I’m going to call it: 2022 is shaping up to be one of the most interesting federal elections since 1903.
We know what’s going on in our national life as this dreadful pandemic year draws to a close, but what was so special about 1903?
History buffs will recall that the Commonwealth Franchise Act was passed in 1902, a year after Australia became the world’s newest nation. That Act made Australia the world’s most democratic nation. With the stroke of a pen, 800,000 new electors—women!—were added to the roll. This was earth-shattering news and it was reported across the globe.
The Franchise Act not only ensured women the right to vote in federal elections but also made them eligible to stand for federal parliament. No other women on the planet had won this right. As globe-trotting American journalist Jessie Ackermann reported, ‘When the spirit of democracy seemed to seize the people of Australia … the various States became the great experimental stations of the world and … the world fairly stood aghast.’
And can we pause to get the language right here: women weren’t GIVEN the vote; they won it through decades of determined campaigning.
Can we also acknowledge that our First Nations women did not share the spoils of that victory for equal citizenship rights with men. In fact, all Indigenous Australians were excluded from the federal franchise by the same act that empowered white women.
Therefore 1903 was the first election where Australian women—all 800,000 of them—had the chance to exercise their newly won political entitlements. How would their electoral influence play out?
Vida Goldstein was the internationally recognised leader of the Australian suffrage movement. In 1902, she represented Australian and New Zealand at the first international women’s suffrage convention in Washington DC. Curious to see what one of these enfranchised women looked like—had they become ‘unsexed’ as the anti-suffragists prophesised?— President Teddy Roosevelt invited her to the Oval Office. As far as I can determine, she is the first Australian to have entered this hallowed space.
Roosevelt told Goldstein: ‘I’ve got my eye on you down there in Australia’. He considered the Australian experiment in democracy a ‘splendid object lesson‘ for the rest of the supposedly free world. It’s true to say that in her day, Vida was not as famous as Nellie Melba but definitely more sought out as a diplomat, public speaker and political theorist than the Australian Prime Minister Edmund Barton. (By the by, Barton was one of those anti-suffragists who soon changed his tune once women could vote for him. Or not.)
It’s perhaps no surprise to find that Goldstein was the first woman in line to sign up as a candidate for the 1903 election. She stood for the Senate in her home state of Victoria. Three other women—Nellie Martel, Mary Moore-Bentley and Selina Anderson—subsequently threw their bonnets in the ring, all in NSW but running on different platforms. Goldstein didn’t win but she put up a formidable showing.
There was one reason that contemporary political pundits and subsequent historians gave for her loss: Goldstein stood as an Independent. Had she joined the Labor Party—the party her socially progressive politics and economic protectionist policies more closely aligned with—there is no doubt she would have pipped all opposition and become the first woman in the world elected to a parliament. Indeed, she ran as an Independent five times, including for the House of Reps in the electorate of Kooyong, and lost each bruising campaign.
So why didn’t Goldstein take the Labor Party’s shilling?
Well, Goldstein was a woman of deep conviction and principle. She was not a political pragmatist. Like most of the suffrage movement that she led and inspired, Goldstein believed that including women in the body politic—as voters and as parliamentarians—would change the nature of politics itself.
Goldstein identified then what we know for certain now: that parliamentary politics is a boys’ club. And left in their boyish hands, Parliament House was a mess.
During her 1903 campaign, Goldstein joked that it had always been woman’s lot to tidy up after men: ‘He leaves the bathroom in a state of flood, his dressing-room a howling wilderness of masculine paraphernalia, his office a chaos of ink and papers’—and this disorderly boor was equally ‘untidy in the nation’. No wonder the ‘national household’ was in such ‘a terrible state of muddle’. Women’s vote and their presence in parliament would, according to Goldstein, lead to a more principled approach to ‘national housekeeping’.
But more pressing a problem than men’s poor public housekeeping skills was the fact that the rules of the boys’ club were written and enforced by a slavish party machine.
Goldstein deplored what she called ‘the ticket system’ of politics. In her view, the party machine led to ‘disastrous consequences’: feeble candidates, selfish and greedy egoists, mere ‘log-rollers’ who had been trundled into parliament purely because they were on the party’s ticket. Oftentimes, such politicians were ‘men of doubtful character, men whose social life is a scandal’ and who could be found ‘intoxicated’ in parliament. (Sound familiar?) And Goldstein had no doubt that the masculinist machinery of party politics would steam roll right on over any of her policies to elevate the safety, security and status of women and girls.
Goldstein’s principles meant she didn’t manage to clean up the nation from the inner sanctum. (Though she counted Alfred Deakin as a friend and continued to write male politicians’ speeches and policies from the outer.) It took until 1984 for her leading role in Australian political history to be recognised with the re-naming of Melbourne’s bayside seat of Goldstein. Though Goldstein is one of only two Australians honoured in Judy Chicago’s iconic artwork The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, there is still no statue of her anywhere in Australia, an omission I personally find an appalling affront to our civic culture.
But Goldstein did establish a legacy that we will see play out at the 2022 election. Women stepping forward out of a sense of conviction and civic responsibility—not ego or greed—to enforce the values of integrity and accountability, of courage and honesty, of grassroots activism and active citizenship. Goldstein and her contemporaries believed that such women would make a real difference in negotiating a more peaceful, equitable world. Their sights were set on the disastrous consequences of militarism, men’s historic answer to conflict resolution.
The first International Women’s Peace Conference was held at the Hague in 1915. One of its twelve resolutions urged ‘that future international disputes should be referred to arbitration or conciliation’, another facet of political life for which Australia was renown in the first two decades of the twentieth-century. In April 1919, Goldstein and her deputy Cecilia John represented Australia at the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference in Paris, a response to the exclusion of female delegates (and female demands) from the Paris Peace Conference.
Today, we know that climate change, not world-wide war, presents the most clear and present danger to the lives of our children and our planet.
And it is high calibre, blue chip professional women who are now grappling with defining what ‘national security’ might look like in the globally warmed, #MeToo era. Women like former ABC foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel (who is standing as an Independent in the seat of Goldstein), Allegra Spender (Wentworth), Georgia Steele (Hughes), Sophie Scamps (Mackellar), Kylea Tink (North Sydney), Jo Dyer (Boothby), Dr Monique Ryan and Professor Kim Rubenstein (ACT Senate) are stepping forward to call out the disastrous consequences of leaving our future solely in the hands of men and the party machines that they built for their purposes. The ‘Voices Of’ movement propelled by Cathy McGowan’s 2013 victory in Indi, which promises to ‘do politics differently’ and which is the force behind many of these female independent candidates, is an almost direct replica of the kitchen-table campaigning which mobilised voters in the 1903 election.
Louisa Lawson, suffragist and mother of Henry the much more famous drunken bard, called the 16th of December 1903 —election day—‘the greatest day that ever dawned for women in Australia’.
Even Nellie Martel, who managed but a handful of votes in a campaign marred by vitriolic sexist attack and a press pile-on, including what we would now call slut-shaming, was nothing but positive about the world-first set by Australia that day:
‘It is coming like the mighty roar of the ocean, this great voice of the People … our movement is on the crest of that great wave and no power can stop it!’
Come election day 2022, in defiance of historical precedent, I have no doubt that many of the female independents carrying on the legacy of Goldstein and her maverick compatriots will ride that wave to an era-defining victory.
Clare Wright is Professor of History at La Trobe University and author of the best-selling You Daughters of Freedom: the Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World.