Women in Parliament
The idea that women would want a direct voice in political, governmental, and parliamentary affairs was not entertained by those members of Victoria's first Legislative Council who, in 1853-54, drafted the Constitution. In keeping with the times it was simply assumed that such concerns were best left to men.
This view prevailed for much of the remainder of the nineteenth century. Elsewhere, however, changes were occurring.
In 1893 women were enfranchised in New Zealand (the first country to grant the right). One year later South Australian women were given the right both to vote and to contest parliamentary elections. This marked the start of a 29 year period (1894-1923) in which the colonies (later States) and Commonwealth of Australia granted women the right to vote and the right to sit in Parliament. [return to top]
Ironically, although Victoria was the last Australian State both to enable women to vote in parliamentary elections and to allow them to be Members of Parliament, it had actually empowered women to vote just seven years after the opening of the first Parliament of Victoria.
In a piece of faulty legislative drafting, the Electoral Act of 1863 enfranchised all ratepayers listed on local municipal rolls. By some oversight the Parliament overlooked earlier local government legislation that had permitted women to be added to the municipal rolls for local government elections. Those women therefore now had the vote and proceeded to use it in the general election of 1864.
Shocked at such effrontery, and embarrassed by their oversight, Members of the Legislative Assembly hastily amended the offending clause early in 1865 by restricting the vote for parliamentary elections strictly to male ratepayers.
This episode, which was decidedly not a victory for women's rights, only serves to emphasise how long it eventually did take for women to achieve full participation in Victorian parliamentary processes. [return to top]
It took 19 private members' bills from 1889 until Victorian women gained the vote in 1908 but it was 1911 before they could exercise it. The inclusion of women in the polls more than doubled the number of electors eligible to vote. Fear of the effect of the woman's vote would have been an important factor in the resistance to women's suffrage in Victoria. However the results of the 1911 election preserved the status quo, with only 56 per cent of voters eligible to vote doing so.
Arguments raised against female suffrage in both Houses were the desecration of the motherhood ideal, destruction of family life, immorality, blight of the fine character of Victorian women, employment displacement and the dangers of introducing biological weakness and feminine attitudes into public life. In a change of heart and with an eye to the women's vote, Premier Tommy Bent claimed to have come to the conclusion that the women of this country are equal, if not superior, to those he had seen anywhere else, and, therefore, he was more inclined to grant them this privilege.
It was inevitable that the vote would have to be granted as Victoria was the only state where women could not vote despite having the vote for the Federal Parliament. [return to top]
If winning the right to vote took time, the right to stand for election and the actual election of a woman to the Parliament took still longer. [return to top]
From the 1880s there was a gradual but persistent increase in the calls to grant women full access to parliamentary processes. A particularly important figure in this regard was a Victorian, Vida Goldstein who, after the Commonwealth Parliament granted voting and sitting rights in 1902, became the first woman parliamentary candidate in the British Commonwealth. There is a plaque commemorating her in the gardens at the Parliament of Victoria. Goldstein unsuccessfully contested a Senate seat in 1903 and stood a further four times, the last in 1917. Through the activities of such women, with the organisation of many women's lobby groups, and with changing social viewpoints in the early years of the twentieth century, the idea that women might sit in Parliament was gradually accepted. [return to top]
Women were able to stand as candidates once the Parliamentary Elections (Women Candidates) Act received royal assent on 12 May 1924. For the Assembly, the first female candidate was Alicia Katz, who stood for Barwon as a Labor candidate at the Assembly election of 26 June 1924 and gained 30.46 per cent of the vote. For the Council, the first female candidate was Grace Muriel Stratton, who stood for Higinbotham as an Independent candidate at the Council election of 21 June 1952, and gained 41.29 per cent of the votes. [return to top]
The actual election of women to Parliament in Australia took even longer. The first women politicians initially had to prove themselves as committed to traditional gender roles so they were married women who came late to politics when their children were independent. They were usually involved in committee work in political parties and voluntary organisations but did not have paid jobs. The state became the larger home and women members were expected to extend their maternal role to their parliamentary role. Some entered as widows of former members. [return to top]
First female member of Parliament
In 1933 Lady Millie Peacock became the first female member of the Parliament of Victoria. She was elected at a by-election for the Legislative Assembly seat of Allandale, caused by the death of the sitting member, Sir Alexander Peacock, her husband.
Sir Alexander Peacock (United Australia Party) had been a member for 44 years, during which time he held various ministerial portfolios, was Premier on three occasions and was elected Speaker in 1928 - a position he held until his death in 1933. Lady Millie Peacock had been a popular supporter of her husband's political campaigns and often made speeches on his behalf. She took such a keen and active interest in the affairs of the Allandale district that she was known as the "deputy member".
Lady Millie Peacock was approached to stand for her husband's seat. She stood reluctantly, being in mourning during the campaign for her by-election. She made no speeches or public appearance, but men of the United Australia Party campaigned on her behalf.
At the age of 63, Lady Millie Peacock was sworn in as a member of the Legislative Assembly, having won the by-election by over 1,500 votes. She made only one speech during her time in Parliament. Lady Millie Peacock served the rest of her term in Parliament, but did not seek re-election. She retired from Parliament in 1935, declaring that it was not a place for women. [return to top]
First woman to be elected to Parliament at a general election
Born in 1892, Ivy Weber was Victoria's second woman parliamentarian but the first to win a seat at a general election. She won and held the seat of Nunawading as an independent in 1937, 1940 and 1943. A widow from the first world war, with a small child, she married Clarence Weber, principal of the "Weber and Rice Health and Strength College" and an all-round athlete. He was a widower with seven young children and together they had another three. Clarence died of a heart attack in 1930 leaving her with 11 children.
She became involved in public life through the activities of the college and adopted her husband's interest in promoting healthy living. She was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the National Council of Women. Like many women entering Parliament, most of her children had left home when she embarked on a political career; those still at home were past the stage of needing constant attention.
The WCTU encouraged women to stand as independent candidates to specifically represent women. In June 1937, the League of Women Electors of Victoria was formed and endorsed three women candidates including Ivy Weber. Their manifesto was Mother, Child, Family, Home and Health.
Ivy Weber was President of the Australian Temperance Council and received support in her campaign to maintain Nunawading as a "dry" locality. She was a representative of the Australasian Women's Association and an executive member of the National Council of Women of Victoria (NCW). The NCW was an affiliation of 109 women's societies. The 1937 conference discussed issues such as milk to needy families, theatre censorship, raising of the school leaving age and domestic violence.
Weber's electoral platform was:
- A true democracy to provide economic security, and thus alleviate distress and unemployment
- Provision of free education from kindergarten to university
- Establishing a systematic national health scheme, thereby raising the general health standard
- Abolishing slum dwelling and erecting suitable homes for families
- Securing a comprehensive scheme of National Insurance and covering hospital treatment.
As a member of Parliament she successfully lobbied for female representation on government boards and espoused equal pay for teachers although she only approved of married women working if in desperate circumstances. She believed that women should be on local councils and juries. She advocated a homemaker's allowance for women with families. She was one of the instigators of the physical education course at Melbourne University, the first of its kind in Australia. In 1938, Weber was one of two women members of the first National Co-ordinating Council for Physical Fitness, later known as the National Fitness Council.
In 1943, following three successive electoral successes, she resigned her seat six weeks after the Victorian State election. She unsuccessfully stood as an independent for the Federal seat of Henty as part of the League of Women Voters' Women for Canberra Movement (WFCM). Her choice of seat was ill-advised and she polled badly, the independent sitting member, A W Coles (son of G J Coles), was returned ending Weber's parliamentary career. In 1945 she stood for the state seat of Box Hill but only just managed to poll enough votes to save her deposit.
Without a parliamentary pension she had to work for her living and for the next two years she was an organiser for the Country Party and continued her charity work.
Although denying that she was a feminist, Weber's commitment to women and women's issues belies this. She was a woman of vision which is demonstrated by the family's current high place on the agenda of all political parties. She had some extreme views but pursued social reforms such as free education and a national health scheme which are now accepted as normal. Weber would be disappointed by the re-introduction of fees for university education and the rationalizing of social agencies such as infant welfare centres. Her enthusiasm for healthy living and good diet is currently fashionable.
Weber spent her old age in obscurity and died in 1976. [return to top]
For the 20 years from 1947 until 1967 there were no women members of the Victorian Parliament. As men returned from the second world war women were expected to resume domestic roles and traditional gender work patterns were reinforced. By the 1960s, however, women were increasingly participating in the paid workforce and higher education. The introduction of the contraceptive pill gave women greater control over their fertility which led to wider lifestyle choices such as later marriage and child-rearing. In 1962 there were 15 state and federal women members of parliament around Australia but it was not until 1967 that a woman was again elected to the Parliament of Victoria. [return to top]
In 1967 Dorothy Goble was elected as the Member for Mitcham in the Legislative Assembly. The late 1970s saw five women elected and since then women's participation has steadily increased.
Victoria's first women Legislative Councillors were Gracia Baylor, Liberal Member for Boronia Province, and Joan Coxsedge, Labor Member for Melbourne West. Both were simultaneously successful in the 1979 state election.
The profile of women members today covers a wide spectrum of age and occupation and marital status is no-longer such an issue.
In the 58th Parliament of Victoria there are 48 women members. 16 are Legislative Councillors, and 32 are Members of the Legislative Assembly. There are nine women ministers in the Cabinet. [return to top]
- Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December 2014 14:55