Mary Lee was one of the driving forces behind the South Australian suffragette movement. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ON TUESDAY MORNING, 18 December 1894, the division bells tolled 29… 30… 31.
At 31 triumphant cries and applause echoed out of the South Australian parliament as tired campaigners celebrated.
They had done it. South Australian women had won the right to vote by 31 votes to 14.
The bill had been debated until after midnight the previous evening.
And, as with nearly every debate on the issue, women packed into the public gallery of SA’s parliament building to observe the proceedings.
South Australia would be 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.
The bill that was passed also made South Australia the first place in the world where women could stand for elections.
The right to stand for parliament and other liberal privileges was a clause that was attached to the Act by a councillor who had supposed that these additions would make the bill too radical for it to ever be passed.
But the suffragists and sympathetic associates had been hard at work.
They had produced before parliament a few months earlier a massive petition containing 11,600 signatures on a long series of pages pasted together.
The final roll measured 122m. This lengthy petition had stirred up great interest across the colony and had made the suffragists impossible to ignore.
The bill that gave women the right to vote was officially enacted on 2 February 1895, when it was signed by Queen Victoria.
Women would use their new rights for the first time in 1896 arriving in masses to vote.
“It was certainly a momentous occasion. But although women won the right to vote historically quite early compared to the rest of the world, the role that women had in really shaping politics came much later,” says Dr Kathy MacDermott from the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Australia.
“Feminism has been a continuous movement,” she says, rather than a series of single events.