Academic journal article Hecate

Putting the Queensland Woman Suffrage Movement into Its Wider Context

Academic journal article Hecate

Putting the Queensland Woman Suffrage Movement into Its Wider Context

Article excerpt

Thank you for asking me to share in this tribute to the work of Queensland women who fought so long and hard for their vote. Other speakers about these individual Queensland suffragists and their work* will be using material which has been researched since Woman Suffrage in Australia was published in 1992. That book took over my life for some years, and when it was launched I was diverted by my publisher into researching and writing a work on that other great-ism of the nineteenth century, Republicans and Republicanism in Australia.

I have therefore decided that the most rewarding contribution I can make is to remind you how your own colonial women, agitating in a young frontier society, fitted into the ranks of those who fought for 'women's rights' in Europe and America, and then to analyse how the Queensland woman suffrage movement meshed with the other separate but interconnected Australian colonial movements.

Let's start in America in 1776 with Abigail - wife of John Adams, who left to manage a Massachusetts property and rear the children while her husband was in Philadelphia drafting the American Declaration of Independence. She wrote urging him to give 'the ladies', too, the right to make the laws which women had to obey. He wrote back that 'he could not but laugh' at her suggestion.1

Louisa Lawson in Sydney almost certainly did not know about Abigail's protest when she wrote, more than one hundred years later, in her widely circulated women's magazine, The Dawn:

Who ordained that men only should make the laws to which both men and women have to conform? Why should half the world govern the other half? 2

Twenty-three years after the interchange between the Adams, one of the key documents of the French Revolution, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was cheekily followed by Olympe de Gouges' Declaration of the Rights of Woman. De Gouges lost her head in the Terror. We do not know whether it was for her Declaration; crime and punishment are not easy to connect in that Great Fire.3

Mary Wollstonecraft, in England in 1792 after a period observing the course of the Revolution, published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, protesting against the brain washing which fitted women only for submission and humility in marriage. Before she could write the two planned subsequent volumes she died of 'childbed fever' after the birth of the child of William Godwin. The Vindication was reprinted many times, and there is a copy in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It bears the original owner's name - Thomas Scott Mitchell - and it is reasonable to suspect that it was read a century later by that untiring woman suffrage campaigner, Rose Scott, whose correspondence protesting against similar conditioning reached women in every colony. Her nephew wrote that she sometimes posted a hundred letters a night when the suffrage movement was at its height. Having had the task of 'translating' that execrable handwriting, I can believe it!

In Britain in the first half of the iSoos, as the struggle for manhood suffrage intensified, more and more women, usually from prosperous families, joined Mary Wollstonecraft in protesting about the complex web of discriminatory laws which governed their lives. A woman could not attend college or University and thus the professions were closed to her. Marriage or governessing were her only respectable way out of her father's house and domination. No wonder Mrs Bennet in Austen's Pride and Prejudice was terrified out of her wits at the prospect of being left with so many unmarried daughters! When a woman married, any property she might have been given by her father passed automatically to her husband. If by chance the woman's family had drawn up a marriage settlement to prevent this, the husband still had the right to any interest earned. She had no rights in her children. He could leave them to the guardianship of another - or even take them away from her while she lived. …

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