Recognising SA’s champions for change

People of Adelaide

South Australia has pioneered many game-changing social reforms throughout its history. Standing tall among these is the achievement of women’s suffrage in the state – a nation-leading advance for gender equality which marks its 125th anniversary on 18 December 2019.

The Adult Suffrage Bill (also referred to as the Constitutional Amendment Act 1894 and the Constitution Amendment Act 1894) was passed by South Australian parliament on 18 December 1894. This gave South Australian women the right to vote in general elections and to stand for parliament, for the first time anywhere in Australia. This landmark victory for women’s rights saw South Australia became the second place in the world, after New Zealand, to legislate women’s rights to vote, and the first place in the world to give women the rights to stand for parliament.

It should be acknowledged that, while South Australian Aboriginal women were given the right to vote under colonial laws in 1894, they were often not informed of this right or supported to enrol to vote – some even actively discouraged from enrolling or voting.

Prior to the passing of the Adult Suffrage Bill – there were many women and men, who did not agree with the situation that only men could vote in South Australian elections. These were the people who, in 1888, formed the Women’s Suffrage League – a group dedicated to convincing people that women should be allowed to vote.

At the time, in addition to reasoning that women were educated, intelligent and paid taxes, those campaigning to gain the vote for women argued it wasn’t right that half the community shouldn’t be allowed to vote and women should have a say in electing people that would pass better laws to protect and support women and families.

On the flipside, those who didn’t want women given the right to vote, argued that many didn’t want to anyway, women were too busy nursing infants or keeping house and they didn’t have the time to be interested in politics.

The passing of the Adult Suffrage Bill was hard fought and the result of years of dedicated campaigning by forward-thinking women and men who joined groups like the Women’s Suffrage League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. With no social media to help communicate and gain support for their cause, campaigners, penned letters, handed out petitions, wrote to newspapers, gave speeches, lobbied, and held fetes and fundraisers.

Office for Women 125yrs suffrage

Among the key South Australian figures in the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th century were people like Mary Lee – the foundation secretary of the South Australian Women’s Suffrage League in 1888 and a passionate advocate for legal changes in women’s sexual and social status – and Lady Mary Colton who, in 1891 was the first female President of the Women’s Suffrage League, and a supporter of the Female Refuge, a shelter for single pregnant girls, reformed prostitutes, victims of domestic violence and deserted wives.

Adelaide living suffrage anniversary mary lee
photo-icon State Library of South Australia

Mary Lee | Image: State Library of South Australia, B 70647, 1880.

Mary colton state library of south australia b 25678 6 circa 1895
photo-icon State Library of South Australia, B 25678/6, circa 1895

lady mary colton | Image: State Library of SA B25678 6, circa 1895.

These women are just two among many, past and present, whose important achievements, have been recognised through the establishment of the Suffrage 125 City of Adelaide Honour Roll .

Launched earlier this month by the Lord Mayor of Adelaide Sandy Verschoor – herself only the third female Lord Mayor in the council’s 178-year history – the Honour Roll showcases some of some of Adelaide’s founding females, trailblazers and cultural icons, Council members and City of Adelaide employees.

“In recognition of South Australia’s leadership when it comes to gender equality, the City of Adelaide is honouring those women who have contributed to the history of our city and those who continue to challenge stereotypes and put themselves forward to follow their passion and fight for what they believe is important,” said the Lord Mayor.

“The Suffrage 125 City of Adelaide Honour Roll goes right back to Queen Adelaide, recognising our founding females, social and workplace reformers, past lord mayors, past and present councillors, Kaurna women, sports women, campaigners, and cultural icons.”
Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Sandy Verschoor

“We have such a wealth of talented and inspirational women in this city and the honour roll will continue to grow and evolve as more women make their mark on the city.”

View the Suffrage 125 City of Adelaide Honour Roll here.