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Women's suffrage in South Australia: Introduction

South Australia was one of the first places in the world to grant the vote to women.

Lead-up to the campaign for women's suffrage

In the mid-19th century several movements aimed at social reform and bettering the lives of women began in South Australia.

In 1856 the combined Protestant churches opened the Protestant Female Refuge at Norwood. This was followed in 1867 with the establishment of the Adelaide City Mission, and in 1868 by the Catholic Refuge. Initially motivated by an evangelical mission for the welfare of prostitutes, unmarried mothers and victims of domestic violence, later these organisations would move to a social welfare model.

In 1882 the Society for the Promotion of Social Purity was formed for the purpose of 'reclamation' of the fallen, and the protection of young women from evil. The age of consent had been raised from 10 years to 12 years in 1876. In 1883 a number of women members formed a ladies division of the Society. Among the earliest members were Mary Lee, Mary Colton and Rose Birks - all would become prominent in movements to improve the status of women. One of the Society's first successes was the further raising of the age of consent to 16, in 1885.

In 1886 the South Australian branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed. As part of an international organisation, previously unimagined levels of support, organisation and structure were available to South Australian women. As with earlier movements, the WCTU sought to overcome the social evils of violence and poverty by campaigning against the sale of alcohol.

Like similar movements of the period, the WCTU membership quickly realised that the key to affecting social change was parliamentary representation. Following a meeting of members of the Social Purity Society on 20 July 1888, it was decided to call a meeting of all those favourable, with the view of initiating a movement for the enfranchisement of women. The Women's Suffrage League of South Australia was formed, a move that was ratified at a WCTU meeting on 7 November 1888.

The women's suffrage movement in South Australia began with two distinct advantages. Firstly South Australia's female ratepayers were already enfranchised under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1861. Some women had therefore been voting in municipal elections for more than 20 years. Secondly, in South Australia higher education for women and girls was officially encouraged. Girls were viewed as the wives and mothers of the future. All girls in state primary schools were taught needlework and some cooking. In 1879 the first secondary school for girls in Australia, the Advanced School for Girls, was opened. The University of Adelaide made classes open to women from its inception in 1876, and in 1881 the University of Adelaide admitted women to academic courses. Edith Emily Dornwell was as the university's first woman graduate and Australia's first female science graduate in 1885.

Further information in books, pamphlets and periodicals

Adelaide Social Purity Society. Report, 1889.

Burke, Patti. 'Did an old and sleepy gentleman secure the vote for Australian women?', Third Women and Labour Conference papers, 1982, vol. 2, pp.393-402.


'Woman's social and political position', vol.1, no.2, July 1871, pp.5-6.

'Woman's social and political position', vol.1, no.3, August 1871, pp.9-10.

'Woman's social and political position', vol.1, no.4, September 1871, pp.13-14.

'Woman's social and political position', vol.1, no.5, October 1871, p.18.

'The female franchise: letter to the editor. [X.Y.Z.]', vol.1, no.7, March 1872, p.27.

Jones, Helen. 'South Australian women and politics', Flinders History of South Australia. Political History, 1986, ch. 13, pp.414-432.

Jones, Helen. 'Votes for women', In her own name: a history of women in South Australia from 1836, 1994, ch. 5, pp.123-168.

Jones, Helen. Nothing seemed impossible: women's education and social change in South Australia 1875-1915, 1985, ch. 5, pp.127-152, 'Women's suffrage: an educational campaign'; pp.184-192. Appendix. 'Historiography of the South Australian women's suffrage'.

Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society

Scott, Dianne. 'Woman suffrage: the movement in Australia', vol. 53, part 4, December 1967, pp. 299-322.

Nance, Christopher. 'Paving the way: the women's suffrage movement in South Australia', vol. 65, part 3, December 1979, pp.188-200.

Corbett, Pat. 'Women's suffrage: myths and fantasies', vol. 71, part 1, June 1985, pp.43-58.

Keeley, Rod. If we're so great, why aren't we better?: a critical look at six South Australian political firsts, 1986, pt.4, 'Votes for women'.

Kirby, Joseph Coles. Woman: a queen regnant; address delivered at the Port Adelaide Congregational Church on December 14th, 1890, 189-


[A number of short items on Dr Stirling and women's suffrage], 20 June 1885, p.17.

[A number of short items on Dr Stirling and women's suffrage], 28 July 1888, pp.10,15.

McCorkindale, Isabel. Ed. Torch-bearers: the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of South Australia, 1886-1948, 1949, pp.25-49, Section 2. Woman suffrage).

Methodist Church of Australasia - South Australia Conference. Minutes of the conference1889, 1894, 1895.

Moss, Jim. Sound of trumpets: history of the labour movement in South Australia, 1985, ch. 15, pp.191-203, 'The women's movement'.

Nesbit, Edward Pariss. [Sic.] Lecture on woman suffrage; delivered November, 1895, at St. David's Hall, Burnside, 1896.

Oldfield, Audrey. Woman suffrage in Australia: a gift or a struggle?, 1992.

Parsons, John Langdon. Women as citizens: a lecture delivered in the Albert Hall, Adelaide, (before the Young South Australian Patriotic Association), March 21, 1895,1895.

Proud, Cornelius. 'How woman's suffrage was won in South Australia', Review of Reviews. (Australasian edition.), vol. 6, no.1, 20 January 1895, pp. 28-30. (Also reprinted as "The story of how woman's suffrage was won in South Australia" in McCorkindale, Isabel. Torch-bearers, pp. 31-38. See above.)

Spence, Catherine Helen. Address to the Old Scholars' Associations of Ladies' Schools on the 13th April, in the Banqueting Room, Town Hall, 1894.

Spence, Catherine Helen. An autobiography, facsimile of edition first published 1910, 1975.

Spence, Catherine Helen. 'South Australia's victory for adult suffrage', Canadian Magazine, no.5, May-October 1895, pp.276-277.

Stirling, Sir Edward Charles. The political franchise for women: speech in the House of Assembly, South Australia, 22nd July, 1885, 1885. (Reprinted from Hansard).

United Labor Party of South Australia. Women of South Australia! Sisters! Wives! Mothers!, 1894.

Matters, Chas. H. 'Woman suffrage', Westminster Review, vol. 143, January-June 1895, pp.534-537.

Woman's Christian Temperance Union of South Australia. Minutes of the annual convention, 1889-1896.

Women's Suffrage League of South Australia. Report, 1891, 1894.


Timeline of women's suffrage in South Australia

Women's suffrage campaign

The women's suffrage campaign took almost six and a half years to achieve its goal. At the heart of the campaign stood a group whose sustained activities kept the League's work prominently in the public eye. At each of the League's meetings in Adelaide, many of the same faces could be seen and its affairs remained the subject of press reports throughout the campaign.

Among the suffragists there were seven women to the fore: Mary Lee, Mary Colton, Elizabeth Nicholls, Catherine Helen Spence, Rose Birks, Serena Lake and Auguste Zadow. The nature of society at the time meant that the role of men was vital for the success of the campaign for women's suffrage. Four men who played significant roles in this campaign were Edward Stirling, Robert Caldwell MHA, Sylvanus Magarey and Joseph Kirby.

From September 1890 to December 1894 the South Australian Parliament received regular and numerous petitions regarding the matter of women's suffrage from all parts of the province. The largest, containing at least 11,600 signatures, was presented to Parliament on 23 August 1894 by George Hawker.

On 4 July 1894 Chief Secretary John Hannah Gordon MLC introduced the Adult Suffrage Bill to the Legislative Council, in the process describing the history of previous attempts. In 1886 Dr. Stirling MHA had 'introduced a Bill in the House of Assembly giving the suffrage to unmarried women with property, which was lost owing to its not receiving the votes of an absolute majority. In 1885 Mr Caldwell MHA introduced a Bill allowing women of 25 years of age to vote, which again failed to secure the necessary statutory majority for an alteration to the Constitution. In 1890 Mr Caldwell MHA brought in another Bill, this one providing for women of property to vote for the Legislative Council. That Bill reached the Council in charge of Mr Warren MLC, and like its predecessor in another place failed to find the necessary statutory support'. [John Gordon, MLC, 10 July 1894, Hansard pp.435-436].

John Gordon MLC went on to describe at length the success of the franchise in Wyoming where it had been adopted in 1869 and New Zealand that adopted it in 1893, although neither permitted women to hold office.

John Warren MLC quoted from Goldwin Smith's essay 'Woman's Suffrage', raising the frequently stated objection that suffrage would make women masculine. 'It might shock our prejudices, at first to see a woman taking part in Parliamentary debate. It shocks our prejudice, at first to see her taking part in a faction fight, mounting the pulpit, or thundering from a platform, as well as to see her in half-male attire, or riding in man's fashion.0' [John Warren, MLC, 24 July 1894, Hansard p.620].

John Darling MLC spoke in similar tones, questioning 'whether the female population of South Australia would be benefited by participation in the busy and often acrimonious world of politics ... In its present form the Bill was too much for him, and if he thought that it would become law as it was then in duty to his district, his conscience, and his country and its lady inhabitants he would vote against it.... Woman's place was at the head of the household, to adorn, and assist her husband to look after her children and to educate them so far as she could, and by her example to show them what a noble thing it was to have a good mother.' [John Darling, MLC, 31 July 1894, Hansard p.706].

Despite these opposing arguments, the third reading of the Bill in the Legislative Council was declared carried on 23 August 1894 by 13 votes to 9. In the House of Assembly it then underwent a similar passage marked by long speeches and similar subjects of debate. The Member for Noarlunga, Alexander McDonald MHA, paraphrased the debates, 'The same old arguments and the same old story were used time after time by the opponents of the Bill. The first contention was that woman's place was at home, ... but the Bill would not take woman away from home. It had been said that women were not educated up to it, but the mothers educated the young and there fore should know something about politics. It had been urged that the proposal would break up the family circle, but women had a right which they would probably exercise to think for themselves. It had been stated that the women had not asked for the franchise, but the petitions in favor of the proposal gave indications to the contrary.' [Alexander McDonald, MHA, 11 December 1894. Hansard pp.2774-2775].

On the morning of 18 December 1894 the Bill was eventually carried in the House of Assembly by 31 votes to 14.

The Governor, the Earl of Kintore, noted the significance of the Act and reserved it for the signification of Her Majesty's pleasure. The announcement of the Bill having been laid before Her Majesty Queen Victoria in Council and that 'Her Majesty has been pleased to assent to the same' was published in the South Australian Government Gazette on 21 March 1895.

Digitised resources from the collection of the State Library of South Australia