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Suffrage has defined citizenship in Melbourne since its earliest days. More democratic in outlook than the 'Mother Country', the colony of Victoria was granted responsible government in 1855 on the understanding that every adult male should have a voice in government (but not necessarily an equal voice). The retention of a high property qualification for the Upper House and the introduction of plural voting on the basis of multiple land-holding, even in the Legislative Assembly, moderated the democratic tendencies of manhood suffrage. Campaigns for an extension of the franchise had three (not always consistent) goals: the abolition of plural voting, the removal of the property qualification and the enfranchisement of women.

Female ratepayers were enfranchised at a municipal level in 1863, but when some turned up to vote in the 1864 Legislative Assembly elections, on the basis that their names were now on what was a common electoral roll, the parliament retaliated, replacing the words 'all persons' with the phrase 'all male persons' in an amendment to the Electoral Act in the following year. The first call for woman suffrage came nine years later when Henrietta Dugdale (1826-1918) had a letter on the subject published in the Melbourne press. However, for many years there was more concern about the fact that female-owned property was unrepresented than about women as a class being excluded.

The foundation in 1884 of the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society marks a clearer beginning to the campaign. Distributing leaflets, holding public meetings, organising parliamentary deputations and seeking the support of public figures, this society set the pattern for the more than thirty women's suffrage organisations of varying political complexions that would later become allied to the cause. In 1889 Dr William Maloney, a representative of the Workingmen's Political League, introduced the first Bill for woman suffrage into the Legislative Assembly, to an extremely hostile reception. Parliamentarians, particularly in the Legislative Council, remained unconvinced that women wanted to vote, even after the Woman's Christian Temperance Union collected 30 000 signatures on its monster petition in favour of the franchise in 1891. Bills to reform the franchise were introduced almost annually from 1894 to 1902, when women were enfranchised at a Commonwealth level. Some Bills linked woman suffrage to the abolition of plural voting or to a widening of the franchise for the Legislative Council; others dealt with the issue on its own, but although plural voting was abolished in 1899, all attempts to enfranchise women were defeated in the Upper House.

In the meantime the United Council for Woman Suffrage, founded as an umbrella body in 1894, sought to educate women for their future role, campaigning successfully to have women returned to school boards of advice in 1896 and encouraging greater participation of female ratepayers in municipal elections. Following federal enfranchisement, this role was taken over by Vida Goldstein's Women's Political Association, which sought to empower women to exercise their new political rights. The State woman suffrage campaign, however, fell into a trough, with determined women's organisations, supported by a majority of members in the Legislative Assembly, facing a recalcitrant premier, Sir Thomas Bent, who was unwilling even to consider the issue. Suddenly, in 1908, he changed his mind, perhaps persuaded by the success of the conservative Australian Women's National League that the women's vote was nothing to fear.

The introduction of adult suffrage, however, applied only in the Legislative Assembly. Only in 1951 was a similar principle introduced for the Legislative Council, the final step in replacing a franchise based on property with one based on citizenship. There was a widespread assumption that citizenship, however, was a race privilege. Although Aboriginal people had not been excluded from the franchise in Victoria, their explicit disqualification in the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 was widely assumed to apply. Only in 1961, after a Senate Inquiry on Aboriginal Voting Rights recommended full enfranchisement, did the Victorian Government inform local Koories of their entitlement, and many were not alerted to the fact until the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people, nationally, full citizenship rights.

Shurlee Swain