Changing the world, one signature at a time

Monday, 1 February 2021

What can you do if you want to change something or try to make the world a better place?

You could write to your local member of parliament, create a banner and take it to the streets, or you might even chain yourself to something and turn your body into a site of public protest.

But before you got that far, you'd probably do what citizens have done for hundreds of years: start a petition calling for action. The petitioner circulates a statement requesting the signatures of people who support that change. The more signatures obtained, the greater weight (literally, if it's on paper) the petition will have. The petition is then presented to the organisation who can bring about the change.

Petitions to Australian parliaments follow a long-standing British tradition. In the nineteenth century parliaments accepted many petitions, often concerned with who could stand for parliament and vote in elections. And by the 1890s, one of the biggest questions was whether women should have the right to vote.

Votes for women

In 1894, South Australia became the first electorate in the world to grant women the right to vote and stand for parliament.

Meanwhile, women in the other Australian colonies were forming groups and preparing petitions for their own parliaments, and some were also becoming involved in the federal movement. They hoped that if the Australian colonies formed a federation, the rights of women would be enshrined in the new national constitution.

The constitution was drafted at federal conventions held in 1891 and 1897 to 1898. The second convention consisted of delegates elected by people in in each of the colonies, and it accepted petitions on any issue. All of these petitions are held by the National Archives of Australia.

The Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales argued that, as taxpayers and 'patriotic and law‑abiding citizens', women should be given a voice in choosing representatives in the new federal parliament. Only then would Australia become a true democracy resting on the 'whole and not half of the people'.

There is some evidence that this petition originally included 513 signatures, but all that has survived is the covering statement, which was signed by prominent feminists including the president of the league, Maybanke Wolstenholme, and the secretary, Rose Scott.

The opposing view

We take the right to vote for granted today, so it comes as a shock to discover that in the 1890s some people actively opposed it.

Another petition to the second Federal Convention was from 96 citizens of Launceston who were against votes for women.

They stated that the majority of Tasmanian women 'do not desire political responsibility to be thrust upon them'. The interests of the 'female portion of the inhabitants' were already guarded by men in the Tasmanian parliament, they argued, and that federally, they could be 'equally well represented by their male relatives and friends at the ballot box'.

The 96 signatures on the petition show that it was supported by women and men.

Enshrined in law

After much debate, delegates to the Federal Convention agreed to include a provision in the Constitution (section 41) guaranteeing that people who had the right to vote in colonial elections could not be deprived of it for Commonwealth elections.

This, combined with an agreement that there should be a uniform Commonwealth franchise, ensured women’s right to vote. It was enshrined in law in 1902 with the passing of the Commonwealth Franchise Act.

Sadly, what was a win for white women was a tragedy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A clause in the franchise act specifically excluded ‘aboriginal natives’ from having their names on the electoral roll unless already entitled under section 41 of the Constitution. This effectively disenfranchised nearly all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who did not gain the right to vote in Commonwealth elections until 1962.

The Womanhood Suffrage League petition can be seen in the Voices exhibition at the National Archives of Australia.

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