Before Federation became a major issue, many Australian women were working to promote female participation in public life. Their first object was to win the vote, which they assumed would pave the way to other reforms.
The first women’s suffrage organisation was formed in Victoria in 1884, and was soon followed by similar organisations in the other colonies. In 1894, South Australian women gained the right to vote. This encouraged women in the other colonies to press on with their own claims.
As the Federation movement gained momentum, many suffragists saw it as complementing their own aims. But some believed that Federation would hinder the struggle for the vote. Given the conflicting actions and statements from many (male) politicians, it was far from certain that women would win the vote in the new Commonwealth.
Women’s Federal Leagues
While women took part in the Bathurst People’s Federal Convention in 1896, the first group specifically designed to support the Federation movement was the Women’s Federal League, formed two years later. Founded by Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson), the League encouraged men to vote for Federation at the 1898 referendum. Members published pamphlets, spoke on platforms alongside Australian Federal League speakers such as Edmund Barton, and spread the word into the country. When New South Wales failed at the referendum to reach the majority required, the Hay Women’s Federal League and a second Women’s Federal League in Sydney helped sway public opinion at a second referendum in June 1899, when voters gave their approval to Federation.
"Let us look to the near future, when Australia, the new-born nation may proudly take her stand among her Elders, helped to her great position by the slender hands, but staunch, true hearts, of our countrywomen! Women of New South Wales, YOU may turn the scale!"
Women’s Federal League pamphlet - "A true democracy"
The 1894 achievement in South Australia encouraged women in other colonies to send petitions to the Second National Convention held in Adelaide in March 1897. This petition was sent by the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales:
Womanhood Suffrage League
To the Hon. The President and the Hon. Members of the Federal Convention of 1897. The 23rd day of March 1897.
The humble petition of the members of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales respectfully showeth:-
1. That in framing a Federal Constitution for Australasia, the determination of the persons to whom the Federal Franchise shall be granted is a question of great importance, and your honourable Convention will probably consider whether or not such franchise shall be uniform throughout all the colonies.
2. That at the present time in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, and Tasmania, women do not possess the right to vote for candidates for election as members of the Parliaments of the said colonies, whilst in respect of South Australia such right has been conferred upon the women of that colony, and that therefore the women of the colonies first mentioned are under a disability ...
3. That (as the Hon. Geo. Reid, Premier of N.S.W., has said in his article on the "Outlook of Federation"), "In this matter the taxpayers have much more at stake than the politicians," and that the women of the various colonies are taxpayers under their respective Governments, and will be taxpayers under any Federal Government which may be established.
4. That women are patriotic, and law-abiding citizens, taking an equal part in the religious and moral development of the people, and doing more than half of the educational, charitable, and philanthropic work of society as at present constituted - that, therefore, whatever federal franchise shall be conferred upon or possessed by male citizens should also be conferred upon or possessed by women.
5. That, in view of the facts and considerations abovementioned, we are justified in appealing to your honourable Convention to so frame the Federal Constitution as to give the women of all the colonies a voice in choosing the representatives of the Federal Parliament, so that United Australia may become a true democracy resting upon the will of the whole and not half of the people.
Your petitioners, therefore, humbly pray-
That your honourable Convention will so frame the Federal Constitution for Australasia that the right to vote for representatives to the Federal Parliament shall be possessed by women and men without any distinction or disqualification on the ground of sex. ..
signed on behalf of the members of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales.
M.S. WOLSTENHOLME, President.
ROSE SCOTT, Hon. Gen. Secretary.
ADA F. GRIFFITHS, Vice-President
NELLIE ALMA MARTEL, Recording Secretary.
ELIZA H. MANIER, Hon. Treasurer
Quoted in The Dawn, 1 April 1897
With South Australian and Western Australian women able to vote, women in the other colonies continued to urge their case.
Federation came first in 1901. Then in 1902 a Commonwealth Franchise Act allowed the women of New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland to vote at federal elections and stand as candidates for the federal parliament. Yet the struggle continued for women in these states to gain the vote for state elections.
Federal politicians toast the granting of female franchise.
Herbert Walter E.Cotton, Enfranchised!, inkdrawing, 1902 National Library of Australia
The last state to give women the vote was Victoria in 1908.