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Title: Woman's Place in the Commonwealth
Author: Catherine Helen Spence
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0607391.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

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Woman's Place in the Commonwealth.
Catherine Helen Spence

SIXTY years ago, a little barque sailed from Greenock, in Scotland,
to Australia. Of the 180 passengers, some landed at Adelaide, some at
Melbourne, and the rest at Sydney. I believe that many rose to wealth
and position. In South Australia two were members of Ministries, and
of these one was long President of the Legislative Council.

It was my good fortune to land at Adelaide, in the province where
women have taken a larger share in public affairs than in any other
colony in the island continent, and it has consequently been my
privilege to aid in building up a Federated Commonwealth.

I was even bold enough to stand as a candidate for the Federal
Convention. South Australia had been the first community to give the
municipal vote to women rate-payers, and in 1894 it had admitted women
to full rights of political citizenship, so that there might well have
been one representative woman among her ten delegates. It was also a
good advertisement for the electoral reform which I have advocated by
pen and voice for forty years if I stood or fell on the single issue
of Effective Voting for Federated Australia. I need not say that I was
not elected by the Block vote. It is not easy to get new blood or new
ideas into any Parliament by that discredited method.

The grand democratic basis of the Commonwealth constitution of "one
man one vote," needs to be expanded into "one adult one vote," and
"one vote one value," to make our Senate and our House of
Representatives a model to the civilized world. All over the world
representative institutions are on their trial, and the fears of the
timid as to the encroachments of democracy, can only be allayed by
"more democracy." While half of the human race is shut out from public
activities, no one can call the government really democratic. While
large and intelligent minorities are by means of defective machinery
disfranchised, democracy is deprived of its saving salt, of its boldly
progressive as well as its wisely conservative elements.

In the Federal outlook, will not the South Australian leaven work on
the rest of the Commonwealth, especially as the trend of popular
feeling is in favour of the political enfranchisement of women? The
Upper Houses, which opposed "one man one vote," have opposed more
strongly the admission of women to political rights. The election of
the first Commonwealth Parliament is a more important event than any
that has ever taken place in Australia's-more important than any
subsequent election for this great legislative body can be; so it is
no wonder that all the earnest, thoughtful women in Australia and
Tasmania re-double their efforts for the suffrage, so that they make
their influence felt here, and now, even if they fail wholly or in
part. The Federal constitution has been more liberal than most of the
colonies, and to the larger and grander legislature the claim of women
will appeal with every hope of success.

We have heard much of the Pilgrim Fathers, but nothing of the Pilgrim
Mothers in the United States. It was the custom of our ancestors to
accept the services and the sacrifices of their womenfolk as a matter
of course. But here, in the nineteenth century, in the life time of
many of us, the wilderness has been reclaimed; great cities have been
built, governments have been established, new lights have fallen upon
old traditions inherited from our forefathers, and here, under the
Southern Cross, a great Commonwealth has been organised through
peaceful evolution.

In the clearer light of modern thought men see and acknowledge that
women have borne their share of the hardships and the labours of these
new colonies, and this is why New Zealand and South Australia, when
emigration was mainly of families, have given full political rights to
women. Four of the newer States in America have also enlisted woman's
practical common sense and moral influence through the ballot-box,
into their local legislatures. The opposition to woman's suffrage in
other more populous and older States comes from the politicians, who
dread the entrance of a vast number of voters not so manageable for
party purposes as men. All the weight of the drink and gambling
interests is brought to bear against the admission of women to the
suffrage, both in England and America; but the anomaly is greatest in
America, because the social influence of women is incomparably
strongest there.

They have invaded every avocation and profession, not in dozens, but
in hundreds and thousands. They have shown powers of public speaking
and organization and united action that have astonished the world.
Women's clubs are more numerous than men's, and embrace a greater
variety of objects, and withal they continue to be the most charming
women in the world. But the wire-pullers and the professional
politicians deny votes to them, while they give them to ignorant
foreigners who are more amenable to party ends and party discipline.

As for the result of granting the suffrage in South Australia, I
never thought that this would transform politics and moralise
politicians at once. The educational effect on both men and women is
good, and it will have increasing influence as experience goes on As a
rule, the newly enfranchised women have voted on the same lines as
their husbands and fathers; but there are exceptions, and so far as I
have been able to ascertain, these exceptions cause no quarrels or
bitterness. Men allow their wives to go to the churches to which they
conscientiously adhere, and the far less important matter of politics
is looked on in the same way. I could not say that any special
candidate has been returned by the women's vote, who would not have
been elected without it; but the attitude of candidates and Members of
Parliament towards all questions affecting women and children has been
very much changed now that so great a voting strength lies in the
hands of women.

As for influence, that subtle thing which we are told is so much
better for us and for the world than actual responsible power that has
by no means diminished; on the contrary, it has increased. Husbands,
sons, and brothers respect the opinions of wives, mothers, and sisters
far more when these can be backed by votes. Women attend political
meetings in considerable numbers, and put questions to the candidates.
Their presence is felt to be a restraining and moralising influence,
even by the rowdy. As for election day, when once in three years or
so, women go to the polling booth, it is so quiet and orderly that it
feels like going to church. Our elections have always been orderly
since we, first of all the colonies-first, indeed, in all the world's-
introduced the secret ballot, known in the United States as the
Australian ballot. George Grote, the Historian of Greece, year after
year in his place in Parliament, moved for a secret ballot, and was
called an un--English faddist for his pains; and it is interesting to
note that the first realization of his idea was carried out in South
Australia, of which he was one of the founders; and one of the chief
streets of Adelaide bears his name.

I believe the results in New Zealand have been similar to the results
here, but of that I cannot speak from personal knowledge. The
educational value of the suffrage may be seen here after five years'
experience. There is far more interest felt in public questions, in
the character of public men, in questions of public policy, of loan
and expenditure, by the average woman of South Australia than in the
other colonies. These have become part of her business; with the
suffrage comes the responsibility. Frivolous women there are, as well
as indifferent and apathetic men, but the atmosphere is more
stimulating to both when equal rights have been gained.

In the establishment of a Federal magazine to take broad views of all
political and social questions, I hope that there will be a thorough
discussion of this large subject, as well as some scope for those
women from all of the colonies, who love Australia and seek her best
interests, to contribute to its pages. A one-sexed society such as men
have in clubs, and women at afternoon calls, is incomplete and
unsatisfactory; and a one--sexed Federal magazine will not be
adequately representative of Australia.


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