Sex, class and the road to women's suffrage


How did women get the vote so early in Australia? Between 1860 and 1890, the dynamic of Australia's capitalist development reshaped gender relations, in some ways limiting women’s rights, but in other ways creating important new opportunities.

Theoretically, the nuclear family reigned supreme. Amongst the social elite, this assigned to women a rather peculiar role, which Beverley Kingston describes:

"The complex business of maintaining caste, status, and hierarchy in society, of ensuring that marriages were arranged that were suitable or advantageous to the family, the business or the property, of celebrating the birth of heirs, entertaining the right people, or keeping the close-knit circles of family and friends fully functioning, was, in the hands of a capable woman, as important and impressive as her husband’s political, diplomatic, or entrepreneurial activity." (Kingston p. 24-5)

The roles were not really equally important, yet it is true that women were active in shaping class society. The middle classes, as well as the craft unionists and their families who aspired to middle class status, also defined female roles in domestic terms. The jumped up shopkeeper Henry Parkes, who came from just such a background, declared a woman’s "high and honourable destiny" to be duty in the home because "men rule in commerce, in the market and in the state" . (Deacon p. 67). The fact that his uncertain business only survived because of the capabilities of Clarinda Parkes was not enough to free his mind from dogma.

However social changes were beginning to challenge the family institution. Mass production eroded traditional crafts and dashed the middle class aspirations of the craftsmen. New factories produced simple household items such as bread and candles, which housewives and daughters had previously made at home, creating pressures and incentives for women to go out to work. Demands mounted for liberalized divorce laws, and more couples, mainly in the middle class, began practicing birth control in the seventies. Within fifteen years this caused a conspicuous fall in the birth rate, which accelerated in the economic depression of the nineties. These trends aroused fears of "race suicide" that persisted well into the next century, becoming the subject of a New South Wales Royal Commission in 1903-4.

The sex imbalance declined steadily in the second half of the century. In Victoria the ratio of females to males was sixty-four percent in 1861, but had risen to ninety-one percent two decades later, and was virtually at par in Melbourne. This eroded a long-standing obstacle to marriage for men, yet began to create one for some women: while males were now more likely to find marriage partners, females (especially Irish immigrants) were less likely to do so. Matrimony was no longer automatic for females. At the same time, greater job and even career opportunities began to open up, attracting women away from supposedly natural domestic bliss.

Even in the most conservative decades, there had always been some successful female participants in commerce and the labour force, including pockets where they worked on equal terms with men. These tended to be in places where the family unit was also a productive unit, such as farming country. On a small selection, there was less scope to divide the "public" and "private" spheres. Women who had been equal partners running farms might also find themselves running local post offices. In fact postmistresses earning equal salaries were common in colonial New South Wales, both in country towns and Sydney suburbs. Their husbands, who therefore had an economic interest in equal pay, supported their careers, while country MPs endorsed equal job opportunity, especially at times when selectors faced financial trouble. No one allowed notions of women’s "natural" role to get in the way, and "None of the official inquiries that investigated the post office in 1858, 1860 and 1862 questioned the fact that the leading post offices were run by women earning high salaries, and with dependent children …" (Deacon p. 71)

The relative egalitarianism among small holders also helps explain the Shearers’ Union’s advanced policies on women’s rights. The "new unionism", wrote W.G. Spence, "makes no distinction of sex." Many union members were small selectors who also sheared part time, and "Spence in his appeal to country women to support the A.S.U. also recognized each family as an economic unit, and as such insisted the support of women was crucial to the success of trade unionism." (Dale p. 10, 47) To be sure, he also took for granted many conventional notions about the female role, but then so did contemporary feminists.

By the late 19th Century, however, the same industrial development that was challenging the urban family was likewise beginning to undermine these pockets of petit-bourgeois equality. The decline of craft production methods and the advent of the factory system also created routine production jobs, often filled by females and juveniles on a casual basis with high turnover levels.

Changes in the workforce

Women were some twenty per cent of the work force in late 19th Century Australia as a whole, rising to thirty or forty per cent in the main urban centres. Nearly half worked in domestic service, and a sizeable proportion on farms, but that still left a large number employed in the garment and boot trades, in shops, as nurses and as teachers -- though most of the jobs available apart from domestic service were confined to the cities and larger towns. The purely pastoral areas remained overwhelmingly male. Women’s wages were one-third to one-half of men’s, a difference due less to lower skill levels than to socially constructed gender roles and institutional barriers. (Information on wages from Buckley &Wheelwright: 141ff) Within these broad outlines, however, the situation was steadily changing.

Census data indicate a declining number of females employed in domestic service and primary production, and a moderate increase in the industrial, commercial and professional areas. Young women preferred to avoid domestic service with its constraints on personal freedom and potential for abuse. In fact their search for even the worst factory work showed how much they disliked the hardships, long hours and isolation of domestic service. "The great attractions of the factory were the company it provided at work, the sense of being one in adversity with one’s fellow-sufferers, the regulated and relatively short hours, and the relatively generous pay." (Kingston p. 58) Outwork also proliferated in the clothing trades, fitting the domestic circumstances of some workers while allowing employers to offer piece work at low rates.

Those who still opted for domestic service were choosier. As early as 1870, when Sir George Stephens offered patronising advice to female servants he found them unreceptive. He was "informed by several ladies … in search of servants that they have at times found it necessary to submit to examination themselves," and even encountered "silly young women … who actually stipulated that they should be addressed as "Miss Smith", or "Miss Brown" … Is it possible to conceived of a more absurd request than this? For it amounts to saying, 'I am as much a lady as yourself …’" (Aveling and Damousi p. 58-9).

Factory owners still hoped females would be more docile than young males in this relatively tight labour market. "Boys are far too independent," lamented one industrialist, "they will only take work where they like." (Davison). Yet as the tailoresses showed in a famous strike, the female sex might be just as rebellious as the male, because their bargaining position was steadily improving. Although the absolute number of women working increased, the eighties still brought a relative shortage of female labour, as increasing prosperity enabled significant numbers to avoid or postpone employment just as the demand for them was increasing.

In particular, they began to avoid domestic service, and this became a long term trend. During the depressed nineties some were forced back into this type of work, and the 1901 census still showed about ten percent of households employed servants. However in the new century the inexorable decline in servant numbers would continue.

In the seventies and eighties, more of those who became housewives could afford to hire "help", and so increased the demand for the remaining females. Others pursued the schooling needed to enter "professional" jobs as teachers or public servants. The shortage of female labour pushed up women’s wages: in Melbourne factories their pay increased by half in real terms between 1871 and 1891. (See Sinclair passim, and Fitzgerald p. 112)

The growth of teaching and nursing jobs created a layer of professionals with a "respectable" status outside the home. "The ultimate rate of payment is higher than women can make in any other employment without capital," remarked Catherine Spence in the 1870s, "while to most of the candidates it is a rise in the social scale; and these two considerations act powerfully enough." (Aveling and Damousi p. 72) By 1902, forty-five per cent of New South Wales teachers, and twenty-five percent of those in charge of schools, were female. While men dominated at the top of the system, still there were well over two hundred Mistresses of Departments. (Kingston p. 77) These were probably the best jobs available for women.

Nursing was also respectable in the post-Nightingale era, but the life was restrictive, the work often menial, the conditions appalling: as late as 1910 the nurses’ quarters at the Royal Melbourne Hospital were known as "Ratland" . Other possibilities included retail sales and typing. In the latter field some women established independent businesses for a time, until the cost of typewriters fell to the point where firms could establish their own typing pools. The numbers of unmarried (and to a lesser degree widowed or divorced) working women were substantial enough to stimulate the growth of hostel-type accommodation, including the YWCA with its cheap yet decent -- and above all, respectable --surroundings.

Centralization of the public service undermined equal pay in New South Wales post offices after 1900. Yet at the same time it also created new jobs in which women could begin to assert themselves, often as part of the labour movement. In Victoria, female post and telegraph workers had long been employed in large numbers in central locations, but at lower levels and subject to severe discrimination. This "provided the incentive and opportunity for militant organization in the 1890s, which won them important concessions and the legislated right to equal pay in the Commonwealth Public Service Act of 1902." (Deacon p. 196).

A major struggle took place in the telegraph and postal unions over women’s rights. The leading union journal, The Transmitter, supported equal pay and opportunity, as did the union in most parts of the country, but in Victoria, male members were hostile. The main reason was mass sackings during the 1890s, which had cost 1,500 mostly male employees their jobs. When the Victorian Government later carried out a reclassification exercise, the local union boycotted the hearing. An ad hoc committee of women then intervened with a submission which won them improvements in salary -- while males got pay cuts. The men resented this, but should have blamed the bosses or their own tactical errors rather than their fellow workers. Women employees, for their part, were hostile to those bosses whom they accused of "unbecoming language", "a desire to throw female assistants over the banisters", and spying on staff through holes bored in a partition. (Baker p. 74) Given the hostility of male unionists, they opted to form their own union.

The growth in female employment provided the material basis for both women’s trade unionism and campaigns for equal rights. Having fewer children left more time and energy for organising and for politics. (Where fertility remained higher, as in Queensland, women’s rights groups were weaker.) With greater access to the public sphere, more opportunities, better education and a sense of being in demand, women grew more assertive. These trends undermined the ideology relegating females to the "private sphere". Thousand trudged daily to the factories, with no collapse of civilization apparent, though the more downtrodden among them aroused humanitarian concern in middle class reformers.

Teachers and nurses demonstrated women’s capacity for complex and intellectually demanding tasks outside the home -- it is no coincidence that such prominent champions of women’s rights as Lilian Locke and Vida Goldstein both worked as teachers, or that other female teachers joined the single tax leagues which supported female equality. A trickle of female university graduates appeared once tertiary institutions started to become coeducational, beginning with the University of Adelaide in 1880. It was the Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University, Edward Stirling, who first introduced a motion on women’s suffrage in the South Australia parliament. Stirling pointed to the success of his female students as evidence they were men’s intellectual equals.

Towards women's suffrage

Then the economic boom, which had widened women’s possibilities between 1870 and 1890, gave way to economic crisis in the nineties. The experience radicalized a minority:

"Self-supporting new middle class and working class women such as Mary Gilmore and Louisa Lawson were part of the large floating population, often from the country, who gravitated to Sydney’s numerous boarding houses … Freed from family and sex role constraints, they contributed to the intellectual ferment that characterized Sydney at that time, playing an active part in the variety of ‘progressive causes’ … [They] were joined by women from elite families who were suddenly thrown onto the job market [and/or] radicalized by the poverty, destitution and exploitation they saw." (Deacon p. 153-154)

They gathered in clubs, literary associations and suffrage leagues. However these were often fairly small, a fact Kingston seeks to explain as follows: "Feminism produced no compelling organizations. The potential members, busy at home with the children, had no time for political or intellectual activity … Most feminist energy … was harnessed or deflected into women’s expanding moral and education role in the new puritanism [such as] the WCTU which … by 1894 claimed 7 400 members." [Kingston 104. The term "feminism" was not actually in use in the late 19th century. Kingston, like others nowadays, uses it for convenience. I have done the same, but more cautiously than most. To extend it to those who saw class struggle as the way forward (such as Emma Miller, for example) would be more than a minor, harmless anachronism; it would seriously misrepresent the social and political realities of the time.]

Kingston's argument explains little. If everyone was busy at home, how did they find time for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union? If they were incapable of activity, how do we explain their participation in the 1874 Moonta strike in South Australia, where "armed with brooms and led by the strike committee, the women "swept" those still working in the engine houses, candle factory, stables and other auxiliaries off the job." A manager later said they could be thankful women didn’t always get involved, as "those cousin Jennies up at Moonta showed us what can happen if they do". (Moss p. 195) Although the 19th Century unions are commonly disparaged as a "men’s movement", more women looked to them for salvation than looked to the women’s rights campaigners.

The women’s rights groups focused specifically on the suffrage had a modest size and impact partly because of their elite character. This was especially striking among the leading lights in New South Wales: Rose Scott, Lady Mary Windeyer and Dora Montefiore were all rather well off. The main issues pursued by affluent feminists, such as the vote and especially property rights, had less resonance among factory hands or working class housewives, who were often suspicious of the prosperous ladies claiming to champion their cause particularly in the case of proposals which limited the suffrage to property owners (and to whites). This is why activists associated with the workers’ movement sometimes took their distance. In South Australia Mary Lee, secretary of both the Women’s Suffrage League and the Working Women’s Trade Union, announced that she was not a "women’s rights woman" (Spearitt p. 333); while in Queensland, the well known labour activist and travelling union organiser Emma Miller led a working class breakaway from the official suffrage organization. In New South Wales the more labour-oriented activists also split with Rose Scott in 1901.

If what is now called "first wave feminism" was nevertheless a significant factor in late 19th century Australia, it is because of the organizational strength and continuity provided by the WCTU, which began to campaign seriously around the suffrage issue in the eighties, hoping women would vote to restrict alcohol. In Tasmania, it virtually was the movement. Only in Victoria, with its strong progressive liberal currents, and in liberal-Christian South Australia, did any significant women’s rights groups form earlier than the WCTU. The temperance movement drew its members mainly from nonconformist churches and their social background seems to have been lower-middle class. They were well organised because of the church framework and because they were supported by a previously existing male temperance movement. (See Oldfield p. 183) Consequently, when agitation focused on the question of national suffrage in a federated Australia they could speak -- unlike the suffrage societies -- with a national voice.

Unfortunately, the WCTU was also a rightwing influence. Temperance was associated with efforts by the upper and middle classes to strengthen social control. In Tasmania, in addition to running the suffrage movement they had other preoccupations: "In 1898 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, wanting to clear all youngsters, especially girls, off the streets at night, proposed that a curfew bell be rung at 9.00." This was part of a general tightening up which led to the centralisation of the police force. (Petrow p. 185) Like campaigns against prostitution, with which it was sometimes linked, the temperance crusade was a Protestant middle class response to the growth of turbulent (heavily Irish Catholic) working class communities in Australian cities. It had little to do with women’s rights and much to do with social control. (Hogan p. 145ff; Daniels passim.)

Voting rights came early and relatively easily in Australia, but still it took a struggle, and it was this struggle which pulled together something of a women’s movement. In Victoria, the WCTU took the lead in gathering a monster petition of 30,000 signatures. Among the canvassers was the young Vida Goldstein, just beginning her remarkable political career. Goldstein later commented that "the few women who refused to sign the petition were, almost without exception, those whose interest ended at the garden gate." (Searle p. 63)

This suggested that to be more than a marginal force, the women’s movement needed to gets its constituency active in the public sphere. Yet at the WCTU connection suggests, it was hampered by its own social outlook. A final reason for the small size and impact of the women’s rights groups was the influence of what has been called "domestic feminism".

No leading figure in these circles, even Rose Scott or Vida Goldstein who personally chose not to marry, questioned the view that woman’s place was in the family sphere. Arguments for suffrage typically appealed to woman’s moral role as guardian of the home, suggesting that female suffrage would help civilize society at large and claiming conversely, in Goldstein’s words, that "stability of marriage and the home depend upon our having an equal standard for men and women." (Searle p. 22) Similarly, campaigners for practical dress and against tight lacing stressed the importance of women’s health for their maternal role.

These arguments relied on notions that women were inherently more responsive, caring and nurturing – what Scott called the world of a "wide, loving heart and sheltering arms" (Oldfield p. 194) -- which were to find an echo in the feminism of a century later. They were also associated with moralistic campaigns for sexual puritanism, which in turn had considerable common ground with the temperance agitation and the Salvation Army. In addition, they meshed with the racist and militarist "populate or perish" mentality of the era. This is why at least two key New South Wales suffrage societies publicly disowned Bretena Smyth for promoting birth control. Ordinary people flocked to hear her, but respectable suffrage ladies were appalled.

It also explains many campaigners’ reluctance to support divorce reform, and the emphasis they placed on mothers’ right to custody of children. "Did she not bear them?" asked Louisa Lawson’s crusading paper, The Dawn. "Did she not merge her individuality into that of the helpless babe over whom she hung in its ailing weakness? It is time men acknowledged the meaning of motherhood." (Spearrit p. 341). How this outlook limited the campaign’s horizons emerges strikingly from the Queensland Women’s Suffrage League’s 1890 annual meeting, where Alderman J.A. Clarke suggested there was nothing wrong with women entering parliament. His wife promptly contradicted him, declaring that the vote was quite sufficient.

The domestic feminist outlook distinguished Australian campaigners from many of their British and American sisters, who embraced a vigorous liberal philosophy emphasizing individual rights. The American movement had a strong association with earlier anti-slavery agitation, while the British movement reflected the existence of a sizeable surplus of single females. By contrast Australian marriage and fertility rates were still relatively high. The institution of marriage appeared to most people as the only realistic possibility. These social conditions gave rise to a strong family orientation which the women’s rights activists could not transcend.

Of course such views were hardly confined to feminists. On the contrary, they were the dominant social ideology, and the labour movement was also deeply imbued with them. A leader of the Australian Workers’ Union, which supported women’s rights, argued in 1889 that unionism would reduce sexual immorality by increasing wages and thereby allowing more marriages. (Merrit p. 108) But such an outlook was particularly limiting for a movement whose success depended precisely upon getting women to look beyond the garden gate. Moreover, as Women’s Liberation was to recognize many decades later, an end to female oppression depends on challenging the capitalist family, within which sexist ideas and roles are reproduced.

In the absence of such a challenge, demands for equal rights were easy to contain or co-opt. Consider the case of married women’s property. The issue mainly concerned the middle classes who had property to worry about, though there was also a philanthropic concern for the poor. Introducing a reform act in the Victorian parliament, Mr J. O’Shanassy announced that its ‘most prominent function’ was "the protection of the entire fabric upon which society rests", to be achieved by ensuring that wives without property and their children did not become a burden on the state. (Crowley p. 578) Similarly, women’s suffrage went through Australian parliaments fairly easily because it was promoted as a means to safeguard and elevate the existing social order, which the middle class naturally endorsed. The limited impact of this reform is evidenced by the fact that no woman sat in an Australian parliament until 1921. Betty Searle writes of Australia’s middle class suffragists:

"It was their class, and particularly its women members who most strongly promoted the ideology of motherhood and the idea of family nurturing as women’s natural role which unwittingly imposed "domestic feminist" policies on working class women … [I]n the long run women’s suffrage contributed to a more orderly and stable middle class society, and helped promote legislation to benefit women and girls without upsetting the traditional sexual division of labour." (Searle p. 13, 18)

Class and gender

The family and the social roles it reproduces are crucial in holding together nation states. Australian leaders devoted considerable attention to these issues around the turn of the century, because family breakdowns had become more common in the 1880s and 1890s. Pressure had grown for the liberalisation of divorce and the birth rate had fallen. The New South Wales government statistician Timothy Coghlan even published a pamphlet on the latter issue, which helped bring on a Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth Rate.

The semi-panic over birth rates reflected the close link between family and gender issues, and White Australia. Trepidation about the huge coloured populations to the north meant that falling Australian birthrates raised the spectre of "race suicide". If there were not enough white people to occupy the continent, surely the "yellow races" would invade it sooner or later.

On the eve of federation, a round-table discussion in The Worker complained of the "villainous wrong inflicted upon womankind by the continuance of [Melanesian] labour in our midst". (Burgmann p. 189) Similarly, agitation against the Chinese returned again and again to their supposed designs on white females. In the labour press, "articles dealing with the question of the Woman’s Movement focussed on the Asiatics as sexual exploiters, and urged housewives to become politicized and boycott Chinese vegetable vendors." (Evans, Saunders and Cronin p. 313). That such racism did not in fact protect white women from abuse was demonstrated by the white Lambing Flat rioters, who showed a particular enmity toward the European wife of a Chinese: "she was narrowly saved from being raped and her infant child from being burnt alive." (Yarwood and Knowling p. 172.)

If the female role underpinned nationalism and racism, so, inevitably, did the contrasting male role; as when a politician insisted that the new nation state must be "a federation of the manhood of Australia". (Grimshaw et al p. 192) South Australian MP Alexander Hill showed how this complex of ideas ran counter to female emancipation, when he warned of the danger posed by women’s suffrage: "...imagine a female brigade going into the House of Parliament when some great question was under discussion, such as whether we should declare war against Russia ..." (Oldfield p. 23) But like the labour movement, contemporary feminism itself accepted this political logic, demanding the vote for white women only and endorsing conventional gender roles.

Sexism fed on and contributed to the political and industrial weaknesses of organised labour. Recent work on gender and class often gives us a picture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which a "feminist movement" confronts a hostile "male labour movement", while the latter collaborates with the bosses and the state to exclude women from paid employment and union membership. (Grimshaw et al p. 168, Lee p. 366) Some unions certainly did exclude them, but we have seen that in other cases male unionists made determined efforts to help them form unions and to back their struggles. Still, the exclusion was inexcusable, and not in the unions’ long term interest.

Why then did it happen? In some cases, it arose from fears that employers would use females as cheap labour to break the unions. Reporting on plans to employ female clerks in 1900, the New South Wales Public Service Board argued:

" No doubt the employment of women … will have the effect of curtailing to some extent the employment of men; but this will produce a result beneficial to the State, because an equal number of men will be compelled to seek positions which women cannot occupy, and therefore will be available to engage in occupations tending to develop the resources of the Colony." (Deacon p. 178)

Here we see a direct threat to men’s jobs. Yet in other cases the threat was not so clear. In 1889, the Typographical Society organised a boycott of Louisa Lawson’s paper The Dawn for using female printers. On the one hand, Lawson had sacked male printers and replaced them with females whom she paid less than union rates. (Ollie p. 55, Markey p. 206) On the other hand, Lawson was pro-union and it was not unusual for radical journals to pay below union rates. The boycott was based as much on sexist ideas as defence of workers’ jobs or living standards. We might simply denounce male prejudice and move on, except that so many sexist ideas were embraced by the most politically aware women of the time, not only in the suffrage groups (as we have seen) but among female employees directly affected.

When the New South Wales post office dismissed married women in August 1896 there was little indication of resistance to this by women’s groups, although one prominent female official to be retired, Lizzie Ferris, was later a member of the Womanhood Suffrage League. Even worse, "Louisa Dunkley of the Victorian Women’s Post and Telegraph Association agreed married women should resign and did so herself when she married Edward Kraegen in 1903"; and it appears that single female teachers endorsed and even campaigned for a ban on married women in the years before 1910. (Deacon fn p. 263-4). Presumably they saw the married women as unwelcome competitors.

Like racism, hostility to women’s employment was linked to economic fears, but can only be fully understood in the context of social conditions and the dominant ideas in society as a whole. These ideas relentlessly reinforced women’s domestic role. A labour movement unable to defeat capitalism on the industrial or political battlefields would hardly be able to break free of its dominant ideology.

The trade unions which initially set the tone for labour fell mostly into two categories: urban craft unions, with their petit-bourgeois aspirations; and the bush unions. The former were highly exclusive and tended to mimic the middle class faith in the conventional family. Keeping women at home and out of the trade flowed naturally from this (they also wanted to keep most males out of the trade). If the latter were more sympathetic to women’s rights, this flowed partly from the more egalitarian attitudes of their small farmer members, a product of the rural "family economy". In any case, both the exclusivism of the crafts and the rural egalitarianism of the small holders represented social formations fated to decline; urban mass production and mass unionism were already on the rise, drawing women into production alongside men. The first signs of this, in the eighties and nineties, generated labour’s first serious efforts to organise women workers.

The fact that most women couldn’t join unions -- because of sexism, being housewives, working in non-union sweatshops, doing outwork or domestic service -- did not necessarily mean they were excluded from the labour movement. They made their presence felt in a variety of labour struggles and campaigns, organising petitions and physically confronting scabs. This was noted at the time. For example Tasmanian MP Charles Grant opposed female suffrage on the grounds that women were more emotional, as shown during strikes where "the women, generally speaking, are the chief disturbing cause, and they hold on … for longer than men do." (Official Record… p. 722) The conventions of the time ensured their actions seldom made it into the historical record in this way, but that very fact suggests their role has been understated. It is likely more women were active in the labour movement than in, say, the suffrage societies.

Female political figures conventionally viewed (through modern eyes) as "feminists" frequently identified in some way with labour or its objectives. Vida Goldstein, for example, stood for parliament in 1903. The Labor Party was hostile to this venture, a fact commonly seen as evidence of a "class/gender" conflict. In reality it had more to do the parliamentary ambitions of a political machine. The ALP rank and file, including many women, also regarded it as a threat to labour unity. They were suspicious of leading women’s rights advocates who employed domestic servants, had no experience of hard work, and displayed patronising attitudes towards working people. However we should not forget that Goldstein’s election platform included such classic labour movement demands as nationalisation of coal mines, public transport and lighting. The gap between the two sides was not so immense.

The well-documented debates over female suffrage offer a precise and detailed example of the interplay between class and gender at the end of the colonial era. The new Labor Party was lukewarm about the suffrage, unless it offered clear electoral advantage. To understand why, we need to consider the social basis of the vote in 19th Century Australia. There were property requirements of some kind in every colony, which ended around the turn of the century for the lower houses but remained in the upper houses. Electors with property in more than one place had more than one vote. The argument was that property brought an insight into, or a commitment to, public affairs. Implicitly, and sometime explicitly, this meant a commitment to the existing social order. The labour movement and progressive opinion generally, acutely aware that the upper houses had blocked many popular reforms, placed great emphasis on abolishing property-based and plural voting. Conservative forces, aware that they were gradually losing ground, sought after almost any device to shore up the same practices. One of these was votes for (selected) women.

South Australia was the first colony to adopt female suffrage. However the initial moves made in 1886 would only have given the vote to unmarried women with assets. The underlying argument, repeated in subsequent debates around the country, was that voting rights should represent property. Wives’ assets were represented by their husbands’ ballot, but single female property owners needed a vote of their own. South Australia had never had property-based voting for the lower house, so this was an obviously reactionary measure. The trade unions countered with a mass petition demanding votes for all women. The conservatives tried various other measures over several years, such as extending the vote just for the upper house -- sometimes stating openly that this would give the upper house greater power, and "if they did not take this opportunity perhaps they would not have it again". (Oldfield p. 31).

Despite the impassioned arguments of Mary Lee, both the Suffrage League and the WCTU supported the bill. Then, however, the Trades and Labor Council bluntly told the League it would only support full adult suffrage. The unions’ firm stand convinced the Suffrage League to change its approach, and even the WCTU eventually recognised the manipulation behind the property vote. In other words, it was the labour movement that took the most progressive stand. The resulting united front between labour and the suffrage movement contributed to all South Australian women getting the vote ahead of any other colony.

The issue was posed in fairly similar terms in other colonies. In New South Wales, Henry Parkes impressed Rose Scott with an 1890 bill to abolish plural voting and give women the vote. The background to the bill is obscure, but it is extremely likely Parkes’ real intention was to preserve plural voting; he hoped that linking it to women suffrage would reduce its appeal in sections of the parliament. Had he sincerely wished to introduce the suffrage, or to end plural voting, he could have introduced each as a separate bill. (See Oldfield p. 71-2) In Queensland, there were many stories of squatters arranging multiple property votes through offspring and relatives. It should now be clear that the labour movement was on solid ground opposing partial suffrage. In Queensland, it should be noted, labour pioneered the women’s suffrage issue in the pages of William Lane’s weekly Boomerang. Both Lane’s and Leontine Cooper contributed articles on the subject; Cooper also argued openly that not all women had to become wives and mothers, pointing to the large numbers who had jobs.

Labour was on weaker ground when it came to another much-debated issue of the time: whether the women’s vote would be conservative. There were people on all sides of the debate who put this forward, as an argument for or against. The Australian Socialist League fretted in 1891 that "if we have reason to believe that women would use voting power to keep us in our economic Slough of Despond, it is better to withhold the principle." (Oldfield p. 82) Years later a speaker urged the conservative Australian Women’s National League to support the suffrage because its members could use their votes to oppose socialism. But then again, there were some on all sides who thought the female vote would be left of centre. Experience was to confirm none of these hopes or fears; as far as we can tell, women voted very much like the men of their own social background. "To add a million women to the register is the same as to add a million men," wrote Vida Goldstein in 1911. "Each party gets its share." (Oldfield p. 221) Class remained the defining feature of Australian politics.

Let there be no mistake: neither the Labor Party nor most socialists actually opposed women’s suffrage out of fears about how they would vote. On the contrary Labor, like most liberal politicians, was broadly on the pro-suffrage side of the argument. But in allowing this vague concern to impinge at all on an issue of principle, Labor and especially the socialists showed how much they were relying on votes and elections to change society. Parliamentarism and sexism went hand in hand. In the aftermath of disastrous strike defeats, and in the absence of practical experience to demonstrate how little could be expected from parliament, this was understandable; it was still mistaken. However it was a mistake entirely shared by the feminists, who likewise hoped the women’s vote would achieve wondrous things.

So the divisions between Labor and the suffrage groups should not be exaggerated; to some degree they reflected justified worker suspicions of the leading women’s rights figures; and to some degree they reflected the conservative aspects of each political current. In the case of organised labour, as we have seen, the conservative elements became far stronger after the defeat of the Great Strikes.

Within the labour movement, socialists stood -- in principle -- for women’s equality. In practice their advocacy of female emancipation was flawed, like that of the feminists, by a strong attachment to the conventional family and the division of labour that flowed from it. They might defend female workers’ rights to join unions, without always understanding the importance of actively fighting to organise them.

What of the left organizations’ own activities? These have been subjected to some sharp criticisms. For example, Joy Damousi presents a damning indictment of the "strict division of labour and the organization of space within leftwing groups" :

" The public realm of speaking, proselytising and agitating was perceived to be the preserve of male activists ... women’s political work was largely confined to the private, feminine and domestic space of organizing fund-raising activities, such as concerts, picnics and bazaars and preparing programs and decorations for May Day celebrations." (Damousi p. 154)

Of course there is some a factual basis for this argument, but it's completely ahistorical. Taken in context of the times, the early Australian socialists were very advanced. The European socialist "bible" on female emancipation, August Bebel’s Woman, Past, Present and Future had a considerable readership on the Australian left. So did William Lane’s novel The Working Man’s Paradise, which challenged gender stereotypes. Lane’s heroine Nelly is a union activist and the intellectual equal of the men; and she forsakes marriage for the sake of the struggle. Bruce Scates points out that both leading characters, Ned and Nelly, deviate from conventional expectations about male and female appearance and behaviour. Lane advocated equal pay, and challenged the editors of the Typographers’ Journal when that union refused women entry to the trade, writing that "a woman has every bit a right to work and to live as a man has" . (Scates p. 173 ff)

Socialist groups debated birth control and abortion as well as that perenniel favourite, "Woman Under Socialism" . Left wing trade unionist John Fitzgerald insisted working women should "be free of the meddling of male officials "and come forth as the organiser of their own bodies’", while his comrade Con Lindsay saw childcare as a union issue. Socialist women like Rose Summerfield and Creo Stanley spoke from public platforms and tried to organise female trade unions, in the face of widespread public disapproval.

Even women’s heavy involvement in the "social" side of left activities looks different in its historical context. Virtually all progressive opinion accepted this division of labour at the time. Moreover, the social events were more central to political life than they are today. Socialists, and the labour movement generally, relied on such activities to sustain morale and to provide an alternative to bourgeois culture. They saw the participants as making a political contribution; and in a society still hostile to women intervening in public, these were ways in which "women traded the home for the meeting and exercised the right to speak and be heard. In this community of socialists, women claimed equal citizenship with men." (Scates p. 193 ff)

The tailoresses' strike

The manufacturing boom drew thousands of women into factory life and into outwork, especially in Victoria. Large numbers joined the garment trade. Some of this industry’s features mirrored traditional domestic labour and it offered the option of outwork, so that joining it initially offered a less radical departure from the traditional female role. Soon, however, women’s experience in industry began to challenge that role. In tailoring, especially, young females set out to acquire marketable skills and thereby achieve a certain independence, so that "the tailoring factories seem to have attracted a more outspoken and independent type of woman." In the late 1880s, the Chief Inspector of Factories complained that "the factory work girl" was "a very difficult person to deal with", apparently for the very reason that she was "as a rule able to take care of herself" . (Frances p. 35, 36.)

Unfortunately, growth in the work force also put downward pressure on women’s piece-rates. With the number of clothing and textile factories in Victoria rising from around seventy to well over two hundred in the decade ending 1881, intensified competition drove employers to cut costs. Local, sporadic strike action in the tailoring factories failed to prevent this, because the bosses easily found strike breakers. Ellen Cresswell, soon to be a leader of the Tailoresses Union, was herself victimized after a strike in 1879.

These pay cuts reached a crisis point in 1882, when companies began making tailoresses do order work at the rates applied to ready-made garments. In December 1882 the workers struck, beginning at Beath, Schiess and Co. Hundreds of women came to the Trades Hall seeking help in forming a union. At a second meeting of four to five hundred, supported by another five hundred sympathisers who assembled outside the building, the Tailoresses’ Union took shape. The strikers elected a committee to lead the struggle together with a group of Trades Hall officials. The first round of the campaign ended before Christmas, with the company agreeing to meet union demands if others did the same.

As with the eight-hour day campaigns, the new union enjoyed support from some employers and a wide cross-section of the community. Increasingly, the ideology of protectionism united the union movement with large sections of capital. Not only did The Age back the strike, but Beath, Schiess and Co were themselves not entirely opposed to it. Company manager J.R. Blencowe attended a meeting at Trades Hall, indicating the firm would meet the demands as long as the whole industry was organised. He added that "so far as Beath, Schiess and Co. were concerned, they did not care if the prices were increased by one hundred per cent if all the other firms joined in the movement." (Brooks p. 30). Some other major employers apparently also hoped it would prevent the smaller shops undercutting them. Victoria’s system of protective tariffs had allowed a variety of small operators to spring up, and those with less than ten employees were exempt from the 1873 Factory Act. If unions could enforce uniform rates throughout the industry, the big companies would benefit.

In the new year, the other bosses showed less enthusiasm for the union’s claims, and by mid-February around twelve hundred tailoresses were on strike. At the end of the month most employers seem to have acquiesced, though picketing continued as late as April. Some accounts say that the union rates prevailed for a couple of years, but nine of the strikers later told the Shops Commission "that while the manufacturers had, at the time, agreed to pay the log, very few adhered to it for more than a few weeks after the return to work." (Brooks p. 36). It appears the companies got around the union by contracting work out.

During the course of the eighties the union declined, from more than two thousand in 1883 to a hundred or so in 1890. The strike was nonetheless a landmark in raising public awareness about working conditions. It gave a huge boost to the anti-sweating campaign and also to the struggle for the eight-hour day. Of course it is also important as the first major industrial struggle by women, making it the subject for considerable debate.

The example of solidarity between male and female trade unionists clearly rankles with some feminist historians. Anne Summers suggests it was motivated entirely by male tailors’ selfish desire to avoid competition by cheaper, female labour. (Summers p. 310) Influenced by this argument, Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelwright similarly remark that such acts of solidarity were "not always as altruistic as they seemed" . (Buckley and Wheelwright, p. 147) However such comments miss the point. No large body of people ever forgets about self-interest; the issue is how they pursue it. Rather dividing along gender lines, the Victorian labour movement understood that it was in the interest of all workers to support the tailoresses. The triumph of solidarity in 1882-83 was important because it demonstrated a viable alternative to sex divisions in the working class.

Raelene Frances makes a more sophisticated argument. In her eyes the unity, while a positive thing, nevertheless came about partly because women were "accustomed to the direction of men" and because these "helpless girls", as The Age called them (but Frances seems to agree) needed help in a way male unionists did not -- male unions being "generally jealous of their own independence." (Frances p. 33, 34) Yet elsewhere Frances herself reports that the tailoresses had tried striking on their own, and only approached Trades Hall after they failed. They didn’t lack independent spirit, they just wished to learn from experience and benefit from solidarity. Frances notes that the strike set a precedent for other unions -- in other words, the tailoresses were pioneers. A few years later the Yarra River waterside workers were to learn many of the same lessons.

In any case, as Frances also reports, waging a strike helped women break out of conventional roles. They picketed outside factories, using "violent language and threats" against scabs, and employers complained that they were "very difficult to deal with", having "no faith in what you say". (Frances p. 35).

In industry as well as politics, class struggle and a strong labour movement were the keys to progress for women in late colonial Australia.


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