125 years of women’s suffrage in South Australia

Multicultural Communities Council women’s delegation to SA Parliament House

The South Australian women’s suffrage campaign

Following its colonisation in 1836, South Australian settlers lived under British common law which made women subordinate to men in that they were subject to their fathers, and then to their husbands. Their property, income and children were the legal property of their husbands. As the nineteenth century rolled on however, certain progressive legislative changes began to occur that separated women’s legal identity from this archaic system, such as the 1858 Matrimonial Causes Act that allowed divorce, and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1861 that allowed owner/occupiers of property (including women) to vote in local government elections.

The fight for South Australian suffrage is said to have its roots in social organisations such as the Ladies’ Social Purity Society, begun in 1883. Part of the platform of this organisation was that they sought to increase women’s legal rights. After successfully campaigning to raise the age of consent, the Society broadened its focus, becoming the Women’s Suffrage League.

The Story of How We Won the Vote

Commemorative tapestry, Centenary of Women’s Suffrage in SA

In conjunction with other women’s groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the campaign for women’s suffrage sought to gain the vote for women as a way of gaining a political voice for a range of social values that many women felt were unrepresented in Parliament. These included children’s rights, girl’s rights, women worker’s rights and the desire for temperance (the reduction in the trade of alcohol).

These women’s groups often had connections with similar movements overseas, and would send members to speak or attend international conferences. Locally, they wrote letters, distributed petitions, wrote to newspapers, gave speeches, distributed information, visited politicians and held meetings, fetes and fundraisers. They were resolute, organised and determined, gaining support for suffrage anywhere and everywhere they could, all across South Australia.

Key suffragists from this time include Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence who both worked tirelessly for the campaign. Lesser known but still instrumental were Elizabeth Webb Nicholls (President of the WCTU twice during the period 1889-1904 and credited with having gained 8,268 of the 11,600 signatures on the largest petition), Mary Colton, Serena Thorne Lake, Rose Birks and Augusta Zadow (first ‘Lady Inspector’ of factories).

Their efforts culminated in the passing of the Adult Suffrage Bill which granted women – for the first time in Australia – the right to vote and the right to sit in Parliament. This historic moment occurred on the 18th of December, 1894. This was a Constitutional Amendment meaning that it had to be endorsed by the Queen – which it was in March 1895, allowing women to vote for the first time in South Australian state elections in April 1896.

Click here to read the story of the Centenary Tapestry.

Inspirational SA Women

To see more on inspirational SA women speaking about how winning the vote continues to have an impact on women’s lives today, click on the following link:


SA Suffrage 125 Schools Competition

Highgate School was the winner of the SA Suffrage 125 Schools Competition with their short film answering the question:

What was life like for women in the 1880s and 1890s before Women’s Suffrage and why did so many people believe it needed to change?

The competition was open to South Australian students enrolled in government, Catholic and Independent schools in years 6 to 9. The competition provided the opportunity for students to participate in a historical research project that developed:

• understanding and empathy of the tireless efforts of South Australians that culminated in the passing of this landmark legislation

• appreciation of the impact of history on lives of South Australians today.

Click here for the Screenplay for SA Suffrage 125 Schools Competition winner.