The History of Women’s Rights to Vote in Australia

By Coral Wynter

Nothing is given. Every advance in women’s social position had to be hard fought before eventually winning. One of the first places in the world to win the vote for women was the colony of South Australia in 1894. At that time Australia consisted of six British colonies, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. Australia had not become a nation yet. Federation didn’t happen until January 1, 1901. In all cases the right to vote was limited to women over the age of 21 years.

South Australia won the women’s vote in 1894

The victory in South Australia was largely due to the work of Mary Lee (1821-1909). Irish- born Mary was widowed and in 1879 sailed with her seven children to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. In 1883, she became foundation secretary of the Ladies Division of the Social Purity Society, working to improve the social and sexual status of women. They were successful in raising the age of sexual consent from 12 years to 16 years.

The Social Purity Society soon recognised that women’s suffrage was essential to improve their status. Mary Lee inaugurated the Women’s Suffrage League in July 1888. However before that, The Adelaide Trades and Labour Council supported the demand in July of 1886, the first Trades Council in the world to do so. Although considered a little abrasive at times, Lee skilfully directed the campaign for public acceptance for the vote for women with letter writing, newspaper articles and speeches. The aims of the League were enfranchisement on equal terms with men, without claiming the right to run for a parliamentary seat.

From 1888-1892, Lee worked with Edward Stirling who introduced the first resolution for female suffrage in 1885 in the South Australian parliament. The motion was lost. Mary Lee then devoted herself to the cause of women’s vote. She organised petitions and deputations and collected one shilling membership subscriptions for the Women’s Suffrage League and corresponded with women in the other Australian colonies, urging them to set up a suffrage league.

Lee had the backing of the Wesleyan, Baptist and Congregational churches from 1889 and the United Labor Party from 1891. In 1893, Lee castigated the Labor Party as a “lot of nincompoops” for supporting a suffrage bill, dependent on a majority vote in a colony-wide referendum. South Australia also covered the Northern Territory at this time. A 120 metre long roll of a petition of 11,600 signatures was presented to parliament by the member for North Adelaide George Hawker in August of 1894. Women sent hundreds of telegrams and thronged the public galleries during the debates. After six separate bills, the seventh bill was passed in 1894, unencumbered by the need for a referendum. The bill was almost lost as a member of parliament, Jimmy Howe, who was wobbly about the women’s vote left at 11pm but was delayed at the doors by a deliberate conversation with the governor and so he returned to vote in favour, much to the chagrin of the conservatives opposed to the bill.

The bill was labelled the Constitution Amendment Act of 1894. The women were also extended the right to a postal vote if they lived more than three miles from a polling booth. The vote also included the right to stand for the South Australian parliament. Because South Australia was still a colony, the bill had to be ratified by Royal Assent by Queen Victoria, which she did in February 1895. New Zealand was the first country to obtain the vote for women in 1893 but South Australia was the first to obtain the right for women to stand for parliament. Unfortunately Mary Lee’s achievements were forgotten and her last years were blighted by poverty. She died at 88 years in her rented North Adelaide home in 1909.

The early history of South Australia explains to some extent why it was the first colony to give women the vote. South Australia was to be the first planned colony, without convicts, unlike the rest of the Australian colonies. The significance of this provision meant that free men could command a decent wage without any competition from the slave labour of convicts. This led to a strong trade union movement in South Australia. Governor Hindmarsh was appointed the first governor of South Australia in 1834. It is not well known that women who owned property in South Australia were granted the vote in local elections, that is, council elections in 1861.

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was a declared feminist. She is well-known for her role in obtaining the vote for women in South Australia, with her achievements on our $20 bill note. She called herself a “new woman.” She was a novelist, preacher, public campaigner for social reform and suffragette. Spence had been born in Scotland but the family’s financial collapse forced then to immigrate to South Australia in 1839. Spence decided against marriage and motherhood although she brought up the orphaned children of three other families during her lifetime. Her brother John Brodie Spence was a prominent banker and parliamentarian. She worked tirelessly to improve the positon of women and became vice-president of the Women’s Suffrage League from 1891 until 1894. In 1897 she became Australia’s first female political candidate after standing (unsuccessfully) for the Federal Convention held in Adelaide. The Australian Federal Convention was to decide on a Federal constitution and how the six colonies would federate. Not one woman was ever present at four of their meetings in 1891, 1987 and 1898 in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Spence also publicised the struggle for women’s vote in the United State and Britain establishing contact with Charlotte Perkins, Susan Anthony, Jane Addams, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

One of the other women involved in the historic South Australian decision of 1894 was Mary Colton (1822-1898). English born, she was a devout Wesleyan Methodist member of the church. Her connection to the suffrage movement arose from her membership in 1867of the ladies committee of the Female Refuge, where she was in contact with single mothers and women escaping from prostitution. Colton worked closely with Mary Lee. Unlike Lee’s poor economic situation, Mary’s husband was a well-off business man, and was given a knighthood. Lady Mary Colton became president of the Women’s Suffrage League in 1892. As a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Colton facilitated the League’s cooperation with the Union.

Federal Elections, Women won the vote in 1902

Because women had obtained the vote in South Australia and Western Australia before federation, it was a crucial step in forcing the male members of the Federal Convention deciding on the constitution of Australia to give women the vote. South Australia said it would not support Federation if women were excluded from voting. It was thought that women, being mostly conservative, would vote for federation and therefore would be a positive force for gaining a majority over all six states. An interstate women’s suffrage conference was held in Melbourne in 1901 along with other huge meetings of women in support. Australia federated in 1901 and allowed all women to vote in Federal elections and to stand for parliament.

The newly established Australian Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which set a uniform law enabling women to vote at Federal elections and to stand for the Federal Parliament. This removed gender discrimination in relation to electoral rights for Federal elections in Australia. This did not include Aboriginal women. Federal elections in Australia are held every three years. The first Federal election was held in 1903 and women voted for the first time throughout Australia. However it was another battle for women to be able to vote in State elections.

Four women stood for election at the1903 Federal election. They were Mary Moore-Bentley and Nellie Martel from New South Wales, and Vida Goldstein from Victoria, all of whom stood for the Senate, and Selina Anderson, who contested the Sydney House of Representatives seat of Dalley. All failed to get major party endorsement and stood as independents, and all were unsuccessful. Eva Seery contested Labor Party preselection for the Senate in 1916 but was unsuccessful. She and Henrietta Greville were endorsed Labor candidates at the1917 Federal election, though for safe conservative seats, impossible to win. Though unsuccessful they were the first women to stand for the Australian Parliament with major party endorsement.

The first woman elected to any Australian Parliament was Edith Cowan, elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921. Dame Enid Lyons, in the Australian House of Representatives and Senator Dorothy Tangney, became the first women in the Federal Parliament in 1943.

Victoria State Elections, women won the vote in 1908

In an extraordinary effort to gain the right to vote for all Victorian women, a handful of dedicated women took to the streets in 1891 to collect signatures for a petition to present to the Parliament of Victoria. The result was an impressive collection of close to 30,000 signatures from women from all walks of life. Women went from door to door across Victoria to collect the signatures. The United Council for Women’s suffrage lobbied politicians and municipal councillors. It failed to persuade the Legislative Council of Victoria to allow the passage of women’s franchise bill. Its tremendous length earned it the name of the ‘Monster Petition’. The original petition is approximately 260 metres long and 200 mm wide and is made of paper pasted to a linen fabric backing, rolled onto a cardboard spindle and can be seen in the museum. Victoria was actually the last state in Australia to give women the vote in 1908.

The woman most considered to have won the vote for women in Victoria is Vida Goldstein. Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) was born in Portland, Victoria, the eldest of 5 children. Her family economics were moderate but they moved in progressive intellectual circles. She developed an anti-capitalist perspective and became involved increasingly in the movement for female suffrage. In 1900 she was the first full-time paid organiser. She was a forceful speaker. She took over the organisation of the United Council for Women’s suffrage. From 1900-05, she produced a monthly feminist journal, Woman’s Sphere, in which she discussed key issues on the relations between men and women. She gained an international reputation for her women’s work, campaigning for female suffrage in the USA. She also founded the Women’s Political Association to organise the women’s vote in the Federal elections of 1903. She was also nominated as a candidate for the Federal Senate but was unsuccessful. She again tried in 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1917. She put her feminist policies above her socialist ideas and so did not gain the endorsement of the Labor Party and lost but received a considerable vote. After the vote was won in 1908, Goldstein launched a new journal Woman Voter 1909-19, aimed at discriminatory laws against women. She later campaigned against conscription at the beginning of World War 1.

Annette Bear-Crawford (1853-1899) was born in East Melbourne, the eldest daughter of 8 children to a well-off business man. She had travelled to England, where she met leaders of the women’s movement and became an active feminist. Returning to Melbourne, she became a leading force in the growing women’s movement, with the main aim of wining the vote. She believed “the vote would be the most effective instrument for improving condition of life”. She was effective in uniting the existing suffrage societies. With the support of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she formed the Victorian Women’s Suffrage League. Then on her initiative, the United Council for Women’s Suffrage was founded in 1894. Bear-Crawford also helped to educate women for public work and as public speakers. She also advised Vida Goldstein on how to handle hecklers and answer questions. She left for England to attend a women’s conference and unfortunately died at an early age of pneumonia.

Henrietta Dugdale (1826-1918) was another feisty fighter for the vote for women in the state of Victoria. She was a fierce, pugnacious pioneer for the women’s movement. Born in London, she married young and arrived in Melbourne in 1852. She was president of the first Victorians Women’s Suffrage Society formed in June 1884. She wrote, “The greatest obstacle to human advancement… the only devil was MALE IGNORANCE (sic).” She believed the weapon of emancipation was voting rights where women could achieve equal social, legal and political rights with men. She condemned monarchy as a reactionary institution. She believed “Christianity was another despotism formed by men to humiliate women and most Christians were intolerant hypocrites.” She inspired many women to gain access to work in the professions.

Brettana Smyth (1842-1898) campaigned for women’s health reform and political rights. She was born in Kyneton, Victoria. She was active in the first suffrage organisation, the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society founded in 1884. She formed a breakaway group, the Australian Women’s Suffrage Society in 1888. This group lasted until 1895 but was eclipsed by the Victorian Women’s Franchise League, which had links to the temperance movement. She was opposed to orthodox religion. Although many suffrage organisations shied away from the issue of birth control, which divided even the radicals, she understood the liberating potential of birth control for women, writing a book on a dozen contraceptive techniques. She lobbied for reduced jail sentences for women desperate enough to kill their illegitimate children. However, she was no champion of sex outside marriage. She was a much respected Melbourne identity.

Women did not win the right to stand for State parliament until 1923, the last state to do so.

NSW State Election, Women won the vote in 1902

Rose Scott became the leader of the women’s suffrage movement in NSW. She was one of seven women who met at the home of Dora Montefiore, at 71 Darlinghurst Rd, Sydney to discuss the formation of the Womenhood Suffrage League in April 1891. The other women were Mrs Mary Windeyer, Mrs Ashton, Mrs Wolstenholme and Mrs. V Kelly and Miss Anning. They adopted the slogan, “The women’s cause is man’s, They rise or sink together, Dwarfed or godlike, Bond or free.” Scott became the secretary of the league that same year.

Rose Scott (1847-1925) was born in Singleton NSW, one of 8 children. Rose never married. Asked why, she replied “it was a rational decision as life was too short and there was too much important work to be done to waste it serving one man.” She inherited a large annual sum on the death of her father and became the sole care of her mother who was opposed to women’s votes. Her home attracted regular important guests in Woollahra, Sydney. She joined the Women’s Literacy Society. She concentrated on the suffrage struggle using her contacts and lobbying skills. She strenuously opposed Federation and condemned the British for the Boer War. In 1902 she became foundation president of the Women’s Political and Education League in 1902 after women got the vote in NSW. She also saw prostitution as the ultimate symbol of sexual degradation of all women. Scott placed great importance on women’s mobility and independence. She was openly disillusioned about the progress of Australian women since they got the vote since they had merely doubled the vote for any and all existing parties, instead of becoming a new force in political life.

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) was a newspaper owner born near Mudgee NSW, the second of 12 children. She had to work selling dairy produce, fattening cattle, opened a store and ran a post office when her husband ran off to the gold fields. In 1888 she started a magazine called Dawn, to publicise the wrongs inflicted on women, fight their battles and argue for their suffrage. It was a great commercial success. Her son Henry Lawson was later famous in Australia for his poetry and short stories. In 1889 the Typographical Association tried to drive her out of the business as she employed women printers, a trade only open to men at that time. They were harassed on their way to work by men who used mirrors to flash light into their eyes as they worked. In May 1889, Louisa a announced a Dawn Club for women which became a suffrage society. She persuaded women to become practiced public speakers. Through Dawn she created a public knowledge of women’s affairs which helped to move public opinion towards enfranchisement. She opened up the legal profession for women and hospital appointments to women doctors. When the Womanhood Suffrage League formed in 1891, she allowed it the use of Dawn offices and printed its literature. She was a member of the Leagues deputation to the Premier in 1892. She also joined the council for Women’s Progressive Association and continued campaigning for the appointment of women in public office. Unfortunately in 1900 she was thrown from a tram and injured her spine but lived in impoverished circumstances in Marrickville.

Mary Windeyer (1836-1912) born in England, was a charity organiser. Her husband was a judge, who favoured reform of the divorce laws. In 1891 she formed the Women’s Literacy Society from which the Womanhood Suffrage League emerged with Lady Windeyer as president. Mary Windeyer took advice from Mary Lee, in Adelaide, and collected signatures. She resigned from the League in 1893 in a disagreement over the change of rules but as a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union remained active in the cause. She saw no serious obstacle to women becoming members of parliament. A theme of her speeches was there was “no sex in religion, in intellect in common-sense.”

Maybanke Susannah Anderson (1845-1927) was born in England and her family sailed to Sydney in 1854. Her husband became a drunkard and left her and seven children. She joined the Women’s Literary Society in 1890 and the Womanhood Suffrage League in 1891, serving as president for 4 years. She started a feminist fortnightly magazine called Woman’s Voice in 1894 and wrote of the necessity for contraception. The magazine was remarkable for honesty, intellectual quality and an absence of racism. She was passionately interested in education and married Francis Anderson, a famous philosophy professor at Sydney University. She was extremely active, attending the preliminary meeting of the National Council of Women in 1895; she was an office holder for the Sydney University Women’s society, the Suffrage League, the Kindergarten Union of NSW and the Australasian Home Reading Union.

Women won the right to vote in NSW state elections in 1902 but not the right to stand for parliament until 1918.

Queensland State Election, women won the vote in 1905

Famous in Queensland for her commitment to the Labour movement, feminist Emma Miler (1839-1917) was born to a Chartist family in England. The Chartists were the first group in England to fight for a trade union to defend workers’ rights. Many were jailed and sent to NSW as convicts.  Emma Miller was involved in a women’s trade union in 1890 pushing for equal pay and votes for women. Emma as foundation president for Women’s Equal Franchise Association from 1894-1905, campaigned vigorously for the vote on the basis of one women, one vote. At the time the labour movement was fighting to abolish the plural property votes. If a man held property in any electorate he was entitled to vote in all those electorates. With the first federal vote due in 1903 due, the Women Workers Political Organisation was formed with Emma as president to capture the vote for the Australian Labour Party. At 65 years of age, during a general strike she led a contingent of women to parliament house. On their way back, they were charged by police. She is famous for sticking her hat pin into the horse of the Queensland Police Commissioner Cahill who was thrown and permanently injured. Some say she actually stuck the hat pin into his backside.

In Queensland, the struggle for one man one vote, for electoral reform and women’s suffrage was intertwined. Women won the vote for State elections in 1905 but not till 1915 the right to stand for Parliament.

Tasmania State Election, Women won the vote in 1903

Jessie Rooke (1845-1906) was a Christian Temperance reformer, born in Emu, Tasmania. She married Charles Rooke, a medical doctor. Jessie was convinced of the importance of women’s suffrage as a perquisite for temperance and social reform. She was instrumental in the establishment and development of the Tasmanian Women’s Electoral League. She combined physical frailty with a great strength of will and determination. Her achievements were restricted by the belief that woman was destined by God to be the help mate of man, and it was necessary to fulfil their natural role as wives and mothers. Women won the vote in 1903 but only the right to stand for parliament in 1921.

Western Australia State Election, women won the vote in 1899

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had begun campaigning for the vote in 1896 by writing to newspapers and holding public meetings in Perth and regional centres throughout the south west. The West Australian newspaper declared its support for women’s suffrage in 1898. The following year the WCTU joined with the Karrakatta Club, Australia’s oldest women’s club, to form the Women’s Suffrage League. Together they brought pressure to bear on the Western Australian Parliament. Walter James, the reformist member for East Perth, made several attempts to promote the issue of female suffrage in Parliament but was met with widespread opposition from conservative politicians. Women won the vote in 1899 and similar to South Australia, it was declared by Royal Assent in May, 1900. Those excluded from voting included Aboriginal people, Africans and Asians, unless they were substantial land owners.

It had been opposed by conservative John Forrest. Forrest’s eventual support for women’s suffrage was regarded with some suspicion by pro-Federation politicians who were concerned that giving women the vote would increase the voting power of Perth and more conservative country centres at the expense of the more radical goldfields, where there were far fewer women. Similar to the situation in South Australia, the fact that Western Australia won the vote before Federation in 1901was instrumental in forcing the Federal Constitution to grant the vote to all women for federal elections. Women did not win the right to stand for State parliament until 1920.

Aboriginal Women won the vote in 1967

Generally Aboriginal women and men were denied the vote until a national referendum was held in 1967. Aborigines were not even counted in the census held every 5 years. Until 1967, section 127 of the Australian Constitution prohibited Indigenous Australians from being counted in the population. It was only  in the 1971 census were Aborigines counted.  Until then, they were basically regarded as part of the flora and fauna. It was a national disgrace and very shameful that Australian governments had acted in such a racist manner for so long. There were some exceptions but very few.

In South Australia, Indigenous women acquired the vote from 1895 onwards, when non-indigenous women won the vote. Indigenous women were even able to buy land at this time in South Australia. Some Aboriginal people are known to have voted. For example, Point McLeay, a mission station near the mouth of the Murray River, in South Australia, got a polling station in the 1890s and Aboriginal men and women voted there in South Australian elections.

Following Australian Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 in effect prevented all Aboriginals from voting in all federal elections. Campaigns for indigenous civil rights in Australia gathered momentum from the 1930s. In 1938, with the participation of leading Indigenous activists like Douglas Nicholls, the Australian Aborigines’ League and the Aborigines Progressive Association organised a protest “Day of Mourning” to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of British settlers in Australia and launched a campaign for full civil rights for all Aborigines.

The restriction on voting did not apply to Indigenous people of mixed race. Accordingly, Indigenous men and women were not specifically denied the right to vote. However, few Aboriginals were aware of their rights, Aboriginals were not encouraged to enrol to vote and very few participated in elections. From 1949, Aboriginal people could vote if they had served in the army, except in Queensland and Western Australia. In 1962, the Menzies Government (1949–1966) amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to enable all Indigenous Australians to enrol to vote in Australian federal elections. In 1965 in Queensland and in 1962 in Western Australia, these two states became the last to remove restrictions on Indigenous voting in state elections, and as a consequence all Indigenous Australians in all states and territories had equal voting rights at all levels of government. But it was only in 1983, the Electoral Act was amended, to remove optional enrolment for Indigenous citizens, and removing any differentiation or distinction based on race in the Australian electoral system. It is compulsory for all Australians to vote in all federal, state and federal elections.


Once the vote had been won in each state, the women who had had taken part in the campaign, mostly joined the Australian Labor Party but not all. I have tried to show that it took a very active, militant campaign before women won the vote in Australia. In some cases it was a long battle and in others relatively shorter. It had been easier to win voting rights in the federal election as opposed to the states. It was another longer battle to win the right to stand for state parliament. The women involved were dedicated, committed and hard-working, despite many failed attempts. The women involved came from all sorts of backgrounds, some working class and impoverished and others very well off. It also involved the amalgamation of forces from Christians to radicals, to socialists, and those involved in temperance societies (prohibition of alcohol). They also had a great variety of beliefs but were united on this one question. It is of interest that the activists were also involved in many other issues that affected women, the right to being employed in public positions, the right to enter a profession, the age of sexual consent, the problems of unmarried mothers and prostitution. However they all viewed the right for women to vote as the beginning of a solution to these problems.


“The Bitter Fight: A pictorial history of the australian labor movement” Univ. Queensland Press (1970)

“200 Australian Women, a Redress Anthology” Ed Heather Radi, Women’s Redress Press Inc. (1988)