'There Is No Question More Perplexing at the Present Time and More Frequently Discussed Than Women's Place in Society': Léontine Cooper and the Queensland Suffrage Movement, 1888-1903

Article excerpt

Léontine Cooper firmly believed that 'till women have a political vote...no real amelioration of their position can take place'.1 Short-story writer, journalist, teacher and bi-lingual scholar, she was Queensland's most significant writer addressing the rights of white women during the suffrage movement (which culminated in 1905 with the granting of one person one vote in the Lower House). By the late 1880s she had emerged as one of the key activists - from 1894 she was president of the Women's Franchise League and in the mid 18903 she edited Queensland's only women's suffrage paper, the Star. An acute and insightful commentator, Cooper is said to have had a 'slow graceful manner' and 'a gentle, low, and refined voice',2 but she was also prepared to take extremely provocative and militant positions. Cooper must take her place among the key actors contributing to progressive currents in Australian political life and Australian feminism. 'The one man one vote is not the panacea for all the ills of State', she warned, but with the winning of the women's vote it might be seen 'whether in less than a hundred years we might not help to mend matters a little.'3

'The tendency of the times', wrote Cooper in 1889, 'is distinctly towards equality, understanding by equality that condition which allows all individuals to labour for their maintenance on equal terms and upon the same conditions.'4 The women's suffrage movement comprising three major groups - the Women's Franchise League, the Women's Equal Franchise Association and the Women's Christian Temperance Union had a long struggle in Queensland. The class nature of Queensland and the relatively entrenched white, male, propertied elite through the plural vote and the upper house of nominees (for life and with no pay) meant there was strong opposition. Frederick Brentnall, MLC and media magnate, chairman of the board of directors of the Brisbane Telegraph, husband of the suffrage superintendent of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, for instance, did not support votes for women, unless propertied. Gail Reekie argues that the uncompromising attitude of the Labor Party to women gaining the property vote as a transitional measure, and the consequent division of the suffrage groups, meant a general subsuming of feminist issues into masculine political priorities.5 Katie Spearritt notes the high marriage and fertility rates, the rurally orientated culture and lack of opportunities for women's economic independence.6 Carmel Shute points to the racial fears from the north of Queensland, where the white frontier was still meeting violent resistance by Aboriginal custodians and where South Sea Islander indentured labour was in use. 7 All of these were significant factors. Strong ideological pressure on women as mothers of the 'new' nation-state at Federation led to the suppression of feminism. Suffragists in Australia, as characterised by Pat Grimshaw, colluded in the creation of a history of settlement that presented colonisation in a positive light which justified the differential treatment of Indigenous peoples.8 Racialising strategies were employed and deployed in embattled sub-tropical Brisbane, in general to a greater degree than in the other Australian colonies.9

Cooper's work as a commentator on women's suffrage, and more generally on women in Queensland is raw, eloquent and insightful. For her, the responsibility for suffrage was in the hands of the women of Queensland themselves - even though they had been 'sweated and ground down for so many generations'.10 In women's history, in the written history of white women in Australia, the literary writer can provide a more readily accessible point of entry into the preoccupations of the past - useful in the case of Queensland where there are few remaining records. Cooper's name is still obscure; her fiction was never published in book form and, with no Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, the details of her life and work are not widely known. …