The Women's Suffrage League

Dr. Edward Stirling, first President of the Women's Suffrage League. MLSA  B11259In 1885 a motion for the enfranchisement of women was passed in the Parliament. This motion put the whole question of women's suffrage, their right to vote, on the political agenda. The first Bill calling for Women's Suffrage was moved in the House by Dr. Edward Stirling in 1886. It proposed to give the franchise to women over the age of 21 years who were either spinsters or widows and met a property qualification. Though the Bill was passed it did not receive the required majority.

On 13 July 1888 Mary Lee and her fellow workers from the Social Purity League, and others, met and initiated the South Australian Women's Suffrage League. In her speech to the inaugural public meeting held a week later, Mary Lee said the franchise "would assist them to re-dress women's wrongs - moral, social, industrial and educational."

The meeting was reported in the Register.

Persons in favour of the extension of the franchise to women were invited to meet at the Y.W.C.A. Rooms, Gawler place, Persons in favour of on Friday afternoon, and in response about eighty ladies, several members of Parliament, ministers of religion and others attended. Dr. Stirling was appointed chairman.

On behalf of the ladies Rev. J. C. Kirby moved - "That a Women's Suffrage League be now formed in order to obtain Legislation giving women the franchise in the principles adopted at the meeting of ladies held at Gawler place on July 13 inst." ... After considerable discussion it was found that those present could unite on the following principles:- That the women of the country should have a voice in the choice of representatives to the Houses of Legislature; 2. That all women whether married or unmarried, over the age of 25 should be entitled to the franchise; 3. That they be admitted on the same property and residential qualifications that presently apply to manhood suffrage; 4. That, while women suffrage is desired, no claim is put forward for women representatives.

After lengthy discussion, much of it relating to an amendment to reduce the age requirement from 25 to 21, this particular clause was referred to the Ladies' Committee for consideration and the rest of the motion passed unanimously. (A few days later the age requirement was changed to 21 years and remained so for the rest of the campaign.)

The officers of the League were duly voted in and Mary Lee was appointed co- Honorary Secretary. She continued to hold this office and for the next six and a half years Mary Lee worked for the change to the Constitution which would give women the right to vote and participate in the political life of the colony.

From "the Crow"The support of men, in particular the members of Parliament, would be crucial to the success of the campaign. Mary Lee had acknowledged this in her speech in support of the motion.

Gentlemen of South Australia were heroes in the battle, would they be the charioteers in the brave reform or would they wait to be ignominiously dragged in at its chariot wheels? (Laughter and cheers) She asked the men of the colony to support the franchise to women. (Cheers.)

A flurry of Letters to the Editor of the Register greeted the formation of the League and the campaign began in earnest. Mary's writing and the reports of her speeches show her brilliant mind and ability to demolish the arguments of the opposition. Her logic was sound and point by point she carefully and cleverly answered their objections. She quoted from the Bible, from history, from classical texts as well as books and writings by the most eminent thinkers of the day, and from current events, both local and international. She employed the power of wit and humour and a wide range of memorable quotations. She knew what a huge task it would be to change the attitudes of both men and women.