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We've come a long way — but we're not there yet.

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.

GENDER EQUALITY MILESTONES

First female trade union

The Tailoresses’ Association of Melbourne, Australia’s first female trade union, was established at a meeting held in Trades Hall on 15 December 1882.

1882
Watch: Dr. Clare Wright 'Making Waves, Making History'

In this keynote (captured at Breakthrough 2016) Dr. Wright remembers the women across our history who resisted and endured.

Dr. Clare Wright is an Associate Professor of History at La Trobe University.

Read transcript

Watch: 150 years of hard won victories
1891

Age of consent raised from 13 to 16 years

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.

Monster Petition for the women’s vote

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.

 

1891
1894

Blind girls and boys able to receive an education

The Elementary Education Amendment Act made the education of blind and deaf children compulsory and enabled the provision of special schools for blind and deaf children.

Women win the right to vote and stand for election in South Australia

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.

1895
1902

Non-Indigenous women win the right to vote and stand for Federal election

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.

Women stand for Federal elections for the first time

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.

1903
1908

Women gain the right to vote in Victorian elections

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.

Susan Grace Benny first woman councillor in Australia

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.

1919
1920

Mary Rogers elected as first woman councillor in Victoria

On 5 November 1920 Mary Rogers was elected to Richmond City Council, becoming the first woman councillor in Victoria, and the second in Australia (after Susan Benny).

Housewives Cooperative Association forms in Victoria

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

1915
1922

Country Women's Association forms

The Country Women’s Association is a non-sectarian, non-party-political, non-profit lobby group working predominantly in the interests of women and children in rural areas.

The right to stand for Victorian elections

Women won an equal right to stand for election in the state of Victoria.

1924
1943

First woman elected to House of Representatives and Senate

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.

The Country Women's Association becomes national

Delegates from the six State Country Women’s Associations came together and voted to form the national body in 1945.

1945
1956

Marriage Bar lifted for women teachers

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.

Access to the contraceptive pill with conditions

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.

 

1961
1962

Indigenous women win the right to vote in Federal elections

The 1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act provided all Indigenous Australians with the right to enrol and vote in Federal elections.

Women demand the right to drink in public bars

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.

1965
1966

Lifting of marriage bar in the Commonwealth public service

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.

 

Aboriginal women and men recognised as citizens

The 1967 Constitutional Referendum recognised Indigenous Australians as citizens, and they were included in the census. A 90% affirmative vote approved the constitutional amendment, passed by both Houses of Parliament unanimously.

1967
1969

First abortion rights granted (with conditions)

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.

Victorian Aboriginal and Islander Women's Council forms

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.

 

1970
1972

National Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women

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.

The right to equal pay

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%.

1972
1972

Contraceptive pill becomes widely available

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.

Federal Child Care Act passes

This Act meant that centre-based day care facilities were funded for children of sick or working parents, soon followed by family day care, after school hours care and playgroups.

1972
1972

Single Mother's Benefit Introduced

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.

 

Paid maternity leave for Commonwealth employees

The Maternity Leave (Commonwealth Employees) Act, provided Commonwealth public servants with 12 weeks paid (and 40 weeks unpaid) maternity leave.

1973
1973

Government investment in new range of services

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.

Equal minimum wage granted

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.

1974
1975

First woman cabinet minister

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.

Women's refuges funded

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.

1975
1975

Women can file for no-fault divorce

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.

Racial Discrimination Act passes

Making racial discrimination in certain contexts unlawful in Australia, overriding States and Territory legislation.

1975
1975

UN World Conference of the International Women's Year

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.

Rape in marriage outlawed in South Australia

South Australia began the process of abolishing the immunity of rape within marriage, in passing the Act which made marital or spousal rape a criminal offence.

 

1976
1977

Employment discrimination on the basis of gender and marital status outlawed

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.

Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency established

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.

 

1977
1978

Reclaim the Night Rallies

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.

Unpaid maternity leave

Women employed on a long-term basis (i.e., 12 months or more) were entitled to 52 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Although, this did not include any maternity leave pay.

1979
1981

National peak body for Aboriginal Child Care Agencies is established

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.

 

Australia ratifies the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

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.

1983
1985

Victorian Women's Trust established

The Victorian Women’s Trust (VWT) was created in 1985 with a state government gift of $1 million. For over thirty years, we have been promoting true gender equality through annual grants, targeted research, education, policy submissions, events and more.

International Women's Development Agency established

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.

1985
1986

First woman to be speaker in the House of Representatives

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.

First woman to lead a parliamentary political party

Janine Haines became the first female leader of the Australian Democrats.

 

1986
1987

First woman to be appointed as High Court Judge

Mary Genevieve Gaudron QC (born 5 January 1943), is an Australian lawyer and judge, who was the first female Justice of the High Court of Australia.

First female Premier in Victoria

Joan Kirner AC was Victoria’s first and only female premier, serving from 1990 to 1992.

1990
1990

First woman elected to chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)

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.

Victoria Equal Opportunity Act amended to outlaw sexual harrassment

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.

 

1995
1995

First woman elected President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions

Jennie George created history when she was appointed the first woman President of the ACTU in 1996.

Law of provocation abolished in Victoria

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.

2005
2008

Abortion decriminalised in Victoria

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.

First female Governor General

On the September 5, 2008, Dame Quentin Bryce assumed the office of Governor-General of Australia, the twenty-fifth person to hold the office — and the first and only woman.

2008
2010

First female Prime Minister

On 24 June 2010 Julia Gillard became Australia’s 27th Prime Minister and the first woman to hold the office.

Melbourne Branch of SlutWalk Founded

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.

 

2011
2011

First Aboriginal Australian woman elected to UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues

Megan Davis was nominated by the Federal Government and elected in a vote by countries in the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

Australia's first national paid parental leave scheme

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.

 

2011
Watch: The Hon. Julia Gillard's Famous Misogyny Speech (2012)

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

Read the Transcript

 

Victorian abortion buffer zone laws prohibit protesters from harassing women

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.

2015
2015

Victorian Government commits to 50% women on public boards and in the judiciary

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.

 

Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence

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.

2015
2016

First Indigenous woman elected to House of Representatives

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.

Learn more

2016
2017

Launch of Women's Australian Football League

After much deliberation and controversy, a Womens AFL league was finally launched on Feburary 3rd, 2107 at Ikon Park in Melbourne.

First woman to breastfeed while passing a motion in Australian parliament

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.

2017

History belongs to all of us: Add your voice

We want to hear from you! What are your favourite breakthrough moments for gender equality in Australia?

Add to the timeline

Together, we are powerful.

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

Learn more