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Women's right to vote in Australia

Australia led the world in giving women the vote and the right to stand for parliament. Some states in America had given women the vote earlier, as did New Zealand, but South Australia was the first place on Earth to allow women access to parliament not just through the vote but through becoming members of parliament themselves. Western Australia followed South Australia's example a few years later in 1899.

Soon after the Australian colonies joined together at Federation in 1901, women around Australia were given the right to vote in federal elections and to stand for the national parliament. Over the next few years, all states around Australia followed in granting female adult suffrage (the right to vote).

The struggle to achieve these rights began decades earlier in the 1880s. Female activists formed groups around Australia that campaigned for women's suffrage. They made public speeches, sent petitions to parliament, wrote letters to newspapers, printed posters and leaflets and conducted door-knocking campaigns.

These women, called 'suffragists' or 'suffragettes', sought to educate the public about women's right to vote. They argued it was unfair that women had to pay the same taxes as men but were not treated as equals. They pointed out that women were expected to obey the law but had no say in how those laws were made. They believed that if women were in parliament or could choose their representatives, then parliaments would make more compassionate laws and would improve society.

Although their main struggle was for suffrage, these women also campaigned for greater rights regarding marriage, children and property. Some of them were strong supporters of Federation because they believed it would help women gain the right to vote. Others argued against Federation because they thought a central government would be worse for women.

Once women had achieved the right to vote and to stand for parliament some of these groups disbanded while others continued, focusing on broader rights for women such as better working conditions. These struggles have continued since that time, although the issues have changed as society itself has changed.

The paragraphs below give brief descriptions of some of the prominent activists in the women's suffrage movement.

Mary Lee

In her late 50s, Mary Lee (see image 1) moved to Adelaide from Ireland in 1879. Once in Adelaide, she became active in changing the laws that affected women and children. Realising that the best way women could improve their lives - and society in general - was for them to be able to vote, she set up the South Australian Women's Suffrage League in 1888.

Through public speeches, visits to politicians, petitions, letters to newspapers and many other forms of campaigning, Lee led the women's suffrage movement to success in 1894. In that year, South Australia granted women the right not just to vote but also to become members of parliament.

After this victory, Lee went on to help with women's suffrage campaigns in other Australian colonies. She also educated South Australian women about women's rights, politics and voting.

Edith Cowan

Edith Cowan was born in Western Australia (see image 2). She worked actively to improve conditions for women and children and was involved with many different charitable organisations. She did fundraising, helped set up a women's hospital and founded day care programs for single working mothers.

In the 1890s Cowan became a member of the Karrakatta Women's Club. Like many women's groups at the time, the club sought to educate women through discussion, reading about politics and developing skills in public speaking. It took up women's right to vote as an issue and achieved success within the colony in 1899. Western Australia was thus the second Australian colony (after South Australia) to grant women the vote.

Cowan continued to have success in the various causes she worked for and, in 1921, she ran as a candidate for the Western Australian parliament. Cowan won her seat, becoming the first woman ever to be elected to an Australian parliament.

Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein was born in Victoria in 1869 (see image 3). Her mother was an active social reformer and a suffragist. Her father was also involved in social work, particularly charity. Her parents encouraged her to become educated and independent. She would visit parliament regularly and gradually learnt about political processes.

Through her mother's influence, Goldstein got involved with women's suffrage campaigns and became the leader of the Victorian movement for women's rights. She was an excellent public speaker and even became known for her activities internationally after travelling to women's conferences in Britain and America.

She campaigned for many causes but, for years, her priority was gaining women's suffrage in Victoria. This goal was achieved in 1908. Victoria was the last state in Australia to give women the vote. By this time, Goldstein had already stood for election to the federal parliament, which had granted women the vote in 1902. She stood for parliament on several more occasions and, even though unsuccessful, she managed to educate many people about women's rights in the process.


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Question 1/5

1. What did Edith Cowan become a member of in the 1890s?

Federal Parliament.

The South Australian Women's Suffrage League.

The Karrakatta Women's Club.

The Western Australian Parliament.

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