Following Phoebe

Strange Bedfellows? The Temperance and Suffrage Movements


While writing a workshop on feminism for the students I work with I was looking at the history of the feminist movement. The start of feminism really started with the Suffrage movement, the push for women to be able to vote. Now, I knew that there were many Christians involved in the Suffrage Movement, but I didn't realise that one of the key organisations in bringing about votes for women in Australia was the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement.

So often Christianity and movements for women's rights are seen as at odds with each other (hence my title). So I wanted to share a bit of history where Christian women were instrumental in fighting for women's rights because it seems to be getting forgotten by Christians and feminists alike.

The Temperance Movement started in America in the late 1700's and was concerned with the abstinence from, or temperance of the consumption of alcohol.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) began in 1873, and in 1876 the American WCTU held a conference which established the International Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU came to Australia in 1884 when Mary Clement Leavitt came to visit from the U.S. and formed branches in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania. 1889 saw Jessie Ackerman visit from the U.S. and she was instrumental in making sure that suffrage was high on the agenda for the Australian Union.

The constitution of the WCTU in 1900 gives a good picture of the issues they were concerned with;

'We believe in total abstinence for the individual, prohibition for the state and nation, equal standard of purity for men and women, equal wages for equal work without regard to sex, the ballot in the hands of women, arbitration between nations ... [the] Holy Bible as our standard faith.'[2]

Fun fact for the Tasmanians (because that's where I live at the moment), there were 14 local Unions in Tasmania with 280 members. In the 1890s the Hobart Branch not only campaigned for women's suffrage, but they also advocated for a large range of social and political reforms. They worked with the Chinese community and prisoners as well. In World War I they fought for the early closing of pubs and they distributed information on venereal disease (sexually contagious diseases like syphilis and gonorrhoea). They also fought for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act[3] which meant that women who were suspected of being prostitutes (because they had syphilis) could be arrested and forcefully examined and held in the Contagious Diseases hospital for up to 12 weeks. This was in an effort to stop men in the armed forces (particularly the Navy) from being infected as STD's were causing them to be unable to serve. This act was only repealed in 1935[4].

So, on ya Tassie Christian feminists.

But back to the Suffrage movement.

Until 1850 only men who owned property could vote, by 1855 all men were allowed to vote in Aus.
Women got the vote in South Australia in 1894 (including Aboriginal women!). In Western Australia it was 1899 (white women only), the other states took until 1908. Votes for women in federal elections happened in 1902, but unfortunately the Commonwealth Franchise Act which made this possible, stripped Aboriginal men and women of their right to vote. Aboriginal people of Australia didn’t get the right to vote until 1962 (except not in Queensland...that didn't happen until 1965).
After they achieved suffrage, Australian women did what they could to help suffrage in the UK which didn’t occur until 1928.

Unlike the Suffrage movement in the UK lead by the Pankhurts, which used militant strategies and hunger strikes, the suffrage movement in Australia was peaceful. It was conducted through rallies, petitions and bills, and I believe the Woman's Christian Temperance Union can be thanked for this. In 1889 the WCTU was responsible for collecting a high proportion of the 11,600 signatures for the petition calling for women's suffrage[5].

I think it is a great legacy that Christian women fighting for women's rights have contributed to society. Although there are definite downsides to the Suffrage movement, such as racism, they made advances in society which have contributed to women of every ethnic background having the rights they do today. They fought for women to be treated with equal value and voice as men because of the values they had from God's word. It's a great part of our history in being involved in social change for the better and we shouldn't let it get forgotten.

  1. By WCTU - Scanned from 1920 WCTU temperance flyer, Public Domain, Link And State Library of New South Wales ↩︎

  2. National Library of Australia ↩︎

  3. WCTU Australia ↩︎

  4. Find and Connect ↩︎

  5. State Library of South Australia ↩︎

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