Part II: Why Women Really Got the Vote

Part I of this article is here…

First among equals

South Australia was the first Australian colony to enfranchise women, due to a unique set of political and constitutional circumstances. In 1893, the Premier, Charles Cameron Kingston, abandoned his opposition to votes for women as a concession to his liberal parliamentary supporters who felt strongly about the issue. Votes for women became part of party politics once Kingston realised that women’s suffrage combined with an electoral redistribution on a population basis would reduce the number of rural seats, weaken the conservative Country Party, and facilitate reform or abolition of the Legislative Council.[i]

The primary reason women’s suffrage passed in 1894 was the character of the Upper House. The liberal electoral system in South Australia (there was no plural voting and the property franchise for the Upper House was relatively low) enabled a Lib-Lab majority to win control of the Legislative Council at the elections of 1894. The two-clause bill subsequently introduced into the Council gave women the vote for both houses on the same conditions as men. In a wrecking manoeuvre, conservatives in the Legislative Council struck out the clause prohibiting the election of women to parliament. Ignoring this provocation, the Kingston government did not call on the vote in the Assembly until certain of securing the statutory majority twenty-eight votes required to change the constitution.

A feature of the story in South Australia is the “minimum of ideological contention” aroused in parliament in the early 1890s. Masculinist arguments played a minor role at best. The real principle under discussion was not whether women should or should not have the vote, but whether there should be the universal franchise the Liberal and Labor parties wanted, or the property franchise for women for the Upper House exclusively which the Country Party wanted. Only when they did not have the numbers in 1894 did conservatives mobilise the full masculinist repertoire for obstructionist purposes. Laborious speeches were then made advancing rote arguments against women taking part in public life. But the fate of women’s suffrage did not hang on these arguments. The fight “was essentially the continuing South Australian one between Labor and those Liberals who wanted all women to vote, and Conservatives who wanted a limited property vote or none at all”.[ii] As other historians of the South Australian process have pointed out, what is remarkable is how lightly politicians took the sexual issues woman suffrage raised.[iii]

It might be said that of course masculinism was muted in progressive South Australia. This was why it became the first colony to enfranchise women and the others lagged behind. However, the South Australian exception does not prove the rule of masculinism in the rest of Australia.

By the mid-1890s, the majority of the members of the “People’s House” in Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales had formally supported the enfranchisement of women. By 1894, masculinist sentiment was as weak in New South Wales as in South Australia. The motion in favour of women’s suffrage in the New South Wales Assembly passed, fifty-eight votes to thirteen. The spectre of “petticoat government” swayed only the small minority opposed in principle, and their masculinist arguments were “denounced as contemptible” on democratic grounds by members who spoke on behalf of the majority.[iv]

The condition of parliamentary opinion seems remarkable, given that two years previously a delegation from the Womanhood Suffrage League had colourfully informed the New South Wales Premier that votes for women would change the morals of society. This is not so remarkable if the reaction to such claims is accurately assessed. The delegation prompted the sympathetic Labor politician, Arthur Rae, to write to his friend, the feminist leader and secretary of the League, Rose Scott. Rae told Scott that for the suffragists to talk of women voters abolishing the evils of drunkenness, prostitution and seduction caused by the bad laws of wicked men was “to excite ridicule”.[v]

The “Shrieking Sisterhood” appears to have heeded the advice. In 1894, a WCTU delegation wisely avoided talk of male vices and their suppression. This time, the suffragists said that women wanted their democratic rights, and to contribute to public life by voting for the best candidates.[vi]

Audrey Oldfield has pointed out that the women’s suffrage movement made a strategic decision to suppress the “morals” theme so as not to frighten politicians with the vision splendid of a dry and continent continent. That these tactics were employed is not a surprise. But it is significant that fear of prohibition succeeding as a consequence of granting the vote to women was given in Oldfield’s telling phrase “little credence” in Australian parliaments.[vii]

Going by the drink question, most politicians treated the social reform ambitions of the women’s movement about as seriously as the Bulletin did. Those sections of the sisterhood that shrieked about abolishing sin did not generate masculinist opposition to women’s suffrage because such incredible statements were treated as mere “shriek”.[viii] Most politicians therefore saw no reason why women should continue to be denied the vote based on unrealistic feminist claims and baseless masculinist alarms. This attitude prevailed when the suffrage issue was addressed at the federal level.


At the Adelaide session of the Federal Convention in 1897, the federal fathers in effect decided that the new Commonwealth would enfranchise the women of Australia. Section 41 of the Commonwealth Constitution subsequently guaranteed that no person who had the vote for the lower house of the state parliaments would be denied the right to vote in elections for either house of the Commonwealth parliament. Because South Australian women already had the vote, and because of the difficulties discriminating between women in different states would create, section 41 made it certain that a uniform adult franchise would follow when the Commonwealth parliament determined the federal franchise laws.

The Federal Convention, like the colonial lower houses, was democratically elected, and a feature of the convention debate on women’s suffrage was the “minimum of ideological content”. Helen Irving’s assessment is that “almost no one, it seemed, wanted to admit outright opposition”, and the “unspoken understanding [was] that reasonable people did not condemn the suffrage outright”. A few delegates spoke about the dangers of domestic discord and of hysterical women voters. But the success of the South Australian experiment reassured the overwhelming majority of convention members. The sole representative of the Labor movement, Victoria’s William Trenwith, voiced the progressive consensus when he said woman suffrage was good, equitable, and little dangerous.[ix]

The same consensus was on display again when the Franchise Bill was debated in the Commonwealth parliament in 1902. Only a small rump of dissidents voiced masculinist concerns.[x] But they were not taken seriously because, as Joseph Cook put it: 

The answer to all that has been said this evening is that there are scores of thousands of women throughout the states who exercise the vote as intelligently as men do, without unsexing themselves in any way, and without making them masculine in either temperament or in nature.[xi] 

Throughout the debate, references to the successful colonial experiments in South Australia and New Zealand were common, and it was widely acknowledged that votes for women had led to neither “divided households nor divided skirts”. Prophecies of a sex-role revolution had not been fulfilled, nor had the “Shrieking Sisterhood” become politically powerful and transformed society. Experience had proven extravagant talk of “social revolution, moral regeneration, and a new era of purity” to be ridiculous.[xii]

“All this talk,” South Australia’s Sir Josiah Symons told the Senate, “which has frightened many weak-minded men who have been alarmed by some strident and strenuous women … has no justification.”[xiii]

Labor men and women

What is surprising is just how few working-class men were frightened by talk of women saving the nation from the iniquities of beer and smokes. By the mid-1890s, all colonial Labor parties supported “One Adult One Vote”, having gradually overcome the initial concern that women voters would form a conservative bloc. It is true that Labor’s parliamentary support was often ambivalent. But that Labor was ambivalent rather than hostile is the key point.

Nor was the labour movement perturbed by fears votes for women would destroy men’s livelihoods by encouraging women to join the paid workforce. Trade unionists fiercely supported the traditional sexual division of labour and the principle that men should be breadwinners and women homemakers. Radical feminists promoted the franchise as a means of expanding female employment opportunities and increasing women’s independence within and outside of marriage.[xiv] But these sentiments failed to provoke male working-class opposition because the Labor movement did not accept what the feminists said about the different interests of men and women. Rather than agree with the feminist assumption of inherent conflict between the sexes, Labor’s attitude to allowing women to vote reflected the thoroughly respectable social realities of late-nineteenth-century Australia.

By the 1890s, working-class men and women were eagerly pursuing the “Australian dream” of matrimony and a mortgage in the suburbs. This bore out the labour movement’s idealised image of women as the good wife and mother who was men’s helpmate and the rock of the home. It also anchored in fact Labor’s conviction that most women shared the same traditional attitudes to work, family and the companionate marriage. Working-class women were therefore considered to be the natural political allies of their working-class husbands in the common class struggle for the advancement of the economic and social position of workers and their families.[xv]

Sexual conservatism and a cold political calculus explain the relaxed attitude to the suffrage. Labor did not believe that votes for women would have revolutionary political, social or sexual consequences because it confidently expected that the votes of (mostly married) working-class women would be cast solidly for Labor candidates.[xvi]

Complacent conservatism

Liberal support for women’s suffrage was based on democratic principle and the progressive case for female emancipation. Liberals were also impressed by the argument that wives and mothers wanted the vote for the sake of the welfare of their homes. The feminine influence in politics would help purify public life, raise parliamentary standards, and encourage the introduction of humane legislation for the good of the family and the nation.[xvii]

However, baser political considerations (especially the impact of votes for women on the redistribution of seats) also determined the liberal position. Liberal politicians, in short, shared the same guiding assumptions as their Labor counterparts. With a keen eye on how votes for women would influence the wider party-political contest, liberals also calculated that women voters would generally vote in the same way as men: women who thought about politics would divide along party lines, and women who did not take a close interest would vote with their class.[xviii]

Observers of events in New Zealand and South Australia had immediately noticed that women had not voted on sex lines, but had duplicated the votes of men and fallen in behind one or the other party.[xix] By Federation, the record showed that the results of enfranchising women in those colonies “had not been to deflect in any reliable direction the steady current of their political practices”. The colonial experiments, as Deakin put it at the Monster Melbourne rally in 1899, had “abolished the hope of some enthusiasts that the enfranchisement of women would mean the political millennium”.[xx] As Symons explained the record in the Senate in 1902, women’s suffrage had been used at six elections in South Australia and “has done no harm, and it has done no good. It has had no effect upon either policy or personnel, so far as I can see.”[xxi]

However, the colonial experiments had had a clear effect on the national culture. The results ensured that complacent sexual conservatism, not reactionary masculinism, was the keynote of relations between the sexes.[xxii]


The truth about sex and politics in Australia was once clear to students of the suffrage movement. In 1902, that great chronicler of Australasian social experimentation, William Pember Reeves, emphasised the pragmatic motives of the politicians who had handed women the franchise in a “pure piece of expediency”. Reeves did more than patronise the suffragists and pioneer the gift theory. By highlighting the politicians’ “utilitarian” motives, he drew attention to the absence of conflict between the sexes. The rhetoric of the women’s movement activists should be disregarded, Reeves warned, because the suffrage campaign had featured: 

too much painting of roseate pictures of ethical revolutions, and impending moral millennium. It is as well to face the truth, and to dissipate any vision that may still be in the air of an intellectual uprising by enslaved Woman against the ancient and fraudful rule of tyrant Man.[xxiii]

Reeves also noted the lack of anything approaching the predicted “millennium” after women got the vote and how significant this was. The millennium never arrived, he explained, because a militant determination on the part of most women to escape from the domination of men had never been the driving force behind the suffrage movement. Since most women did not think of themselves as the “slaves” of men, enfranchised women had had no desire to act as “political tyrants” and seek emancipation. Conversely, the lack of feminist consciousness among women gave men no reason to orchestrate a backlash. Proof of this was the willingness to let women exercise the suffrage unmolested. Men had neither created disorder at the polls to discourage women from voting, nor ridiculed women who attended as “un-womanly”.[xxiv]

Reeves’s realistic assessment of the conservative character of sexual relations in federation Australia is consistent with what bitter experience taught first-wave feminists. Rose Scott campaigned for the vote because she hoped to see women transformed into active citizens. Her roseate vision of the post-suffrage scene envisaged the “woman citizen” voting as a woman to advance women’s interests. To mobilise and educate, Scott founded the strictly non-partisan Women’s Political and Education League with the aim of establishing an independent female constituency whose concerns party politicians would be forced by weight of numbers to address. But to her disgust, Scott soon discovered that women failed to cast a ballot for the betterment of their sex and the female vote was absorbed into the party vote. Finding out that women were partisans too, and surrendered just like men to the rote of party-politics, meant Scott also discovered the limits of “first-wave” feminism.

Scott was one of the few radicalised women who believed the institution of marriage degraded her sex and deprived women of economic and sexual autonomy. She soon discovered that few women shared her extreme view of the sexual status quo. Most were not interested in voting as women to liberate their sex from the tyranny of men.[xxv] The retention of class and party loyalties and the disappointment of their highest hope of female emancipation led Scott and other disillusioned feminists to consider the suffrage a hollow victory.[xxvi] The irony is that women had attained the right to vote largely because the politicians had correctly calculated that votes for women would make little difference to politics.


Feminist historians of Australia maintain that gender conflict rivalled class conflict in the 1890s. Standard feminist histories, such as Creating a Nation by Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly (a book which routinely appears on university undergraduate reading lists), claim that the struggle between men and women paralleled the fight between workers and bosses which led to the rise of the Labor Party and the formalising of the class-based, two-party system in the early Commonwealth. The authority for this interpretation is, of course, Lake’s masculinist thesis.[xxvii]

The truth is that sex was no rival for class as a motivator of political behaviour in federation Australia. The agitation for female enfranchisement did not provoke a masculinist reaction because men did not treat first-wave feminism as a genuine threat to the political, social or sexual order. Proof of this is that women were granted the vote because most women were expected to vote along class or party lines as men did, and this is precisely what happened when the overwhelming majority voted for one or the other of the major parties. Nevertheless, feminist historians continue to over-exaggerate “the extent of the political and social tensions between the sexes in Australia”.[xxviii]

The better parallel is with the introduction of compulsory voting in 1923. The reason politicians concluded it was safe to let women vote and then to force both men and women to vote was that they believed that very few of the ballots cast by females and compelled voters would stray beyond the major parties. In each instance, the subsequent “steady current” of politics rewarded the cynicism rather than the enlightenment of the politicians. One does not have to be a disillusioned feminist to find the politicians’ unerring ability to take the votes of Australian citizens for granted rather disappointing.

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow in the Social Foundations Program at the Centre for Independent Studies.

[i] MacKenzie, ‘Women as Citizens’, p.36

[ii] Oldfield, Women Suffrage in Australia, p.38

[iii] ‘[T]he question of women’s suffrage was itself never really at issue, for, despite the arguments (many of them cynical and fatuous) against the reform, it is clear that many/most men considered it to be a logical and inevitable step in the process of emancipation. Parliamentarians were more concerned with the form that the suffrage should take and with the possible political consequences’. Christopher Nance, ‘Paving the Way: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in South Australia’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 65 (3) 1979, pp.188-200, p.194.

[iv] Judith Allen, Rose Scott: Vision and Revision in Feminism, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994, p.133-5.

[v] Oldfield, Women Suffrage in Australia, p.83-4.

[vi] Oldfield, Women Suffrage in Australia, p.84.

[vii] ‘The possibility that women would impose prohibition seems to have been given little credence in parliamentary debates and it is unlikely that the involvement of the WCTU delayed neither state or Commonwealth votes, or inhibited support in the wider community’. Oldfield, Women Suffrage in Australia, p.181.

[viii] What has been ambiguously described as men’s more textured and ambivalent attitude to the women’s movement and woman suffrage has been noticed by Frank Bongiorno, ‘“Every Woman a Mother”: Radical Intellectuals, Sex Reform, and the “Woman Question” in Australia, 1890-1918’. Hecate, 27 (1) 2001, pp.44-64, p.46.

[ix] Helen Irving, To Constitute a Nation: A Cultural History of Australia’s Constitution, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p.181-2.

[x] Oldfield, Women Suffrage in Australia, p.61-2.

[xi] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.9, p.11942-3 hereafter CPD.

[xii] W. P. Reeves, State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand, Volume I, Melbourne: Macmillan Company of Australia, 1969 pp.136-7, p.141 The views of Reeves – a progressive liberal politician from New Zealand – to this effect were quoted during the debate. CPD vol.9, p.11934-5.

[xiii] CPD, vol.9, p.11460 1902.

[xiv] Susan Margarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2001.

[xv] For an enlightening (and perhaps neglected?) discussion along these lines of the relationship between attitudes to wives and the strong support for woman suffrage by shearers – the stereotypical bushman – and the Australians Workers’ Union in New South Wales in the 1890s, Ray Markey, ‘Women and Labor 1880-1900’ in Elizabeth Windschuttle (Ed), Women, Class, and History: Feminist Perspectives in Australia 1788-1978, Melbourne: Fontana Books, 1980. pp.83-111, p.98-100

[xvi] Allen, Rose Scott, p.106-7, 150-1

[xvii] Considering masculinist depictions of Australian masculinity, it is worth pointing out that the position of such moral middle-class men was that if the votes of ‘womanly’ women helped make the national culture more righteous and respectable, so much the better. For example, see Sir William Lyne, CPD, vol.9, p.11929-35.

[xviii] Western Australia offers the most extreme example of this: for this familiar story of efforts to balance out Labor voting mining seats in Kalgoorlie by enfranchising middle-class women in Perth, see Oldfield, Women Suffrage in Australia, ‘3 Western Australia, 1899’.

[xix] Henry D. Rosenback Walker, Australasian Democracy, London: Unwin, 1897, p.207

[xx] These were Alfred Deakin’s words at the 1899 ‘Monster’ Melbourne woman suffrage meeting. See note 34.

[xxi] CPD, vol.9, p.11457-8.

[xxii] This article has not considered the question of masculinism in relation to specific questions such as drink and sexuality. If Australian men/politicians did deploy masculinist ideology in the context of other debates, the onus is on defenders of the masculinist thesis to explain why such masculinist concerns did not spill over into whole-hearted opposition to woman suffrage. Given the way the feminist threat was dismissed in the suffrage debates, it is very difficult to see how describing the national culture as masculinist can be justified.

[xxiii] Reeves, State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand, p.104-5

[xxiv] Reeves, State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand, p.136-7.

[xxv] Allen, Rose Scott, p.169-173, 197, 205-6, 209-10.

[xxvi] See Miles Franklin’s post-franchise disillusion in Jill Roe, ‘Chivalry and social policy in the Antipodes’. In  Richard White and Penny Russell (Eds), Memories and Dreams: Reflections on 20th Century Australia, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1997, pp.3-20, p.3-5.

[xxvii] Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath, Marian Quartly, Creating a Nation, Melbourne: McPhee Gribble 1994.

[xxviii] Kate Darian-Smith, ‘Images of Empire: Gender and Nationhood in Australia at the Time of Federation’ in Kate-Darian Smith, Patricia Grimshaw, and Stuart Macintyre (Eds), Britishness Abroad, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2007, p.157.

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