Sometimes revolution needs a new frontier to flourish
Dr Clare Wright (BA(Hons) 1991, PhD 2002) examines the women’s suffrage movement in Utopia Girls, a documentary that aired on ABC1 in June. Utopia Girls traces the role played by five women in the Australian suffrage movement, illustrating the changes that occurred between the Victorian gold rush and the First World War.
This was a diverse group, separated by generation, religion and class. Yet the five women examined (Caroline Dexter, Louisa Lawson, Henrietta Dugdale, Mary Lee and Vida Goldstein) all shared a desire to implement changes remedying the desperate state of their contemporaries.
Dr Wright has spent eight years examining that period, her focus centred on the popular rights movement during the Eureka Stockade uprising (1854). Contrary to received beliefs, Dr Wright claims the women’s suffrage movement existed alongside the 1850s Victorian gold rush.
“Women’s suffrage is usually talked about as being a phenomenon of the 1880s, with a few antecedents reaching back maybe a decade earlier,” she says.
“But what I was able to do was take it back and show that really the women’s rights movement was part of the broader popular protests for democratic change on the goldfields.”
These women were inspired by the British 1830s Chartist movement, which among other reforms fought for the secret ballot, universal suffrage and the abolition of property requirements for parliamentary candidates.
Significant opposition however still existed in the United Kingdom to women receiving the vote. Gold rushes in Australia and New Zealand created a new frontier and a new opportunity to remodel society.
“These were frontier places where societal roles became topsy-turvy,” Dr Wright says.
“People went to these places in search of greater freedom. Gold provides them with material freedom, but also symbolises wider social freedoms – it is a revolution in their own lives.”
The colony of Victoria became a hotbed of political and social radicalism. The Eureka Stockade resulted in all six of Chartism’s principles being enacted. By 1857, the colony even boasted an Irish Catholic Premier in John O’Shanassy – a source of consternation for the largely Protestant Victorian political establishment.
These were remarkable developments, thought of as impossible back in the United Kingdom.
“There was a sense that the new colony provided opportunities to remake old-world orders,” Dr Wright says.
“There was a sense that all these hierarchies – of power, gender and politics – could be dismantled and built anew.”
Yet women remained second-class citizens, devoid of equal access to property, pay, political standing and even divorce.
Henrietta Dugdale, herself a gold rush migrant, founded Australia’s first Women’s Suffrage society in 1884. She railed against the injustices of a legal system that did not protect women from abuse. The suffrage campaign deepened and fought for basic human rights.
Dr Wright emphasises the importance of this legacy – one she believes is a consequence of direct action.
“I wanted to show that if you see a wrong, the only way to right it is through action,” she says.
“As a historian, I’m interested in the process of change. The five women we highlighted represent decades of hard work, striving, knock-backs, mobilisation and collective action.”
That dedication led to some remarkable results. In 1893, New Zealand became the world’s first nation to grant women voting rights in a national election. The following year, South Australia extended enfranchisement and allowed women to run for parliament. Upon Federation, Australia became the first nation in the world to give women (although admittedly only white women) full political equality – both the right to vote and to stand for federal parliament.
Dr Wright believes it is crucial that contemporary Australia understands the sacrifices made to secure what we now view as basic human rights.
“I get a strong sense that young women take these rights for granted. It’s seen almost as a form of entitlement, without necessarily understanding how change occurred and how so much improvement to women’s lives happened so quickly.”
Her role as historian meant translating these rights to a contemporary audience.
“I wanted to tell the story about why as a woman I could live the life that I do – which is to have an extraordinary range of choices in my career and identity,” Dr Wright says.
“We take that for granted so much these days.”
Through television and her collaboration with Renegade Films, Dr Wright discovered an effective storytelling vehicle.
While significant gaps remain in gender equality, it remains important to reflect on some remarkable women who forged new hierarchies in a frontier land.
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