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Motion: 125th Anniversary of women's suffrage

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. C. Bonaros:

That this council—

1. Notes that—

(a) 19 September 2018 marked the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand;

(b) on 19 September 1893 the Electoral Act 1893 was passed, giving all women over 21 in New Zealand the right to vote;

(c) as a result of this landmark legislation, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections; and

(d) on 28 November 1893, New Zealand women voted for the first time.

2. Congratulates New Zealand on marking the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

3. Recognises the significant contribution women have made and continue to make in parliaments, and the democratic process across the globe.


The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I rise today on behalf of the Greens to speak in support of this motion as we are currently well within the celebration of our own 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this state. I am particularly glad of the opportunity to reflect and commemorate on the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, just across the ditch. Indeed, as we celebrate with state dinners so many firsts and so much achievement of rights hard fought for, it is a wonderful time to reflect. It is an opportunity to look not just at how far we have come but, of course, how far we still have to go.

Today, in The Advertiser the Australian Christian Lobby has taken out a full-page ad, which says, ‘SA radical prostitution bill seriously out of touch’. As the head of the Sex Industry Network noted in a comment on Facebook in response to that particular full-page ad commentary, ‘Since when were human rights radical?’ I would have to say, unfortunately, human rights are always radical, they are always hard fought for and they are not easily given.

Yet again, we are following in baby steps our New Zealand sisters. I hope that we can one day see a time when South Australia yet again leads. I have to say, while suffrage is absolutely worth celebrating and commemorating, I do find it odd that in some ways we talk about women’s equality and enfranchisement yet in many ways we still refuse to fully accept women’s agency, autonomy and control over their own lives.

Of course, I refer in particular not just to that current debate of the decriminalisation of sex work but also the decriminalisation of abortion. These are two key areas of legislation where we still continue to deny people, predominantly women, the right and agency to make decisions regarding their own lives and their own bodies. While we are comparing these progressive reforms, it is worth noting that New Zealand decriminalised sex work back in 2003. I hope that we can follow New Zealand in that reform, as we did with women’s suffrage, clearly taking a little longer to do so.

As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, we also take inspiration from the feminists who fought for those reforms and many others. As Professor Pickles has written:

At the end of the 19th century, feminists in New Zealand had a long list of demands that included equal pay, prevention of violence against women, economic independence for women, old-age pensions and reform of marriage, divorce, health and education and peace and justice for all.

Again, it is sad to see that, while we talk about equality and enfranchisement, so many of those issues that I have just listed are still just that: issues and challenges that we face, and we have a lot of work to do. But as Mary Lee would say, ‘Let us be up and doing.’ And as Mary Lee would also say, and did say, sadly not in this place but outside this place while fighting for suffrage:

Are we free people? If we are, then why are women asking for enfranchisement? Is it that they are not a recognised part of the people? If not, what are they? Chattels? If they are admittedly a part of the people, then it follows that while the franchise is withheld from women our claim to be free people is a baseless claim. It seems a strange anomaly that criminals, lunatics, women and children are classified as unfit to have charge of themselves and their interests, unworthy to be free, incapacitated for the due exercise of the vote…Let us hope that as the work proceeds of pulling down, one after another, the remains of the mouldering fabric of monopoly and tyranny, this one will not be the last to disappear…and before the lapse of another generation the accident of sex, no more than the accident of skin, will be deemed a sufficient justification of depriving a possessor of the equal protection and just privileges of a citizen.

No truer words were said. Sadly, however, it is far too often the giving of rights that is resisted. You have to reflect that human rights are not pie—there is enough for everyone. When Edward Charles Stirling put the motion for women to be admitted, for the franchise for both houses of parliament, he stated:

The reason, which made it desirable that men should be represented, made it equally desirable that women, too, should be represented, and I believe it would one day be thought incredible that there ever was a time when the idea of giving votes to women was regarded as dangerous and revolutionary.

But we know it was regarded as dangerous and revolutionary, and the wonderful dangerous and revolutionary Mary Lee stood firm against the bullies. One particular bully, Ebenezer Ward, the then member for Frome, was a man who made it his business to thwart the advancement of women in this state. He spent some drunken hours in the other place, I do believe, attempting to execute that ambition. I am pleased to say that he did not prevail. Indeed, Mary Lee at one stage of her campaign feared that he would, at least perhaps before she passed, and she stated:

Sir, it is my fixed conviction that every question that concerns the highest interests of our race concerns the women of our race. Believing I have the highest sanction for this conviction I mean to live for this reform, and if I die before it is achieved women’s enfranchisement shall be engraved upon my heart.

She stated this in 1888. Fortunately, she went on to be buried in Walkerville without the need for women’s enfranchisement to be engraved on her heart, but it was carried forward by the women of this state in the very giving of our right to vote. As Mary Lee also said:

Dream on the glorious dream, but act also so as to make the dream a reality. Some people would have us believe that the present world is quite good enough. It may be good enough for them, but it is not good enough for us. We must go forward and upward. There is no finality in human progress.

In many respects there is no finality in celebrating our 125th anniversary of suffrage and in New Zealand the 125th anniversary of suffrage without recommitting to that progress. We have come some way, we have moved from chattels, we have moved from being viewed as property, but we still have a long way to go to be viewed as having autonomy. We have equal pay in law, but not in culture. We have a woman no longer needing to give up her job or her career in the public sector or elsewhere upon being married, but she will likely retire with far less super.

Sex discrimination continues to linger and, while it is unlawful, the Me Too movement shows that it is far too prevalent, but clearly time is up. We are done with waiting patiently to be afforded respect and rights. As we debate in coming months abortion law reform and sex work decriminalisation, I hope that we reflect that, while South Australia has once more led the way in our 125th anniversary, let the responsibilities be ours, and ‘let us compel our legislators to recognise the necessity of yielding to the inflexible will of an enlightened womanhood determined to be free’.

Those words of Mary Lee will echo throughout the actions of this chamber and the other place. I pay tribute in particular to the work of the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition and the Sex Industry Network, predominantly women who are fighting for autonomy, equal rights and human rights in this state. My final words to those women today are again those of Mary Lee: ‘Let those who desire to help women place in her hands the power to help herself.’

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