Writing and Walking the History of Early Women’s Suffrage in Brisbane

Deborah Jordan

Earlier generations of suffragettes and suffragists failed us—or so it was assumed by many second-wave feminist historians—because the patriarchy continued despite their battles and their victories. They failed to liberate us, and they failed, too, to address issues of race. For my generation of ‘brazen hussies’ who took to the streets and stopped Australian involvement in the Vietnam war, or so it seemed to us, our tactics were a better way for women to create social change. Yet a very different story about first wave feminism can be told when we tell it from inside history, standing on the shoulders of our foremothers.

In some Australian states, living memory about the suffrage movement is strong, and the stories came through our black and white and multicultural grandmothers on how the vote was won. This is perhaps especially so in South Australia, with its important early legacies. In Queensland, where the situation was more divided and class-bound, and the white women’s achievements comparatively greater—even world-shaking—the silence from the past is deafening. Few people realise that Australia was the first nation in the world where (white) women could stand and vote for parliament. Most appear to assume the campaign for the women’s vote paralleled the suffragette campaigns in Britain.

Through historical research and locating our history in the actual locations, our feminist heritage sites, we can pose—and answer—questions about where to find evidence about who our Queensland women were, and what were their strategies. Where is the evidence for militant tactics and direct action? Did they hold processions of multitudes of white-frocked women flying green, lavender, and purple banners and march, led by the wives of premiers and prime ministers, as in London? Where did they hold mass demonstrations of thousands of women, on which police violence was unleashed? Where were rocks thrown, shop windows smashed, letterboxes burnt out? Which empty houses of the upper crust were fire-bombed?

What about the prison records of arrests and incarcerations and of the ensuing forced feeding of hunger strikers? Are there records of the Queensland women who, like their sisters in Britain, were released from this brutal custody when near death and then re-arrested upon their recovery? Where can we see the names of the women who padlocked themselves to parliamentary barricades or grills or even bars? How many male chauvinists were exposed by the suffragettes and how did they do it? Did these women dance in the streets to an anthem, just as today women do the anti-rapist dance that Chilean women created?

The Queensland story suffers from a lack of memoirs, biographies, tracts, records of meetings, oral interviews, newspapers, journals and all the usual historical re- cords. Even when such resources have been preserved, they tend to relate to the more conservative arm of the first wave of the women’s movement in Queensland. And when there are few records, even worse can be the historical assumptions that Queensland women were relatively passive, lacking in passion or politics, because of high marriage rates. We could also bemoan the lack of funding that would facilitate the needed research and publishing of women’s history. But wait; let us look at what evidence we do have.

Leading into the suffrage centenary in 2005, Carole Ferrier and I hoped that one way we could look into the past was to set up a walking tour of suffrage sites. This proved to be a success. A corner was lifted on Herstory, and the field began to open. From Trades Hall up beyond Market Square (King George Square) to Parliament House was a regular walking route for a suffragist deputation or a procession, and it turned out to be a good route for our history walking tour.

Processions were popular activities in the 19th century for all Queenslanders for many occasions. They were varied and colourful. But separate women’s processions? These were unheard of when the suffrage movement kicked off. After all, the Women’s Day march, globally, was not started until just before World War I. But what about separate women’s sections as part of some other processions? That was very possible, and for events in the early 20th century there is ample photographic evidence of it happening.

There exists, for example, two famous 1912 general strike photographs of white-garbed women from the tailoress’ union lining up in illegal procession to march on Parliament House. Every Queensland woman needs to know these photographs, which were digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are sometimes displayed in the National Museum Australia.  

And we know that this 1912 illegal procession of women walked through the police barricades, walked past the marshals, walked through thousands of armed men. We need a researcher for the painstaking work of checking the police records for permissions requested to hold public demonstrations, public meetings in Market Square or some other likely place; or to search the police records for arrests of women or of warnings  issued against public nuisance or disruption.

On Black Friday 1912, the police took off their gloves and attacked the women on their return from Parliament House. Where was our photographer then? Perhaps other images exist? It was in this melee that Emma Miller, called the ‘Mother of Labour’, showed she was not contained by any doctrine of ‘maternalism’ (as southern historians are wont to describe early feminists). Seeing she was in danger from a police pincer movement, Emma’s son dashed into the crowd to ‘rescue’ his mother, but we know in the end it was he who left while she stayed put, hatpin in hand. Working backwards, these two rare surviving photographs of militant Queensland women in 1912 can give us some idea of their younger selves, when they won the vote in 1905 after decades of struggle.

Leading into 1900, these same women, with Emma Miller in the lead, radical suffragists in Queensland were tightly organised, defiant, courageous, and eminently capable of mounting mass deputations and mass processions. Evidence and images of the early part of the fight for women’s suffrage from the 1880s through to the turn of the century are scant. There were social barriers against women being seen, named, and photographed in the public space.

Women across Queensland, in Brisbane and in regional centres, did take up the public space when they first started campaigning with suffrage petitions in 1894. They were harassed when they set up tables on street corners, often on Friday evenings. There was no automatic place for women-centred issues in the labour processions. On one occasion, the women’s union wanted to hire a vehicle for a display showing the exploitation of a tailor’s outworker juxtaposed to a fashionable dame; they had to work hard to get permission from the wider labour movement. Pam Young (1991) outlines how the women were put in taxi cabs rather than walk until the early 1900s.

In the colonies, white women had a legitimate right to petition. A petition campaign in New Zealand was key to winning the vote for women there in 1893, and petitions were subsequently begun by women in Australia, radical women, socialist women, labour women, conservative women, professional women, and Christian women. In 1894, they collected signatures for their monster petitions on the street corners, and door to door throughout Queensland. In Brisbane, three different suffrage organisations were formed: for labour women, the Women’s Equal Franchise Association; for socialists and professional women, the Women’s Franchise League, and for middle-class women, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had a Suffrage Department. The labour women making up the Women’s Equal Franchise Associations (WEFA) were not middle-class, and WEFA had to pay the bus fares of the volunteers who travelled out to the suburbs to door-knock with their petitions. And a close study of the petitions will show the response from door to door: they collected over ten thousand signatures, although fewer people signed the WEFA suffrage petition than signed the 1890 petition against the appalling working conditions of the new colony of Queensland, or the petition to recall the draconian Contagious Diseases Act, a remnant from the days of the foundational penal colony.

Women marching in a strike procession in Brisbane in 1912. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 59436

How many suffrage door-knockers were there? Let’s speculate there were about eighty of these committed, dedicated women, exhausted after six weeks of collecting signatures. We know forty of them put on their white dresses, tied up the petition in blue ribbons and followed it to parliament on the 6th September 1894. The leaders of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association knew when to table it: at the second reading of the electoral reform bill that would cover their demands and would be supported by a speech by Labor Party leader, Thomas Glassy. It was known that the vote would be close, but our forty women would have expected success, as all the politicians had been canvassed and questioned. There were signs everywhere in the upstairs visitor’s gallery in the parliament telling the women that they must remain seated. An ‘awe inspiring audience above’ is how one journalist referred to them. But how could they stay seated at the dismissive and offensive nonsense that came from the politicians speaking against the bill? These men not only opposed the franchise, but they also claimed women did not even want the vote.

Mostly, the press remained silent on the petition campaign—even the Worker. Unfortunately, we know we cannot trust the conservative male reporter, whose account we do have, to give us clear evidence. Instead, he presents drama, high emotion, and divisiveness between women. One young lady, according to our reporter, would have climbed over the balcony and attacked one of the particularly scathing politicians if she could have done so from such great heights without breaking a limb. Who was it? Possibly it was young Florence Collings, sister of Joe Silver Collings, a feisty socialist and writer. Or it may have been Sarah Ann Bailey, an especially courageous, clear-thinking union woman who married the following year and died, presumably of childbirth, the next. We know exactly who the politician was that provoked this wrath, and what he said of course—it is all carefully recorded in Hansard. And we still might want to shut him up, so we won’t repeat his verbiage here. He gas-bagged and filibustered until there was no further time allowed for the private member’s bill that session.

After the ‘failure’ of its petitions in the House, WEFA reinvented itself, becoming highly organised and purposeful, dignified, courting no bad press, and al- lowing men into its organisation (albeit without voting rights). It promoted and supported the lobbying and canvassing of any of the politicians who supported one-woman-one-vote. These were mostly members of the emerging Labor Party, but also the Liberals. Some of these politicians were related to, or in intimate relationships with, WEFA activists. These women were not like our women liberationists of the 1970s; most were senior women positioned throughout the community. Remember, almost all women could read and write, due to the state’s compulsory school attendance. Possibly, some younger feisty young women stood up to the elder labour leaders. Florence Collings moved to West Australia where she wrote a socialist feminist column. The membership all learnt, and practised, how to hold and work together in public meetings, speak to the chair, move an amendment, and dispute a resolution.

Clothing girls forming into line, 1912 General strike John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 69068

The suffragists were ‘trenchant, but not transgressive’ across Australia, claims historian Claire Wright. ‘They sought to raise consciousness, but never Cain.’ Well, maybe, maybe not. As the cry for the women’s vote reverberated in public meetings across regional centres, labour women were often successful in taking leadership of the newly established organisations and setting the agenda for ‘one vote one person’. When they had the numbers in the Lower House but Queensland’s upper house rejected the bill, they were well capable of holding a mass public indignation meeting and indeed of `raising Cain’. Emma Miller moved the resolution:

We, the women of Brisbane in meeting assembled, desire to enter our protest in the strongest possible manner against the action of a majority of members of the Legislative Council, which has resulted in a rejection by that Chamber of the Franchise Bill, and we call upon Premier Morgan and his following in Parliament to brook no delay from the irresponsible nominees Upper House, as it is high time that the stain was removed from the fair name of Queensland of having for so long penalised her women by denying them their just political rights. On the following day they marched with a deputation to the premier with their resolutions. Disciplined leadership of a mass movement seems to have been the successful strategy.

The biographies of the movement’s leaders, largely unknown—May Jordan McConnell, Charlotte and Eleanor Trundle, Catherine Hughes, Leontine Cooper, Lizzie Adler, Agnes Williams, Katie, Florence and Mary Ann Collings, Margaret Ogg, Helen Huxham and more—will hopefully one day be written. But when we walk the historical locations and trek through space and landscape, it is easier to remember all our foremothers as they joined together politically. We can read a different story through the palimpsests of the city below its layers of ‘development’ as we seek out feminist labour heritage sites and awaken the sleeping energies of Meanjin.

Genealogies of birth, death and marriages and biographies can restrict our notions of human possibilities, limit our understandings of history. But when we walk, we walk together. And when we understand the disciplined strategies of the leadership of the suffrage movement, and their very careful and wary response to the press, avoiding public conflict between different women’s groups or any scandalous catfight for the media to run with, we can retrieve a different account than that left to us by newspaper journalists.The best advice from expert heritage walkers to newcomers is to keep the walk simple, limit the number of stops to five or six, and find places that are relatively quiet and away from the city hubbub.

The ornate facade of the building at the site of Brisbane’s first town hall, high above the commercial shop fronts, is all that is left as a reminder of a significant public meeting, chaired by the mayor, inspired by his wife, which led to the 1890 Act ensuring women did not lose all property rights, including their children, upon getting married. We only have pictures of the Trades Hall, where the key suffragist organisation, the Women’s Equal Franchise Association, held its meetings. Presumably no upper-class ladies ever crossed its doorstep. But from that site it is very easy walking distance to an important hub of dissent and discussion, the School of Arts, where Leontine Cooper, the feminist socialist, had a desk before setting up an office in Ann Street just along from it. She produced Queensland’s suffrage paper, all editions now lost, but surely with accounts of how they ‘raised Cain’.

Before my last guided walk, I did a quick run-through and was confronted with the depressing sight of the iconic School of Arts building in a state of neglect by the Brisbane City Council and aggressively sandwiched between the new high-rises. The first time we did the walk in 2005, we had arranged to go inside. An Indigenous organisation was using the ground floor, with a gallery in the magnificent library room. This year, I had to peer through dirty windows. At least the gate was unlocked, and I imagined that, at best, we could stand in the front garden. But when the walking group arrived, it became obvious it was our space to reclaim, and that the veranda would not collapse if we went up. The Brisbane Labour History Association has decided, therefore, that we need to lobby the Brisbane City Council to find the funding to maintain this wonderful precinct. It might be disappointing for walkers to find at the site of the Centennial Hall, in Adelaide Street, between Albert and Edward Streets, that so little sense remains of this place where important mass public meetings were held. It had seating for seven hundred people and was right in the centre of town. This was long before the existing town hall was built, but our statutes of Emma Miller and Charles Lilley with the ghost of Sarah Ann Lilley stand nearby.

Broadway Arcade has also disappeared. It was frequented by William Lane, and his American wife Ann who, even while criticising Leontine Cooper’s theories on the separate nature of women’s oppression, encouraged and drew her out from behind her pseudonym at least for three years in the Boomerang, with her groundbreaking signed essays on ‘Women’s Rights’, ‘Women’s Work’ and ‘Women’s Unions’. That newspaper survives in digitised form for researchers to view. As we walk and then gather at speakers’ corner outside the fence surrounding the old Parliamentary buildings—where women never sat in the now-abolished state Senate, and where later generations have demonstrated—we can start to sense the longevity of women’s struggle. Participants in the walks invariably have questions. They contribute with expertise that goes beyond one historian’s experience. Sometimes a naive question forces us to re-examine anomalies. If labour women led the movement, why was it that the first woman elected to parliament in Queensland was a conservative? If labour women led the campaign to vote and sit, why did it take until 1974 for the first Labor woman to be elected to the Senate of the Federal Parliament?

Also, in these discussions complex questions arising from academic debates can be aired, regarding ‘whiteness’, and the inclusion of women as citizens in the nation as a way to alleviate deep seated racial anxieties. We know that both sexes were complicit in the deeply embedded structural racism of this country, where capital relies on appropriating the country and resources of Indigenous custodians, as well as exploiting the labour of workers. These questions also arose at the original suffrage meetings. The women debated about whether to include Indigenous people and people of colour in their campaigns for voting rights. Premier Charles Lilley’s error, in moving an amendment to include women in the vote in 1870, backfired badly when he was not in power the next year and the Tory conservatives explicitly excluded Indigenous, Asian, and Polynesian people. It took nearly one hundred years to undo the laws, while we still face the effects of that century of damage.

As we complete the walk from the old Trades Hall site to the Parliament, the walk that our foremothers did on many occasions—in deputations and with resolutions from the ‘public indignation meetings’, or to watch their petitions being tabled—we start to realise the world-leading achievements of the women’s movement in Queensland and the labour women’s leadership in the call for ‘one woman one vote’ and ‘one adult one vote’. Another layer of research will uncover the men who walked alongside.

Leontine Cooper had warned that linking women’s suffrage with the call for electoral equality for non-propertied men would delay the women’s vote in Queensland, and perhaps it did. She had called for a vote for women on the same current terms for men, meaning that only propertied men and propertied women could vote. But Queensland avoided the situation in West Australia where the vote was granted in 1899 with a property qualification, and in Britain after World War I. Cooper warned that the men of the labour movement would not fight for the women, and she was probably right in part, especially when the Women’s Equal Franchise Association dissolved in 1905 after the vote for women was won and the property qualification and plural vote abolished. Australian men during World War I were prepared to fight to protect women and children, but not fight for women as equals. When women won the right to stand themselves for election in both houses of the Queensland parliament in 1915, (the second state in Australia to grant this), there was talk of nominating three women to the Senate: Emma Miller, Ellen Hewitt and Isabella Skirving, all women who, like Helen Huxham, believed not only that the war was women’s affair, but so too were all realms of international, national, state, and domestic affairs. Imagine if these three women had become our first Queensland women politicians!

We no longer load feminists with the responsibility to liberate all women. We now recognise that feminism is for everyone. An understanding of the power relations of gender is an essential ingredient in all struggles for justice and equality. Contemporary generations of young women (and men) are underemployed, and poorly protected in the workplace from sexual predation in an era of increasing sexualisation of bodies. They are exposed to increasing class polarisation. The battle for women’s suffrage is a story of both women and men, when properly told and walked—moving through tangible sites and producing knowledge—that provides a powerful perspective for activists today.

Deborah Jordan is a Research Fellow (adj) in History at Monash University. Her most recent book Loving Words: Love Letters between Vance and Nettie Palmer 1909-1914 was published in 2018. This article was first published in the The Queensland Journal Of Labour History, No. 32, Autumn/Winter 2021. Full references for this article can be found there.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 39-44.