Today is a significant anniversary here in South Australia: it is 125 years since the passing of the Adult Suffrage Bill, which gave women both the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament. SA became the second place in the world to give women the first right (after New Zealand the previous year) and the first place in the world to give women the second right.
The first was the result of hard work, petitions, campaigning, fundraisers, advocacy and support. The second was an accident.
Member of the Legislative Council, Ebenezer Ward, was a fierce opponent of women’s suffrage. When he realised that majority support had swung the other way, he came up with what he thought was a brilliant plan (now sometimes called ‘The Great Miscalculation‘). He moved an amendment to the bill that would allow women to not only vote but to stand for election as well. He thought surely such a radical proposal, one not even the suffragettes had been asking for, would lead to the entire bill being defeated. He was wrong, and he gave himself the unwanted distinction of being responsible for giving South Australian women at the time the widest enfranchisement in the world.*
As a Christian, I’m intrigued and encouraged by the involvement of many church leaders in the movement towards women’s suffrage, and the theological convictions that underpinned their advocacy. (Despite people like Ward quoting the Bible against them). Leading advocates included Mary Colton, a mother of nine and a Methodist Sunday School teacher who also founded the Adelaide Children’s Hospital; Elizabeth Nicholls, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and another Methodist Sunday School teacher; Rosetta Birks, a devoted Baptist who married her sister’s widower and became stepmother to their six children; and Serena Lake, who initially came to Adelaide as a preacher with the Bible Christian movement, filling the town hall for her first meeting. They were well supported by men like Joseph Coles Kirby, a Congregationalist minister; Sylvanus Magarey, a medical doctor and influential member of the Churches of Christ; and Robert Caldwell, a Methodist Member of Parliament. (When the Centre for Democracy made the 1894 Suffrage Petition searchable online earlier this year, I was pleased to see leading Baptist pastor and planter of my church, Silas Mead, had signed it … not just once but three times!)
The most well known and leading advocate for women’s suffrage was Mary Lee, a non-conformist Irish widow who came to SA as a fifty-eight year old to nurse her sick son and stayed after he died. She founded the Women’s Suffrage League, writing letters and making speeches that inspired many. When questioned about “women’s place” in society under God, she wrote, ‘…however and wherever woman can be of best and widest usefulness to her fellow men and women, there, by God’s providence, is her allotted sphere.’
These are the kinds of stories we need to tell; stories of people of faith and conviction working for the good of others and for the good of society as a whole.
Too many people dismiss history as ‘boring’, perhaps because we have failed to engage them with the stories of ordinary people upon whose shoulders we stand and by whose example we can be inspired. That’s certainly how I’m feeling today, and I’m thankful for these women and men. To read more of their story, see “Votes for Women”, by Dr Helen Jones on the Women & Politics website.
But I’m also reminded that history includes stories like that of Ebenezer Ward, who made one foolish move and probably spent the rest of his life regretting it. The Adelaide newspaper of the day described him as “gifted with histrionic power … and curiously deficient in humour,” so it’s unlikely he saw the funny side of it. I think his story is worth telling too … there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, even if not the one he planned.
*It is important to note that the rights granted extended to Aboriginal women. These were taken away from them by the Commonwealth in 1902 and not reinstated until 1962, another shameful chapter in the history of this nation’s treatment of its indigenous peoples.