top of page

Women's suffrage: 100 years on

Susan Ryan & Tanya Plibersek

Women MPs must realise suffrage has not meant an end to suffering

Susan Ryan

After a hundred years of women's votes, has the great vision of the suffragists been realised? Women have arrived in parliament and in numbers too great to ignore. How do we know? Glance any evening at TV news coverage of the federal parliament, or our own bearpit here in New South Wales, and you can see them.

Occupying the benches in numbers that should amount to real power and influence are representatives of the people who are not male. They wear female clothes, have female voices and female names. These non-males take up about one-third of the much sought-after seats. A few in each parliament sit on the front benches.

But what does this sea change in the gender make-up of our legislature mean in practice? Are we governed any differently, any better, because of the presence of women? Is this long-awaited stage in our parliamentary evolution the apotheosis of the suffrage movement that started more than 100 years ago?

Today and over the next few weeks, women across the political spectrum will gather to celebrate the century-old victory that enabled Australian women to vote and stand for parliament and made Australia a world leader in social democracy. These celebrations are a good thing. The nation in recent times has taken to extravagant public recognition of the achievements of old soldiers in protecting militarily what we hold dear as a people. Recognition, even if informal and low key, of those women who were as brave and resolute in creating the fairer and more humane Australian society we like to think defines us is certainly in order.

Those in celebratory mode, however, should note that first-wave feminists campaigning for the vote had more than their political rights in mind. They wanted policies. They wanted assistance for poor and desperate women, especially those struggling to support families on their own. They fought for improvements in public health and housing, and legal means for women to escape violent husbands. They sought access to education for women and girls. They were as successful in their policy agenda as they were in their suffrage campaigns and deserve much of the credit for the building of Australia's proud welfare state.

It took nearly half a century for the constitutional right of women to be elected to the nation's parliament to become a practical reality. In 1943, in the middle of World War II, Australians elected two women, Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney. We waited another 40 years, until the 1983 election of the Hawke government, to see more than a handful of women elected to either side of the house.

After the 1983 influx, things changed rapidly. These newly powerful women had a long policy agenda, developed from the beginnings of the 1970s by the Women's Electoral Lobby and other second-wave feminists. Wide-ranging anti-discrimination laws would end discrimination against women in jobs, education, access to finance and services. Merit, not gender, would be enshrined in law as the principle of advancement. Welfare reforms would reflect the realities of women's lives, as single mothers, carers for the aged, the disabled and invalids. Minorities would be accorded proper recognition and fairly dealt with.

A lot of this agenda was implemented. Some of it failed; other parts did not deliver the improvements we hoped for. The most powerful jobs in our economy remain almost exclusively male. Younger women in the workforce, if they have children, face unfair and unequal pressures. Very few mothers can get paid maternity leave or affordable child care. At the other end of the working life, retirement savings of women, reflecting past discrimination, are in most cases inadequate.

More difficult to measure or prove, but very real, I believe, are the distress and powerlessness many women feel about the treatment of detained asylum seekers, and the growth in racial and cultural prejudice in some parts of our community, often aimed at minority women and too often expressed in violence against women and girls.Where are the voices, the advocates among our now numerous female politicians for these 21st-century feminist causes, against these contemporary injustices?

I must admit to some disappointment. The tactics, official on the Labor side of politics, unofficial but equally determined on the conservative side, to get more women elected to parliament have worked. That is a cause for celebration. But campaigns for more women in parliament, like votes for women 100 years ago, were never just numbers games. Numbers are needed to generate policy reforms, changes that matter especially to women, that won't happen without feminist advocacy.

In the spirit of the suffragists who saw votes as their right, but also, and just as crucially, their way of improving the lives of women, I urge today's female parliamentarians to start planning what they can do now that will warrant women's celebrations in another 100 years.

Fight the good fight, sisters, but on all issues, not just feminist ones

Tanya Plibersek

At the weekend, the National Party voted against special measures to increase their number of women parliamentarians. The ALP and the Liberals, in contrast, want more women, but can't agree on the best way to get them.

This should be good news for the feminists who fought to make it happen, yet some - like the former federal MP Susan Ryan - ask whether it was worth it. After all, we haven't defeated patriarchy. Yet.

I wonder if it was ever a reasonable expectation that electing some women to parliament would change thousands of years of discrimination within a decade of two? And yet, the picture is not so bleak. Ryan sounds like a soldier from the Somme telling a survivor of the Battle of Stalingrad that the first war was the Great War and everything since has been child's play. This ignores the struggle happening in public life today, and the way a new generation of women is shaping that struggle.

Of course we are interested in "traditional" feminist issues such as child care, support for women leaving violent relationships, equal pay, and equal access to education. Surely one reason for increasing the number of women in parliament is that these "women's issues" become mainstream and are recognised as the responsibility of all parliamentarians. Feminism is not a coat we slip on as we leave for work each day - it exists within us. It allows us to see, and combat, gender discrimination wherever it occurs - and perhaps makes us more sensitive to other forms of discrimination.

I represent 100,000 people: women and men, young and old, of different ethnicities and with special needs. I believe that defending the rights of a 45-year-old factory worker, of either gender, who has been sacked without receiving entitlements, is a priority. It may not be a "women's issue", but it is discrimination.

And women MPs do fight discrimination against women. Within months of her elevation to the party's deputy leadership, Jenny Macklin ensured that Labor made a commitment to paid maternity leave for all women. Labor women also ensured the inclusion of pregnancy discrimination in our industrial relations policies.

When the Prime Minister, John Howard, criticised single mothers and lesbians for wanting to become parents, it was the women who ensured the conservative elements of the ALP did not prevail and position the party in agreement with him. Women of both sides of politics were the most vocal in expressing dismay when the Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, betrayed his lack of understanding of sexual abuse.

Of course, there is still much to do, and the process is frustratingly slow, but it is lazy observation to claim that the increasing number of women parliamentarians has changed nothing.

My big local campaign at the moment is to get the federal government to pay its share of the Social and Community Services award pay increase won by workers in NSW refuges, disability services, legal centres and drug and alcohol rehabs. This could seen as a women's issue because most of the overworked and underpaid workers in the sector are women, or because if respite care goes, the responsibility of caring for people with special needs returns to the domestic sphere and women pick it up.

Is this a "feminist issue"? Am I a "good feminist"? Who cares? What matters to me is helping the most disadvantaged people in my community. One thing that gutsy, groundbreaking women such as Ryan taught me is not to ask anyone's permission to be politically active on the issues I am passionate about - not even the sisterhood.

And not to follow anyone's rules - not even hers.


Susan Ryan was an Australian Labor Party Senator from 1975-88, and her article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 June 2002, the anniversary of the enactment of legislation that gave all adult white Australian women the right to vote.

Tanya Plibersek is the Australian Labor Party Member for Sydney, and a member of the Evatt Foundation who worked in the area of domestic violence before being elected to parliament. Her article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 June 2002.


Suggested citation

Plibersek, Susan Ryan & Tanya, 'Women's suffrage: 100 years on', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5, July 2002. <>


bottom of page