Subversive Tradition

women's suffrageBehind the formal declaration of International Women’s Day by the United Nations in 1975 there is a longer tradition. In 1911 more than one million women and men in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria began to keep 19 March as a Women’s Day to rally for women’s right to vote. It is worth pausing to think about this in the light of Australia’s national memory too. The choices we make about how we remember are about the future, not the past.

Australia was ahead of most democracies on the issue of women’s suffrage. Women, including Aboriginal women, won the right to vote in elections in South Australia in 1895. There was a racist blind spot: after Federation in 1901 the right to vote was extended only to Aboriginal people who were already registered on state electoral rolls. It wasn’t until 1965 that Indigenous people throughout Australia gained the same voting rights as other Australians.

So, the Australian record of gender equality is flawed but still advanced (for white women) when compared to other western nations:  it was 1920 before women in the USA could vote on the same basis as men, and 1928 in Britain. Victoria was the last state to include women on the electoral roll in 1908, but the newly-created Australian parliament had voted for women’s suffrage in the second year of its operation, passing the Franchise Act in 1902, and prodding Tasmania into extending the franchise in 1903.

Australian women campaigned to change public policy with innovative strategies that have become standard, from leafleting and convening public meetings to lobbying politicians and writing to the newspapers. Their success was impressive and linked to other reforms in working conditions, the right to own property, and access to education and work including in professions like medicine and law.

But not many people recognise the face of Adela Pankhurst, the lesser-known daughter of the British suffragette Emmeline, who spent most of her life in Australia, and even fewer know about Henrietta Dugdale, Annie Lowe, Vida Goldstein, Catherine Spence, Anna Brennan or the Golding sisters Annie, Belle and Kate.

The exploits of men such as Simpson and his donkey are widely recognised, but theirs is not the only memory we could honour. Australian history includes currents of radical social experiment alongside the stories we know better, and listening carefully to the past opens up more than just new ways of understanding ourselves.

By neglecting the tradition of strong advocacy for social reform we are short-changing the history of the churches as well. Women in the churches, and especially members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), were among the strongest advocates for the participation of women in public decision-making.

The significance of the movement for abstaining from alcohol in Protestant churches in both the cities and country areas gave the WCTU a national network that streamlined their organisation. The relative strength of Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and Baptist churches in the colonies, as well as the limits on the role women could play in the parishes in the 19th-century, also contributed energy for the spread of the movement. The campaign for women’s suffrage succeeded first in the three states where the WCTU was strongest: SA, WA and Tasmania.

Paradoxically, the first instincts of the WCTU in relation to women were conservative. Working on the assumption that women were home-makers first and foremost, the aim was to put the vote in the hands of those who rocked the cradles to guarantee social stability above all else. But their traditional expectation had unintended consequences.

This is where the dynamics of tradition get really interesting. The advocates of temperance appealed to conventional views of women but they were surprised. They found they unleashed much more than voices for the status quo at the ballot box. They found that there were seeds of radical renewal in what they had thought was adherence to the past. Tradition often surprises and challenges those who pay proper attention.

Does this sound a little familiar? Those who pray the scriptures know that authentic tradition always reforms us. It is not static. If we listen well to the collective memory, to the stories of the past, they crack open our assumptions and call us to change. Not change for its own sake in the game played by advertisers, but the radical transformation of the Gospel that re-aligns our assumptions. In the community of faith, tradition subverts us. Long may it be so.

Katharine Massam
Coordinator of Studies – Church History
Centre for Theology and Ministry

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