Each March Queenslanders recognise the achievements of women with two important events - International Women’s Day (8 March) and Australian Women’s History Month.
On March 8 Australians celebrated International Women’s Day. On March 24 Queenslanders go to the polls for what promises to be an extraordinary election. On that day almost all Queenslanders aged 18 or over get to have their say on the state of the state of Queensland.
It was not always thus. Until Federation women in this state could not vote at all, while male citizens aged 21 or over were entitled to vote; even then not all male citizens could vote, because there were residency and/or property strings attached.. Moreover, to add insult to injury, some men had the benefit of the plural vote, ie if a man owned property in Brisbane, Rockhampton and Townsville, he could vote in Brisbane, Rockhampton and Townsville.
Obviously Queensland’s voting system was a far cry from the universal suffrage that we have now. And there were prominent men in the colony who were opposed even to the notion of one man, one vote. Let alone one woman, one vote! So how did the current state of electoral affairs come to pass?
Voting rights for women came into being because of a long-running campaign by several women’s lobby groups, between about 1890 and 1905, and the dedicated work of several remarkable women. Specifically, these were the Women’s Equal Franchise Association (1894-1905), led by the formidable trade unionist Emma Miller, the Women’s Suffrage League led by Leontine Cooper (established in 1894), and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (established in 1885). This last-named was an American organization which was introduced in Australia through the efforts of temperance missionary Jessie Ackermann; the WCTU fought to get women the vote, to enable them to improve their conditions by political means.
In 1898 the Labor Party included universal adult suffrage as part of its official platform. However, despite the fact that sympathetic MLAs introduced electoral reform bills in Parliament during this time, nothing came of it. When Queensland women finally did get the right to vote, they had Federation to thank for that; in 1902 women were given the right both to vote and to stand for the newly created Federal Parliament, thereby enfranchising 101, 492 Queensland women. They first exercised that right to vote in 1903. There was still nothing doing on the State political scene. In 1903 a third, and then a fourth, lobby group came into being, namely the Queensland Women’s Electoral League (which claimed to be apolitical, but wasn’t), and the Women Workers’ Political Organisation, which was formed by Labor women.
The great day came in 1905, when Premier Arthur Morgan introduced the Elections Act Amendment Bill, which did get through Parliament and was duly signed into law on January 25. It was not until 1907 that the newly enfranchised voters had the opportunity to exercise the right to vote. But in January 1905 the dream of one person, one vote became reality for almost half of the adult population. The right to vote did not become a universal right until the referendum of 1965, which finally gave the adult Aboriginal population of Queensland the right to vote.
There are two items in the John Oxley Library collection which particularly relate to this period. One is a book by Jessie Ackermann, called “Australia from a woman’s point of view”, which was published in London in 1913. The other is to be found in our manuscripts collection, and it is the Queensland Women’s Electoral League records, 1903-1907.
Trudy Bennett – Librarian, State Library of Queensland