Suffrage cause grows from an alliance for temperance, working conditions, social purity


An alliance of concern about alcohol, sexual purity, family stability and working conditions fuelled the push for women to get the vote.

Feminists in the late 19th Century South Australia were labelled the “shrieking sisterhood” in newspapers. The men who supported them were called poor wretched creatures and were accused of being illogical and absurd.

This first wave of feminism took its power – and limits – from an alliance with special South Australian traits. Underlying it was the Nonconformist anti-establishment element in the founding of the colony. While they were conservative in matters of sexuality and women’s family role, the Nonconformists believed in Christianity practised in the community.

Women choosing, or being able through middle class wealth and education, to move outside family home and in the community, saw the injustices in society.
To make change, they needed the vote. They challenged the injustice where the only people who could not vote were those in gaol, of unsound mind – and women.
The three main groups involved in the campaign to get the vote were the Women's Suffrage League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Working Women's Trade Union.

The Women's Suffrage League, set up in 1888, organised petitions, lobbied MPs and mustered many women to attend the debates. Mary Lee was secretary, Rosetta Birks the treasurer. Mary Colton became president in 1891 (succeeding Edward Stirling) and Catherine Helen Spence joined the same year.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union greatly expanded in 1889, with Elizabeth Webb Nicholls coordinating efforts, assisted by Serena Thorne Lake.

Mary Lee became secretary of the Working Women's Trade Union, supported by the Trades and Labor Council, to advance votes for working women and improve conditions in the sweated clothing industry.

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