Joan Kirner: The Three Waves of Feminism

Setting the suffrage celebrations in context, Rosemary Cadden, journalist with the Women’s Suffrage Centenary Secretariat describes the first wave “shrieking sisterhood”, the second wave “women’s liberation” and the third wave “the glass ceiling”.

The first wave – shrieking sisterhood

Feminists in South Australia in the late 19th Century faced an unsympathetic media. They were labelled the “shrieking sisterhood”.

The men who supported them fared no better. They were called poor wretched creatures and accused of being illogical and absurd. According to letters to the editor and editorials in newspapers at the time, men who spoke about women’s suffrage ought to be ashamed of themselves.

This was an era, after all, when it was still lawful for a man to beat his wife “so long as he does not use a stick thicker than his thumb!”

But these women were not to be stopped. Fired by a sense of social justice, a belief in equal rights and a desire to contribute to community life, they challenged the injustice of a system where the only people who could not vote were those in gaol, those of unsound mind – and women.

By the time South Australian women began campaigning for the vote, the State already had a fine record for reform. South Australia was the first Australian State to introduce full male suffrage for the Assembly in 1856 and led the world with the secret ballot and preferential voting.

The Married Women’s Property Act in 1833 was the first in the world to allow women (who owned property) to vote in municipal elections after 1861 and the first public school for girls teaching an academic curriculum leading to matriculation for university was established in Adelaide.

However, it was a different story when it came to the issue of votes for women and the idea that they might represent the community in Parliament and the debate unleashed ideological battles concealed in earlier concessions to educated and propertied women.

Male principles were severely tried by the idea that women should step out of their allotted role as guardians of the home to enter the sphere of male power. Cartoonists worried about who would cook the tea when women entered public office – a problem that remains unresolved still in many households!

The struggle lasted nine years before the persistent campaign by groups of organised women was victorious. Success finally came on the morning of December 18, 1894, when the Constitution Amendment Act was passed, granting women not only the right to vote but also to stand for election.

Ironically, the right of women to stand for election to Parliament was gained through the machinations of those who wanted to wreck the Bill. They thought that adding the right for women to be elected to Parliament would automatically cause derision and, as a result, the Bill would founder.

It did not. The final vote was 31-14, three more than the required majority.

The Advertiser reported on the scene in Parliament:
“Ladies poured into the cushioned benches to the left of the Speaker and relentlessly usurped the seats of gentleman who had been 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. So there was a wall of beauty at the southern end of the building.”

Premier Kingston described it as the colony’s “greatest constitutional reform.”

Queen Victoria was not so complimentary. “Mad, wicked folly” she described it. But nonetheless she signed the document, it was gazetted in March 1895, and women went to the polls for the first time in May 1896.

The three main groups involved in the campaign were the Women’s Suffrage League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Working Women’s Trade Union.

The Women’s Suffrage League, established in July 1888, organised petitions, lobbied MPs and mustered formidable numbers of women to attend the debates. Mary Lee was the secretary, Rosetta Birks was the treasurer, Mary Colton became president in 1891 and Catherine Helen Spence joined the same year.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union greatly expanded its operations in 1889, with Elizabeth Webb Nicholls coordinating efforts, assisted by Selina Lake. It was responsible for collecting a high proportion of the 11,600 signatures for the petition calling for women’s suffrage..

Mary Lee also became secretary of the Working Women’s Trade Union supported by the Trades and Labor Council, established to advance votes for working women and improve conditions in the sweated clothing industry. The president, Augusta Zadow, later became SA’s first factory inspector policing conditions of women workers.

The second wave – women’s liberation

“During electioneering, I was asked questions like – and how do you manage to cook the meals while you are doing this?” Dame Nancy Buttfield, the first South Australian woman elected to Federal Parliament in 1955

While South Australia was the first State in Australia where women gained the right to stand for election, it was the last to have a women elected to its Parliament. It took 65 years before Joyce Steele became the first woman to sit in the House of Assembly and Jessie Cooper took her seat in the Legislative Council.

This was in 1959, a few year’s before the start of the “second wave” feminist movement in the 1960s. The focus this time was on equal pay for equal work, equal career and educational opportunities. The movement was also concerned with issues such as family planning, abortion, child-care, rape in marriage, domestic violence, social welfare and divorce.

Legislation was seen as the means to redress injustices and new feminist organisations and networks in South Australia, including the Women’s Liberation Movement, established in 1969, and the Women’s Electoral Lobby, established in 1972, made their voices heard in the corridors of Parliament on gender equality issues.

In 1972, the principle of equal pay for equal work was accepted in South Australia by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. In the same year, women teachers no longer were forced to resign when they married. Until then, newly-married teachers had to return to the bottom of the ladder as a temporary assistant, losing all seniority and entitlements such as long service leave.

In 1976, Ms Deborah McCulloch was appointed South Australia’s first Women’s Adviser to the Premier (Don Dunstan), and resources such as the Women’s Information Switchboard, the Rape Crisis Centre and women’s shelters for women and children seeking refuge from domestic violence and other problems were established.

Political parties, at the urging of women’s lobbies, framed laws outlawing discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity for women.

As journalist Anne Summers and an advocate for women in the Whitlam Federal Government in the 1970s has stated: “Unprecedented pragmatism and political creativity in the 1970s and 80s saw the adoption by federal and state governments in Australia of a substantial portion of the agenda of second wave feminism.”

Women’s issues gradually advanced from its position of marginality.

Universities across the country introduced women’s studies units which bestowed a seriousness on the theory behind the movements; Government departments, and experts in the legal, medical and academic spheres, addressed women’s issues through legislation; and women’s refuges, founded by feminists to counteract domestic violence, are supported by Governments and political parties.

The third wave – the glass ceiling

“Seize the moment” Joan Kirner, one of Australia’s first woman Premiers, urged the crowd of young people in an Adelaide pub during a break in her commitments at the International Conference “Women Power and Politics” in October 1994.

“Participate in shaping our nation as we have not done before.”

Then she launched into a few bars of a rock and roll number, revisiting her television appearance of a few months earlier. “Who knows – if I’d done that gig before the election I might still have been Premier,” she quipped. “At least I was seen to be human. Politics has got to be fun or you will go bananas,” she told the crowd.

But Joan Kirner is serious about the need for more women in powerful positions in business and government. “It’s all very well being in the sphere of influence – but I can tell you it is much better being in the sphere of power,” she said.

At the conference earlier in the day, Joan Kirner said: “If women seize the moment in the 1990s we can shape a more inclusive society. We need to:

  • advance the process of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australian women.
  • remake our constitution to include all Australians – our rights and our responsibilities.
  • shape society’s institutions so that they are less alienating and more collaborative.
  • restore and protect our environment.
  • and we need to access and control the information technology revolution so that it is used to inform and unite not divide and destroy.

As chair of the Centenary of Federation Advisory Committee, Joan Kirner said she had noticed a receptive audience to the idea of seizing the moment.

“Thousands of women are anxious to be included in determining their own and their children’s futures,” she said. “Women’s collective experience is important, our collective wisdom is unbeatable, our collective strength is formidable, and our continuing exclusion from an equal share of power in shaping society is untenable.”

With Australia’s Centenary of Federation on the horizon, South Australians were urged at numerous events during the year to use the State’s celebration of 100 years of women’s suffrage as a springboard to helping the nation once again assume world leadership in the field of political and social innovation.

As South Australia began its 1994 Centenary celebrations, there were 13 women MPs in the State Parliament. Another one/two was/were to join their ranks before the year was out. In 100 years, only 23??? women had been elected to the South Australian Parliament, and only nine South Australian women candidates had made it to Canberra.

By early 1994, four of the 21 Chief Executive Officers in the Public Service were women and in the private sector, there had been hardly any progress in the number of women in middle management.

“There is still a fight to secure personal, individual equality of opportunity in practice in the workplace,” Sister Deirdre Jordan, Chancellor of Flinders University said during the 1995 Centenary celebrations. “Despite anti-discrimination legislation, women still seek equality of outcomes in academic life, in business life, in the church, indeed in all the fields of endeavour for which their education has prepared them. There is still a barrier between women and their aspirations; a barrier erected by attitudes which both men and women continue to hold.”

The “first wave” feminist movement was to get the vote; the second to gain equal opportunity – the challenge facing the “third wave” is gaining an equal share in power and positions of decision-making to help shape the nation’s future.

Source: Women and Politics in South Australia website, The State Library of South Australia 

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