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Women's Suffrage Organisations

The Australian women's suffrage movement began and ended in Melbourne, where it was more varied and complex, and aroused more concerted opposition, than in any of the other capital cities, featuring an array of associations representing views ranging from conservatism to socialism, and free thought to evangelicalism. The first organisation, the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society, was formed in 1884 by iconoclastic freethinker Henrietta Dugdale, fellow sceptic and Eclectic Association member Elizabeth Rennick and the less flamboyant but equally capable Annie Lowe. The public meetings, resolutions, letters and deputations they employed remained the basic techniques of Melbourne's suffrage organisations throughout the struggle. Both accomplished speakers, Dugdale and Lowe were joined by the pioneering birth-control advocate, Brettena Smyth, who in 1888 established a breakaway organisation, the Australian Women's Suffrage Society. Closely aligned with the organised temperance and labour movements, it did not survive Smyth's death in 1898. Both organisations found themselves competing with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which expanded rapidly between 1887 and 1891, the Women's Progressive Leagues, oriented to social reform but increasingly active on the suffrage issue, and the new Australian Labor Party's Women's Social and Political Reform League, formed in 1894.

The WCTU had initiated an 1891 petition to parliament, co-ordinating suffrage organisations to collect 30 000 signatures. In February 1894 the WCTU initiated the Victorian Women's Franchise League, designed to attract Christian women who did not wish to align themselves with free thought, party politics or prohibition. Two months later the National Society for Women's Suffrage was established to appeal to yet another constituency - men and women of broadly liberal and democratic views. In July Annette Bear-Crawford, a Victoria woman with experience in London settlement house and suffrage movements, called representatives of all the groups together to form the United Council for Woman Suffrage. Bear-Crawford's broadly liberal and conciliatory views, organisational ability and speaking skills were central to the Council's success. After her sudden death in mid-1899, the young Vida Goldstein, who had been introduced to the campaign during the 1891 petition, became the Council's paid secretary, expanding its affiliates from 12 to 32 and launching a monthly paper, the Woman's Sphere.

For all this activity, little had been achieved. Although in 1896 a number of women had been elected to local school Boards of Advice, four woman suffrage bills, passed by the Legislative Assembly, had been rejected in the Council. In the second half of 1901 Goldstein was succeeded by ALP activist Lilian Locke, travelling to the United States to attend the 1902 International Woman Suffrage Conference and the International Council of Women (ICW) Convention. The Commonwealth suffrage was celebrated in her absence and, when she returned in August, it was to an even more conservative State Government.

With the major parties now anxious to capture women's votes, Goldstein turned her attention to the education of women electors. In mid-1903 she founded the Women's Federal Political Association and became the first British Empire woman to nominate for a national parliament when she stood (unsuccessfully) for the Senate. Goldstein's non-party stance alienated new organisations like the Women's Organising Committee of the ALP, the Australian Women's National League and the National Council of Women (NCW), dissipating the unity of the suffrage movement and making it difficult to revive enthusiasm in the last stage of the Victorian struggle.

Goldstein dropped the word 'federal' from the title of her organisation early in 1904 in order to focus attention on the winning of the State suffrage. With Victoria the only State still to be won after Queensland women were enfranchised in 1905, Goldstein closed the Woman's Sphere and returned to activism. Following the ICW declaration for suffrage, the formerly apolitical NCW entered the fray in October 1906 reviving the interest of other affiliated organisations. The Woman Suffrage Declaration Committee founded in 1907 under the presidency of the WCTU's Eleanor Hobbs, followed an English model, mobilising support from churches and prominent individuals in order to lobby the recalcitrant legislative councillors. Supporters in the Men's League for Women's Suffrage won the first signs of concession from Premier Bent, and in November 1908 a government-sponsored bill passed through the Legislative Council. At the 5 December victory celebration, Henrietta Dugdale and Annie Lowe were given pride of place on the platform.

Judith Smart

Oldfield, Audrey, Woman suffrage in Australia: A gift or a struggle?, Cambridge University Press, Canberra, 1992. Details