Women in Politics – Breaking Barriers and Making Strides

In 1895 South Australian women became the first in Australia, and amongst the first in the world, to be able to vote and stand for parliament.

Suffragists agitated for change through writing letters to newspapers, giving public speeches and holding marches. They also visited parliament to discuss their ideas with politicians.


In South Australia we have a strong history of women making a difference. It’s a history that is important because it shows us that the work to improve gender equity in politics starts with ensuring that women have a voice in how decisions are made and that their voices are heard.

South Australia was founded by political idealists and has a strong tradition of commitment to democracy. This was demonstrated in the granting of suffrage for some women in 1861, when property owners could vote in local council elections and later with the passing of the Adult Suffrage Act in 1894 allowing women to stand as candidates in state elections.

This was the culmination of years of activism by a group of women with strong personalities, considerable energy and organisational skills. These women formed the Women’s Suffrage League. They ran a vigorous campaign of education and lobbying. They travelled across South Australia talking to community groups and church gatherings, holding afternoon tea meetings for women who were reluctant to attend public meetings and working with newspapers that gave the campaign plenty of publicity.

The League was successful and the Adult Suffrage Act received Royal Assent on 2 February 1895 allowing women to vote in state elections. The next year at the 1896 election, South Australian women became the first in Australia and some of the first in the world to enrol and vote.

While this is a great achievement, it’s not enough. This is why the Office for Women works to promote women’s engagement in politics, encouraging them to run as candidates and support other women to do so. In addition, the office provides policy advice and works with the state and national political parties to develop policy positions on a range of issues that impact on women’s participation in society.

However, the work we do to increase engagement with government around equity has not been immune from the impact of deep institutional barriers. As discussed by Howlett, Ramesh and Perl (2012) the dominant neo-liberal ideology that underpinned the response to the economic crisis shut down the small policy space available for equity to be included in decision making. The approach was driven by a fear of losing power and a desire to maximise the chance of re-election. This led to the development of a policy agenda focused on economic development opportunities and short term job creation strategies, rather than long term social policy considerations including equity.

Politics in South Australia

The 1880s saw a swell of agitation about the role of women in society. Women had begun to study at university level and work outside the home. There were campaigns to establish libraries and kindergartens, to improve conditions for children in care and to abolish child marriage. Women were active in the community, organising public meetings and fundraising for charities. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Women’s Suffrage League were active in advocating for female enfranchisement.

Property qualifications for voting in Parliament were finally removed in 1894 and women became full adult voters. The League continued its campaign of education and lobbying with support from a wide range of organisations such as the Catholic Church, trade unions and religious groups. League members travelled widely throughout the state and spoke at women’s public meetings, church gatherings, women’s clubs, afternoon tea parties and public rallies. The League aimed to educate and influence both women and men to support women’s suffrage.

One of the League’s arguments was that only by having a vote could women make laws which would improve their lives and those of their families, communities and nation. It also argued that women were more likely to be represented in the House of Assembly than in the Senate, where only men voted.

As well as educating and lobbying, the League organised political activism, such as boycotts and demonstrations. The League also compiled reports and wrote articles in newspapers and journals. This swayed the opinion of many, especially in the rural areas where the League was particularly active.

The Bill was passed by a majority in both houses and signed into law on 25 April 1896. This made South Australian women the first in Australia to be granted equal parliamentary enfranchisement and the second, after New Zealand, in the world to gain the vote and stand for election.

The Office for Women works toward achieving gender equity and positive change for women by collaborating across government and with the community. It develops policy and provides advice which aids decision makers in forming policy that improves the safety, wellbeing and economic security of women in our state.

Women in the House of Assembly

The State Library holds extensive collections on the history of women in politics in South Australia. One of the highlights is a petition in support of women’s right to vote and stand as candidates which was presented to Parliament on 30 August 1894. The State Library has a copy of the original and a digital image which is available for viewing on this website.

The earliest petitioners included groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Women’s Suffrage League. These organisations were instrumental in campaigning for change and organising meetings, rallies, public speeches and petition drives. They were attempting to influence the public by presenting facts about the status of women in society and the law. They were also seeking to convince political figures that women’s suffrage would benefit the colony.

Women’s suffrage had already been achieved in many countries, but South Australia was the first Australian state to allow it and only the fourth place in the world where all adult women were given the franchise. It also had the most liberal franchise for the time, which allowed women to vote without being restricted by age or marital status.

South Australia has a bicameral legislature consisting of the Legislative Council and the House of Assembly. The House of Assembly is the lower house and is where the Government of the day is formed, with members being elected for a four year term. The number of members in the House of Assembly varies from election to election, with 22 seats currently held by the Liberal Party, 8 Labor, 2 SA Best, 2 Greens and 1 Advance SA.

The current makeup of the House is a mix of men and women, reflecting the state’s demographic profile. A new initiative has been launched at the University of Adelaide to encourage more women to enter politics and become MPs. The Pathways to Politics program aims to provide women with the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to be successful in elected office. It is being delivered in partnership with the Trawalla Foundation, Women’s Leadership Institute Australia and the University of Melbourne.

Office for Women

Almost 25 years before America’s 19th Amendment, South Australia led the world in legislating full adult female suffrage and candidate eligibility in 1894. The State Library of South Australia has excellent coverage of this event, including the suffragists’ work.

In the past, women were discouraged from pursuing political careers. But the efforts of suffragists like the Women’s Suffrage League, Roma Mitchell and Catherine Helen Spence helped pave the way for women to enter parliament. These women, along with those who established the Meals on Wheels service for elderly pensioners and Dame Nancy Buttfield, set a precedent for other women to follow.

It is important that women have a strong voice in politics. That’s why the Office for Women, part of the Premier’s Council on Women, has been established to help ensure that issues affecting women are at the forefront of government policies and strategies.

A key objective of the Office for Women is to encourage more women to run for political office and to be able to make decisions that affect the lives of their families and communities. To achieve this, the office is implementing a range of initiatives including training for women in leadership and campaigning. It is also monitoring how legislation and government policies impact on women.

The office is also committed to supporting women in public sector workplaces. To this end it has developed a Gender Equality and Respect Action Plan and worked with each department to develop their own. The Office for Women is also working with the public sector to provide support and assistance for employees who experience domestic and family violence.

Despite these achievements, women remain under-represented in parliament. Only a small minority of women hold Cabinet portfolios, and only 12 per cent of the national parliament are women. To address this, the Office for Women has launched a new program called Pathways to Politics. This is an innovative, non-partisan initiative that equips women with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to run for elected office. Aditi Mohan is one of the first 16 women to participate in this program.