Protesters are seen crossing the Victoria Bridge during the Invasion Day rally in Brisbane, Sunday, January 26, 2020. (AAP Image/Darren England)
Protesters are seen crossing the Victoria Bridge during the Invasion Day rally in Brisbane, Sunday, January 26, 2020. (AAP Image/Darren England)

State of protest over female votes

Our Australian democracy was built on the idea of a fair go for all but our freedoms have been hard won, often after great agitation.

We have been a nation of protesters ever since two Gweagal warriors arced up when Lieutenant James Cook's men shot one of them in the leg on the shores of Botany Bay in 1770.

Australia's alternate flag, the Southern Cross banner, was borne from the fight by miners on the Ballarat gold diggings protesting against unfair taxes and a lack of political representation. Protesting shearers in the 1890s gave rise to the Australian Labor Party.

In my lifetime I've seen protests over conscription and the Vietnam War, Aboriginal land rights, the Franklin River, same-sex marriage, Joh Bjelke-Petersen and South African sporting teams during the dark days of Apartheid.

Just last weekend there were mass protests against Australia Day.

While sightseeing in London last October I was caught in the middle of a million people chanting ``global justice'' in their fight to see government's around the world arrest climate change.

 

Women’s rights advocate Emma Miller
Women’s rights advocate Emma Miller

Those protesters were marching past a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, regarded by opponents in her lifetime as a dangerous ratbag but now widely revered as one of the most influential women of the 20th century. She led the fight for women's suffrage in England, a war that began with women heckling politicians and chaining themselves to railings and which graduated to burning down buildings and blowing up empty churches in the middle of the night.

Pankhurst finally forced her Government in 1918 to give the vote to women who had hit 30. She died in 1928 just weeks before legislation extended it to women 21 or older.

In Queensland the fight for women's rights was just as passionate if less violent.

Women had won the right to vote in several countries by the end of the 19th century. New Zealand women were voting from 1893.

 

An Anti Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen street march through the Brisbane City. Picture: Darren England
An Anti Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen street march through the Brisbane City. Picture: Darren England

The following year on March 1, 1894, The Brisbane Courier reported that former Premier Charles Lilley, who had first proposed the idea of female voting rights almost a quarter of a century before, presided over a protest meeting inside the city's appropriately named Protestant Hall on Ann Street.

The audience there applauded the view that ``it was only an act of fairness that women should have equal rights with men''.

Voting rights underwent major reforms at the end of the 19th century with ``plural votes'' being abolished, ending a system where the wealthy could have votes for every part of Queensland where they had land.

But women still fought for fairness in vain.

Protesters cross the Victoria Bridge during the Invasion Day rally in Brisbane last Sunday. (AAP Image/Darren England)
Protesters cross the Victoria Bridge during the Invasion Day rally in Brisbane last Sunday. (AAP Image/Darren England)

 

That 1894 Courier report pointed out that it was `manifestly unfair' that women ``who represented half of the adult population should have to submit to laws enacted by the other half'' without any political representation.

The Women's Equal Franchise Association, (WEFA) soon hit its straps under the remarkable trade unionist Emma ``Mother'' Miller, a British-born seamstress who had already campaigned against the exploitation of women in Queensland sweatshops. She is honoured at Emma Miller Place off Roma Street.

Schoolteacher Leontine Cooper ran a sister group, the Women's Franchise League.

A petition calling for women's suffrage gained widespread support but Queensland's Government was still slow to act.

After Federation in 1901, Australia gave women (but only white ones, mind you) both the right to vote and the right to stand in parliament.

Queensland didn't follow until 1905.

And it wasn't until 1965, and many more subsequent protests, before indigenous men and women could have a say in Queensland elections.

Grantlee Kieza's latest biography `Macquarie', is published by HarperCollins/ABC Books

grantlee.kieza@news.com.au



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