The battle for the ballot

Mary Lee began and remained at the centre of the League's work of organising the campaign, through drawing-room and public meetings, deputations to and lobbying of members of Parliament and other influential people, organising petitions, corresponding with other women working for the suffrage both in Australia and overseas, and calling on the men of the state to support the women's petitions.

The second Women's Suffrage Bill was presented to the House of Assembly in July 1888 by Robert Caldwell MP.. Since the granting of Women's Suffrage would involve a change in the Constitution, it had to be passed by an absolute majority (ie. one more than half of the total elected members) in each house. The Bill, which contained a property requirement and would have given the vote women over 25 was put to the vote in November and lost.

A similar Bill presented in '89 contained the property qualification added by Robert Caldwell, the mover, and met the same fate.

In a series of articles headed ‘Letters to Women' in March, April and May in 1890 Mary Lee exploded in print, trumpeting the formation of a Women's Trade Union and calling on the Trades and Labor Council to "follow up their generous action by fighting for women in the battle for the ballot." She also refuted the arguments that maintained that women didn't really want the vote because they hadn't asked for it, by pointing out that "in the last session of Parliament in a reply to the statement that women had not asked for the vote, petitions for it were laid before the House from over 1700 intelligent women."

Mary Lee lamented later it was not considered of any great importance and debate on it was continually adjourned.

...in our own Parliament the Dog Licence Bill, the Sparrows Destruction Bill, a road or railway, a bridge or well, anything and everything is allowed precedence of the Women's Suffrage Bill and the women's petitions for suffrage. The suffrage is the right of all women, just as it is the right of all men, and although the immediate need may not be felt by the happy and prosperous- by women with kind husbands and comfortable homes- we insist on it on behalf of the solitary, the hard- pressed and the wronged; we insist on liberty that all may share the blessings of liberty."

She included a timely reminder on the real meaning of equality - "Let husbands, brothers fathers be kept in mind that it is the duty of every free man to leave his daughters as free as his sons." She restated the objects of the League - "as women assist in maintaining Government they have a right to a say how and by whom they shall be governed. Nineteenth century civilisation has accorded to women the same political status as to the idiot and the criminal. Such is the basis of our reverence for the person of women and of our estimate of her work."

In 1891 another Bill was presented to Parliament, again with a property restriction on the franchise, and it too failed to get the required majority. No bill was presented in 1892, possibly because the politicians were busy with changes to the ministries! The work of the League went on throughout this time through every channel they could find to gain the support of the public and members of Parliament. Mary Lee addressed the Trades and Labor Council and gained their support for a Bill without the property qualification.

In 1893, with the support of the government of Charles Kingston, the Premier, a Bill with no property qualification was presented, but this time with an attachment that would postpone the passage of the Bill until after a referendum. This caused the Bill to fail and this was when Mary called the Labor Party a lot of nincompoops, since it had had the support of several new Labor members of Parliament,

No doubt spurred on by the successful passing of the suffrage Bill in New Zealand in 1893, the work towards achieving the vote intensified. The Women's Suffrage League,

determined to issue one more monster petition to the House of Assembly, and have it signed by tens of thousands of adult residents, praying for full suffrage to be granted to women for both Houses of Parliament on precisely the same terms as it is now, or may hereafter be, granted to men. We wonder what excuse the "Stupid Party will now find for resisting such a just and reasonable request!"

Mary Lee and her workers organised the collection of signatures for the huge petition from the whole colony (which at that time also included the Northern Territory). The Democratic Associations, and the influential Woman's Christian Temperance Union with their unions both in the city and across the country areas leant their support. In May Mary travelled to country centres speaking at meetings in Quorn and Port Augusta encouraging support for women's suffrage and gathering signatures for the petition. In Port Pirie she spoke to a meeting of over 500 people. Interest in the Bill was high throughout all the colonies.

In July 1894 the Kingston Government brought a Bill before the Legislative Council (where they were sure of the numbers) which called for Women's Suffrage with no strings attached. On 23 August at 2 pm as the Third Reading of the Bill began in the Legislative Council the great petition, tied with gold ribbon, was presented to the House of Assembly by the Hon. George C. Hawker. It contained 11,600 signatures, on paper sheets from all over the colony. These had been pasted together to make a roll 122 metres long. The Bill was passed in the Legislative Council by an absolute majority.


The "monster" petition prior to conservation

On 11 December the Bill proceeded through the Second Reading in the House of Assembly, with most members, both those for and against, speaking at length in the debate. The galleries of the chamber in the newly built Parliament House were filled with women. Many left as the debate dragged on and on. The Second Reading vote was almost prevented on that occasion when the "lukewarm James Howe, who has promised the government he will stay until 11pm," set off for home early but returned when the division bells rang and an absolute majority ensured the Bill's passage.

On 17 December the galleries were again filled with women as the Bill proceeded through the Committee stages. A large number left the House in the late afternoon and went to the Café de Paris in Rundle Street Adelaide, to welcome home Catherine Helen Spence. Mary Lee was present and said, she had been listening to the Senators and had arrived at the conclusion that those who had the least to say took the longest time to say it. She had time after time challenged those who opposed women's suffrage to bring forward a single argument against it but they had not done so. Every man had a right to a free mother and wife, and they could not have that until they had the suffrage.

When all the speeches were finished many women went back to Parliament House, where debate on the Third Reading continued.

Ladies poured into the cushioned benches to the Left of the Speaker, and relentlessly usurped the seats of the gentlemen who had been comfortably seated there before. They filled the aisles and overflowed into the gallery to the right, while some of the bolder spirits climbed the stairs and invaded the rougher forms behind the clock.

Many women hoped to hear the passing of the Bill that night but the Third Reading debate was adjourned soon after midnight.

The next morning when Elizabeth Nicholls," (President of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union) "arrived for the next day's proceedings she heard the division bells ringing for the final vote. It was 31 -14, three more than the required majority.

The ‘ayes' were sonorous and cheery, the ‘noes' despondent like muffled bells.


Old Parliament House with the half -finished new House

Was Mary Lee was present in the parliament when the final vote was taken? It seems she was for at the testimonial presentation at the Town Hall many months later the Minister for Education recalled-

Mrs. Mary Lee was at hand to hear the announcement of the Speaker. It was a consolation for one who had endured the trials of a pioneer to receive the applause of those who recognised the excellent work done by her.

South Australia had become the first Australian colony to grant women the suffrage and the first place in the world where women had the right to sit in Parliament.

"Mary Lee, exhausted but jubilant received congratulatory letters from Kingston and Chief Secretary (Sir) J. H. Gordon."

The Royal Assent was required before the change became law. The papers were sent to London; Queen Victoria signed the documents on 2 February 1895 and on 22 March, the Weekly Herald published details of the Government Gazette notice and a copy of the enrolment form for women to register to vote.

From "The Lantern"
From The Lantern