act when it was passed in 1902 (as were Indigenous men, who had gained the right to vote with all other males in South Australia in 1856). Other non-white Australians, including people from Asian, African and Pacific Islander origin, were also denied the vote under the legislation. There were some exceptions, including granting the right to vote to Indigenous Australians enrolled to vote in state elections – though few could actually do so, and legislation introduced in 1949 extending the right to vote in federal elections to Indigenous people who had served in the armed forces.
Granting women the right to stand for election did not, as it turned out, result in a flood of female candidates taking over the halls of the nation’s parliaments. Four women stood as independents in the 1903 federal election, and all were unsuccessful. It was Edith Cowan, a leader of the suffrage movement, who became the first female MP when she was elected to Western Australia’s Legislative Assembly in 1921.
It took 41 years after the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act to see the first women enter Australia’s federal parliament. Indeed, when Old Parliament House was built in 1927, it was without female-friendly amenities like ladies’ toilets for sitting members. In 1943, two women finally arrived in Canberra to represent their constituents: Enid Lyons, the widow of former prime minister Joseph Lyons, who entered the House of Representatives as the Member for Darwin (a Tasmanian electorate), where she remained until she retired due to ill health in 1951, and Dorothy Tangney, who represented Western Australia in the Senate for 25 years.
And of course, in 2010, Victorian MP Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister – a mere 108 years after the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act.
Experience Australia’s story brought vividly to life when the 4-part series Australia in Colour premieres at 8.30pm on Wednesday 6 March on SBS. Available anytime, anywhere on your favourite device after broadcast on SBS On Demand.