The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview
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Chapter 18
Gender Politics
Patty Renfrow

Australian women obtained political rights before their counterparts in other western democracies.With the enactment of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, the newly established nation of Australia was the first to grant 'white' (non-indigenous) women the right to vote and to stand for election to the national parliament. At that time, only in New Zealand could women vote in elections for the national parliament a right obtained in 1893 and women's suffrage was decades away for US and British women.

Notwithstanding these early, landmark victories, Australian women remained in the background of Australian history and politics for most of the twentieth century.Threequarters of a century later in the mid-1970s our understanding of women and politics was minimal, fragmentary, and often stereotypical. A content analysis of the journal Politics (now the Australian Journal of Political Science) between 1966 and 1978 found that articles about women in politics comprised less than 1 per cent of the publications, rising to about 4 per cent only if articles from two symposiums, on women in politics and women in society, were included (Sawer 1981a). Clearly, scholarship about gender politics was lagging behind the gains by women in social, economic and political life, where women were becoming prominent figures within political parties, standing as candidates for public office, advocating pro-women public policies such as maternity leave and raising the feminist awareness of men and women.

Only in the past quarter of a century has there emerged a rich, multidisciplinary research program establishing gender politics as a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry. Although there were some earlier studies of women and politics (for example, Goot and Reid 1975; Mackerras 1977, 1980, 1983; Clark and White 1983), the catalyst for the development of the broad field of gender politics in Australia was the publication of A Woman's Place:Women and Politics in Australia (Sawer and Simms 1984).This seminal book is a comprehensive exploration of women's role in Australian politics from the late-nineteenth-century struggle for women's suffrage to the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It offers one of the first systematic examinations of women's participation as political candidates and parliamentarians, and reveals the impact that women's presence has made to public policy and to the nature of politics itself.

From that starting point, research in gender politics proceeded along two broad and complementary avenues. First, research designed to correct and improve the historical


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