Terry’s opinion piece provided a refreshing change from the spoutings of right-wing shock-jocks and other conservative mouth-pieces who regularly proclaim that ‘women are destroying the joint’ (seriously?) and that society is collapsing because men are being emasculated (yawn!).
History shows that societies fluctuate in power and prosperity as do customs, fashions, religions, businesses, indeed almost everything involving humans. One dichotomous arena that should also have seen power fluctuations—but hasn’t—is that of human gender. While some claim that matriarchal societies have existed, anthropologists and archaeologists have been unable to find any genuinely egalitarian societies let alone matriarchal ones. However times are a-changing and one political leader who recognises this is President Obama. He recently told a women’s college: ‘You are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.’
So what led to the situation where the twenty-first century might indeed become the Century of the Woman?
While major social change involves incremental developments in many different areas, two important developments in the area of women’s rights—those of particular relevance to family historians, at least—are the Married Women’s Property Act (discussed in Volume 1, Issue 5) and female enfranchisement.
Prior to the passage of these political acts, most women make few appearances in historical records. That they existed at all is often documented only in their own birth, marriage and death records and those of their children—if any. And sometimes they failed to receive even the most basic recognition they deserved; I’ve seen baptism entries that merely recorded: ‘James, son of John Smith, labourer’ (nine long months and a very painful delivery: how dare they!!!).
The women we are most likely to ‘hear’ are those who broke ‘the rules’: that is, those who came before the courts on criminal charges and those who demanded that their voices be heard in the social and political domain rather than remaining silent as the dominant social, political and religious institutions demanded. Unless they were doing charity work, all were chastised by society as being ‘unfeminine’—or worse. Indeed, here are some examples of male attitudes towards women in Australia in 1888; these comments were made by parliamentarians during parliamentary discussions as recorded in the official record of the NSW Parliament: Hansards.
Sir Henry Parkes, then Premier of NSW and an advocate for voting rights for women, said in 1888: ‘We know that woman, when she yields to crime, is stayed by no consideration. The worse of crimes in the worst of times have been perpetrated by women. At all times, and under all circumstances, when woman once forgets the character of her sex, there is no barrier to the lengths she will go in crime.’
Political radical Thomas Walker had the same view: ‘There was no character more sublimely terrible than that of Lucrezia Borgia. Though her relatives were villains, they could not compare with her in her atrocities.’ Of course, history now recognises that Lucrezia has been horribly maligned, that her male relations were the villains and she herself another victim.
Walker continued, ‘Women might be compared in many respects to hothouse flowers, which are protected from the violence of tempests and very carefully watched and sheltered, but when they find themselves suddenly exposed to the outbursts of passion they are carried away by temptation to crime and ill-doing. They have not the power of self-restraint and of self-correction which is possessed by the other sex.’ Walker continued by stating that this was ‘fact’.
It’s extraordinary, when you think about it. The Eve mythology—which depicted women as corruptible and corrupting—continued to underpin the normal political and social discourse about women. Considering that these were the views of the social progressives, it is astonishing that women succeeded in gaining the right to vote at all, let alone a mere fourteen years later.
So when were your female ancestors granted the right to vote? And have you wondered what they might have thought about it—whether they found it a nuisance or recognised the historic importance of this newly granted entitlement? In Australia, women were enfranchised at the federal level in 1902 although, at state level, the right to vote varied: South Australia (1894), Western Australia (1899), NSW (1902), Tasmania (1903), Queensland (1905) and Victoria (1908). I discuss Australian Electoral Rolls in Volume 1, Issue 3. In New Zealand, the critical date was 1893. In the U.K., women received limited voting rights in 1918: they had to be over 30 and to meet the minimum property requirements. The universal voting franchise was not extended to all women aged over 21 until 1928. The year 1918 saw the franchise extended to women in Canada, except for Quebec (1940). In 1920, women gained federal voting rights in U.S.A. although voting rights at state levels varied. In Switzerland, women were not granted voting rights until 1971.
The subject of women’s rights, responsibilities and recognition is of particular interest to me at the moment courtesy of working on The Lucretia Borgia of Botany Bay, which tells the story of Louisa Collins, the last woman executed in New South Wales. In my books, I explore the social dynamics of the time and, in 1888, ‘the women question’—as it was called—was of great social interest. After Louisa was sentenced to death, many asked in horror: ‘Should women be executed at all?’ This led progressives to frame the question in political terms: ‘Should women be executed for committing a crime when they have no voice in voting for death-sentence legislation?’ Countering this was a philosophically-sound argument; however it was often spouted by conservatives as a ‘Nah! Nah! Got you!’ dismissal of the views of suffragists and their supporters: ‘If women want to be treated as equal to men, then female criminals should be punished in the same way as male criminals.’ The female vote was of greater social importance than merely their right to choose a representative at the ballot box.
The historic importance of female enfranchisement is seen in Time magazine’s choice of British suffragette Emily Pankhurst as one of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century. The flow-on effects of voting rights can be seen most particularly in Sydney in latter 2010 when the city was totally under the governance of women: Queen Elizabeth, the ruling monarch; Quentin Bryce, Governor General of Australia; Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia; Tanya Plibersek, Federal Member for Sydney; Marie Bashir, Governor of NSW; Kristina Keneally, Premier of NSW; and Clover Moore, State Member for Sydney and also Lord Mayor of Sydney. Clearly, it was the ‘Year of the Woman’. Will the twenty first century be the ‘Century of the Woman?’ Who knows.
NB. After just publishing this blog, I came across the following article in the Guardian: "African women are blazing a feminist trail". How fascinating.