Spence at centre of push for vote; the first female candidate for a political position in Australia


Catherine Helen Spence was not only a key figure in South Australia’s campaign for the women’s vote, she, in her practical way, became part of the political process.
In 1897, Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate after standing (unsuccessfully) for office at the Federal Convention in Adelaide.

After seeing South Australian women gain the vote and right to stand as candidates in 1894, Spence looked outside the party system to further the interest of women and children through political involvement and action.

In 1895, Spence, with her niece Lucy Morice, founded the Woman's League “to educate women politically and to work for the interests of women and children”.
Spence advocated for Thomas Hare’s scheme to allow minority voices to get elected to parliament. She lived to see Tasmania adopt proportional representation for its state elections in 1909.

In that year, Spence became first president of the Women’s Non-Party Political Association. Taking from Spence’s previous Women’s League (later the League of Women Voters), it stressed “effective voting”. This meant closely watching parliament’s law making, lobbying on women and children issues, making deputations to the premier and contributing to royal commissions.

League members made constant (even lifetime) commitment to issues such as the imbalance of women to men in public life, and allowing women to be justices of the peace and to serve on juries.

The justice of peace matter was resolved in 1915. (Anne Price, wife of first South Australian Labor premier Tom Price, was reputedly the first woman in the British Empire to sit as a JP.)

But jury duty for women was not achieved in South Australia until 1966 when the breakthrough on the male-female imbalance in public life was about to start.

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