The sole right to rule

Handwritten petition
The Tasmanians' handwritten petition, presented to the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897 (NAA: R216, 55)

Would you have let your husband vote on your behalf in the 2007 federal elections?

In 1897 a number of women were among the 96 Tasmanian citizens who, feeling strongly that God had given men ‘the sole right “to rule”’, sent a petition to the Australasian Federal Convention asserting that ‘the majority of the Tasmanian women do not desire political responsibility to be thrust upon them’.

The petitioners claimed that the interests of female Tasmanians were already guarded by men – both in the Tasmanian parliament and at the federal convention – and they could be ‘equally well represented by their male relatives and male friends at the ballot box’!

The petitioners asked for a blessing on the delegates from ‘Him who gave to man the sole right “to rule”’, and prayed for favourable consideration of their petition.

Fortunately for the rest of us, their prayers were not answered. By 1902 the right to vote in federal elections had been extended to all white Australian women, as well as to white men. Indigenous Australians, people classed as ‘aboriginal natives’ of Asia, Africa and the Pacific, criminals and the mentally ill were, however, still excluded from voting.

Having a say

Many people saw the Australasian Federal Conventions in 1891 and 1897 as a real opportunity to have their say in the development of an Australian constitution. The convention received petitions from both organisations and individuals, and their suggestions were not just about voting rights.

The first petition that was read at the 1897 Convention, from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Australasia, urged that the federal constitution provide for equal voting rights for both sexes in federal parliamentary elections.

The New South Wales Christian Endeavour Union wanted to preserve the right of states to prohibit the importation of intoxicating liquors and opium.

And wheat experimentalist William Farrer proposed that because they ‘live by the laws and are interested in their being uncertain and defective’, lawyers should make up no more than 10% of the parliament!

The recognition of God, the retention of appeals to the Privy Council, preferential tariffs, proportional representation at federal elections and the protection of native flora and fauna were also among the ideas presented in petitions.

Other appeals included suggestions of unification rather than federation, national days of ‘Thanksgiving and humiliation’, and the division of Queensland into several states.

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    Petition from the Women's Christian Temperance Union, 1897
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    Petition from the NSW Christian Endeavour Union, 1897
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    Letter from William Farrer of Lambrigg, NSW, 1897

Explore further

You can find out more about the Australasian Federal Conventions in the Federation and the Constitution section of our website.

In person, you can see a draft of the Constitution annotated by Edmund Barton during the 1897 Convention, as well as the final document approved by the British Parliament on 9 July 1900, in Memory of a Nation, the National Archives' permanent exhibition in Canberra.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018