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Women in Parliament

Women in Parliament

The social, legal and economic position of women in the nineteenth century

Throughout most of the nineteenth century women usually had less social, legal and economic rights before the law than men. Women workers (especially domestic servants) were exploited economically and physically, and the plight of widows and deserted or abused wives was ignored. Women were generally considered to be physically, emotionally and intellectually inferior to men and the entrenched and patronising attitudes of the time made even the discussion of change unlikely. Rose Scott, a leader in the women's suffrage movement, wrote: "Men have come to look upon women as a sort of appendage to themselves, a sort of tail that has only to wag when man - the dog - is pleased. And many men's attitude ... is that of serious and painful surprise ... if ... informed that in the future his tail would assert its own individuality".

The initial target of women's movements was alcohol, the social evil seen as most damaging to family and community life. But within these temperance organisations, some members began to feel that the real issue was to get women the right to vote so that they could directly influence governments and the law. Around 1887, led by Elizabeth Ward and others, departments within the Women's Christian Temperance League in New South Wales began to work actively for votes for women. Their voice was stridently added to in 1888 when Louisa Lawson began publishing The Dawn newspaper which for the next 17 years focussed on issues of justice for women.

In 1890 and 1891, Premier Sir Henry Parkes introduced electoral reform bills into the New South Wales Parliament which included provision for the women's vote. Nobody was surprised by their defeat but the issue had at last begun to attract publicity. The media usually trivialised or ridiculed the concept of women voting or entering Parliament, as did many politicians. Sir George Dibbs, in voting against Parkes' Bill in 1891 said "the bulk of women ... are utterly incapable of performing the duties of men". As Dibbs followed Parkes as Premier from 1891 to 1894, the growing women's movement faced an inflexible opponent.

In 1891 the New South Wales Womanhood Suffrage League was formed, bringing to prominence the activist Rose Scott and other important campaigners such as Dora Montefiore and Maybanke Wolstenholme. New Zealand women gained the vote in 1893, the first in the world to do so, greatly encouraging the New South Wales movement, but in New South Wales, Dibbs' successor as Premier, George Reid (1894-99), proved too evasive on the issue and two proposals in the Parliament received initial support but did not proceed. The coming of Federation and the probability that women would soon gain the vote in Federal politics changed the political climate. In 1900 and 1901 Bills to give women the vote were passed by the Lower House (Legislative Assembly) but defeated in the more conservative Upper House (Legislative Council), one MLC, Samuel Charles, arguing that "It is unnatural ... If a woman is married her first duty is to try to make her husband and home happy ... and if she does her duty she will have no time for politics". 

Women gain the vote in New South Wales

The vote for women in Federal elections came in 1902, making Australia the second nation in the world to achieve this, and shortly after, on its third attempt, the Women's Franchise Act was finally passed in NSW. The event was greeted with understandable joy by the Suffrage League but was to be only the beginning of a long journey, still underway, towards full social equality. In Australia, the fight for women's suffrage was never characterised by the level of militancy of the British Suffragette campaigns, perhaps because there was less resistance to the idea here. Women could still not stand for the Legislative Assembly in NSW until 1918 and admittance to the Legislative Council was not possible until 1926. Premier Storey attempted to appoint Kate Dwyer, a pioneer social reformer and Labor organiser, to the Legislative Council in 1921 but the appointment was ruled out of order.

Women's franchise in Australia

The Australian State and Commonwealth Parliaments were amongst the first in the world to give women the right to vote, although actual representation in Parliament generally took much longer. Within Australia, the NSW Parliament ranked in the middle of this process and was the second to have a woman Member.

    Australian State and Federal Parliaments
    Parliament Right to Vote Right to Stand First Woman Elected
    South Australia189418941959
    Western Australia189919201921
    NSW19021918 (LA)1925
    NSW19021926 (LC)1931

A slow start to representation of women

Despite the lead Australia took in giving the vote to women, the actual representation of women in Parliaments was slow developing and is still less than 20% nationally. One reason for this was the long-held reluctance of the major parties to select women candidates in winnable seats but this was also a reflection of the slow rate of change in general community attitudes.This situation began to change by the 1980s.

Women in the Legislative Assembly

The first woman elected to the Legislative Assembly (and the second to any Parliament in Australia) was Millicent Preston-Stanley, who held the seat of Eastern Suburbs for the Nationalist Party 1925-1927.

Born in 1883, Millicent Preston-Stanley became an active member and organiser in the Women's Liberal League and other organisations and was appointed one of NSW' first women Justices of the Peace in 1921. An effective public speaker, she first stood for Parliament in 1921, succeeding in 1925. In Parliament she campaigned strongly on women's mortality in childbirth, child welfare, institutional care for mental illness, and custody rights in divorce. In particular, she took up the case of Emelie Polini who lost a custody case because she indicated that she intended to take her child overseas with her. Although Preston-Stanley's Private Bill on equal custody rights failed, she continued the campaign, even writing and acting in a successful play on the Polini case in 1932. Equal custody rights were achieved with the Guardian of Infants Act in 1934. Changes to the electorates and voting system resulted in her defeat after contesting the seat of Bondi in 1927 but she continued an active political life, holding many executive positions on women's organisations and delegations until 1955 when, though terminally ill, she was re-elected President of the Feminist Club.

The second woman to enter the Legislative Assembly was Mary Quirk (ALP) who in 1939 won the seat of Balmain following the death of her husband, John, who had been the Member since 1917. She held the seat through 3 more elections but was defeated in a preselection ballot in 1950. The Assembly also lost its other woman Member that year when Lilian Fowler (ALP Member for Newtown since 1944) was defeated in an altered electorate. Fowler had been New South Wales' first woman alderman in 1928 and Australia's first woman mayor (Newtown, 1938).

By 1988, there had still only been 7 women elected to the Legislative Assembly but in that year 6 more were elected and 2 re-elected.

Women in the Legislative Council

The first two women appointed to the Legislative Council were both ALP members proposed by the second Lang Government on November 23, 1931. Catherine Green, who took her seat the following day, is regarded as the first woman MLC, and Ellen Webster joined her in the House two days later. Green resigned in September 1932 but Webster remained in the Legislative Council until it was reconstituted in 1933-4. At that time she was placed in an impossible position for the new ballot and commented: "Well, I've been dumped but I can still raise a smile". It was 1952 before another woman (Gertrude Melville, ALP) was elected to the Legislative Council. From then until 1978, when the Council was reformed as a House directly elected by the people of NSW, another nine women were elected, and since the reform of the Legislative Council, a larger proportion of women have been elected, by 1996 constituting 33% of its membership. In mid-1998, the Hon. Virginia Chadwick, MLC, became President of the Legislative Council and the first woman Presiding Officer of the Parliament of New South Wales.