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The South Australian women's suffrage campaign
Following its colonisation in 1836, South Australian settlers lived under British common law which made women subordinate to men in that they were subject to their fathers, and then to their husbands. Their property, income and children were the legal property of their husbands. As the nineteenth century rolled on however, certain progressive legislative changes began to occur that separated women’s legal identity from this archaic system, such as the 1858 Matrimonial Causes Act that allowed divorce, and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1861 that allowed owner/occupiers of property (including women) to vote in local government elections.
The fight for South Australian suffrage is said to have its roots in social organisations such as the Ladies’ Social Purity Society, begun in 1883. Part of the platform of this organisation was that they sought to increase women’s legal rights. After successfully campaigning to raise the age of consent, the Society broadened its focus, becoming the Women’s Suffrage League.
In conjunction with other women’s groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the campaign for women’s suffrage sought to gain the vote for women as a way of gaining a political voice for a range of social values that many women felt were unrepresented in Parliament. These included children’s rights, girl’s rights, women worker’s rights and the desire for temperance (the reduction of the trade in alcohol).
These women’s groups often had connections with similar movements overseas, and would send members to speak or attend international conferences. Locally, they wrote letters, distributed petitions, wrote to newspapers, gave speeches, distributed information, visited politicians and held meetings, fetes and fundraisers. They were resolute, organised and determined, gaining support for suffrage anywhere and everywhere they could, all across South Australia.
Key suffragists from this time include Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence who both worked tirelessly for the campaign. Lesser known but still instrumental were Elizabeth Webb Nicholls (President of the WCTU twice during the period 1889-1904 and credited with having gained 8,268 of the 11,600 signatures on the largest petition), Mary Colton, Serena Thorne Lake, Rose Birks and Augusta Zadow (first ‘Lady Inspector’ of factories).
Their efforts culminated in the passing of the Adult Suffrage Bill which granted women - for the first time in Australia - the right to vote and the right to sit in Parliament. This historic moment occurred on the 18th of December, 1894. This was a Constitutional Amendment meaning that it had to be endorsed by the Queen – which it was in March 1895, allowing women to vote for the first time in South Australian state elections in April 1896.