Equality still has a long way to go
It’s been more than 100 years since women won the right to vote in Australia but female representation in our Parliaments still lags, writes Joff Lelliott
THIS week, Britain marked the 100th anniversary of the first women getting the vote, and later this year, will celebrate the centenary of women standing for Parliament.
After a bitter fight, women over 30 could vote, if they met a property qualification.
It took another 10 years before the franchise was extended to all women aged over 21, meaning equality with men. In all, it had taken more than a century to achieve universal suffrage in Britain.
From the male elite in 1800, the male franchise expanded incrementally until it was completed in 1918 – before then almost half of men still couldn’t vote. The long struggle saw campaigners such as the Chartists transported to Australia for their efforts.
Australia can feel a sense of superiority as it already had a universal franchise.
According to Kath Gelber, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Queensland, in the early years after Federation “Australia adopted innovative and radical policies, including universal suffrage and votes for women”.
The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 enshrined votes for women and the right to stand at federal elections – making Australia the first country where women could both vote and stand for Parliament. At a state level, the vote was extended to women state-by-state in the years around Federation. Australia also blazed a progressive electoral trail with the secret ballot and payment of MPs, but the shameful stain is that indigenous people – male and female – were still fighting for the vote and other basic human rights well into the 1960s.
British women fought for the vote in two distinct ways.
Suffragists followed the peaceful and legal route while suffragettes also used violence and broke the law for their cause. Theirs was a tumultuous campaign with physical assaults on politicians, arson campaigns, letter bombs and the death of Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
There were also bombs at Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England, the National Gallery, railway stations and churches.
Thirteen hundred were arrested, many imprisoned and suffragettes who went on hunger strikes were force-fed.
While there has long been a statue of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Palace of
Westminster, in April, a statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett will be unveiled in nearby Parliament Square, reigniting old arguments between supporters of the different approaches.
The question of when it’s OK to break the law in pursuit of a cause remains unresolved, and debate has flared about pardoning convicted suffragettes. Home Secretary Amber Rudd is noncommittal, saying “I will take a look at it … (but) it’s complicated because if you’re going to give a legal pardon for things like arson and violence, it’s not as straightforward as people think it might be”.
While Australia was first with equal rules, Britain beat Australia with women actually entering politics, and by a long way. Despite theoretical equality almost since Federation, it took until 1943 for Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney to be the first women elected to federal Parliament. As late as 1977, a federal election was held, which returned no women to the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, Countess (Georgine) Markievicz was elected to the British House of Commons in 1918, a month after women became eligible to stand, but as a member of Sinn Fein, she refused to take her seat. The following year, Nancy Astor was elected and sat in Parliament.
It was 1958, however, before women could sit in the House of Lords.
In 1929, Margaret Bondfield became Britain’s first female Cabinet minister, 14 years before
Australia even had a female MP. Although Enid Lyons obtained Cabinet rank in 1949, it was 1966 before a woman actually oversaw an Australian government department.
And, of course, Britain chose the era-defining Margaret Thatcher as its first female prime minister in 1979, 30 years before Julia Gillard reached the same milestone here.
Evidently, legal equality doesn’t mean the job’s done. If the first wave of feminism was about making the rules equal, the next waves are at least partly about saying the culture needs changing. Many feminists argue that Parliament displays stereotypically male behaviours – it’s aggressive, overly competitive and uncooperative. Add in antisocial hours and the work practices, and you can see why so many women (and men) are put off.
Last month, Gillard explained to the BBC how women leaders are still treated differently, saying they use the bathrooms at international conferences for sisterly conversation and reassurance.
These days, only a third of federal parliamentarians are women, slightly ahead of Britain, and women are even more of a minority in Cabinets.
Gelber says: “We can no longer be confident time will fix gender inequality.
“It requires understanding by leaders that this is a problem, and a willingness to do something about it.
“Justin Trudeau in Canada has shown us. He made sure half his Cabinet were women and is continuously aware of how gender influences public policy outcomes, and takes steps to address issues.”
In some ways, Queensland can hold its head high, with female premiers for seven of the last 10 years and Palaszczuk’s Cabinet is 50/50 men and women.
In Australia and elsewhere, there’s still work to be done before legal equality is matched with equality in practice, and if Gelber is right, it requires more than simply time and wishful thinking.