Women and Politics in South Australia

South Australian women gain the vote: Overview


Women in Politicstext

The State Library of South Australia has an extensive coverage of Women In Politics, marking the Centenary of Women's Suffrage in 1994, including the history of women's suffrage and women in politics.
See: http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/women_and_politics/

Women gain the vote

Women in South Australia gained the right to vote in 1894, and voted for the first time in the election of 1896.

South Australia was the first colony in Australia and only the fourth place in the world where women gained the vote.

South Australian women also gained the most liberal franchise. All adult women had the right to vote. There was no restriction by age or marital status as in the other countries where women had the vote. In the Isle of Man, for example, only unmarried women could vote.


Why did it happen in South Australia?

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South Australia had been founded by political idealists. It had a tradition of commitment to democracy and political representation.

There was a tradition of some women being able to vote. Since 1861, women who owned property and paid council rates had had the right to vote in local council elections.

Education for girls had always been strongly supported in South Australia.

The first public secondary school in Australia was the Advanced School for Girls in Adelaide.

When the University of Adelaide was founded in 1876, women were admitted to study and the South Australian Government insisted on passing legislation allowing women to take degrees against the wishes of the British Government. The presence of educated women in South Australia was one of the main arguments used to support giving them the vote.


The campaign for the vote

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The idea of "votes for women" had been discussed in South Australia since the 1860s. The campaign began in earnest in 1888 when the Women's Suffrage League was formed at a public meeting in Gawler Place. The League was organised by a group of committed women with strong personalities, considerable energy and organisational skills.

Over the next six years, the League ran a vigorous campaign of education and lobbying. They worked with a number of influential organisations that were also strong supporters of women's suffrage - particularly the temperance movement and the trade union movement. They had support from a large number of prominent men, in politics, religion and public affairs.

Members of the League travelled throughout South Australia talking to public meetings, church gatherings, even holding afternoon tea meetings for women who would not come to public meetings.

The newspapers of the day gave the campaign plenty of publicity.


Passing the Legislation

In 1885, Sir Edward Stirling introduced into Parliament a resolution supporting women's suffrage. It was passed but not acted on. Over the next 9 years, six Bills were introduced unsuccessfully into Parliament. In 1894, the final and successful Bill was introduced and passed by Parliament. Because it required a change in the Constitution, it had to have an absolute majority in both Houses of Parliament.

Almost accidentally, women gained the right to stand for election to Parliament as well. The 1894 Bill included a clause preventing women from becoming members of Parliament. Ebenezer Ward, an outspoken opponent of women's suffrage successfully moved for this to be removed during the Second Reading, hoping that it would seem so ridiculous for women to be members of Parliament that the whole Bill would be voted out. But the change was accepted, so the women of South Australia gained complete parliamentary equality with men.

The Bill became law in 1895, and in 1896 women voted in South Australian elections for the first time.

After women gained the vote, it had considerable impact on events in South Australia and in the rest of Australia.