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Background to the Women’s Suffrage Petitions

Womens Suffrage Petition

A changing society

Proposals for women’s suffrage in Queensland appeared as early as 1871, when, during a parliamentary debate on electoral reform, the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Charles Lilley suggested women should have the vote.

Movement towards women’s suffrage during the 1870s and ‘80s was sporadic, but the campaign gained significant momentum during the 1890s as social reform was achieved and public debate about Federation picked up pace.

Although women in the late Victorian era were, at the time, often sentimentalised as “the fairer sex”, by the 1890s many were active in public life and the economy. Many women worked, albeit for lower wages than their male counterparts, or ran a business. Women could sue, or be sued. Moreover, with the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1891, women could own property in their own right. A number of energetic and high profile women were agitating for social change and fighting for justice and equality – at least for white women – on a number of fronts.

Women such as Emma Miller, Leontine Cooper, Elizabeth Brentnall and Catherine Hughes believed that gaining the vote was an important goal if women were to participate fully in society.

The Queensland Women’s Suffrage League was founded in 1889, and was reinforced the following year with the formation of the Colonial Suffrage Department of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). However, the fight for women’s suffrage was overshadowed by the ongoing campaign for universal suffrage for men and public debate around the property vote.

The suffrage movement gains momentum

1894 proved to be a seminal year for the cause of women’s suffrage in Queensland, with the establishment of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association, (WEFA), initially under the presidency of Mrs Charlotte Trundle. Some months later Mrs Trundle was replaced as President by Emma Miller, under whose leadership the organisation became “probably the most important, perhaps most dedicated organisation fighting for the rights of women to vote…” (Jordan, D., Centenary of Women’s Suffrage 2005).

By now more experienced, more organised, and better versed in political activism, the women of WEFA held public meetings in town halls across Queensland. Sometimes more than 1,500 people attended to listen and pass resolutions.

The women’s suffrage petitions

In 1894, WEFA initiated a double petition calling for women’s suffrage: one for women to sign, and the other for men. The petitions appealed to justice and equality, and called for one vote for each adult.

Existing women’s groups encouraged their members to sign. Many women canvassed support street by street, from door to door, collecting signatures. Coupons for the petition published in the newspaper Worker were signed and sent in by readers. In all, more than 150 sections of the petition went out; as they were returned, they were joined together into two big petitions, with 7,781 signatures on the women’s and 3,575 on the men’s.

Women’s suffrage drew together the interests and aspirations of women from all walks of life. Notable signatures on the women’s petition include those of Lady Sarah Jane Lilley, wife of Sir Charles Lilley who had proposed the vote for women some 14 years earlier, and Charlotte E. Trundle, the suffrage superintendent for the WCTU. There are also a number of crosses made by women who could not write, and their marks were witnessed by WEFA Secretary Catherine Hughes – whose relative Walter T. Hughes was the first to sign the men’s petition.

Three years later, in 1897, a Women’s Suffrage Petition was organised by the Women's Christian Temperance Movement of Queensland, calling for votes for women on the same grounds as men. Sections for this petition were sent as far as Mackay and Townsville and reached out to different sections of the community. Only a few men and women signed both the 1894 and 1897 petitions.

Queensland women gain the vote

After Federation, Australia gave white women both the right to vote and the right to stand in Parliament, through The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. However, it was to be another three years before women could vote in state elections in Queensland with the passing of the Elections Act Amendment Act through both Houses of the Queensland Parliament in 1905, and women were not permitted to stand for Parliament until 1915.

It should be noted that it was not until 1965 that all women in Queensland were granted the vote, when the Elections Act Amendment Act 1965 extended voting rights to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women.

The Women’s Suffrage Petition Project

Through a project organised in a partnership between the late Dr John McCulloch, Dr Deborah Jordan and the Queensland Parliament, and with the contribution of the Queensland Family History Society, the 1894 and 1897 women’s suffrage petitions have been digitally transcribed and developed into a database that is available to the public.

Everyone can search the database to find out whether their ancestors signed one of these petitions: did they play their part during Queensland’s journey to democracy?

Acknowledgements

  • Queensland Family History Society
  • Transcribers: Bev Bonning, Jackie Buttress, Wendy Couper, Mary Geiger, Bryan and Jenny Hacker, Dorothy Jeffrey and John Perryn
  • Brisbane City Council, through the Lord Mayor’s Helen Taylor Research Award for Local History
  • Queensland State Archives
  • Dr Deborah Jordan
  • Dr Mary Crawford
  • Ms Rosemary Kopittke
  • Dr John McCulloch
  • Professor Carole Ferrier

 

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