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

Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin - - NEWS - Dr Joff Lelliott is a Bris­bane-based po­lit­i­cal and so­cial com­men­ta­tor

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.

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