In Victoria, as in the rest of Australia, feminism was born and bred in the city. A political movement whose life depended on the sharing of insights, the recruitment of converts and the circulation of new ideas, feminism first appeared in organised form in Melbourne in 1884, with the founding of the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society by Henrietta Dugdale, Annie Lowe and others. A central aim was to win the vote, because women's lack of political power rendered them defenceless in the face of men's assaults. Thus the 50 women and 20 men who attended the first meeting of the new society were told, 'The laws for the offences against property were very severe, but for brutal offences against women they were not'.
Initially protectionist in orientation, Australian feminism sought to empower women and girls within and beyond the home. This emphasis was reinforced by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed in Melbourne in 1885 and supporting 57 branches by 1891, the year the Victorian Parliament passed an amended Crimes Act, raising the age of consent from 12 to 16 years and defining incest as a criminal offence.
To convince male legislators of Victorian women's desire for the vote, 'monster petitions' were presented to parliament. In Melbourne, 22-year-old Vida Goldstein, soon to become the acknowledged leader of the women's movement, was one of the canvassers for the petition of 1891, when 30 000 signatures were collected. Goldstein celebrated the federal franchise by forming the Women's Political Association, which supported her candidacy for the Senate in 1903 as an independent. Like Rose Scott in New South Wales, Goldstein, though socialist in sympathy, was passionate in her denunciation of the snare of party politics for women. Writing in her journal, the Woman's Sphere, she urged women to campaign through their own organisations rather than those controlled by men, adding, 'If they do the latter, they must adopt men's methods and men's aims, and simply help in perpetuating the old order of things. The right of the franchise will have been bestowed on them for no purpose'. As a non-party force, feminists successfully lobbied politicians to implement their vision of a maternalist welfare state, but failed in their campaign to have candidates elected to parliament. Goldstein stood five times for the Senate without avail.
Meanwhile, feminist ideas had begun to have a powerful impact on Labor and socialist women, such as Muriel Heagney, Jean Daley and Nelle Rickie, who became strong advocates of the interrelated goals of equal pay and childhood and motherhood endowment as a basis for women's economic independence. Denounced by male comrades as promoting 'unscientific claptrap', Daley and others insisted on the relevance of feminist ideas to the Labor movement, even as they declined the feminist label. There was 'a woman's point of view in politics', said Daley, and it was men's 'fear of losing their dictatorship, that makes them resent independent women'. Concerted male opposition to the motherhood endowment campaign finally led Heagney to campaign for women's right to equality in the workforce, an argument she advanced in her 1935 book Are women taking men's jobs?
The non-party approach was revived in 1922, when the Victorian Women Citizens Movement was founded to lobby for women's right to stand for the Victorian Parliament. In 1908 Victoria became the last State to enfranchise women.
The right to stand for election was conceded in 1923, but barriers to winning a seat remained. Australian Labor Party women were preselected for unwinnable seats; Nationalist women were forced to stand as Independents. In 1925 the second president of the Victorian Women Citizens Movement, vicar's wife Edith Jones, was pressured by her husband's vestrymen not to stand as a feminist candidate in the federal election. Across Australia, feminist regret was expressed that male opposition had prevented 'an enthusiastic and gifted woman citizen from seeking a share in the national councils where the mother-voice is too long silent in this land of ours'.
Success came in 1937, when 45-year-old Ivy Weber, a candidate for the dry seat of Nunawading, whose campaign was supported by the Victorian League of Women Voters (the erstwhile Victorian Women Citizens Movement) and the WCTU, was elected. Her campaign focused on 'Mother, Child, Family, Home and Health' and the right of women to have their interests represented. But when she attempted to transfer to the federal parliament as part of the Women for Canberra movement in 1943, she was defeated, as were all nineteen Independent candidates sponsored by the movement.
The League of Women Voters remained active throughout the 1940s and 1950s, increasingly concentrating on the goal of equality in public life, joined by trade union women such as Kath Williams, organiser of the Liquor Trades Union and secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council Equal Pay Committee. In 1969 Zelda D'Aprano of the Meat-workers' Union drew attention to the cause by chaining herself to the Commonwealth Building to support the case before the Arbitration Court, which that year ruled in favour of equal pay for equal work. D'Aprano joined with other women, including Bon Hull, to extend their campaign for equality by forming the Women's Action Committee.
In 1972 non-party feminism took a new form and a new name with the founding of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Melbourne by Beatrice Faust and others intent on working for reform by adopting the traditional method of circulating questionnaires to politicians of all persuasions and then publicising their responses. Candidates in the 1972 federal election were asked their views on issues relating to women, and the results were published in the Age newspaper, prompting many analysts to attribute Labor's victory in part to feminist support. While reform-minded, respectable and professional women gravitated to the Women's Electoral Lobby, those espousing revolution in personal relationships and society at large joined the self-styled Women's Liberation Movement. Together these movements achieved much: anti-discrimination legislation, funding for women's refuges and centres against sexual assault, women's studies courses, access to men's trades, and reforms relating to domestic violence and rape in marriage.
The establishment of the Victorian Women's Trust, a very successful non-government organisation that raises money to support a grant-giving program, has, under the leadership of Mary Crooks, proved a major Victorian success story. Women's right to equality in the public domain was nicely symbolised with the appointment of Joan Kirner, Victorian leader of the Australian Labor Party and self-proclaimed feminist, as premier in 1990.
Australian women today are the beneficiaries of reforms instigated by Melbourne feminists working in their own organisations and in conjunction with trade unions and political parties. While some younger women speak of feminism as an individual matter, or blame feminism for their disappointments, others hope we are in a transitional phase before the next collective mobilisation, necessary to secure the elusive goals of equality and freedom, gathers force.