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125th Anniversary of Women's Suffrage

In December 1894, after decades of activism, women in South Australia were awarded the right to vote and to stand as members of parliament.  

This meant that South Australia was the first electorate in Australia to give equal political rights to both men and women. Gaining the vote was a huge step towards gender equality in South Australia, and meant that women could participate in public life by having their say at general elections.

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in South Australia on 18 December 2019, we produced a series of episodes that were broadcast on Radio Adelaide, with funding from the Office for Women.

Each episode profiles one of the women of the suffrage movement, the broader social justice causes they dedicated their lives to and how these issues continue to impact on individuals and communities today.

We thank the Office for Women for the opportunity to celebrate and document these stories, and give thanks to those who contributed their voices to this series.


Episode 1: Augusta Zadow

The second half of the 19th century in South Australia presented a turning point for women’s role in the workforce. Men were still strongly viewed as the breadwinners, but by 1891, one in three South Australian women were in paid work across a range of industries. While equality in the workplace is far closer than it was 125 years ago, there’s still a long way to go to ensure women have the same opportunities when it comes pay, quality of life and more, in Australia. This episode explores how the fight for fair pay and conditions for women helped bring about women’s suffrage in South Australia and one of the women who led the way on this issue - Augusta Zadow.

Listen here.

Episode contributors: Abbey Kendall (Working Women's Centre SA Inc), Craig Middleton (Centre of Democracy), Shay (Job-seeker under 30)


Episode 2: Catherine Helen Spence

Catherine Helen Spence was a woman ahead of her time. She is credited with helping to found one of the first foster care programs in Australia in 1872, which aimed to remove children from institutional living and place them into approved family homes. While the Boarding Out Society had good intentions and was a necessary measure at the time, it has been subject to criticism since - particularly its strong focus on permanently placing children in new homes. Our child protection system has changed and expanded quite dramatically since the 1870s, but with the number of children in out-of-home care increasing in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children over-represented in the system, significant shifts in policy need to take place.

Listen here.

Episode contributors: Susan Magarey (Author of 'Unbridling the Tongues of Women: A Biography of Catherine Helen Spence'), Joanne Else (Family Matters campaign)


Episode 3: Mary Lee

Mary Lee may be best known for spearheading the suffrage campaign, but she was also a regular visitor to the Destitute and Lunatic Asylum. In 1896 was appointed as the only female visitor to the Parkside and Adelaide asylums - a position she held for 12 years. While the focus in the 1800s was heavily on keeping mental illness out of sight and out of mind, these days, mental illness is very much in the spotlight and treated with a greater deal of dignity. However, this hasn't necessarily led to a decrease in rates of mental illness - and there is still a lot of stigma, particularly for those living with complex illnesses.

Listen here.

Episode contributors: Denise George (Author of 'Mary Lee: The Life and Times of a Turbulent Anarchist and Her Battle for Women's Rights'), Geoff Harris (Mental Health Coalition of South Australia), Kez Robelin (Uniting SA)


Episode 4: Mary Colton

In the late 1800s, South Australia was far more patriarchal to the point that it was dangerous for many women and the need for places of refuge was high. It was the belief at the time that a woman's role was to raise children and to temper the unpredictable nature of men; it was legal for men to be violent towards their wives and neglect their families. In Australia at the moment, domestic violence isn’t just one of the biggest causes of homelessness, it’s also one of the biggest killers of women - with one woman dying each week at the hands of an intimate partner. Our understanding of and attitudes towards domestic and family violence have improved, but we've still got a long way to go.

Listen here.

Episode contributors: Nikki Sullivan (History Trust of South Australia), Jaylee Cooper (Catherine House), Megan Hughes (Women's Safety Services SA)


Episode 5: Rosetta Birks

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Australia was seen as land of promise and new opportunity for many young women who had arrived from Britain. With such large numbers of women arriving and only certain types of work fit for women to do at this time, a lot of these immigrants often found themselves without a job or source of income. But in the early 1900s, Rosetta Birks - as the president of the Young Women’s Christian Association - sought to change this. These days, Australia continues to be seen as a land of prosperity and new opportunity for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers from all parts of the world. But there are many obstacles that the new migrants and refugees face even once they’ve had their visa approved.

Listen here.

Episode contributors: Nikki Sullivan (History Trust of South Australia), Meg and Jessica (Sonder), David Winderlich (Uniting Communities)


Series Producer: Milly Schultz-Boylen

Executive Producer: Lisa Burns