In the late 1800s and early 1900s, social conventions were such that women did not – and should not – participate in politics. But in the nineteenth century in Australia [and England], women had few rights and those they did have passed on to their husbands once they married – all property and monies became their husbands, their husband had full legal custody of their children, and they could remove these children anytime they wanted. So when women began agitating for change, it’s not surprising that many men opposed women’s suffrage [ie: the right to vote in political elections]. But did you know that many women were also against it, and none more so than Queen Victoria herself?

In her book The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women: Queen Victoria and the Women’s Movement   [Cambridge University Press, 2019], Adrianne Chernock highlights Queen Victoria’s anti-feminist viewpoint throughout the years of her reign. For example, in 1852, in a letter written to her uncle Leopold, the king of Belgium, she comments on how her husband’s growing interest in politics contrasts her own diminishing interest in these matters, adding:

‘We women are not made for governing: and, if we are good women, we must dislike these masculine occupations!’.

Eighteen years later, when faced with the prospect of the passing in Parliament of a women’s franchise bill, she wrote to the then Prime Minister William Gladstone to let him know of her objections, stating:

‘The Queen feels so strongly upon this dangerous & unchristian & unnatural cry & movement of ‘woman’s rights’… that she is most anxious that Mr. Gladstone & others should take some steps to check this alarming danger & to make whatever use they can of her name’.

Later that year, she wrote to Theodore Martin [official biographer of Prince Albert]:

‘The Queen is most anxious to enlist someone who can speak & write etc., checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s rights,’ with all the attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex seems bent, viz. in forgetting every sense of womanly feeling & propriety’.

In Australia prior to Federation, South Australia had granted all women the right to vote in 1894, while Western Australia had granted all women except First Nation women the right to vote in 1899. But the other states had not followed suite. So women’s suffrage was a hotly debated topic when the Constitution was being drawn up. And like in England, those that opposed the idea of women’s suffrage were not just men.

1900s poster against women’s suffrage

In an article in the Melbourne newspaper The Argus [Thur 25 Oct 1900, p 7], the Women’s Anti Suffrage League lists their argument against women’s suffrage. Firstly, they argue that women will gain more by non-voting, because women are not an individual ‘class’ in the community, and any inequalities that may have once existed had already been redressed. Secondly, they argued that various dangers would occur if women were granted suffrage. These included the setting up of class distinctions, antagonism, ill-feelings and jealousies between men and women, and that voting power should be with ‘the real strength of the nation’ [ie: men]. In addition, the League argued that the female mind lacked the ability ‘by nature’ to make judgements of quality and to exercise calm discretion on political questions. It finished off its argument by stating that women did not want the vote, that those who did were ‘strong-minded women who are not really representative of the sex’, and that to grant women suffrage would then be followed by them wanting to sit in Parliament. It concluded that women could already exercise immense power over male voters, and therefore had greater power without the franchise.

‘In this society, marital relationships were never discussed, unless something was accidentally let slip, or caused a scandal. But then why did so many women feel the need to write for advice on how to ‘convince’ their husbands of this or that?

What were they really asking, these intelligent women? And why was it that, in spite of all the work being done towards women’s suffrage, still the letters kept pouring in?

She hadn’t come to any conclusion that night, but today she felt she understood those women – and herself – a little better. It was fear. Whether it was fear of being left alone, fear of losing one’s children, one’s security, one’s status in the community, it boiled down to the same thing – fear of their husbands’ reactions, fear of what would happen if they showed who they truly were.’ [‘Orphan Rock’, Transit Lounge, March 2022]

While the inclusion of federal franchise of women did not occur in the Constitution by Federation in 1901, on 9 April 1902 Senator Richard O’Connor introduced into the Senate the Commonwealth Franchise Bill which would remedy this. The Bill was heavily contested, though most opponents stated they would agree to parts of the Bill for the sake of uniformity between the colonies. They agreed with the parts dealing with women, but not the parts dealing with non-Europeans. With their inclusion rejected and a few other minor amendments, the Bill passed through both Houses, and received royal assent by Governor-General on 12 June 1902. Women of Australia over 21 years of age could now vote in the federal elections, even though some still couldn’t in their home states. This right did not extend to ‘aboriginal native’ of Australia, Asia, Africa, or the Islands of the Pacific, and it wasn’t until an amendment to the Act in 1962 that First Nations men and women gained the right to vote in federal elections. #HistoricalFiction #OrphanRock #AussieLit  #histfic #aushist #womensrights