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 discriminatio