“Well done! Sister Suffragette!”
That song has been stuck in my head for over a month. It started on 10 April, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the barrels of the patient news cameras (flanked, in a remarkable show of restraint, by just two Australian flags) that the Governor General had accepted his advice for a federal election to be held on 18 May.
Recipe for an Australian federal election: mix two cups of greyscale attack ads with one cup of high-vis photo ops. Add a sprinkle of non-recyclable pamphlets, a couple of kisses on a crying baby’s head, and bake for five weeks in the firey oven of the electorate’s indifference. Garnish with a garland of questionable preference deals. It’s my favourite dish, but I only get to have it once every three years. I suspect I’m the only one who relishes its taste, alternately bland and bitter.
“No more the meek and mild subservients, we!”
Every time I walk the gauntlet of how-to-vote-card pushers, and have my impossibly small name crossed off an impossibly large paper register with a blunt lead pencil wielded by an exhausted volunteer, and make my way to those flimsy narrow cardboard booths with my ballot papers in hand, I’m overcome with gratitude.
Even though I must politely decline the offer of a democracy sausage when I leave — because those sizzlers persist in their bipartisan neglect of special dietary requirements — I still feel the prick of happy tears behind my eyes.
What a privilege it is to participate in this glorious democratic process: without violence, without impediment, without need for a fight-or-flight response. Election Day becomes my personal Remembrance Day, a time to recall and celebrate and grieve the women who have been killed, injured, arrested, assaulted, disparaged, scorned, and abandoned, all so I could have this opportunity. It sounds strange to everyone else, perhaps, but I am so keenly aware every time it comes around that people died for me to have it. I whistle the anthem — Well Done! Sister Suffragette! — as I walk home.
“We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats / And dauntless crusaders for women’s votes”
I’m not sure where to place this keen awareness of the struggle to win franchise for women. There’s no family connection, as far as I’m aware, to Australia’s suffragettes, or indeed to those of any other nation. I have no personal stake, no direct nor vicarious experience, in any conflict of that nature. I received only the most perfunctory high-school education on its history: “Did you know, a long time ago, women couldn’t vote? Well, now they can. Isn’t that great?” was about the extent of it.
I’ve taken it upon myself to learn a little more since then. The history of the word itself — suffragette — is a sour one. By the end of the 19th century, English speakers had happily stolen (or should that be colonised?) the suffix “-ette” from the French. They used it to signify anything diminutive or feminine in nature (a cigarette being a small and womanly cigar, for instance). When faced with a league of women, soldiers in petticoats, prepared to perpetuate violence in their pursuit of equality, the journalists sought the most denigrating and condescending moniker they could find: the “suffragette” was born. Naturally, those brave and tireless women reclaimed the slur, and it is now glorified in song — still, I worry that we are at risk of forgetting, collectively, what was sacrificed.
“Political equality and equal rights with men! Take heart!”
I was half-heartedly researching half an idea I’d had for a piece of fiction a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled across the real life story of Henrietta Dugdale. If you’ve not heard of her, chances are you received the same Australian secondary education that I did.
She was born in London in 1827, and emigrated to Victoria with her husband in 1852. She is credited, where one can find reference to her at all, with having made the first public demand in Australia for gender equality, recorded in her timeless letter to the Melbourne Argus. In it, she responds to a debate on the Married Women’s Property Bill, pleading with the paper’s editor and readers to support revisions that would alleviate the cruel and extensive injustices wrought upon women through the dissolution of marriage. The letter was published on 13 April 1869.
Later, in 1884, she marshalled a group of like-minded people to form the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society, the first of its kind in the Australian colonies. She publicly declared their intent to obtain the same privileges for women as for men: equal justice, no taxation without representation, equal privileges in marriage and divorce. She penned a pamphlet, A Few Hours In A Far Off Age, a utopian vision of what such a world might look like. The dedication is, perhaps, my favourite part, to judge George Higinbotham: “in earnest admiration for the brave attacks made by that gentleman upon what has been, during all known ages, the greatest obstacle to human advancement, the most irrational, fiercest, and most powerful of our world’s monsters — the only devil — MALE IGNORANCE.”
“Though we adore men individually / We agree that as a group they’re rather stupid”
I have spent many an hour in the Trove catalogue these past two weeks, pulling up every missive of Henrietta’s that I can find. The aforementioned letter and pamphlet are the writings for which she is best known (which is not saying much, for she seems to be barely known at all, save for one Google doodle), but I much prefer a letter she wrote in reply to the editor of Melbourne Punch on 12 June 1884. More than a century before we came up with “mansplaining”, she accused him of asking “(him)pertinent” questions — a phrase that I have shamelessly adopted into my own lexicon. She delights in tearing apart every conceivable argument against extending franchise to women, her wit so searing it burns the page: “I don’t approve of throwing stones. So many people live in glass houses, and they are not all fully insured.”
“Our daughters’ daughters will adore us / And they’ll sing in grateful chorus”
Henrietta lived to see voting rights for women, thankfully, introduced by the new federal government in 1902, many years before much of the English-speaking world. Our early advancement was due in no small part to the tenacious efforts and incredible foresight of this one indomitable woman. As to her other aspirations, however, I’m afraid we’re still waiting. No taxation without representation? The Liberal party, in the lead up to this election, had more male members named Andrew than it did female ones. When accused of having a “woman problem”, leader of the Nationals Michael McCormack insisted that they clearly didn’t, because “both of [their] women are ministers”. Despite the Prime Minister’s best efforts, arming himself with a bevy of trusty beige blondes to stand by his side at every press conference, when I scroll through a list of Liberal candidates I can tell you: I don’t feel represented at all.
“Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!”
Perhaps my obsession stems from my struggle to accept the fact that Henrietta’s fight wasn’t actually won in 1902. It hasn’t been won since, and might not be for many years yet. Even if we wake up tomorrow with a Lower House that is 51% female (dare to dream), it still won’t be a House of Representatives.
Indigenous candidates are rarely selected in winnable seats. Our elected members have compounded that indignity by refusing to consider a Voice to Parliament. Indigenous Australians weren’t even granted universal suffrage (in their own country, no less) until 1962, decades after white women. For all the suffragettes that were beaten, spat on, ridiculed, and humiliated in their fight for the right to vote, there have been scores more Indigenous Australians subjected to the same treatment in their fight to live in their own country.
And, when that particularly horrible thought becomes too overwhelming, my mind inevitably turns to the other kinds of under-representation that the electorate seems all too willing to accept. One in five Australians lives with a disability. Can you guess how many of them are MPs and senators?
I struggle to reconcile my gratitude for the suffragettes’ sacrifices, and the immense privilege they have brought me, with my frustration that the battle is so casually regarded as “won”. If the daughters’ daughters accept without question that we are “equal now”, if we ignore the fact that the injustice that was wrought upon our mothers’ mothers is still now being wrought upon others in our name, we are surely indistinguishable from the men who thought that women’s suffrage would lead to widespread elective infertility.
“We’re fighting for our rights, militantly! Never you fear!”
I am one of those daughters’ daughters, and I do sing in grateful chorus for the suffragettes — but I fear, sometimes, that my voice will ring alone. The memory of their sacrifice is fading, now almost to transparency, and with it our collective consciousness of the work still yet to do. When I express such sentiments in a pub, at a house party, over coffee, or enviously watching some voter wolf down a democracy sausage, I’m mostly met with raised eyebrows and placating nods.
We have two days per year reserved for remembrance of the soldiers that fought and died in pants on foreign battlefields. I respectfully request we hold that some similar moment of contemplation and reflection for the women (and men) in purple who fought a domestic battle, at times in equal mortal peril. This act of remembrance, for me, is not a gesture, it is not penance, and it is not a token. If we forget the suffragette’s struggle, we forget that it continues, for millions of marginalised and displaced people around the world, and here at home.
I like to think that Henrietta Dugdale would be on board with this endeavour. I picture her painting placards for both the Women’s March and the Refugee Rally, writing letters to our Ministers about Indigenous deaths in custody and the imprisonment of men on Manus, sending her support to the disenfranchised members of all communities, not just the ones who looked and lived like her. Of course, it’s impossible to know, but it’s in that spirit, Henrietta’s spirit, that I head to the ballot box tomorrow: grateful, mindful, and determined.