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Women and Politics in South Australia

The Women's Suffrage League

The origins of the Leaguetext

The Women's Suffrage League, founded in 1888, spearheaded the campaign for women's right to vote.

The League grew out of the work of the Social Purity Society, an organisation which worked against "the social evil" - ie prostitution. The Society was concerned about the social and economic difficulties many women faced. It campaigned for fairer treatment of women by the law, and greater legal protection for young women. In 1885, the Society achieved legal reforms which raised the age of consent for girls to 16, and regulated the age of young people in brothels.

After this success, the women of the Ladies Branch of the Society determined to "advance and support the cause of women suffrage in this colony". They became convinced that they could only achieve legislation that was fairer to women if women had a voice in electing the legislators.

Leading figures in the League

At a public meeting in July 1888, in Gawler Place, they formed the Women's Suffrage League. The first President was Sir Edward Stirling - the man who introduced the first formal request for women's suffrage into Parliament. He gave up the position in 1892 to Mary Colton, because he thought that a women's organisation should have a woman at its head. The Secretary was Mary Lee.

Both these women, together with the League's treasurer, Rosetta Birks, had been active in the Social Purity Society and developed many of their educational and campaigning skills there.

Campaigning for Women's Suffrage

The League worked closely with other supportive organisations - particularly the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and its President, Elizabeth Nicholls - but was the only one whose sole concern was votes for women.

The campaign was designed to gain widespread public support for women's suffrage and to turn this into pressure on Parliamentarians. They worked with a wide range of organisations across all political and religious beliefs, and worked with women at all levels of society.

The League's Council organised and addressed public meetings. They disseminated books and pamphlets. They held "drawing room meetings" to talk to a wide range of women. They organised public petitions, culminating in 1894 in the monster petition of 11,600 signatures. This was presented to Parliament in a massive scroll during the reading of the final successful Bill. They organised "full attendance" of women in the public galleries of Parliament when women's suffrage was being debated.