1891 Women's Suffrage Petition

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Portrait of Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein, NLA, PIC/6937 LOC Drawer PIC/6937*

There are four ways to search for people who might have signed the petition

1. A searchable digitised copy of the petition can be viewed on the Parliament of Victoria's website.

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Clicking on the More Information link provided after each name will take you back to the PROV wiki and additional information about the signatory.

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2. You can also search the list of 1891 Women's Suffrage petition signatories and browse the relevant Category on the PROV wiki directly, or


3. Try a name search using the standard PROV wiki search box.

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4. Explore a map of the signatories that links to the individual's wiki biography page once you click on the placemarker


(Although not a filtered search, it is revealing to use the toolbox selection "Special Pages" and click on "All Pages" (under the second heading "Lists of Pages"), where it will be seen that the great majority of PROV pages at present (January 2012) consist of the names of women's suffrage petitioners. According to one page at the State Library of Victoria, there are thirty-three thousand names on the full petition. The sixty-seven amongst them who have had specific research information added against their names are separately listed in Item 2. above.)

The women's suffrage movement

A number of women's organisations were instrumental in the women's struggle for the vote. In 1884 suffragists Henrietta Dugdale and Annie Lowe had helped form the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society, the first such organisation in the Australian colonies. The Australian Women's Suffrage Society was formed in 1888. The aims of the society were to obtain the same rights for women as were possessed by male voters. The Society argued for equal justice, equal privileges in marriage and divorce, rights to property and the custody of children in divorce. Another key association in the struggle for equal voting rights was the Women's Christian Temperance Union formed on 16 November 1887. The Society sought social reforms which included establishing equal moral standards for both sexes. 

In 1894 the Women's Progressive Leagues, the Women's Social And Political Reform League and the Victorian Women's Suffrage League, the Victorian Lady Teachers' Association, Trades Hall Council, the Central Methodist Association, and the Prahran Women's Franchise League were some of the many women's organisations that supported women's suffrage.

Annette Bear Crawford formed the United Council for Women's Suffrage (UCWS) in 1894 to coordinate the efforts of these suffrage societies. In 1900 there were thirty-two societies affiliated with the UCWS. Vida Goldstein became the suffrage movement's first full-time paid organiser in 1900.

There were 19 private members bills between 1889 and 1908 relating to the granting of suffrage to Victorian women. Dr William Maloney, a Victorian Member of Parliament, introduced the first specific women's suffrage bill to the Victorian Parliament in 1889.

There was also a strong anti-suffragist movement that dwelt upon the supposed defects of intellect and temperament of women. Images of women politicians in the media attempted to portray women as absorbed with the trivial and domestic, and as emotional, selfish, and bad mothers. Anti-suffragists argued that women were too emotional and lacked broader political vision. They attempted to picture politics as unsuitable for women. Australian women were often depicted in the popular press as weak, and intellectually incapable of political decision making. Petitions signed by women who were against universal suffrage were used by the anti-suffragists lobby. PROV listing reveals two boxes of petitions tabled in the Assembly in 1895; VPRS 3253/P0, Unit 837 contains 13 petitions with 5,118 signatures, while Unit 838 contains 14 petitions containing at least 6,124 more.

Australian women's political activity centred around the various states in Australia and involved vigorous campaigns for the right to vote. From the 1880s until 1908 women’s groups were to organize various petitions. Indeed petitions both large and small in support of women's suffrage were collected in all states and presented to the various parliaments. Large petitions were gathered in SA 11,600 signatures in 1894, Queensland 11,366 signatures in 1894 of both men and women and 4,000 more signatures in 1897, and Tasmania 2,278 signatures in 1896. In NSW from 1891 petitions were gathered as they also were in W.A. in 1899. But none were as large as the 1891 Victorian petition.

South Australian women were granted the right to vote in 1895 followed by Western Australia in 1899, NSW in 1902 and finally Victoria in 1908. Australian women (except Aboriginal women) were enfranchised for the new Commonwealth Parliament in 1901. Women first voted in the second Federal election in 1903.

The Victorian Parliament finally granted women in the state suffrage in 1908 largely because of the pressure exerted by the meteoric rise of the conservative women's group, the Australian Women's National League (AWNL) that convinced the Conservatives in parliament that women's votes would not be radical (in 1908 the AWNL had approximately 10,000 members in Victoria). Continuous pressure from the apolitical National Council of Women of Victoria and from Sir Thomas Bent's largely factional coalition to acknowledge that the rest of Australia had state suffrage: the fear that the Victorian 'good fighters' might metamorphose overnight into dreaded suffragettes and bring condemnation on Victoria and the rest of Australia.

Vida Goldstein was the first woman in the British Empire to nominate for the Australian Parliament. This was in 1902 when Goldstein unsuccessfully ran for the Australian Senate. Edith Cowan became the first woman parliamentarian in Australia in 1921.

Significance

Laura Daniele with the petition in its storage container in the PROV repository
The 1891 Women's Suffrage Petition has great importance in the study of the history of the women's suffrage movement in Australia. It was a landmark for the fledgling women's movement. It demonstrated the individual cohesion of the various women's organisations and gathering strength in their determination to gain women's rights. It helped to lay a strong foundation for the suffrage movement Australia wide.

Women argued for enfranchisement on the basis of individual rights. The first wave of feminists were concerned with obtaining equality for women in the public sphere. They lobbied for political and civil rights equal to those of men and were concerned with the general emancipation and advancement of women. They were also concerned with the franchise, access to parliaments as voters and candidates. They also demanded justice and freedom from a range of restrictions which were limiting their lives. Suffragists organised around many questions of social reform and matters affecting women at home and at work. Women attempted to speak for themselves and argue for full legal and civil equality, and for personal freedom. They were concerned with the social and political changes necessary to provide a more equitable society. The struggle for the vote and later battles for reproductive rights such as contraception and abortion, family allowances, equal employment opportunities, education, and respect for women's domestic labour aimed to improve women's domestic and public sphere.

Often 'ordinary' women's voices are left out of historical accounts and the petition provides a historical record of nearly 30,000 Victorian women's commitment to their rights.

The signatures and other details on the petition were digitally copied and transcribed and developed into a searchable database as an initiative of the 150th anniversary of Responsible Government in Victoria committee in 2006. The database can be searched by name or place.

The 1891 Women's Suffrage Petition is now held by Public Record Office Victoria at the Victorian Archives Centre.

In 2008 the petition was a centrepiece of the centenary celebrations of women's suffrage. For more information about these celebrations visit the Office for Women's Policy website.Victorian Women Vote logo

Other petitions

In New Zealand the first of the women’s franchise petitions was presented in 1892 and contained approximately 20,000 signatures. The petition was the culmination of many years work by the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. However it failed to gain the vote for women. In 1893 Kate Sheppard again coordinated a New Zealand wide petition. The roll contained 23,853 signatures and with the addition of 7,000 further signatures before it was presented to Parliament the petition attained the suffragists’ original target of 30,000 signatures, thus equaling the Victorian petition of two years beforehand. New Zealand women became the first in the world to gain the right to vote in the national election in 1893.

From the 1880s until 1908 women’s groups were to organize various petitions in support of women's suffrage. Indeed petitions both large and small in support of women's suffrage were collected in all states and presented to the various parliaments. Large petitions were gathered in South Australia (11,600 signatures in 1894), Queensland (11,366 signatures in 1894 of both men and women and 4,000 more signatures in 1897); and Tasmania (2,278 signatures in 1896). In New South Wales petitions were circulated from 1891 as they also were in West Australia in 1899. But none were as large as the 1891 Victorian petition.

Kits

Federation: Inclusion and Exclusion, Centenary of Federation, 2000
Voices for Democracy, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, 1998
1901 and all that: A Federation Resource Kit, National Archives of Australia, 2000

Websites

The 'historyvictoria website' link below details excellent general and specific information on the suffrage movement. The site is easy to follow and well documented.

In relation to the Women's Suffrage Petition there is information on 'Key People' and under 'Petition Projects'  there are links to women who signed the petition from the Geelong & District, Casterton & District, Portland, Williamstown and Whitehorse districts.

 http://www.historyvictoria.org.au/Suffrage_Petition.html
http://www.aec.gov.au/
http://www.prov.vic.gov.au
http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/
http://www.1901centre.uts.edu.au/
http://www.centenary.org.au/
http://www.peo.gov.au/
http://www.netspace.net.au/~htav

The Australian Women's Archive Project (AWAP) was established by the National Federation for Australian Women (NFAW) in 2000 to, amongst other things, conduct original research about women and make information accessible online through the Australian Women's Register, online exhibitions etc. NFAW and AWAP are accessible through:

http://www.nfaw.org/


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