Women’s Suffrage Petition 1891 Victoria
Spotlight on Healesville Women
The Women’s Suffrage Petition signed by 30,000 women from Victoria in 1891 inspired the fight for equal voting rights throughout Australia. This is a short story of the campaign with a focus on the women of Healesville who signed the petition, especially the women from my past, GG Grandmother Elizabeth CHANDLER and GG Aunt Sarah CHRISTENSEN.
Women In Victoria Help Pave the Way for Equal Voting Rights In Australia
In 1891 around 30,000 women in Victoria signed a petition seeking the same voting rights as men. A small group of committed women travelled the length and breadth of Victoria in an intense campaign to get women from all walks of life to sign their name.
The campaign began in earnest the moment Premier James Munro said he would introduce a women’s suffrage bill to Parliament if it could be shown that women wanted this right.
Temperance – A Force to be Reckoned With
The Temperance movement – Christian Women’s Temperance Union (CWTU) and the Victorian Temperance Alliance (VTA) – and the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society[i] took up the challenge. They joined forces and spearheaded the grassroots campaign. It took six weeks to collect the 30,000 signatures.[ii] A mammoth effort for a ‘Monster’ petition that the Premier presented to Parliament on 29 September 1891. The signed pages of the Petition were pasted onto rolls of calico measuring 330 yards or 260 metres in length.
Women’s Suffrage Petition 1891 – Door to Door, Meeting to Meeting
Women took to the streets in both city and country areas door knocking for signatures.[iii] The petition was also distributed for signature at CWTU meetings, Town Hall meetings and women were told in newspaper reports where they could go to sign.[iv] In Daylesford, 500 signatures were collected by one woman alone.[v] While in Warrnambool, 1054 signatures were obtained representing nearly the entire adult female population in the town.[vi]
In her rousing speeches at CWTU meetings to promote women’s suffrage Mrs Harrison Lee made the cut through point that anyone over the age of twenty-one could vote men into Parliament except: “criminals, lunatics, idiots and women.”[vii] She also pointed out that as taxpayers women had to obey laws therefore should have a say in choosing the law makers. Sounds fair enough.
What Did the Women’s Suffrage Petition 1891 Say?
“To the Honourable the Speaker and Members of the Legislative Assembly of the Colony of Victoria in Parliament assembled.
The humble petition of the undersigned women of Victoria respectfully showeth: –
That your petitioners believe – that Government of the people, by the people and for the people should mean all people and not one half.
That taxation and representation should go together without regard to the sex of the taxed.
That all adult persons should have a voice in making the laws which they are required to obey.
That, in short, women should vote on equal terms with men.
Your petitioners, therefore, humbly pray your honourable House to pass a measure for conferring the Parliamentary franchise upon women, regarding this as a right which they most earnestly desire.
And your petitioners will ever pray.”
The Fight Was On for Women’s Voting Rights
‘For’ and ‘Against’ articles and letters appeared in newspapers and the topic was hotly debated in local Literary and Debating societies[viii] and Associations like the Australian Natives Association. [ix] Some men and a few clergymen supported the women. A Mr W.J Lormer along with Mrs Lormer organised a rallying meeting of the St Kilda WCTU to whip up support amongst the women of St Kilda to obtain their signatures. Ironically the meeting was chaired by a male and a few men were present, but ladies attended in large numbers to hear Mrs Harrison Lee and a Mrs Fryer speak.
Meetings such as this occurred throughout Victoria, city and country. There are newspaper reports of meetings and circulating petitions held from Port Melbourne, Williamstown, North Melbourne to Mansfield, Bunniyong, Castlemaine, Avenel and Lilydale. The women were organised.
Women’s Suffrage Petition 1891 – What Did the Media Say?
Some of the editorials, articles, reports and letters on the question of women’s suffrage were offensive in 1891 and would probably be against the law today. Here are some examples:
“We are candid enough to admit our weakness and say that although women should have equal rights with men, we prefer those women who have not a weakness for stump oratory – women who are simply women – women who are not the equal, but the superior of men – women whom we love, respect, honour, and sometimes beat. But that goes without saying. We beat our dog, but we love him. We beat our children, but we love them; but we do not want our dog or our children to have votes. If we gave them the franchise it would be only to record it as we told them.” [x]
“There are women and women. The women whom men love and admire will not exercise the franchise.” [xi]
“The average woman would not trouble herself to vote at all; many women would be too nervous to do so, and others would ignore the general fitness of a candidate; and refrain from voting because he was not emphatic enough upon some particular fad that, above all else, was dear to them.” [xii]
“… whether the enfranchised woman will neglect her house duties and vote for the ornamental candidate with the curly golden beard to the exclusion of the rugged Hampden, or the patriot with odd eyes, is a matter that rests in the womb of the future.” [xiii]
The Broadford Courier and Reedy Creek Times
“If a woman gave her attention to politics it would lead her to gad about from house to house in gossip to the neglect of her home duties which were pre-eminently important.” [xiv]
“Politics would severe a man from his wife, the sister from her brother.” [xv]
The Snowy River Mail and Tambo and Croajingolong Gazette
Women would be a powerful weapon in the hands of the clergy, “… whose influence over the softer sex is notorious.” [xvi]
“Women would neglect their domestic duties in order to record a vote.” [xvii]
Warragul Guardian and Buln Buln and Narracan Shire Advocate
Mr Britton Harvey at an ANA Branch debate argued: “The women leading the debate are intelligent. They stand apart from the average of their sex; they constitute the great exception: they are women whom Nature up to the last moment intended to be men.” [xviii]
So, What Happened in Parliament to Women’s Suffrage?
The provision for women’s suffrage was not a stand-alone Bill. It was two clauses tacked on to the end of the Constitution Act Amendment Bill dealing with the abolition of plural voting and introduction of the ‘one man, one vote, one value’ principle. [xix] This seemed to muddy the waters and cause angst for many Members. Despite his support for the women’s cause and a rousing speech introducing the Bill, it appears the Premier, Mr Munro, didn’t foresee the extraordinary prejudice toward male superiority exhibited by members of the Assembly before him and behind him.
In the end, Premier Munro realised that it was unlikely to pass the Upper House and said in Parliament he thought the country hadn’t had enough opportunity to consider the clauses. He abandoned the woman’s suffrage clauses altogether deciding instead to put the question at the following year’s general election. The women who had worked tirelessly and were so confident of victory were bitterly disappointed.[xx] At the time of the debate in Parliament, Mr Munro wasn’t well. Like many others in Victoria, he’d fallen victim to the influenza epidemic and rose from his sick bed to bring this bill to the second reading. Maybe he didn’t have the physical and emotional energy to ‘work on’ members who were resisting and took the path of least resistance. Just a thought.
What Was Said in Parliament?
Mrs Kirk, the Secretary of the WCTU of Victoria summed it up:
“Well for men of intelligence they have talked nothing but a lot of disgusting nonsense.” [xxi]
Parliament was described as a “Petty Boy’s Debating Society”.[xxii]
Even for the time, the objections were outrageous, insulting, patronising and sexist. Amid fears of a “Petticoat Government” [xxiii] and a teetotal state, here is a taste of what was said: [xxiv]
]Mr Carter, Member for Williamstown
“I have only seen real equality between the sexes once and that was in the south of Europe where I saw a man holding the plough, the cow in front and the woman in front of the cow. There the man and the woman were equal, except that the man held the whip.”
Mr Gillies, Leader of the Opposition, Member for Eastern Suburbs
“We must deal with the world as we find it, and we know that the less we insist upon thrusting women forward in public careers the better it is for the women themselves. The work of a woman has been regarded almost from the beginning as being the work of the home. Her proper place is home. It was intended that man should work for woman and that he should provide for her. This proposal in my judgment means a political revolution.”
Captain Taylor, Member for Hawthorn
“The question of woman suffrage is one of those new-fangled fads which certain gentlemen who have faddish notions are particularly desirous of having brought into law. I say it is a question of faddish notions. It is the nature of women to be hysterical and the legislation of this country will have the hysterical vein running all through it if the women are enfranchised.”
Mr Levien, Member for Barwon
“No man would say that it is a rational proposal that we should elect a Parliament of women to deal with the business of a country. If women are allowed to vote, they will very soon find their way into Parliament in a constitutional manner. Are we to seriously discuss a proposal to have women in this House to legislate, to raise our loans and to decide what shall be the minimum for loans! It would be better to shut up the House altogether than to submit a scheme of this kind, which many of us in our heart know to be a sham, which is mischievous and would do a great deal of harm to the best interests of the Colony.” Putting no value to the petition signed by 30,000 women, he added: “A petition signed by 60,000 could as easily be got up to hang the Premier.”
Mr McLellan, Member for Ararat:
“I am not opposed to females as a rule. But while I admire the good and beautiful women, there is another class, the raw-boned, long-bearded ones, that I do not want to come into contact with either at the ballot box or elsewhere.”
Mr Best, Member for Fitzroy
“I find that ladies will not come out to vote except for some personal reason, through some personal relationship to or admiration of a particular candidate, and we know that they are always more or less sentimental in these matters.”
Mr Derham, Member for Port Melbourne
“For myself, I am bound to say that my experience is that women have no desire for the franchise. They prefer to be without it. I also feel strongly that such an experiment might have a most dangerous influence. I do not think that men would regard the marriage state with the complacency they do now. If they had to contemplate the possibility of their wives being agitators.”
Mr Stuart, Member for East Melbourne
“If we were to give them the franchise in the dim future, let it be understood that they must educate themselves for the exercise of it. To give them this privilege at once would be a cause of danger to the community women as we all know, are emotional and hysterical and they are likely led away by popular cries. Those who are bachelors would have a new terror when they went to make love to a girl. The question they would have to answer would be ‘What are your politics?’ It will not be ‘Do you like me?’, but ‘Do you agree with me in politics?’”
Spotlight –Women’s Suffrage Petition 1891 in the Township of Healesville, Victoria, Australia
In the Healesville township, 43 women signed the petition including my GG Grandmother, Elizabeth CHANDLER and her Sister-in-law my GG Aunt, Sarah Christensen. Healesville’s population in 1891 was 1,185 people spread among 221 inhabited households. [xxv] So, compared to other country towns this was a small number of women who signed.
By way of background, there was a lot happening in Healesville in 1891. It wasn’t an easy year for many residents, the women in particular. A Diphtheria outbreak in March caused two deaths. An Influenza epidemic hit in October-November. A major flood wreaked havoc on the town in July causing families to evacuate their homes, ruining crops, roads and interrupting railway services. And last but not least, there were two murderers on the loose from two separate incidents.
Who Were the Healesville Women Who Made History With Their Signature?
I went through the process of trying to identify each of the 43 Healesville women who signed. However, the task wasn’t easy as some of their signatures were hard to unravel. Their names appear on pages 17 and 18 of the Petition. [xxvi] Some signatures had faded, and some were impossible to decipher. I used the 1903 Australian Electoral Roll for Healesville and other sources identifying residents around that time to help confirm the spelling of names. It was a time-consuming process but, in the end, there were only two names I couldn’t interpret.
Once confident that I had identified each woman and correctly spelt her name I then went searching for any information about her. This task wasn’t easy either as women in those days were identified through their husbands. Newspaper reports, for example, would refer to Mrs John Green, not Mrs Mary Green.
Most of the information I have about the women relate to what their husbands, and in some cases fathers, did. However, this information is important. These men supported their wives and daughters in their cause for voting equality. Many of the men were prominent in the Healesville community; businessmen, councillors, a teacher and a preacher. Not all were teetotallers either. Mr GG Grandfather, John HOLLAND certainly wasn’t as he had owned one of the first licensed hotels in the township.
In another place husbands weren’t so supportive of their wives as a letter by “AB” to The Argus on 15 September, 1891 says: “Last week one of the forms of the Women’s Petition for women’s suffrage was returned with several names erased, and at the foot was a note, ‘these names were erased by order of the husbands.’” [xxvii]
|Surname||First Name/Initial/ Title||Page Reference||Information about the signatories|
|ADAMS||Mrs||p.18||No further information|
|ALLAN||Mrs Jnr||p.17||Husband was one of the first trustees elected to progress the formation of the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
|BAOFERS (?)||Mrs||p.18||Unable to decipher name|
|BURNS||E||p.18||Perhaps Elizabeth Burns. (Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980, Victoria 1903, Mernda, Healesville. Ancestry.com). No further information.|
|CAMERON||Mrs D||p.18||Possibly related to Mr Ewan Cameron the local MLA.|
|CHANDLER||Elizabeth||p.18||My GG Grandmother who was 48yrs when she signed the petition. She raised seven children, four boys and three girls and owned and ran a Café/Tearooms in the 1880s. ** She was on the original register of subscribers to the Library at the Mechanics’ Institute. * Elizabeth died in 1934 aged 94 years. Read more about Elizabeth on this site in ‘Family Tales’.|
|CHRISTENSEN||S||p.17||My GG Aunt, Sarah Elizabeth. 31yrs at the time of signing. Storekeeper. She and husband, Neils Christensen owned a Drapery store which also stocked crockery, groceries and stationery. ** He was also one of the first subscribers to the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
|CORNISH||R (Rose)||p.18||Librarian of Mechanics Institute and Free Library. * Father owned the Bootmakers and Newsagency in Healesville, also Livery Stables. **|
|CORNISH||Alice||p.18||Staff member of local State School. Father owned the Bootmakers and Newsagency in Healesville and Livery Stables. **|
|DANN||Mrs S||p.17||No further information|
|FURMSTON||Mrs||p.18||Husband is probably George Furmston, a saddler. He also grew pears of the Uvedale St Germain variety. A sample pear taken to market weighed in at 2lb or around 1 kg. (The Australasian, Saturday 6 June 1891, p8)|
|FURMSTON||G||p.18||Probably related to George Furmston a Healesville saddler. He also grew pears of the Uvedale St Germain variety. A sample pear taken to market weighed in at 2lb or around 1 kg. (The Australasian, Saturday 6 June 1891, p8)|
|GEORGE||(?) A||p.18||Mrs George sang in many local concerts. Mr J. J. George was Head Teacher at Healesville State School 1883-1918. Mr George was one of the first subscribers to the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
|GORDON||Mrs||p.18||No further information|
|GREEN||Mrs||p.18||Mary Green, wife of John Green, a Scottish Presbyterian lay preacher and first superintendent of Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. He was also a member of the first Healesville Council formed in 1887. They had a large family of 12 children. Tragically six died in the scarlet fever epidemic that hit Coranderrk in 1876. Their son John Jnr was massacred by natives at Mambare River, New Guinea in 1897. **|
|GREEN||M||p.18||Probably daughter to Mary and John Green, a Scottish Presbyterian lay preacher and first superintendent of Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. He was also a member of the first Healesville Council formed in 1887. **|
|HALL||Ursula, M||p.17||Mrs Hall’s husband was a local blacksmith and a Councillor. (The Leader Saturday 16 December 1893, page 32). Mrs Hall was an avid reader according to early entries of the Library membership records of the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
|HANRAHAN||Mrs||p.17||Probably the wife of Mr Hanrahan, the groom and manager of the ‘Gracedale’ Stables. He was reportedly involved in rescuing lost bush walkers on two occasions. (Lilydale Express, Friday 17 April, 1896)|
|HARRISON||S.G||p.18||No further information|
|HOLLAND||Mrs Snr||p.18||Sarah Harriet. Third wife of prominent local and Healesville Councillor, Mr John Holland (my GG Grandfather). He was the oldest resident in Healesville (according to a newspaper article in The Leader Saturday 16 December 1893, page 32). He was also one of the original subscribers to the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
|HOOK||L. A||p.17||Wife or daughter of Mr R Hook, the Government Forrester. (Lilydale Express, Saturday 21 February 1891)|
|HOOK||Sarah||p.17||Wife or daughter of Mr R Hook, the Government Forrester. (Lilydale Express, Saturday 21 February 1891)|
|HOWELL||Mrs||p.17||A subscriber to the Mechanics’ Institute Library. *|
|KING||Mrs||p.18||Possibly related to Mr King who was one of the original trustees for the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
|KING||W (?)||p.18||Possibly related to Mr King who was one of the original trustees for the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
|LEEDER||(?)||p.17||One Miss Leeder was the advertised proprietor of Blackwood House, ** the well-known Temperance Hotel established by her father, Thomas Leeder and situated on St Leonard’s Road. (Guardian Fri 4 October 1907, p.2)|
|LEEDER||(?)||p.17||One Miss Leeder was the advertised proprietor of Blackwood House, ** the well-known Temperance Hotel established by her father, Thomas Leeder and situated on St Leonard’s Road. (Guardian Fri 4 October 1907, p.2)|
|LEEDER||Annie||p.18||Wife of Thomas Leeder who established Blackwood House the well-known temperance hotel in St Leonard’s Road. (Guardian Fri 4 Oct, 1907, p.2). One of her daughters was the proprietor of the establishment.|
|McGUINESS||E||p.18||The McGuiness family home was on the old sawmill site and was inundated in the July 1891 Flood. They were taken in by Mrs White.|
|MILNE||G||p.18||No further information|
|MORRISON||I.E||p.18||Most probably related to John Morrison, a publican and storekeeper.|
|NEWMAN||K||p.18||Most probably the wife of Mr Newman who was the Manager at Daly’s stables. (Leader 1893)|
|PAULSEN||A||p.17||Probably related to Ole Paulsen an engineer and Robert Paulsen a cook. (Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980, Victoria 1903, Mernda, Healesville. Ancestry.com)|
|RODGERS||L.M.W (?)||p.18||Mrs Rodgers was on the original membership Register of the Library at the Mechanics Institute. Played piano at town events. Mr Alexander Rodgers was the first Shire Engineer. He held the position for seven years until 1895. (Lilydale Express, Friday 31 May 1895, p3)|
|SAFO (?)||H||p.18||Could not decipher name.|
|TAYLOR||Jane (Mrs)||p.18||Loaned £150 at 9% interest to help set up the Healesville Mechanics Institute.|
|TEVLIN||M||p.18||Most likely Mary Ellen, wife of Healesville Constable Michael Tevlin or one of his daughters. The Misses Tevlin ran the Rathrone Guesthouse which overlooked the Railway station. **|
|TURNBULL||Mrs||p.18||Most probably the Stationmaster’s wife.|
|WALKER||I||p.18||Probably related to Charles Walker who owned a General Store at the east end side of the Graceburn Bridge in Healesville. (Guardian Sat. 11 Nov. 1950). He was also one of the first subscribers to the Mechanic’s Institute. *|
|WALKER||W||p.18||Probably related to Charles Walker who owned a General Store at the east end side of the Graceburn Bridge in Healesville. (Guardian Sat. 11 Nov. 1950). He was also one of the first subscribers to the Mechanic’s Institute. *|
|WHITE||L (?)||p.17||Unsure if ‘L. White’ is related to Mrs White below. Several ‘White’ names popped up in my research.|
|WHITE||Mrs||p.17||A Mrs White helped victims (the McGuiness family) of the July flood when they were evacuated from their home.|
|WILSON||Mary||p.18||Mary’s husband was most likely John Wilson a member of the first Healesville Council in 1887. John Wilson was also one of the first subscribers to the Mechanics’ Institute. *|
* ‘Healesville Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library 1892-1992’ by Pamela E. Firth, Seville, Victoria 1992
** ‘Images of Time A Pictorial History of Healesville – From a Village to a Town’ Vol 1 1864-1920, Healesville and District Historical Society, 2013
How Did It All End?
You would think after collecting 30,000 signatures, plus having the Premier’s support in Parliament that victory for the women was assured in 1891. Well, it wasn’t. Opposition to the principle of equal voting rights for women was overwhelming in the Victorian Parliament. The Premier saw defeat in the face and abandoned the idea until the question could be put to the electorate and be voted on … by men. That took some time.
Instead of Victoria being the first state in Australia to legislate for this fundamental democratic right, South Australia beat it hands down. In fact, every other State beat Victoria hands down. South Australia in 1895, Western Australia in 1899, NSW in 1902, Tasmania in 1903, QLD in 1905 and then Victoria in 1908, 17 years after the ‘Monster Petition’. Even the Commonwealth legislated for women to vote in the 1903 Federal Election.
There were 19 private members’ bills ‘in the Victorian Parliament from 1889 before women gained the vote in 1908. Victorian women must have been constantly disappointed after their massive effort in 1891. However, their petition was nothing short of inspirational for other women across the nation.
[i] The Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society led by Henrietta Dugdale and Annie Lowe had been campaigning for women’s suffrage for nearly two decades. Dugdale had been agitating since 1868.
[iv] ‘Williamstown Chronicle’, Saturday 25 July 1891, p2
[v] ‘The Age’, Thursday 10 September 1891, p6
[vii] Mrs Lee made this point at the St Kilda WCTU meeting reported in the ‘Prahran Telegraph’ on 12 September 1891 and the Lilydale WCTU meeting reported in the Evelyn Observer on 14 August 1891
[viii] ‘The Broadford and Reedy Creek Times’, Saturday 5 September 1981, p3
[ix] For example, at the Warragul branch of the ANA as reported in the ‘Warragul Guardian and Buln Buln and Narracan Shire Advocate’, Friday 14 August 1891, p3
[x] ‘Melbourne Punch’, Thursday 1 October 1891, p2 ‘Female Suffrage’
[xii] ‘Geelong Advertiser’, Saturday 9 May 1891, p2
[xiii] ‘Weekly Times’, Saturday 24 October 1891, p3
[xiv] ‘The Broadford Courier and Reedy Creek Times’, Saturday 5 September 1981, p3 – Report of the Broadford Literary and Debating Society
[xvi] ‘The Snowy River Mail and Tambo and Croajingolong Gazette’, Saturday 11 July 1891, p4
[xviii] ‘Warragul Guardian and Buln Buln and Narracan Shire Advocate’, Friday 14 August 1891, p3
[xix] The Bill also dealt with the timing of Members remuneration after an Election.
[xx] ‘The Herald’, Friday 2 October 1891, p1
[xxiii] ‘North Melbourne Advocate’, Friday 2 October 1891, p2
[xxiv] www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/historical_hansard/VicHansard_18910916_18910929.pdf and https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/historical_hansard/VicHansard_18910930_18911013.pdf
[xxv] ‘Lilydale Express’, Wednesday 3 June 1891, p4
[xxvi] https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/static/WomensPetition/pdfs/018.pdf and https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/static/WomensPetition/pdfs/017.pdf
[xxvii] ‘The Argus, Tuesday 15 September 1891