When Tasmania became self-governing in 1856, there was a high property qualification that disenfranchised most men – the exception was graduates, army officers, doctors, and ministers of religion. Some male salary earners gained the vote for the House of Assembly in 1870 but universal manhood suffrage was not achieved until 1900. Most attempts to give women the vote were in conjunction with Constitutional amendments to widen manhood suffrage. Efforts were made in 1884, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, and 1902. Women’s suffrage was finally achieved in 1903. Five of the eight attempts were rejected by the Legislative Council, which had a high property qualification for the franchise making it more conservative than most Australian upper houses.
The premier, William Giblin introduced a bill into the House of Assembly to widen the franchise to include all male ratepayers and women who were spinsters or widows. A lowered wages and salary threshold was also extended to both sexes. Those who supported this measure thought that the ‘influence’ attached to women’s property should be recognised and that women who were in ‘high situations’ were as capable of exercising the vote as their brothers or husbands. Opponents argued that the proposal was too ahead of its time, especially for Tasmania, and that women were not interested or suited to the ‘stormy seas of politics’. One member of the House of Assembly, Henry Rooke, opposed the legislation on the grounds that barmaids might be able to vote. The proposal was dropped before the bill reached the Legislative Council.
Mercury, 31 July 1884; 4 August 1884.
The attorney-general, A. I. Clark, introduced legislation to widen the male franchise in both houses. During the debate, William McWilliams, an enthusiastic advocate of women’s suffrage, suggested that women should be included. Clark, who was also in favour of universal suffrage but had been acting cautiously, proposed it at the Committee stage. It was rejected, but an amendment giving women the vote on the same basis as men was accepted. A difficulty arose when B. S. Bird, who favoured women’s suffrage, pointed out that although this would not give the vote to the wives and daughters of the ‘educated’ classes it might go to ‘servant girls and farmhands’. To exclude them, some complicated calculations were devised. The bill was defeated in the Legislative Council because of its complexity.
Mercury, 26 July 1896, 7 August 1895, 5 September 1895, 5 September 1895
Letters – Mercury, 17 August 1895; 19 August 1895
The attorney-general, A. I. Clark, introduced another bill to widen the male franchise in both houses. William McWilliams moved that the word ‘male’ be removed so that men and women who qualified could vote. After a debate that showed the house was mostly in favour, the amendment was agreed. Proponents of the women’s vote argued that they worked as hard as men, were ‘bound’ by the same legislation, would promote social measures, and bring a ‘healthier tone’ to politics. If women were ‘emotional’, then men were ‘selfish’, so there would be balance - they ‘should walk together in this world’. Opponents argued that wives had an influence on politics through their husbands, and that men had already passed socially progressive legislation. Polling stations were too rough for ‘respectable’ women, and they would not take an ‘intelligent interest’ in politics which would increase the ‘ignorant’ vote. The Legislative Council replaced the word ‘male’ before passing the bill.
Mercury, 28 August 1896
The premier, Edward Braddon, who opposed women’s suffrage, introduced a bill to create an extra electorate for the Legislative Council. William McWilliams proposed that some clauses providing for universal suffrage be included. In Committee, he moved an amendment to adopt universal franchise. During the debate that followed A. I. Clark said that he would ‘fight to the bitter end’ for the women’s franchise while Ronald Smith pointed out that there ‘could not possibly have been worse disasters if women had the vote than there had been under the rule of men’. The bill failed in the Legislative Council.
Mercury, 10 December 1897, 25 June 1898; 30 June 1898, 6 July 1898
The attorney-general, Donald Urquhart, moved the second reading of a new Constitutional amendment to widen the male franchise for both houses. There were provisions for women’s suffrage in the House of Assembly. McWilliams pointed out there was little chance of the bill passing in the Legislative Council. He proposed giving women the vote for that as well. As predicted, the Legislative Council rejected the bill.
Mercury, 6 July 1899
A constitutional amendment introduced by N. E. Lewis, the premier, extended the male franchise for the Legislative Council to the limits of its tolerance and granted universal manhood suffrage for House of Assembly elections. In order to have the bill passed, the women’s franchise was not included. McWilliams was no longer in the House of Assembly to champion women’s rights but in Committee, John Bradley moved that the franchise be extended to them. It was voted down apparently in case the Legislative Council rejected the whole bill.
Mercury, 1 August 1900
A bill to amalgamate the two houses was amended in committee to give women the vote. Even though the female franchise had now been granted in the other Australian states, some members opposed it on the grounds that apart from some ‘wild’ ones, women did not want the vote. The amendment failed in the Legislative Council rejected the entire bill.
Mercury, 4 September 1902
Women’s suffrage was introduced as a separate Constitutional amendment and passed. Women already had a vote for federal elections.
Mercury, 16 September 1903
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
The campaign for female suffrage was led by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union who believed that through the experience of motherhood, women could ‘purify’ politics. They were keen to limit alcohol consumption, and enact social legislation that protected vulnerable women and children. Their tactics included petitions and public meetings but they always maintained their dignity. Jessie Rooke, who became president in 1898, is the Union’s best known advocate of female suffrage. References to the issue appear in the following minutes of annual conventions:
• President, Grace Soltau’s Speech, First Annual Convention – NS 337/2, p. 17
• Report of a Public Suffrage Meeting, Second Annual Convention – NS 337/3, p. 15
• Report of a Public Suffrage Meeting, Third Annual Convention – NS 337/4, p. 13; President, Annie Blair’s Speech, Third Annual Convention – NS 337/4, p. 18.
• Franchise Report by Georgina Kermode, Fifth Annual Convention – NS 337/6, pp. 32-3
• President, Jessie Rooke’s Speech, Seventh Annual Convention - NS 337/8, pp. 17-20
Ida McAulay, the wife of a mathematician, Alexander McAulay, gave a speech to a combined meeting of the Itinerants, Hamilton, and For Divers Reasons Clubs at Newtown on 9 October 1899 in favour of votes for women. Unlike Union members, McAulay believed in the independence of women and did not promote motherhood as a reason for female suffrage.
Reference - AOT NS 331/9
Women’s Suffrage Association
The Women’s Suffrage Association was formed by Jessie Rooke on 18 September 1903 to educate women about how to use their vote. Its president was Ida McAulay, who produced the Association’s first annual report in 1904.
Mercury, 27 September 1903
First Annual Report of the Tasmanian Women's Suffrage Association - AOT NS 374/7
The Tasmanian News, a small ‘l’ liberal paper edited by Sara Gill supported vots for women as the following editorial shows.
1 August 1895
The Clipper, a labour paper, supported votes for women
• Jessie Rooke – cover of the White Ribbon Signal – AOT NS 337/88
• Delegates to the WCTU Annual Convention in Hobart, 1899 – AOT NS 337/57
• Members of the WCTU in 1900 – AOT NS 337/58
• Alison Alexander, ‘The Public Role of Women’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Tasmania, 1989, pp. 237-241.
• Renée Jordan, ‘White Ribboners’: the Woman’s Christian temperance Union of Tasmania, 1885-1914, unpublished BA hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 2001.
• Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen and Unwin, 1999, pp. 19-45.
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