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How the women voted

The first polling day in Australia which included women voters was in South Australia on 25 April 1896. Women turned out to be enthusiastic voters: the percentage of those women enrolled who went to the polls was marginally higher than the percentage of enrolled men who voted, as detailed in The Register newspaper of 10 June 1896. The Liberal Kingston Ministry was returned to power, although there were expectations that women would be more likely to vote conservative.

A long account of the events of the day 'How The Women Voted' appeared in the weekly Adelaide newspaper The Observer on 2 May 1896, page 41, and included the names of the first female voters in eleven near-city electorates. Despite the patronising editorial tone, what comes through is a genuine feeling of appreciation of having women involved, and a sense of excitement and goodwill within the community as to the historic nature of the day. Typical of the writing is a charming line that 'the fair franchisists could not help having graces, but they gave themselves no airs'. An extract from this account is included here.

Voters in the 1896 South Australian election





% voted



% voted

59 166

39 312


77 752

51 572



South Australia is in a peculiar sense a monument to the intense desire that inspires the best of men to strive for the improvement of the race. Though the Wakefield land scheme upon which the colony was founded failed to establish Utopia, the pioneers and their successors have never wearied in the effort to give expression to high political ideals. And the noble band of true reformers who have made South Australia an interesting study to the world's deepest thinkers have been far from unsuccessful. True, they have not been able to eliminate the discordant notes from the composition of human nature to control the elemental conditions requisite for an unbroken record of prosperity or to suspend the universal laws of supply and demand; so that some problems are carried forward to employ the increasing energy, intelligence, and humanity of generations to come.

But the magnitude of what is left to be accomplished before the millennium arrives, which will witness the extinction of politics, with its pettiness and tricks, should not obscure the greatness of what has been done, and well done. So many steps have been taken to perfect the system of government that the terms Conservative and Liberal as understood in the mother country are altogether inappropriate here. In the democratic constitution of the Legislature the adoption and form of the ballot, the extension of local government, the simplification of land transfers, and in many other reforms South Australia has stood prominently in the front rank.

And now the colony is the first in Australia to rest the government of the people upon an adult suffrage. Memorable in the history of the southern continent must be the general election in South Australia of 1896 as the first in which women took part. Amongst the ladies who had the honour of being the first to vote for members of Parliament in Australia are; West Adelaide, Mrs Kingston, wife of the Premier; Glenelg, Mrs Charles Birks; Rose Park, Mrs Winifred Woods; North Adelaide, Miss Elsie Claxton; Port Adelaide, Mrs J.C. Kirby; Norwood, Mrs Thomas Gully; St Peters, Mrs Violet Gandlish Simon; Hindmarsh, Mrs T. Saunders; Goodwood, Mrs J.F. Cook; Unley, Misses A. and S. Winwood; Parkside, Mrs J.G. Jenkins. And the women have polled remarkably well as to both numbers and the intelligence displayed in fulfilling the requirements of the Act.

That the children of franchise were out on the warpath on Saturday was plain enough; carriages, cabs, carts, trolleys, lorries, and drays were rushing in all directions as fast as the devoted horses, wondering what it was all about as it was not a race day could put their legs to the ground, carrying voters male and female to the polling-places. Like leaves in autumn the candidate cards and leaflets strewed the path to the poll; touts, in some cases singularly silent, stood like mutes at the gate of a cemetery and without a word thrust the credentials of their patrons into the hands of the electors as they passed to the place where so many hopes were to be entombed. The merits and demerits of the seekers after the suffrages were discussed by the crowd, and an energetic but perhaps misguided plumpist would be reminded that—

Even our virtues we may lend
To further some ignoble end,
The saint's divinest attribute
The Devil's purpose yet may suit,

but taking it all round the greatest good humour prevailed.

Women were everywhere, and their presence in the streets, and leavening the lumps of humanity in the crowded polling-places, no doubt had a refining influence. Never have we had a more decorous gathering together of the multitude than that which distinguished the first exercise of the female franchise on Saturday, April 25, 1896; and rarely since the days of open voting has there been so much excitement, albeit well under control. The charming spectacle of—

Lovely woman, hesitating
Round the booths in sweet dismay
Her gentle bosom palpitating
Lest she cast her vote away

was presented throughout the livelong day, but it would be a base libel upon a sex whose instinct is less liable to err than man's reason to assert that the women failed to realize their responsibilities-quite the contrary; they did themselves infinite credit, displaying a level-headedness and self-possession that called for admiration. The bantering verse of a cynic—

And when she glides in graceful, pretty,
To vote in her most charming frock,
The poll clerks in suburb and city
Will thrill with an electric shock

was in measure true, for the presence of the fair voters in such numbers lent a gay and pleasing feature to the otherwise unattractive polling-places and made the matter-of-fact men, who swelled the throng, less noisy and more thoughtful of others. Everywhere the women were attended to with great gallantry, and their experience of polling-day was undoubtedly an agreeable one.

When lovely woman stoops to folly
And rashly throws her vote away

comes in hardly anywhere, if one may judge from the demeanour of the libelled maids and matrons.

But there were some funny incidents. For instance, at the Town Hall, where the places where the votes are recorded consist of deal doors set in three-sided fashion, with a calico curtain in front. One woman remained there so long recording her vote that the Deputy Returning Officer had to go and ask what was the matter. She turned round and said indignantly, 'I have been knocking at the door here ever so long and can't make any one answer'. She thought the door at the back would be opened and some one take her voting paper. Some of the ladies persisted in going into the same box in pairs, and were surprised on being told that it was not the correct thing. One old lady who was purblind came with a companion to coach her. Another was heard to say, 'Me husband tould me to plump for Paddy Glynn. Which is his box?' evidently thinking that each candidate had a voting crib for his own use. A very candid elector with a sense of humour said he had 'two butchers' at one candidate's expense and voted for the other. One lady said she liked a certain candidate, his manly speech, his sensible sentiments, but she could not vote for a man who parted his hair in the middle. Other fair ones disregarded the libels on a candidate and his views, simply acknowledging that his good looks deserved a vote. The motto 'Handsome is as handsome does' evidently requires revision at election time.

Saturday would have furnished a fine opportunity for taking the female census, for it was truly the woman's day out—a petticoat parade. The fair franchisists could not help having graces, but they gave themselves no airs. The 'votes of both sexes' were showered in at times, and then there would be slack water, so to speak, followed by a flood-tide of females; indeed, the eccentricities of the election were curious. All through the city and suburbs the women voted solidly, and some say wrongly. It was women, women everywhere, and not a bit of chaff. They commanded consideration, although in some instances they literally took the polling-places by storm, notably St Peters, North Adelaide, the city, and Norwood.

Even the nuns exercised the franchise, and at North Adelaide the sisters of the Dominican Convent created a picturesque feature in the proceedings by filing solemnly into the Temperance Hall, led by the Mother Superior, dressed in their distinctive garb, grave, kindly, and silent. The scene was peculiarly impressive. The ladies, regaled in their Sunday best, rolled up in large numbers, many arriving in cabs, while others were content to come on foot. Cabby must have reaped quite a harvest. Sometimes there were as many as a score of cabs drawn up in front of the hall. It was quite a study to watch the women as they went in to exercise their right of franchise for the first time. On the faces of some the air of responsibility was writ so large that something like an intellectual pallor had been imparted thereto.





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