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We live in the information age.
A fast paced world where we hungrily consume news of what just happened and breathlessly focus on learning what happens next.
Our media cycle is measured in hours not days. Our national debates are disjointed and fragmented. And most of our discussion feels utterly acontextual.
But the truism that history matters still holds true. And we ought pay more attention to it because it is both an anchor and a foundation.
Without it we lose our moorings. Without it we don’t see that on which we build.
Or what we can build.
Whose history it is matters too. Something Clare Wright not only understands, but to which she has devoted many hours, days and nights to remedy.
Because to have potency, a story must be told. It must be heard and it must be understood.
But this book is much more than a range of stories that should be told and heard and better understood.
I read it as a book about our national identity. About our Australian democracy. About who we are.
Clare and I occupy very different worlds. She speaks of finding treasured tracts in the archives. Of reading the parliamentary debates on the Franchise Act. I skip through my emails to check what’s running.
But our worlds intersect around identity and democracy. This is what she writes of. And so much of what we do as political representatives is about national identity and the Australian democracy.
This goes beyond the obvious hurly burly of daily political debate.
It goes to the way in which political leaders define who we are, in what they say, what they stand for, what they assume and what they reference.
I was reminded of this in two recent parliamentary debates.
One was a speech I gave about why we seek a more representative parliament, in the context of the debate within the Coalition and their failure to advance women’s representation over the last decades.
In that speech I made the point, including by referencing Clare’s book, that as a nation we led the world in gaining universal suffrage and the right to stand for Parliament.
Perhaps if this achievement had been a greater focus of national pride the unacceptability of having so few women in a party room might have been less contested.
Perhaps if women’s political participation was understood as an essential feature of the Australian democracy we might not still be hearing arguments that the low levels of women on one side of the parliament is the result of a merit based system.
Perhaps if we truly owned this achievement, gaining equal representation would be an achievement to be celebrated rather than a chore that needs doing.
A month earlier, Senator Fraser Anning had made his first speech to the parliament. It was an inflammatory speech, calling for the resumption of a racially based immigration policy, and engaging in the vilification of Muslim Australians.
A bipartisan motion was moved firmly reasserting our collective support for a non-discriminatory immigration policy.
In the debate that followed I said:
“It is so important, it is so important, that we in this chamber express our view, our positive view about what values matter to us. Because we have built this country, a country that is the most multicultural nation on the face of this Earth, not because we have allowed prejudice to persist, not because we have allowed discrimination to exist, not because we have accepted division, but because we have stood against it.
We have built this country because we have stood for unity, for a collective, for community, for values of acceptance and respect, Values that are intrinsic to who we are.”
I then looked across the Senate Chamber at my political opponents and said to them “this is the history of Australia, and it is your history as much as it is ours”.
I watched the response on the other side. As some looked up with pride, some smiled, some looked away. And I thought, this is the power of history. The way it can shape our identity and our democracy.
And this is why Clare’s work matters. This is why this book matters.
You Daughters of Freedom is an exhilarating journey from the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement in South Australia to the mass movement in the UK that was thwarted at every turn by Prime Minister Asquith.
Although New Zealand women had won the right to vote in 1893, the journey for both Australia and Britain really did begin here in South Australia. It is a part of our state’s history that should be up in lights.
When the formidable Mary Lee – a working class Irishwoman who found herself stranded in Adelaide – teamed up with Catherine Helen Spence – a well-connected social activist – these two forces of nature changed the world.
They recognised that by enlisting the active participation of working women to press for universal adult suffrage, the nascent United Labor Party would have a much better chance of winning government in South Australia.
In effect, they did the numbers to change the nation.
As Clare points out, the South Australian general election in early 1894 saw the United Labor Party capture a record number of seats, in alliance with the Liberal government, thus giving it the numbers to withstand the Conservative opposition.
As a result of a series of astonishing political miscalculations by the Conservatives, by December 1894 the South Australian Parliament had passed laws making South Australian women, including Indigenous women, the most highly enfranchised women in the world.
The first place in the world where women could both vote and stand for parliament. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Suddenly, South Australia held the whip hand in ensuring that universal adult suffrage was the essential pre-condition for its accession to the Commonwealth. At the Adelaide Federal Convention in 1897, Charles Kingston and Frederick Holder manoeuvred the staunchly anti-suffragist Edmund Barton into enshrining universal suffrage in Section 41 of the Constitution.
As Clare comments, Section 41 was not simply instrumental, it was existential. A continent became a nation, and women – for the first time in the world’s history – had campaigned and voted to design a country’s constitution.
A poignant point in Clare’s narrative is the denial of voting rights to Indigenous Australians. The Franchise Bill, which delivered women’s suffrage, also delivered the exclusion of most of Australia’s First Peoples from the franchise. That progress on gender equality was accompanied by worsening racial inequality is a deeply saddening part of our history, and a reminder of what must still be done.
Clare paints her picture on a very large canvas. She interweaves the stories of her main protagonists – Dora Montefiore, Nellie Martel, Muriel Matters, Vida Goldstein and Dora Meeson Coates – to create a narrative that expands and accelerates.
Her study of suffrage is made all the more interesting and entertaining by her ability to situate women’s suffrage at the intersection of Australia’s constitutional, cultural, industrial, political and social history.
Australia’s first decade was truly remarkable, as the nation redefined industrial, political and social rights.
The book traces their roles in the suffrage campaigns in Australia, and their subsequent journey to England.
Just outside Main Committee Room in Parliament House is a striking banner that became both an icon and a rallying point during the suffragette demonstrations in 1908 and 1911. It was painted by Dora Meeson. It is a banner which epitomises the suffrage movement as ten thousand women marched through London to Albert Hall on a fine Saturday in June 1908 – a fact noted by virtually every newspaper report of the event.
Dora Montefiore took ‘no taxation without representation’ to its logical conclusion, only to have her house attacked by the bailiffs as they took her silverware to redeem a tax debt.
Nellie Martel, whose work with Emmeline Pankhurst led to the defeat of the Liberals in an important by-election early in 1908, was assaulted and injured by Liberal roughs.
Muriel Matters chained herself to the grille that kept women invisible in the House of Commons, and was dragged out of the Commons, grille attached, by the police. This precipitated enormous media coverage, as did her incarceration in Holloway Gaol – but not nearly as much as she created when she hired a hot-air balloon to fly over London to shower the crowds with suffragette pamphlets.
A section of that grille is now on display just down the road in the Centre Hall of the South Australian Parliament. Frances Bedford, who is with us tonight, has tirelessly worked to ensure that Muriel’s legacy is recorded, taught, and celebrated.
These women were practitioners of the fine art of political disruption.
Vida Goldstein, on the other hand, was a practitioner of the fine art of political advocacy. She is commemorated by the federal seat of Goldstein in Melbourne. Vida Goldstein honed her political skills by running twice for the Senate. Notwithstanding winning a quarter of the vote, she was unsuccessful.
Her campaigning was textbook. But it also attracted the dog-whistling that remains stock in trade among many Australian conservatives.
Vida arrived in London in March 1911 and almost immediately made her mark as the main attraction at a rally at Albert Hall – to the chagrin of many of her colleagues in Australia who saw her as approving of the militant approach to gaining suffrage. In fact, Vida Goldstein remained a strong advocate and supporter of peaceful public demonstration, as occurred when she, along with Prime Minister Andrew Fisher’s wife and the wife of the Premier of NSW, Mrs McGowen, marched at the head of the Australian contingent in the Women’s Coronation Procession in June 1911. And the banner under which they marched was Dora Meeson’s “Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done”.
But Asquith remained adamant. His Cat and Mouse Act of late 1913 initiated a raft of punitive responses to the demand for suffrage that included the gaoling of women, hunger strikes, force-feedings, release when near to death, and re-arrest when recovered.
The most dramatic event occurred on 4 June 1913. Emily Davison was trampled by the King’s horse at Epsom as she tried to pin a suffragette rosette on the reins in the middle of a race. She had been arrested nine times, went on seven hunger strikes and was force-fed almost fifty times. She died instantly in the middle of the racecourse.
While Australian women won an unrestricted franchise as part of Australia’s constitutional negotiations, their British sisters had to give up the fight in August 1914 as the world went to war, and did not attain universal suffrage until 1928.
Clare’s is a moving account of the triumph of exuberance over prejudice in Australia’s case, and the triumph of intransigence over hope in the case of Britain.
It is also a poignant account of the loss of innocence and the loss of optimism.
The awfulness of 60 thousand Australians killed and another quarter of a million physically and/or mentally injured by war turned our youthful exuberance into a nation whose self-image was forged by suffering and trauma.
In Clare’s words:
“Gallipoli – with its militaristic narrative of youthful sacrifice, not youthful optimism – was not the birth of the nation. It was the death of the nation we were well on the way to becoming. . . . At a moment when the Anzac legend threatens to subsume Australia’s collective identity and purpose, and when democratic and human rights the world over remain persistently under attack, Dora Meeson’s striking banner is a reminder that before the Sons of Empire died on the beach at Gallipoli and rebirthed a nation, we were the Daughters of Freedom.”
In my endorsement line for this book, I said it was a clarion call for who we can be.
Clare has done her part. Now it is up to us.
Politicians too, but not only – as the five strong women this book celebrates demonstrate.
This is our history.
A history of the struggle for equality.
A history of democratic idealism.
We enjoy their legacy. On it we must build.
And it is as one who enjoys the legacy of these magnificent daughters of freedom that I pronounce Clare’s book happily launched.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.