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Catherine Helen Spence's role in Federation

> View our Catherine Helen Spence Library Guide for more information.

In 1897 there was really only one woman who took a strong interest and endeavoured to have an influence on the debate towards Federation: this was the indefatigable Catherine Helen Spence, keen to further her 'effective voting' cause in the federal sphere. Catherine Helen Spence stood as a candidate for one of ten positions allocated to South Australia for the Constitutional Convention, becoming the first Australian woman political candidate. She received 7, 383 votes, about two thirds of the way down the field of 33 candidates.

An eminent federalist

A series titled Eminent federalists appeared in United Australia magazine. Number 12 in the series was on Catherine Helen Spence (Volume 2, no 10, 20 April 1902 pages 16-17.)

"The several Eminent Federalists, whose lives and careers we have recorded under this head, have been men whose Federal abilities and performances entitle them to be 'placed' in a higher category than most of the other public men who took part in the Federal movement, and immeasurably above the great body of their fellow-men, on whom they exercised an educational influence in that connection. Miss Spence is equally eminent in this respect in regard to the women of Australia, for she may be said to be the only one of her sex who displayed a thoroughly active interest in the Federal cause, by writing and speaking concerning it, and by ultimately offering herself as a candidate for the Federal Convention of 1897-8. The South Australian franchise gave Miss Spence, in common with all the women of her State, a right to vote in that election; and, having that right, she claimed the further one of standing as a candidate. Whether or not she would have been permitted to take her seat if elected is not pertinent to our present purpose.

Miss Spence is a pioneer in the political arena of Australia, and if knowledge, character, the power of speech, and the ability to influence her fellow-citizens constitute the necessary equipment of a politician, then she is eminently qualified to enter the circle and take her place as a legislator. Miss Spence is more. She is a wide reader, a deep and thorough and courageous thinker, an accomplished public speaker, a humorist, who knows when and where to apply that element in the performance of her public work, and, moreover, a woman of liberal views, kindly sympathetic disposition, and an ambition to contribute to the serious work of the world about her, which is exceedingly rare in her sex. Miss Spence has made the 'Hare' system of voting her speciality, and she has even introduced an important and recognised modification of that system, with a view to its simplification, which has acquired the title of the 'Hare-Spence' system. She has written much and well on it and many other subjects—political, sociological, philosophical and economical."


"My long comradeship with Mrs. A. H. Young began before the close of the year [1896]. A disenfranchised voter at her first election, she was driven farther afield than the present inadequate system of voting to look for a just electoral method. She found it in effective voting, and from that time devoted herself to the cause. Early in 1897 Mrs. Young was appointed the first honorary secretary of the [Women's Land Reform] league. January of the same year found us stirred to action by the success of Sir Edward Braddon's first Bill for proportional representation in Tasmania. Though limited in its application to the two chief cities of the island State, the experiment was wholly successful.

We had our first large public meeting in the Co-operative Hall in January, and carried a resolution protesting against the use of the block vote for the federal convention elections. A deputation to the acting Premier (Mr.—afterwards Sir Frederick Holder) was arranged for the next morning. But we were disappointed in the result of our mission, for Mr Holder pointed out that the Enabling Act distinctly provided for every elector having 10 votes, and effective voting meant a single transferable vote. I had written and telegraphed to the Hon. C. C. Kingston when the Enabling Act was being drafted to beg him to consider effective voting as the basis of election; but he did not see it then, nor did he ever see it. In spite, however, of the shortsightedness of party leaders, events began to move quickly.

Our disappointment over the maintenance of the block vote for the election of 10 delegates to the federal Convention led to my brother John's suggestion that I should become a candidate. Startling as the suggestion was, so many of my friends supported it that I agreed to do so. I maintained that the fundamental necessity of a democratic Constitution such as we hoped would evolve from the combined efforts of the ablest men in the Australian States was a just system of representation; and it was as the advocate of effective voting that I took my stand.

In framing a new constitution the opportunity arose for laying the foundation of just representation, and, had I been elected, my first and last thought would have been given to the claims of the whole people to electoral justice. But the 7,500 votes which I received left me far enough from the lucky 10.

Had Mr. Kingston not asserted, both publicly and privately that, if elected, I could not constitutionally take my seat, I might have done better. There were rumours even that my nomination paper would be rejected. But to obviate this, Mrs. Young, who got it filled in, was careful to see that no name was on it that had no right there, and its presentation was delayed till five minutes before the hour of noon, in order that no time would be left to upset its validity. From a press cutting on the declaration of the poll I cull this item of news:-"Several unexpected candidates were announced, but the only nomination which evoked any expressions of approval was that of Miss Spence.

" I was the first woman in Australia to seek election in a political contest. From the two main party lists I was, of course, excluded, but in the list of the "10 best men" selected by a Liberal organization my name appeared. When the list was taken to the printer—who, I think, happened to be the late Federal member, Mr. James Hutchison—he objected to the heading of the "10 best men", as one of them was a woman. He suggested that my name should be dropped, and a man's put in its place. "You can't say Miss Spence is one of the '10 best men'. Take her name out." "Not say she's one of the '10 best men?' " the Liberal organizer objected, "Why she's the best man of the lot". I had not expected to be elected, but I did expect that my candidature would help effective voting, and I'm sure it did."

Newspaper reports on nominations for the Constitutional Convention
From the Observer 13 February 1897 page 29

"Nomination day for the Federal Convention. The public on Friday took very little interest in the formal proceedings connected with the nomination of candidates for the Federal Convention, and when the returning Officer of the Province, Mr W. R. Boothby C.M.G., with the Under-Sheriff, Mr Otto Schomburgk, mounted the platform of the Adelaide Town Hall to publicly announce the nominations, there were less than fifty electors in the hall. These, however, included some well-known gentlemen, who raised a cordial cheer as the Sheriff stepped forward to the table to repeat a task which he had discharged for the first time as long ago as forty years. Prominent among the audience were the Premier's Secretary, Mr CC Cornish; the Under-Secretary Mr LH Sholl; Messrs. C H Goode, A Poynton MP, W Haines, James Cumming and J H Packard.

A murmur of surprise was heard when Mr Boothby stated that he had received thirty-three nominations, the general opinion having been that the number would be about twenty-five; but there were "audible smiles" and sotto voce ejaculations of "Who's he?" when certain names were read out. The name of "Catherine Helen Spence" evoked sincere applause. The Sheriff performed his duties within twenty minutes, and the proceedings were adjourned till March 6, when the polling will take place."

From the Observer 13 March 1897 page 11

"A most important election, because its results promise to be so far-reaching, took place in South Australia on Saturday, March 6, when ten delegates to the Australian Federal Convention, which will open in Adelaide on Monday March 22, were chosen by the House of Assembly electors.

Here women—for the second time since their enfranchisement—went to the poll, this being the only Australian colony where adult suffrage is the law. Here too, the candidates included a lady—Miss Catherine Helen Spence, one of our oldest, and it may justly be said, ablest of colonists, a patriotic lady who has for years past laboured hard, and with but little thanks to awaken the people to an appreciation of a system of voting which in the opinion of many earnest students of democratic institutions would ensure fair and just representation of the will of the people in the Legislature, such as is not obtained under the present system. Had Miss Spence's effective voting system been adopted in the present election it would have been a graceful tribute to her zeal in advocating it, and at the same time a valuable aid in gaining a correct expression of the true wishes of the people.


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