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Overview of the year of suffrage celebrations

The Hon. Senator Rosemary Crowley was one of many South Australan politicians who became involved in the suffrage celebrations, here taking the opportunity to "make a pass" on one of the great tapestries that became such a focus of attention in the city of Adelaide. Photograph courtesy Rosey Boehm.

A cause for celebration and a catalyst for change

In 1894, South Australia became the first State in Australia to grant women the right to vote and the first place in the world to grant women the right to stand for Parliament. South Australia had set a precedent that played an important part in making Australia, in 1902, the first country in the world at federal level where women had the dual rights to vote and to stand for election.

And the effects spread further afield. American suffragists used the fact that Australian women had the vote to publicise their own demands and British women, until 1918, could reproach the British Parliament for being less progressive than its own colonies.

South Australia decided to celebrate the Centenary of Women's Suffrage with hundreds of events across the State throughout 1994.

Displays, exhibitions and performances would bring to life the historic events and the remarkable people behind the achievement of 100 years ago. The Calendar of Events was also recognised as an opportunity to review women's participation in society in the 1990s, to highlight issues of current concern and to focus on the ongoing struggles for equity and democracy.

A committee to organise the Centenary celebrations was established in 1992 with SA Governor Dame Roma Mitchell as the Patron and founding Chair, historian Mrs Jean Blackburn. The official logo, designed by Adelaide craftswomen/artists Catherine Truman and Sue Lorraine, was officially launched at a special function in the grounds of Government House on December 18, 1992.

A Centenary diary was compiled by Pamela Attwood; a poster, designed by Woodville High School student Rebecca Andersen, was released; commemorative folders for babies born in 1994 were produced - and by the end of 1993, planning was well underway for many events to take the Centenary celebrations to just about every corner of the State.

National and international events were also planned, with the international conference "Women Power and Politics" in Adelaide in October 1994 destined to be the centrepiece of celebrations.

As well as major events planned by the Women's Suffrage Centenary Committee, 60 community grants worth more than $200,000 were given to groups and individuals for projects throughout the State; some 90 Government departments and agencies contributed to the year, initiating numerous scholarships, awards and research projects; institutions such as the three universities and private enterprises sponsored events and conducted their own celebrations; and countless groups in the community adopted the Centenary as the theme for a wide variety of activities.

By the end of the eventful year, the significance of that pioneering piece of legislation was to finally gain its rightful prominence.

The celebrations begin—January to April

Hundreds of South Australians, many dressed in the women's suffrage colors of purple and gold, gathered on the steps of Parliament House on January 1 to herald the official start of the year-long celebrations.

A Women's Suffrage Centenary time capsule, to contain significant items from the year's events, was unveiled and participants released 100 purple and gold balloons as SA singer-songwriter Robin Habel, winner of five 1993 SA Music Industry Awards, entertained the crowd.

The first item placed in the capsule, to be preserved in Parliament House, was a piece of jewellery designed in the Centenary colors by Maria Kenda from Precious Gems of Australia.

Speakers at the official opening included founder Chair and vice-Patron of the Centenary Mrs Jean Blackburn, Chair Ms Mary Beasley, SA Minister for the Status of Women Ms Diana Laidlaw and Shadow Minister for the Status of Women Ms Carolyn Pickles.

A colorful calendar, featuring illustrations of prominent women though the ages, outlined events in the first six months of 1994, including exhibitions, conferences, seminars, sporting events and theatre productios involving women in all sectors of South Australian society.

And as South Australians began to celebrate the Centenary, the 300 Group in the UK, an all-party group campaigning for more women in Parliament, prepared to commemorate South Australia's international achievement with a reception in London in February.

A number of international women writers attended Writers Week during the 1994 Adelaide Festival of Arts, including Marilyn French and Deirdre Bair. International Women's Day events on the Centenary Calendar included a celebration luncheon on March 2, a UNIFEM breakfast and a lunch-time picnic on March 8, a march, picnic and dance on March 12 and the launch of the history of the International Women's Day Committee (SA) established in 1927.

The Art Gallery of South Australia set the record straight on women artists in South Australia with a major exhibition opened by Annita Keating, wife of Prime Minister Mr Paul Keating, on April 22.

South Australian Women Artists: paintings from the 1890s to the 1940s was dedicated to "the bravery and fortitude" of the talented local women featured. The art gallery publicity stated: Many of the women of this period endured isolation, criticism and other hardships but their quiet determination has left behind an exceedingly rich and varied heritage which is now being fully discovered."

By the end of April, the CWA Centenary Tour, involving seminars, performances and handicraft displays in country towns throughout South Australia, had visited Flaxley, Victor Harbor, Kangaroo Island and Willunga.

Celebrations in full swing—May to August

By mid-1994, Centenary celebrations were in full swing. Women were taking to the streets, the parks, the Hills, the stadiums and the playing fields to actively commemorate the Women's Suffrage Centenary. Sometimes as participants, sometimes as spectators, South Australians were enjoying a calendar of sporting events, ranging from world-class championships to local events, and taking part in recreational activities.

South Australia was also taking the Centenary celebrations into our schools - and the students, in turn, were taking the celebrations into our theatres, spreading the suffrage message through entertainment - teenage-style.

The centenary inspired individuals and organisations to produce a wealth of publications ranging from the whimsical to the historical, from fact to fiction. The spoken word has also been preserved through oral histories. These taped stories capture feelings and emotions, events and situations told by women "elders" in our communities and many are preserved in the State Library.

A program of seminars, lectures and orations focussed on women's history, both past and in the making was also well underway, exploring the profile and status of women in areas ranging from the law and business to health and multiculturalism.

A coin bearing Mary Lee's profile was released nationally and stamps and letters commemorating women's suffrage were issued.

Travelling exhibitions and displays took the celebrations to the suburbs and country towns.

Women in our rural communities adopted the suffrage theme in many of their activities ranging from craftwork, exhibitions and theatre productions to workshops, women's camps and tree planting projects.

Many were timed to coincide with the colourful and comprehensive exhibition by the Country Women's Association which was travelling the length and breadth of the State.

WomanTrek, a three-month relay by women along the Heysen Trail was on the move and hundreds of South Australians were enthusiastically taking the opportunity to weave their way into history by participating in the creation of two tapestries to be hung in Parliament House.

Celebrations come to a close—September to December

As the Calendar of Events to commemorate the Centenary of Women's Suffrage in South Australia came to a close and the banners and flags were dismantled, the sculpture of Mary Lee outside Government House on North Terrace is just one of the permanent fixtures to mark the year of celebration.

The final ceremony took place on the steps of Parliament House on December 18, 1994 - the 100th anniversary of the date when the historic legislation was passed in Parliament.

Hundreds of women and men once again gathered on the steps to see the time capsule filled with a colourful kaleidoscope of items to commemorate the hundreds of events held during the year. In the years to come, South Australians will open up this treasure chest and use the contents to piece together a picture of how women in 1994 celebrated the first 100 years of suffrage - and how they took steps to pave the way for future reforms.

The Centenary succeeded in stimulating artistic, cultural, sporting, community and intellectual activities.

After pouring over material in archives, records, books, newspaper clippings and personal collections, numerous groups during the year brought to life special women and moments in time through displays and exhibitions, conferences and seminars, song and theatre.

Jewellery and millinery; photographs and sketches; historical records and letters; even a reconstructed "dunny" from the turn of the century were included in scores of displays and exhibitions visited by thousands of South Australians.

Some graphically portrayed dramatic changes to our homes and lifestyles over the past hundred years; others acknowledged both the recorded and previously unsung achievements of individuals and groups of women past and present. Others gave a glimpse of the enormous artistic talents and skills of contemporary women.

More than half of the events on the year's calendar were devoted to the Arts in the form of theatre, dance, music and art, ranging from small community projects and one-woman shows to the hugely successful Art Gallery exhibitions celebrating the enormous influence of women in Australian art.

The influence of the centenary celebrations had also reached out to the rest of Australia and to many nations throughout the world. Adelaide took centre stage in October when powerful women across the world gathered to challenge current situations and set the political agenda for women's issues during the international conference "Women Power and Politics."

A highlight of the year for women from non-English speaking backgrounds was a conference in September "Potential Unlimited" which also attracted prominent speakers from many countries, who challenged and inspired all who attended. Through visual and performing arts, and in publications, women from non-English speaking backgrounds have fostered a growing awareness and understanding in our community of their cultural backgrounds and their contributions to South Australian society.

The voices of Aboriginal women also have been recorded in print, and exhibitions of Aboriginal artwork and theatre productions were held. These - along with the preservation of material belonging to Aboriginal women - have demonstrated the influence indigenous women have played in the shaping of society - both before and since white occupation.

Annual scholarships and prizes have been established by numerous Government departments and the universities, encompassing areas ranging from primary industry to transport. They will ensure the influence of the Suffrage Centenary year will be felt in South Australia for years to come. The on-going benefits of research projects will be felt for generations.

The centenary celebrations were a launching pad for many of the women participating in events. Groups formed to organise events are looking for new projects, some women who ventured into new areas of activity have found new pastimes and hobbies, while others are using their experiences to explore new job opportunities and careers.

And, within Parliament House, hang the results of one of the first projects devised for the centenary celebrations. The faces of three of the leading women campaigners for women's suffrage are on one of the two wonderful commemorative tapestries which now hang in the House of Assembly, sharing space on the walls with the series of male portraits.

They finally provide a visible symbol in Parliament of this State's pioneering legislation on women's suffrage.





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This page last updated on Friday 11 April, 2014 14:51



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