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Women’s suffrage

1902: Commonwealth Franchise Act gives women the vote in federal elections

Museums Victoria 114279
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the passing of the Franchise Act is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Further activities

1. Although the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 allowed most women to vote in federal elections, it didn’t allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and people from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands (except New Zealand), to vote in these elections, unless they were already allowed to vote in their state elections under state electoral laws.

Do some research to find out when all Australians were finally allowed to vote.

2. Choose a famous Australian suffragist from the list below. Research how they helped women win the vote.

  • Vida Goldstein (Victoria)

  • Catherine Helen Spence (South Australia)

  • Mary Lee (South Australia)

  • Edith Cowan (Western Australia)

  • Louisa Lawson (New South Wales)

  • Emma Miller (Queensland)

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Banner encouraging the United Kingdom to give women the vote, by Dora Meeson Coates, 1908</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

Before 1901 only two colonies had granted women the right to vote: South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899. When Australia federated in 1901 only women in those two states could vote in federal elections. Suffragist campaigners and some politicians pressured the federal government to give all women the right to vote. As a result, on 12 June 1902, the Commonwealth Franchise Act gave white women in Australia over the age of 21 the right to vote in federal elections.

Banner encouraging the United Kingdom to give women the vote, by Dora Meeson Coates, 1908

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What was the most common reason that many people in the 1800s opposed giving women the vote?

2. What was the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Bill and why was it important?

3. What did some leading Australian suffragists do after their success in Australia?

What voting rights did women have in the Australian colonies?

Before Federation in 1901 Australia was made up of six separate colonies, each with its own system of government. Some women campaigned for colonial governments to give them the right to vote. These women were known as suffragists. To build support for women’s voting rights suffragists held rallies and meetings, wrote letters, wrote articles for newspapers, gave public speeches and met with politicians.

But many people still opposed female suffrage. They argued that women were better suited to home duties and shouldn’t take part in politics. Before 1901 only two Australian colonies had given women the right to vote: South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899.

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, about 1913. Library of Congress.

Could women vote under the new Australian Constitution?

In 1897 as the Australian colonies were deciding on whether or not to federate, politicians attended a conference to create a draft Australian Constitution. They debated whether the new Constitution should give Australian women the right to vote in federal elections. They decided that only women who had the right to vote in their home state would be given the right to vote in federal elections. This meant that when Australia federated in 1901, it was still only women in South Australia and Western Australia who had the right to vote.

<p>Voters outside a polling place, Brisbane, Queensland, 1907</p>

Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Negative Number 73409

<p>Voters outside a polling place, Brisbane, Queensland, 1907</p>

How did women win the right to vote?

After the decision at the 1897 Constitution conference, suffragists kept campaigning for women’s voting rights. They argued that the Constitution should be changed. On 9 April 1902 Senator Richard O’Connor introduced the Commonwealth Franchise Bill into the Senate. If it passed, the Bill would allow women and some non-European migrants to vote. Although many politicians still opposed female suffrage the states reached an agreement. Women would be given the vote but non-European migrants would not.

Research Task

 

The 1902 Act also gave women the right to be elected to the Australian Parliament. Go to the link to find out when this happened.

First women in Federal Parliament – ‘A turning point in history’

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902.

On 12 June 1902 the Bill became law. Women in Australia over the age of 21 could now vote in federal elections and stand for election in the Australian Parliament. Although this was an important step, many non-European residents and most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still weren’t allowed to vote in federal elections.

‘I see no reason in the world why we should continue to impose laws which have to be obeyed by the women of the community without giving them some voice in the election of the members who make those laws.’

Senator Richard O’Connor, 10 April 1902.

How did Australian suffragists help women around the world?

Australia was one of the first places in the world to allow women to vote. Women in other countries, especially England and the United States, asked Australian suffragists for their advice and help. For example, important Australian suffragist Vida Goldstein travelled to England and the United States to give speeches and take part in marches.

The suffrage banner shown in the picture above was created by the Australian artist Dora Meeson. Vida Goldstein and other Australian women carried it at a march in London in 1908. The banner asks ‘Mother England’ to give women the right to vote as Australia had done in 1902.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What was the most common reason that many people in the 1800s opposed giving women the vote?

2. What was the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Bill and why was it important?

3. What did some leading Australian suffragists do after their success in Australia?