Australian Electoral Commission

Women in Political Arena

Updated: 28 January 2011

The early suffragette movement was strong in Australia. The vote for women here was one of the notable victories.

In 1902 the new Commonwealth parliament granted the right to vote in federal elections, and the right to stand for election to parliament, to male and female British subjects 21 years and older.

Australia was the first nation to grant both these rights to women nationally. The next country to do so was Finland. Nineteen women were elected to the Finnish National Parliament, the Eduskanta, by 1919.

It was not until 1943 that the first women were elected to our federal parliament. The time lag between the right to stand and parliamentary representation by women, forty-one years later, was the longest in any western country.

Since the 1970s women have been increasing their representation in our parliaments. This representation is still small and disproportionate to the number of women in the national electorate. During the 1990s various proposals to impose more equitable 'quotas', both within political party structures and parliaments, have been actively promoted in Australia.

Political participation by women's organisations

The women's suffrage movement was widespread, well organised and effective in Australia. Many women's organisations contributed to the movement. The first women's suffrage society in Australia, the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society, was established in Melbourne in 1884 by Henrietta Dugdale. The society was joined three years later by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which supplied significant assistance to the movement in all colonies.

Mary Lee formed the Women's Working Trade Union in South Australia in 1890. Together with the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Women's Suffrage League, Mary Lee organised pamphlet distribution and many rallies and petitions seeking the vote for women.

Once women won the right to vote the focus of their organisations shifted.

The League of Women Voters (later the Federation of Women Voters) was formed in Adelaide in 1909 by a group of women who were interested in improving women's participation in political decision making. The League of Women Voters grew out of a small women's organisation founded in Adelaide in 1895 by a niece of Catherine Helen Spence and was active in other states. The original aims of the League were to:

  • educate ourselves politically and socially that we may be capable of intelligently taking part in the politics of our country with the object of securing as our representatives men of good character and ability;
  • stand together as women apart from all considerations of class and party and to interest ourselves specially in questions relating to women and children;
  • try by all means in our power to interest other women in this movement and to try and awaken in them a sense of responsibility.

Historically, women's political participation tended to be as members of community and welfare groups. The organisations in which women worked were regarded by some as being limited to the private sphere and as such not relevant to the policies carried out in the public arena. Often therefore women's political activity was undervalued, mainly because their work was voluntary and usually concerned with welfare and cultural issues.

The term 'motherhood policies' was coined to describe the politics of women. In fact many of our earlier women politicians were given maternal labels by their male counterparts. For example, Dame Enid Lyons was regarded by the media as the mother figure of Australian politics and Edith Cowan was described on her first day in the Western Australian parliament as the 'mother of the House'. It is most likely that these terms were applied with affection and with reverence for the position of mothers. However, the motherhood label effectively determined women's roles in the parliaments, their activities being centred on what were called "women's issues". The implications of the title "women's issues" was that they were different from the main issues of parliament.

Throughout our history, women in the parliaments and the community groups have:

  • lobbied governments to introduce policies for the aged, for example increasing the aged pension;
  • worked for legislation to require equal pay for men and women;
  • agitated for a minimum fixed wage;
  • demanded legislation for quality control of food products; and
  • campaigned for separate courts for children.

The League of Women Voters disbanded when its long term members realised that younger women had different political ambitions and ways of working. These new women's groups shared similar goals which centred on achieving equality of access to political, career and economic structures.

Source: Lees, Kirsten, Votes for Women – The Australian Story, Allen and Unwin 1995.