Votes for Women

When did the struggle begin?

The issue of the struggle for and achievement of women's suffrage should be examined within the overall context of the growth of Australian democracy. Other issues often clouded the simple question of whether women should be given the vote. In the minds of campaigners from both sides, the ways in which women might use the vote were often seen as more important than the actual principle of female suffrage.

The movement to extend participation rights in the political process to Australian women did not begin officially until 1884 when the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society was established (Hirst, p 91). However, there had been discussion of the issues related to women's representation since the 1860s. The first written argument in favour of votes for Australian women seems to have been made in a letter to the Argus by Henrietta Dugdale in 1869 (Women Shaping the Nation, 2001, Centenary of Federation, p 11). Henrietta campaigned for political rights for women as a means of alleviating social problems. She became the inaugural President of the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society in 1884.


Identify and analyse information

Read the following document sources and comment on what they suggest about:

  • the place of women in Australian society;
  • the range of attitudes relating to women, in the second half of the 19th century;
  • the possible explanations for such different attitudes.

Source 1: Speech by Mr Outtrim (MP) in the Victorian Parliament, 16 August 1899

I notice that those who oppose women's franchise, as a rule, are those who are the wealthiest in the community and they do not know who they are who have to go out between five and six in the morning. But I very often have to catch an early train and travel on these trams and I have no hesitation in saying that there are hundreds of women – honest, respectable women – travelling at that time of the morning to their occupations, having perhaps sick fathers or mothers depending on their earnings, and doing all they can to keep the wolf from the door.

Source 2: Speech by Mr Murray L Smith in the Victorian Parliament, 22 August 1899

I confess that on the one side I am powerfully impressed by the claim of the individual woman who performs the duties of citizenship, to have a vote; but on the other hand I am still more strongly repelled by the fact that along with such women we propose to degrade the suffrage and to weaken it by handing over the vote to all those classes of women who have no more knowledge of what a vote is than they have of the Hebrew grammar.

… The faults of democracy … are, specially I take it, volubility, fickleness and an entire want of the sense of justice. Now, whether fairly or not, those very faults are the faults which are attributed by poets and philosophers to the feminine sex; in fact, the faults of democracy are mostly feminine faults.

Source 3: Bartholomew Pumpkin, in Mrs Pumpkin Goes to Town, by Bessie H Lee (Melbourne c 1890)

I consulted you about the schoolin' for the girls and gettin' married to you more'n fifty years ago. Consulted you about the trades for the boys. Consulted you about buyin' that there selecshun. I reckon I never did one thing that mounted to anything in life without consulting you, Sarah. And for my part I must say, if Parlyment ain't a fit place for my wife, it ain't a fit place for me. (cited in Hirst, p 93)

Source 4: Speech by Mr Henry Wrixon in the Victorian Parliament, 1898

How can you give women equal political rights with men, and, at the same time, preserve the unity of the home as we have known it? If you tell me the wife is to exercise her intelligence and independence as a voter, then you cannot have the unity of the home. If you tell me she will not thwart her husband, then I say the whole thing is a make-believe. It would be sad and strange if a woman, having given everything else to a man – having merged her life in his – could not trust him to express her political views, which, after all, is only a small part of social life.
(cited in Hirst, p 93)

Introduction | When did the struggle begin? | What was the political and social background? | What obstacles did women face? | What were the links between the suffrage and the temperance movements? | How and when did women achieve participation in the political process? | Assessment tasks and Additional resources