Friday 27 August 2021 marked the 119th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in NSW under the NSW Women’s Franchise Act 1902. This was an important step in the enfranchisement of women, however, it was but the first stage in an uphill battle towards women’s social and political equality in the state. This article explores some of the political and social context surrounding the passing of the Women’s Legal Status Act 1918 – an important piece of NSW legislation that opened the door for women’s entry into state politics.
In June 1902, the newly-minted Commonwealth Government of Australia granted women the right to vote in and stand for office in federal elections under the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. Australia was the second nation in the world to do so, following the example set by New Zealand in 1893. The ‘experiment’ of women’s enfranchisement in the distant antipodes was keenly watched by the world. Not long after, in August 1902, NSW passed the NSW Women’s Franchise Act 1902, which allowed women to vote but not stand as a candidate in NSW elections.
There is a crucial caveat to this development: this enfranchisement applied only to white women.
Officially, under state law, Aboriginal Australians in NSW were not prevented from voting. However, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 specifically denied federal voting rights to every “‘aboriginal native’ of Australia, Asia, Africa, or the Islands of the Pacific (except New Zealand)”. Influenced by this federal legislation, Aboriginal Australians were effectively prevented from voting in NSW until 1962, although those who had served in the armed forces could vote in state elections from 1949.
While the women of NSW were among the first in the world to vote in federal and state elections, for many years they were still prevented from holding certain occupations and public offices, such a barrister or solicitor (and therefore a judge), and from standing as a candidate in state elections.
But women’s roles were to change dramatically with the advent of World War I in 1914. As women were thrown into the war effort, men’s perceptions – and indeed women’s perceptions – of women’s abilities shifted.
Less than a month after the end of World War I, the Leader of the Government in the NSW Legislative Council, Mr J. Garland, moved the second reading of the Women’s Legal Status Bill 1918. At this point, the bill – which sought to remove discrimination on the basis of sex as a barrier to women’s entry into various legal and political professions – had already had a rather fraught history.
The bill had originated in and passed through all stages in the Legislative Assembly on 3 October 1918. However, it had proposed to allow for female members in the Legislative Assembly and Council. As the proposal to change the membership of the Council had not originated within the Council, it was alleged to be unconstitutional and was defeated. The new iteration of the bill, which proposed to allow female members in the Assembly only, passed in the Assembly on 18 November, and was returned to the Council on 5 December.
For and Against
Members who spoke in support of the bill in the Legislative Council engaged in a spirited rhetoric that drew on the service of women in the war effort as proof of their physical and intellectual capabilities. Mr. Garland (Labor) stated in his second reading speech: “In these times we have seen what splendid work women are capable of doing… I think the world has now come to see that the fact of sex should not be a bar to women occupying any of the offices mentioned in the bill.”
His perspective was shared by many, including Mr G. Black (former Labor, Independent National), who stated in support of the bill that “women have liberated themselves by their magnificent behaviour during the war… They have shown aptitudes which have surprised most men. It may be that they have even surprised themselves”.
But, there were also those in the Council who expressed concern at the notion of elevating women to an equal status with men. Dr J.B. Nash (Independent), a long-serving member of the Council who had actually voted for women’s enfranchisement in 1902, expressed concerns that the bill would not be “for the good of the state”, as he believed that “marriage is the function of women in this world”.
This concern was shared by Mr A. Sinclair (former Labor, Independent National), who worried over “quite a horrible situation arising if a lady member wished to address the House and my honourable friend… had to hold the baby whilst she was speaking”.
Despite the lively debate and clashing perspectives over this issue, the question was resolved in the affirmative, the bill passed through its remaining stages in the Council, and was assented to by Governor W.E. Davidson on 21 December 1918.
The Turning of the Tide
While Australia has been seen as an early world leader in the realm of women’s rights, in 1918 there were still many obstacles to full political enfranchisement for women in NSW. For example, women were not able to be appointed to the Legislative Council until 1926, and female members were not appointed to the Legislative Council until Catherine Green and Ellen Webster were appointed by Premier Jack Lang in 1931.
The events of 1918 were a critical point in this shift towards female representation, and the recent anniversary of the NSW Women’s Franchise Act 1902 gives us pause to reflect on the changes that have been, and the changes yet still to come.