150 years ago in Australia women had no political voice, few protections from poverty or harm and Indigenous women had no rights at all. We’ve come a long way since then, but there’s still important work to be done. Trace the history of women’s rights in Australia and the issues still lagging behind. The future is gender equality — but it’s up to us to make it happen!
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following timeline contains images of deceased persons.
The Tailoresses’ Association of Melbourne, Australia’s first female trade union, was established at a meeting held in Trades Hall on 15 December 1882.
The outcry provoked by W. T. Stead’s series of articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, pushed British legislators to raise the age of consent to 16 years, and stirred reformers in the British Empire, the United States and Europe to push for similar legislation.
Dedicated women took to the streets on foot in 1891 to collect signatures for a petition to present to the Parliament of Victoria seeking the right to vote. The result was an impressive collection of close to 30,000 signatures.
South Australia was the first Australian colony to give women the vote, and only the fourth place in the world to do so, following New Zealand 18 months earlier. South Australian women also had the right to stand for elections and at the time, it was the only place in the world where women had such rights.
Suffragette lobbying saw the Commonwealth Franchise Act enacted on June 12, 1902. It enabled all non-Indigenous women aged 21 and over to vote in federal elections and stand for the Australian Parliament.
One of the first women to stand for elections was Vida Goldstein (pictured). She was a suffragette, social reformist, and fervent campaigner for equal property rights for spouses, the abolition of child labour and equal pay for equal work. She was the first woman in the British empire to stand for parliament.
After 19 private members bills, women were finally granted the right to vote in Victorian state elections, although they remained unable to stand for election.
On 22 December 1919 Grace Benny became the first female member of a local government council in Australia. Believing that there was work in this area which only a woman was likely to initiate, she represented the newly created Seacliff ward.
The Housewives Co-operative Association (later the Housewives Association of Victoria) became one of the largest women’s organisations in the state with 77,000 members by 1938. Image: Victorian Housewives Association in model kitchen, c1938
Women won an equal right to stand for election in the state of Victoria.
In August 1943, Enid Lyons (pictured on right) was the first Australian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Dorothy Tangney became the first woman senator, elected to represent WA in the Senate.
Delegates from the six State Country Women’s Associations came together and voted to form the national body in 1945.
The Marriage Bar meant that women working in education were not permitted to teach after marriage. Women’s teaching status was commonly restricted to ‘temporary’, as after marriage they were thought to be more likely “to follow a career path in the home rather than the education department”. After extensive lobbying by the Temporary Teachers’ Club, this was lifted in 1956.
For the first time, women could prevent pregnancy by taking the contraception pill. Although initially available only to women with a prescription and a husband, the first contraceptive pill was also burdened with a 27.5% ‘luxury’ tax.
The 1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act provided all Indigenous Australians with the right to enrol and vote in Federal elections.
Established by Mary Paton and five of her friends – Jan Barry, Glenise Francis, Pat Paterson, Pauline Pick and Sue Woods, this support group was aimed at providing mothers with quality information and help around breastfeeding. The Postmaster General’s Department would not allow the word ‘breastfeeding’ to be printed in the telephone directory, and so the name the Nursing Mothers’ Association was chosen. Now known as the Australian Breastfeeding Association, the group remains highly influential in advocating for and supporting mothers to breastfeed.
In an act of protest, Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner (pictured) famously chained themselves to the bar at the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane. They acknowledged that this was by no means the most important gender discrimination issue, but one they could make a quick impact upon.
Married women were no longer forced to relinquish their paid work, and forfeit their superannuation rights or compelled to attempt to conceal their relationship status upon getting married.
A landmark Supreme Court ruling (the Menhennitt ruling) established that an abortion is lawful. However, only if there is an honest belief on reasonable grounds that an abortion is necessary and proportionate, based on a woman’s physical and mental wellbeing being in serious danger.
Established by Geraldine Briggs, Margaret Tucker, and Merle Jackomos, in conjunction with other prominent women of the time. The Victorian Aboriginal and Islander Women’s Council lobbied government on issues of specific concern to Indigenous women, such as cultural preservations, land ownership and the employment of Aboriginal welfare workers.
In 1970 Australia’s first political organisation for homosexuals Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) (‘Bilitis’ refers, esoterically, to the lesbian poetry of Sappho), formed after contact with the US chapter of DOB. According to Australian gay historian Graham Willett, ‘For two years, relying on a sympathetic curiosity from the media, it worked to influence opinion-makers, as well as providing social support for lesbians. In mid-1970, DOB rejected the US group and its radicalisation, renaming itself the Australasian Lesbian Movement (ALM). This marked a retreat from political activity, which increasingly fell to Society Five and Gay Liberation. The ALM operated as a social group until its demise in 1973.’
One day in February 1972, a handful of politically active feminists attended the first ever meeting of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Melbourne. Since that day, WEL has been helping women achieve fairer pay, more opportunity and protection from sexism, discrimination and violence. We have become a formidable force in Australian politics and public life.
Coming directly out of the Victorian Aboriginal and Islander Women’s Council, the national body gave Aboriginal and Islander women across Australia the ability to lobby and voice their concerns to government.
Conciliation and Arbitration Commission grants equal pay for men and women. A million female workers became eligible for full pay, and an overall rise in women’s wages of around 30%.
The Women’s Electoral Lobby pressured Labor to modernise Australia’s approach to contraception and the newly elected Prime Minister obliged, abolishing the luxury tax on all contraceptives and put the pill on the National Health Scheme list.
The benefit provided financial assistance to single mothers who were not eligible for the widows pension (eligible only to divorced women, or those whose husbands were in prison or a mental hospital). The benefit was later extended to include all single parents.
For the first time, significant government funding goes into women’s health centres, child care centres, working women’s centres, and Equal Employment Opportunity policies in employment, education, training and housing.
Although the 1969 equal pay case had lead to some improvements in women’s wages, in 1974, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission extended the minimum wage to include women workers. The following week Muriel Heagney, a long time campaigner for equal wages for women, died in poverty at the age of 89.
Dame Margaret Guilfoyle was the first woman to be appointed to federal Cabinet as a minister. She held the portfolio of Education and Social Security in the Fraser Liberal Government.
Domestic and family violence against women and children was a central concern of second wave feminists. The issue was not recognised by the law, and there was little recourse for protection or escape for many subjected to abuse. In 1975, the Whitlam government funded the first handful of women’s refuges.
The Family Law Act established the principle of no-fault divorce in Australian law. ‘No-fault’ means that a court does not consider which partner was at fault in the marriage breakdown.
Making racial discrimination in certain contexts unlawful in Australia, overriding States and Territory legislation.
The first world conference on women was convened by the United Nations in Mexico City, June 19, 1975. Elizabeth Reid, who became the first adviser on women’s affairs to a head of state when appointed by the Whitlam government in 1973, led the Australian delegation.
Victorian Equal Opportunity Act created the Equal Opportunity Board and the Office of Equal Opportunity Commissioner. The Act outlawed discrimination based on marital status and gender in employment, education, accommodation and provision of goods and services.
The VACCA was born of an urgent concern in the Victorian Aboriginal community about the large number of Aboriginal children being removed from their families and adopted or fostered into non-Aboriginal families.
The first Reclaim the Night marches were held to protest violence and sexual assault against women. Many of the protests were held in red light districts and focused particularly on violence against sex workers.
Secretariat National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agencies (SNAICC) is a national non-government peak child care body in Australia that represents the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.
Described as an ‘International Bill of Rights for Women‘, the Convention was adopted by the United Nations in 1979. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and establishes an agenda for national action.
The Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives Inc was set up in 1983 with the objective of collecting any materials relating to any initiatives which came under the umbrella of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Victoria from 1969 onwards. The ongoing objectives of the Archives is to store, preserve, archive and utilise this material for research and education of the broader community.
International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) works in partnership across the Asia Pacific region and collaborates on research, advocacy and policy to advance gender equality and to empower women as agents of this change.
Joan Child became the first female speaker in the House of Representatives in 1986. She was a member of the Australian Labor party at the time and a member for the seat of Henty.
Janine Haines became the first female leader of the Australian Democrats.
Joan Kirner AC was Victoria’s first and only female premier, serving from 1990 to 1992.
Lowitja (Lois) O’Donoghue was elected as the first chair of ATSIC. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was a Commonwealth statutory authority and the peak representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.
The Coalition of Activist Lesbians Australia (C.O.A.L) was formed to end discrimination against lesbians. COAL lobbies the Australian Commonwealth and other state and territory Governments to remove discrimination against lesbians. They are Australia’s national lesbian advocacy organisation and is the only United Nations accredited lesbian non-government organisation.
The amendment made it against the law to sexually harass or treat someone unfairly because of their age, carer status, disability, industrial activity, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status, physical features, pregnancy, race, religious belief/activity, sex and personal association with someone else perceived to have one or more of the listed attributes.
Jennie George created history when she was appointed the first woman President of the ACTU in 1996.
The Crimes Act was amended to remove the defence of provocation which had been used to have murder reduced to the lesser charge of manslaughter. From this point on, situations in which a person kills as a response to long-term abuse and family violence would be taken into account.
Decriminalisation mean that women had the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, and medical staff the right to perform terminations up to 24 weeks, free from the threat of criminal prosecution. Beyond the gestational limit of 24 weeks, a medical practitioner can provide an abortion if another medical practitioner agrees that an abortion is appropriate.
On 24 June 2010 Julia Gillard became Australia’s 27th Prime Minister and the first woman to hold the office.
SlutWalk was founded in 2011 after a Toronto Police Services representative announced that women could reduce their risk of sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts”. His comments sparked outrage and a global protest movement took roots, leading to the formation of a strong contingent in Melbourne.
Megan Davis was nominated by the Federal Government and elected in a vote by countries in the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
The scheme allows eligible working parents to receive parental leave pay for 18 weeks while taking time off to care for newborns or newly adopted children.
I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.The Hon. Julia Gillard
The buffer zone laws make it illegal for anti-abortion protesters to harass or film women going into or coming out of clinics within 150 metres of the clinic.
This was originally implemented in 2009, but lacked enforcement. Under a new move and renewed commitment, ministers became liable for ensuring that appointments meet the requirements.
The Victorian Commission into Family Violence in 2015 saw that while both men and women can be perepetrators or victims of family violence, overwhelmingly the majority of perpetrators are men and the victims are women and children.
Linda Burney was the first Indigenous woman to be elected into the House of Representatives in July 2016. Burney is aiming to solve some indigenous issues in parliament and possibly make a treaty with the Indigenous people.
Breakthrough 2016 was: “the biggest gender equality conference in the nation’s history and the largest event of its kind in a generation”.
Hosted by the Victorian Women’s Trust, Breakthrough was a coming together of all kinds of people and 100+ speakers to talk about the most important opportunity of our time: gender equality.
After much deliberation and controversy, a Womens AFL league was finally launched on Feburary 3rd, 2107 at Ikon Park in Melbourne.
Larrisa Waters fed three month old Alia Joy while passing a motion in the Senate. Waters had previously made headlines as the first parent to breastfeed in the Senate Chamber.
We all want to be feel respected and safe in our home, at our place of work and in public spaces. But right now, there are thousands of women across Australia who face an uncertain future. They are being held back and paid less for their work. Others are at risk of homelessness. Far too many women (and their children) are unsafe in their homes. No more.
Let’s use our collective power to address women’s economic security and safety, once and for all. #LetsBreakthrough