Nellie Alma Martel and the Women's Social and Political Union, 1905-09

Article excerpt

Nellie Martel's suffrage work in Australia

The Commonwealth Franchise Act (June 1902) ensured the right of all Australians (with the regrettable exception of Aboriginal people and other non-white groups) to vote in, and stand for, all Federal elections. In 1897, the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW (WSL) petitioned the Australasian Federal Convention, then meeting in Adelaide, to have the women's vote written into the agenda. This strategy opened the way for women's suffrage at both Federal and state levels. The suffragists' petition was signed by the WSL executive, along with the signature of the 'Recording Secretary' Nellie Alma Martel. In the Federal elections of 1903 Nellie Martel was one of four women (1) to stand for election to the first Federal Parliament of Australia. Martel stood as a free-trade candidate and gained a commendable 19 946 votes. None of the women was elected.

Martel was 'one of the first members' of the Womanhood Suffrage League (NSW), formed in May 1891. (2) She was probably present at the two preliminary meetings of the Society held in the home of Mrs Dora Montefiore, a wealthy widow suffragist who lived at 77 Darlinghurst Road, Sydney. Montefiore left Australia in 1899 and spent some years in France before returning to England where, like Martel, she became involved in the Women's Social and Political Union.

A feature article celebrating women's franchise in Australia in the [Sydney] Daily Telegraph, August 20, 1902 shows a pen and ink drawing of Mrs C. Martel, with a short biography which describes her as 'the well known elocutionist'. Of interest in the report is the 'Mrs. C' implying the existence of a 'Mr. C' of whom very little, if anything, is known. A studio photograph taken in 1891 shows twelve foundation members of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW. In the photograph Martel holds her right hand behind her head drawing attention to her massed hair. She is the only one of the seated women whose hand is out of a ladylike lap.

While still a member of the influential NSW WSL (3) Nellie also joined the NSW Women's Progressive Association formed by Annie and Belle Golding and their sister Kate Dwyer. (4) Martel, it seems, was more in accord with the WPA's up-front, vigorous campaign tactics and with its working class orientation, than with the more socially and politically conforming WSL. Oldfield comments that 'Martel and the Golding sisters ... did not waste words on sentimentalizing women's moral superiority. They did not belong to the elite of Sydney ... and were impatient with the genteel image which these suffragists [Rose Scott and others] cultivated so assiduously.' (5) In 1900, Martel was unanimously elected president of another reform group, the Liberal and Reform Association of NSW, a position she still held in 1905. (6)

Martel and the early WSPU

My interest is in Nellie Martel's propaganda work with the Women's Social and Political Union in England after her return there in 1904/5. (7) Soon after arriving (8) in London, Martel threw in her lot with the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903 and active in London from 1906. In February 1906 Martel 'attired in a large picture-hat and yellow satin blouse,' (9) was present at the meeting at Sylvia Pankhurst's lodgings at which the London committee of the WSPU was formed. Martel's aligning with the 'deeds not words' Pankhursts, rather than Millicent Garrett Fawcett's constitutionally-oriented National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) is consistent with her involvement with the Goldings' WPA in Australia. Martel deplored the fact that the cooperation that existed between the various NSW suffragist and temperance groups was not replicated among the English suffrage groups. 'We in Australia were united as one in our agitation for franchise,' she said, 'with this disunion among women [in England] one could hardly expect Parliament to give them franchise. …